Scenic Idaho Winter 1954

Progressing with Gem County

"FOR decades Gem County has been "The Valley of Plenty." To pioneers more than half a century ago this area meant plenty of trouble, while today it is a land with plenty of opportunities.

"Heading westward, the wagon trains left Fort Boise pulled by oxen, cows and horses, their canvas tops shredded and coated with thick dust. Next stop the Falk Store, then located near the present-day Gem County boundary on the west, was the last chance for supplies until Oregon was reached. With dread these hardy folk looked ahead to Freeze-out Hill—a hill, whose deep, shifty sands bogged down the wagons and stock as surely as did the quick sands of the Missouri. Little did they know that one day these very sands would give the nation its finest blasting and plastering material.

"From such a beginning Gem County has risen until today it holds an enviable position in Idaho's agricultural and industrial future.

"The rich lush meadows along the Payette River attracted some of the land-hungry immigrants to settle along its reaches and take up cattle raising. Gradually ditches and small canals diverted water to the bettomlands, notonly making cattle raising a more profitable activity, but also pointing the way toward its agricultural development. Gem County was. created in 1915 and today, with its transportation facilities, is rapidly becoming a manufacturing and shipping focal point.

"Playing an important role in this transition is the fact that at Boise, only thirty-one miles from Emmett—the county seat of Gem County—there are readily accessible transcontinental rail and air connections.

"Situated in the hub of the valley, Emmett is the junction of two state highways and two railways—in addition it has a feeder-line airport for use of smaller aircraft. These essential connecting links open the markets of the nation to its produce and manufactured products.

"To the north and east, railroad and highway brings raw materials from the upper Payette River Valley to Emmett for processing and preparation for shipment to out-of-state markets.

"It has long been realized that one of the major transporation needs of the state is a shorter north-south highway. Here again Gem County may in the not too distant future serve an even greater area, for among such proposed routes is a cut-off between Emmett and Council, joining state highways 95 and 16.

"Visionary individuals in Gem County coupled their efforts with those from Adams County and together they raised $20,000 to pioneer construction of the Emmett- Council road. Through their efforts an improved non- oiled through-way has linked the two communities and action is now pending to have this included in the state highway system. Another step in the progress of Gem County, for this road will open large range and an agricultural potential.

"From its meager beginning the cattle industry has grown until today it is a multi-million dollar business.

"Her early-day stock growers had more heart-aches and trouble than did most in Idaho, because located in what is now Gem County was the famous road-house known as "Pickett's Corral," a rendezvous of cattle-rustler and highwayman. Herds were stolen and cattlemen made destitute.

"Today with abundant hay and ensilage crops for winter livestock, the valley has exceptional advantages to offer the producer. In the spring surrounding foothills furnish early grazing and as summer progresses the higher mountains are excellent forage. Each year thousands upon thousands of head of cattle, hogs and sheep are marketed from Gem County.

"Although irrigation placed a few acres under cultivation in the early 1900's, it was not until the construction of the Black Canyon Dam in 1924 that large-scale farming became possible here.

"With its mild climate, unlimited water resources its rich farmlands, Gem County has a widely diversified highly productive agricultural empire with 42,000 acres irrigable.

"Shipping more sweet cherries than any other point in the state, this valley has achieved widespread fame for its bumper fruit crops. During harvest season more than 1,500 pickers are employed in its orchards. With a comparatively small acreage 3,214 acres of fruit trees. Emmett markets annually 500 cars of prunes and 150 cars of cherries together with hundreds of carload lots of peaches, apricots, pears, plums and berries.

"Her rich soil, augmented with ample water and sunshine, produces almost unbelievable yields with sugar beets running as high as 35 tons per acre and sweet corn to seven tons. With a well-rounded agricultural program, Gem County raises many acres of small grains, alfalfa and red clover seed, row crops, hay and pasture.

"Closely allied with the valley's farm economy are its numerous industrial developments.

"In 1947, the Emmett Sales Yard started weekly livestock auctions which not only provided a convenient, dependable market for the bulk of the area's cattle, sheep and hogs but whose sales are well over three million dollan annually.

"The most stable of Emmett's agricultural enterprises is its dairy industry. With the establishment of the Clover Gem Creamery, a local market was readily available for a portion of its dairy production; however, its herd also furnishes milk to neighboring factories.

"One of the most powerful balancing forces in Gem County's economic life is the Boise Payette Lumber Company's sawmill at Emmett. With a year-round employment for 400 to 450 persons it provides the town's largest single payroll. Modern in every respect, the mill is one of the largest in the world. It processes not only the company-owned tree forests but serves as a finishing plant for many smaller nearby mills.

"Inspired by the superior quality of her corn, cherries and prunes, the Gem Canning Company was established at Emmett in 1946. Today its facilities have been expanded until it processes over 200,000 cases of fruits and vegetables yearly.

"Among its other industries are the D-Dee Box Factory, Wynn's Toy Manufacturing and Valhberg's Hatchery.

"Those sands of Freeze-out Hill that impeded the pioneer, today are the basis for Emmett's newest business— the Gem Silica Company—which began operation in 1951 and which one day may support a population of more than 10,000.

"Ringing the valley on the south is a mountain of sand eight miles long, two to three miles wide and of unknown depth. It was quite by accident that a chemical analysis of these sand hills was made and the discovery of gallium, used for coating high temperature jets. In an attempt to separate the gallium from the sand, it was found that the highest quality blasting and plastering silica in the United States was located here.

"Gem Silica or equal" is being specified by the United States Navy for its west coast de-mothballing operations. With time and ingenuity this can be developed into an industry of large proportions and its gallium recovery lies in the future.

"When one stops to think in terms of figures, what this one industry's future may mean to Emmett and Gem County, the results are astounding. During the past year Gem County shows an average of 1,000 people employed in manufacturing and processing. Coupled with the fact that the silica industry has a potential drawing of 10,000 people . . . and that Gem County's population is 8,742 of which 3,061 live in Emmett . . . it is not hard to imagine this area's industrial future.

"With almost storybook progress, based on an exciting pioneer history, Emmett's Quarter Horse Show and Sale is achieving nation-wide acclaim.

"In February 1951, the Lower Snake River Valley Quarter Horse Association was organized. It has grown from a mere handful of horse-lovers to a working group of nearly a hundred members.

"Annually in mid-June, thousands of people flock to the Gem County Fairgrounds at Emmett, for a weekend of entertainment, showmanship and opportunity to purchase Quarter Horses, an event sponsored by this association.

"Capturing the fancy of horse racing fans with their matchless speed and quick take-off, the Quarter Horse set the world's record for the quarter mile. Examples of these qualities can be seen in the special races which include the two-year old futurity, stallion, barrel and dinner bell derby. This last race is the most thrilling to watch as the hungry young foals awkardly rush pell-mell down the track to their mothers.

"During the two day affair the halter classes, the cow cutting and the calf roping divisions give breeders from widely scattered points in the west, a chance to see how their stock stacks up in competition.

"Enthusiasm for the Quarter Horse, which is not only a "must" to a top rodeo competitor but a necessary part of everyday ranch work, has enabled this association to substantially and expertly aid in the improvement of quality and numerical increase of these horses throughout western Idaho and eastern Oregon.

"The rapid growth of this organization is attributable to its live-wire members who respond to its activities. A typical year's program would include: the annual banquet, featuring the installation of officers, held in January; a queen candidate chosen in mid-spring to represent the association in the colorful and highly competitive Snake River Stampede ; the annual Quarter Horse Show and Sale, as well as entry of local show stock in other outstanding national shows.

"From rodeo to homemaking exhibits, each year the Gem County Fair seems to grow and grow. Premium fruits and vegetables, grains and livestock the cream of Gem

"County's farms overflows its buildings. Merchant displays increase with each approaching season, and attendance figures continue to climb. The Fair Board with its unflexible goal—bigger and better every year—is building one of the best county fairs in the state.

"Emmett is a far-cry from the little trading post that was established there in 1864. Today it serves as a shopping center for an ever-widening trade area. Its modern homes accent the gracious living of its residents.

"Progressive in every sense of the word, Emmett is looking toward the future. Its city park affords ample convenience for picnicing, youth recreation and out-of-door community programs, and plans are underway for the construction of a modern swimming pool here.

"Launching a $560,000 building program, by 1954, its school system will include a new elementary and up-to-date high school, together with an elementary school addition and repairs and remodeling of another grade school.

"Emmett has thirteen churches, two newspapers, a county-owned hospital and a city as well as rural fire department.

"So close to year-around recreational and sports areas, Emmett has excellent over-night accommodations with two hotels, a motel and several trailer courts. Traditionally the Emmett Cherry Festival is home- coming week for Gem County.

"In late June when the trees are heavy with cherries, as many as 10,000 people come from far and wide for this spectacular celebration. Started nineteen years ago, the Cherry Festival is now in full swing for an entire week.

"The most attractive girls of Gem County vie for the cherished title of "Cherry Queen" and the honor of reigning over the festival's many and varied activities. Opening with a full-dress Coronation ball, its other events include a carnival, two parades, sporting events and is climaxed with a gala dance.

"This annual event is sponsored by the Lawrence Dresser Post No. 49 of the American Legion with the support of other civic and service organizations, merchants and fruit growers.

"Visitors are attracted not alone to the "Valley of Plenty" for the Cherry Festival, but for its year around recreation.

"The rock-hounds might well have named Gem County, because of its semi-precious stones—agatized and opalized wood, lovely fire opals and pale water agates, on Willow Creek and near Squaw Butte.

"Rising 7,000 feet above the valley floor, Squaw Butte is indeed one of the area's scenic attractions. This mountain today serves airplanes as a landmark just as last century it marked the immigrant's way. Legend has it that here the squaws and papooses were left behind, while the Indian warriors went on a hunting trip. After the hunt, the red men returned to find their families dead or dying. Killed, as the story goes, by a group of white men. And from this retold tale comes its name—Squaw Butte.

"With its outstanding fishing and hunting opportunities, the sportsman can relax and enjoy hours of pleasure in Gem County. Sagehen reservoir is a favored spot for catching large rainbow trout, while clear mountain streams are excellent fly fishing. Below Black Canyon Dam is an attractive picnic site, built by the Emmett Lion's Club. The backwaters of this dam are a fishing haven and water sports are becoming increasingly popular.

"Game bird hunting is exceptional with abundant pheasant, Hungarian partridge, quail, duck and geese. Even big game hunters can find sizable herds of elk and deer in this valley.

"Emmett provides easy access not only to Idaho's vast primitive area, but also the summer-winter recreational area at Payette Lakes and skiing at Bogus Basin. With its many and varied recreational opportunities, the tourist, too, can well say —here is the "Valley of Plenty."

These pages sponsored by the Gem County Chamber of Commerce and the Emmett Junior Chamber of Commerce.
For further information write

"Scenic Idaho," published by the Belcher Publishing Company, Boise, is no longer existance. According to, it forfeited its standing in 1970, after being in business for over forty-six years.

(from McConnel files)

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Unless otherwise attributed, all photos and text are the property of Gem County Historical Society

Serving Gem County since 1973.

Wednesday - Saturday 1:00pm - 5:00pm & by appointment    ::    Extended hours during The Cherry Festival in June.