When the history of Idaho is counted and retold, there are some elements that are hardly ever missed. The Oregon Trail, Lewis and Clark, Native American tribal affiliations, immigrant settlements – all of these tend to be covered and recalled without much under-representation. Another of these historic staples is Idaho’s mining industry. What do perhaps get overlooked, perhaps if only in the context of building and sustaining communities, are the national policies that affect economic efforts in the states. Idaho is no stranger to this. Limitation Order L-208 in 1942 is an example of how a national policy, and perhaps international war and conflict, can disintegrate a burgeoning town or settlement overnight. We should look at the histories of places like Warren, Idaho if we intend to learn a thing or two about planning for unexpected change in economies and policies. Building resiliency into communities should include not under-estimating the impacts of national interests and policy decisions.
Warren, Idaho was booming. Since 1862 this town had something happening. Immigrants and former Civil War vets mined, support elements blossomed, and some people made their fortunes in precious metals and stones. During the Great Depression, people still found ways to make money and feed their families by swinging axes and working for dredge-mining operations. This little pocket of valleys and meadows north of McCall, Idaho was quite the survivor – something boom-towns aren’t normally known for – until 1942, and the United State’s focus on World War II.
By Executive Order 9024, President Roosevelt had created the War Production Board in the first part of 1942. The board, operating as directed, issued a subsequent Limitation Order (L-208) that effectively made the mining of non-strategic resources illegal. That meant that companies and individuals operating precious metal and stone mines were to halt immediately, and move to mine ores that had a contributing effect on the war effort. Almost overnight, the previously resilient town of Warren, which had seen its share of change for 80 years, folded and emptied. Its former inhabitants now rushing out to find work following the enterprises that left moments before. National policy had affected the Northwest and much of the rest of the United States with remarkable speed.
Warren, today, is a population 16-50 town (seasonally) that is probably very reminiscent of the days it went dark, which means it really is a living ghost town, complete with a loving community (however small and intermittent). Old structures that still stand or have been altered/refabricated serve as homes, gathering places, and storage for the handfuls of visitors. As indicated by the ride-along video through town (which starts just in front of the airstrip and the local “Tavern”), few new buildings have been erected.
Even the trails, rusty hillside shacks, and individual paraphernalia can still be found littered about the countryside. The powerful Steam-Dredge that floated on the wet meadow floor is deteriorating in the same place it was abandoned some 70 years ago. For visitors, it is still a fantastic and beautiful place to go – but you are going to have to enjoy “roughing it” by hauling your own water, goods, food and fuel from a distance. You might even have to have it flown in to the gravel airstrip.
The economy didn’t evaporate rapidly in the same way as many other boom-towns, where the mineral primarily mined was no longer found. It had (and has) many resources that would still be valuable today. It disappeared as a stable community because it was forced to stop capitalizing on those resources by the federal government. The sustainable portion of that community was basically subtracted from the equation by policy relating to world situations that were far-removed from little Warren. Warren, and other towns like it, may have developed into something entirely different had the momentum not changed. Sure, it may never have been a Chicago, or a Seattle, or even a Boise-sized community, but it may have survived at several levels above a population of 16. Even if the minerals eventually stopped being profitable over time, Warren may have well become another Cascade or McCall – perhaps a city of western refuge and recreation at the same scale as those. We won’t know, because no one planned for national policy to weigh so heavily on the sustainability of Warren.
Of the rest of small town U.S.A., which would be suitably prepared to respond to another sweeping national policy effect – like energy policies or resource restrictions? We might sometimes think of change as something that takes place over time: natural, organic, predictable, model-able or even perhaps embraceable. Sometimes it happens so fast that if the roof isn’t nailed down yet the wind could carry it away tomorrow. And the world’s events can stir up some heavy winds.