Friday, June 14, 2013

Selected interviews from The Iron Door: An Oral History Project of Nozzy Valley, Idaho

[Handwritten note to Iron Door (the person) on manuscript:
Dear Mr. Door:
Here are the promised selected interviews, gleaned (like precisely-cut gems!) from my full volume. I hope and trust that they will serve as a "story" in aggregate, and thus be eligible for your "Iron Door Story-Off" contest. If not, in any case, I trust that you will find them worthy of your delectation and consideration. Enjoy!
--Robert Q. Evans II]

Thom Hess.
Mr. Hess lived in Nozzy, in the city proper, from his birth in 1940 at Nozzy General Hospital until his graduation from Nozzy High School in 1958. After serving a two-year Mormon mission in Germany, he earned a Bachelor's degree in Education from nearby Idaho State University. He returned to teach English and German at Nozzy High School in 1965 and still does so. His family's roots in Nozzy go all the way back to its founding: he is named for Thomas Hess, one of the original dozen farmers who settled the Nozzy Valley in 1851. He is part of the fourth generation of his family to live in his current house in Nozzy. He and his wife have nine children, all of whom live in the Nozzy Valley.

First, I'd like to thank you for doing this project. Nozzy has a rich history, and I appreciate the fact that you're helping us Nozziers--Nozzyites? Nozzians?--that you're helping us preserve it. This is important work! Great job and thank you!
My dad [LaVern Hess, deceased 1992] talked about the Iron Door all the time. See, the Iron Door was supposed to be right up there in the Canaan foothills, west of that canyon somewhere. Right there, where the trees don't grow, see? Just to the right of that, one of those little ridges. West. Anyway, that's close enough to Dad's farm that he could walk there in about half an hour. He could be there in a few minutes if he took a horse. So he probably searched a hundred times for the Iron Door. Sometimes he'd slip away by himself for a couple hours if it wasn't haying season. He took his friends on a bunch of weekend trips up there--Red Ben Thomas, and White Ben Thomas, and old Elton Harrison. They kept records and made maps. They were just certain that if they approached it with a system, they could find it.
They never did find it permanently, and mark it so they could find it again later, but Dad told me this story about how they saw it once. Dad was a pretty honest, straightforward guy, and a good Mormon, so I believe him. Here's how he told it to me, pretty much. I'll tell it like I was him.
"On one of our weekend expeditions, we'd looked all weekend with no luck, and we were starting to get a little discouraged. It was early fall of '32, so I was 17. It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon. We used up all our map paper and were discussing the work waiting for us on the farms when we got back. We decided we'd take a short little detour through this little dry riverbed that'd been blocked off with rocks and brush on our last trip, then go on home after that. We figured we'd just be another half hour or so. Just check this one last thing and go.
"So we started following the riverbed uphill. We were on foot. We couldn't ever get horses to take out for a whole weekend anyway, they were needed on the farms. We were trudging along 'cause we were starting to feel glum about ever finding the Iron Door. I mean, we spent a lot of time looking, and mapping, and planning, and nothing. Then the riverbed took a quick right turn around this big rock, and suddenly it was like we were in a really deep canyon. There was just barely room side to side for us to walk in. The walls were really steep, pretty near straight up and down for forty feet, and they were nice and even like they'd been cut or blasted instead of worn down by the river. The little channel took a couple of sharp lefts and rights, so we were sure it'd been dug that way. Then--there it was. The Iron Door! The four of us were standing right in front of it! It was a lot smaller than we thought it'd be. It was about four foot square. It seemed to be made out of one piece of kind of thin iron, about half an inch thick is all. It had a bunch of parts of iron wheels, it looked like, spokes you know, tied onto it. There were holes punched into the iron, and little leather straps held the wheel parts on. I guess that was for reinforcement, though of what I'm not sure. The thing that made the Iron Door look harder to break into than the door itself, though, was, this piece of iron was kind of embedded into the rock. It almost looked like the rock had sort of grown around the Iron Door. And that particular rock was this massive boulder that you could tell went back into the cliff, and up and down, for a long ways. Opening that door would be like opening the whole mountain. Sure, you could dynamite your way in, but you could dynamite Mount Kilmanjaro away too, right? That answered White Ben's question. He'd always wondered, Why bother with a fancy Iron Door when all you had to do was bust it open? We could see that it wouldn't be that simple to just bust this door open. In fact, eventually we noticed that there was no handle or knob on it either. There was also no hinges for it to swing on. The only way to get into the cave was obviously to take the whole door off, and that looked like one big job. That or, of course, blast the whole hillside off.
"Well, of course we were excited as heck! We'd found the legendary Iron Door, and we were going to be rich and famous! But at the moment we also had a real tough problem to solve. We wanted to claim our treasure, and tell everyone we'd found the Iron Door--but--should we all stay there, or split up, or all go home? It had gotten to be pretty close to sundown now, and it was getting dark pretty quick. Down in that little artificial canyon, or tunnel, it was already so dark we couldn't see each other's faces. We couldn't just stay there because our dads were expecting us home. We had to feed and milk cows at dawn. Red Ben said we should just stay overnight anyway and to heck with the consequences. That was Red Ben for you! We didn't want to split up, because we were thinking it would be at least as much trouble as all of us staying. The ones who went back would catch the aggravation tonight, then all four of us would catch it again tomorrow with interest. The only option we could stand was to all go home together. We figured we wouldn't have trouble finding the Iron Door again now that we knew where to look, and anyway we'd mark it real clear.
"We started back down the mountain. I remember we were laughing and happy like little kids on Christmas morning. We wound our way through the little dug-out canyon. Elton tied his red bandanna onto a little sapling at about eye level, by the entrance to the artificial canyon. About a hundred yards farther down the crick bed, White Ben did the same with his handkerchief. Another hundred yards, and I left my coat, which was a pretty light tan color, almost white. I put a few heavy rocks on it to hold it down. Red Ben left his hat on a branch of a tree at the entrance to the holler where the crick bed and the Iron Door all were.
"We split up at the foot of the mountains to go to our separate houses. We lived close to each other by Nozzy standards, but that was still quite a ways apart. About a mile from house to house. We all told our folks about what we'd found, and started making plans for how we'd spend all that money! Dad told me I could go back and look for the Iron Door again as soon as I finished morning milking. I could hardly even sit still that night, let alone sleep!
"You never saw someone milk thirty cows so fast the next morning! As soon as I finished, I got on the party line to round up the gang. In those days, we still had to go through the operator. We were all instinctively being careful not to say anything on the phone about where we were going, because we didn't want the operator to hear us and spread the word. As you know, word spreads pretty fast in Nozzy, especially about something like that! We couldn't stand the thought of someone trying to horn in on our claim. Didn't have to talk about it, but I know we were all thinking it. We met at Frenchman's Pond at 8, I remember, and we took right off to find the Iron Door again. We knew right where to head. We didn't even bring a lunch because we figured we wouldn't need it.
"From that point, everything was failure and aggravation. First of all, we were split down the middle on which holler the crick bed and Iron Door were in. Red Ben and Elton thought it was one holler farther west than White Ben and I did. Didn't really matter, because we searched every dang inch of both of them for Red Ben's hat. Then late in the morning we gave up on those two hollers and expanded to the hollers outside of those, in a half-circle, right left and above. We looked and looked and looked, and we found diddly-squat that looked familiar. We definitely didn't find Red Ben's hat, or my coat, or any kerchiefs. We split up, we looked as a group, we went in pairs, we formed a line. Nothing. We tried to remember what kind of tree it was Red Ben had put his hat in. We were pretty sure it was a pine, and then we were kicking ourselves for using the most common kind of tree, because, Gee, could we find a pine tree in the area? Only about ten thousand of them per acre!
"We took a little siesta in the hottest part of the afternoon, tried to calm down and think more than anything. Lot of good it did. We looked all afternoon with the same result. I guess it was about five, time to bring the cows in for evening milking, when we decided to knock off for the day. We didn't know what else to do.
"There's not much more of this story to tell. Of course we never found the Iron Door again. If we had, we'd be living in a mansion in Beverly Hills right now! We looked every single day for two weeks, and then every time we had the heart to go look again, but we didn't find so much as the dry crick bed. We definitely never found any of our path markers. Our families, then our other friends, then pretty much everybody helped us look, and no one ever found any of it. We would have suspected someone took down our markers so they could jump our claim, but no one ever made a claim. No one ever found the Iron Door again. But I swear to you, my friends and I found it when I was a kid.
"It's a goshdang mystery, and I think it'll always be one."

Fairlyn Thomas, Ph. D.
Dr. Thomas lived in Nozzy, in the city proper, from 1964 to 1974 (ages eight to eighteen). He graduated from Nozzy High School in 1974, earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Geography from the University of Washington, and in 1988 completed his Ph. D. in Cultural Geography at Bowling Green State University. He describes his feelings about his Nozzy background as a "love-hate relationship." He serves as an Associate Professor of Geography at Texas Panhandle State College in Windscoured Plains, Texas, where he resides with his wife, his mother, and many cats and dogs. He is writing a memoir.

I don't have an Iron Door story of my own to tell. What I do have is some commentary on the Iron Door legend itself. There are some really interesting things going on there, culturally speaking.
For one, this is one of the most strictly oral legends in the whole country. Most legends start orally but then migrate to print. This one pretty much starts and ends with word of mouth. As far as I know, the book of oral history you're interviewing me for right now will be just about the only written matter on the subject. Aside from this, there are a couple of extremely short "human interest" stories, or historical retrospectives, scattered through the archives of the Nozzy News, and those mostly just repeat the same few sentences in exactly the same words. If plagiarizing yourself were a crime, the News would have a life sentence! These stories don't say much beyond mentioning that the legend exists and locate its supposed resting place in the Canaan Hills southwest of Nozzy. They don't, for example, name particular individuals who claim to have seen the Iron Door, or address the question of who was in the Iron Door Gang.
Anyway, the story of the Iron Door is one that was told, mouth to ear, until the 1950s. No one really bothered to write it down. Then in the 50s, young people basically had better things to do than chase down a frankly sketchy legend. They had hot rods to drive and submarine races to attend. Without young people searching for the Iron Door themselves, they stopped talking about it too, and eventually the legend kind of faded away. It had only been there as a whispered rumor to begin with.
The Iron Door legend has some important details in common with other well-known stories. One is "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" from the Thousand and One Nights. In "Ali Baba," a gang of thieves (forty!) piles up its stolen goods in a secret cave. The cave is sealed and supposedly impenetrable. There's a trick to getting it open. An honest, poor working man finds the cave. All of that can be said as well of the Iron Door cave. The important difference is that from this point of view, the Iron Door legend tells only half the story. No one gets into the cave; the only thing that anyone ever claims is to see its sealed-off entrance. I would take that to reflect a certain fundamental disappointment with life in Nozzy. That is, just as searchers for the Iron Door supposedly find the cave, and anticipate that it will grant them fabulous riches that never do materialize, likewise, settlers in the Nozzy Valley moved there anticipating wonderful, wealthy lives that, for many or perhaps most, remained forever out of reach. The very name "Nozzy" reflects disappointment, disgust, as it comes from the French word "nausee," nauseated. In "Ali Baba," there are two morals or lessons to the story. One is that crime doesn't pay and will eventually bring on its own punishment. The other is that a good woman can save the day and should be rewarded when she does. (I know that last one sounds obvious to us, but the story comes out of medieval Arabic culture, so...) Since the treasure is never reached in the Iron Door story, there's no punishment and no woman. Therefore neither of these lessons applies.
There are any number of mythical locations that, like the Iron Door's secret cave, can only be found under certain limited conditions only once and then never again. El Dorado, where the streets were said to be paved with gold. Shangri-La, hidden in the high Himalayas, where citizens enjoy eternal youth as long as they stay. And any number of enchanted castles and hidden abodes of magical beings in fairy tales. I think the important point regarding this aspect of the legend is the concept of unexpected access to, and proof of, the marvelous. That is, most of us have hard lives most of the time. Long stretches of life are boring, or arduous, or just supremely lacking in glamor. It's easy to lose hope, to conclude that life just stinks generally. But the Iron Door story, like the other ones I mentioned, substantiates the possibility that you just never know, maybe someday you too might stumble onto a magical place, a treasure cave. Such a location might be right under your nose. You won't get to see it for long, because the nature of these places and experiences is that they're ephemeral. But you can hope, and that's the whole point. Again, "Nozzy."
I find it interesting that there is essentially no mention, in any telling, of exactly who was in the Iron Door Gang. Remember the original conditions the gang would have been operating under. It was the 1880s, in a small, tightly knit Mormon community where everyone not only knew everyone else, they also knew everyone's business. Any outsider would be observed carefully and mistrustfully. Odds are, then, that one of two things was true. One is that the gang members might have lived somewhere else and hid their valuables on visits to Nozzy. This seems unlikely for the obvious reason that most people would want to keep their eyes on their money. These were days when people were reluctant to put money in banks, so how much more reluctant would they be to bury it far away? The visitor theory also has the problem of trust: how could you really be sure that the other gang members wouldn't take the money and run? The other possibility, then, is that the gang members were local Nozziers leading double lives. By day they were farmers or ranchers, most likely, because so was everyone else. If they were anything else they would have stood out too much. By night they robbed stagecoaches. The hardest thing to grasp about this setup, for me, is the original formation of the gang. What would you do, ask your neighbor from the next farm over, "Say, Bill. You're not rolling in dough, and neither am I. You ever consider...robbing stagecoaches?" The other way the gang could have come together seems just as far-fetched: former robbers settle down in this quiet little Mormon farming community, then find they can't completely give up thievery, so they rob coaches on special occasions and hide the money from their families to keep the secret. So who knows how it got started?
You can pretty much guarantee that the gang members were white, probably of Welsh descent, like everyone else in the valley. This little corner of Idaho was lily-white in those days, and very intolerant of Others, so anyone with Mexican, or Native American, or (God forbid) African blood would have stood out like neon. Even an olive-skinned Spaniard or Italian would have called special attention to himself. Thus we would have historical records in diaries and such of suspect Others in the area, and we don't. The robbers would be people who fit in with the extremely homogenous local population. In my opinion, this makes the "double life" hypothesis all the more plausible.
I find it significant that each telling of the Iron Door legend emphasizes the detail that the person or group who found the cave was unable to find it again. That point is absolutely consistent. The obvious question, then, is why not? Some people say God prevented it, so as not to corrupt an honest person with sudden wealth. Some say the Devil did it, or other evil entities, like the angry ghosts of robbed passengers, out of pure spite for humanity. Some say it was simple bad luck. Some claim the finder was drunk the first time and/or on the return trip. The different answers to that question work pretty well as Rorschach Tests of the teller. In other words, it's like asking, Why do things in life not go according to plan? The answer says a lot about how you see the world and your possibilities in it.
One last thing. A person might argue that the single most important thing about the Iron Door legend is that there is an Iron Door legend. It's almost as if the Nozzy community collectively decided it needed some kind of story to tell about itself, and came up with this. You could see it as Nozzy saying, "We are interesting. We matter. We have secrets and depth."

LaReen Fleen.
Mrs. Fleen moved to Nozzy from Provo, Utah in 1965 with her husband Dean Fleen, longtime President of First Farmers' Bank of Nozzy, and their children. She grew up in Los Angeles, but says she "loved Nozzy the second [she] laid eyes on it" and has lived here ever since. She has purchased burial plots in Nozzy Cemetery for herself and her husband. She is a high school graduate and a housewife, and very active in her LDS Ward, for which she has held several women's leadership positions. She has six children, two of whom currently live at home.

Thank you for letting me be a part of this marvelous project! It is such a thrill to be part of recording our wonderful Nozzy history!
Thank you also for letting me use my notes for this. I just feel I can tell this story so much better if I don't have to make it up as I go along! I get flustered.
So, my story is called
"The Legend of the Iron Door Begins"

The low horizon shimmered in the scorching air of the Nozzy Valley on a terribly hot July day. Dust devils and tumbleweeds chased each other playfully across the valley floor. From their homestead cabin in the fertile haylands in the south part of the valley, the courageous rancher and his wife could see for miles in all directions. However, they both gazed out, with their hands shading their weary eyes,  toward the southwest. They stood sturdily but felt big butterflies in their stomachs as they watched with complete, apprehensive interest at a man approaching on horseback. The horseman seemed to be sitting very low in the saddle and moving very slowly, or at least his "paint" horse was.
As the low rider crawled closer they sensed, with years of experience of living on the rough and wild plains of the area, that something was wrong with the horseman, although the "paint" horse seemed to be fine.  The "paint" horse moved at an agonizingly slow pace, and the rider was just about collapsed in the saddle. Soon they could see that he was wounded. They hurried to the horse, helped him down, and carried the very nearly unconscious or maybe dead man to their cabin. He had been shot at least twice, possibly as much as three or four times, and had lost a lot of blood. They did not recognize his face, although they knew every single one of their neighbors and their names. Nozziers have always taken care of each other from the first days of settlement in the Nozzy Valley. As they laid him on the humble bed he winced hard in pain and reluctantly began to talk. The story he told was this:
He was an outlaw! A robber! For many years he and his two partners in crime had robbed the stage lines which sent their coaches through the Nozzy Valley. The three-man gang had accumulated a great deal of stolen gold, silver, wedding rings, necklaces, and fancy guns. They hid these ill-gotten stolen wares in a cave in a group of low mountains southwest of Nozzy called the Canaan Hills, which the homesteading couple that had been married in the Salt Lake City Temple were very familar with. They had sealed the entrance to that cave with a heavy iron door at the top of one of the Canaan Hills.
As he explained his story, the homesteaders learned from him that he had been shot by the other two robbers during a violent argument. However, he had killed the other two and then placed their lifeless bodies in the dark cave along with the gold, silver, and other valuables and sealed it with the iron door. He had been too wounded and weak to carry the gold away with him. Gold is really heavy, as you may know. As he continued to worsen from blood loss, the homesteaders tried to ask him where the iron door to the cave was so they could give the dead men a proper burial. It never even entered their minds that they would want to take the gold for themselves, for they were truly good Samaritans. The bleeding bandito was not giving good directions for them to follow. He was saying things that did not really help to narrow down the location, like "It's just over a ways from a little well" and "Go west of here and also a little south." The married man tried to hand him a pencil and have him draw a map, but the man was too weak to sit up or even hold the pencil. It kept falling out of his trembling hand. He said to the homesteaders that the cave was near the top of one of the peaks because they decided that there they would be able to see any lawmen coming after them and get away quickly. After saying this, the wounded man gave one last rasping breath and died with his eyes staring straight up at the cabin's log ceiling. He was dead, and would never be able to give better directions.
The homesteading duo never could find the cave, because they were not at all sure where they were supposed to look or if they were getting warm. They told friends and family about what they had seen and heard, and after the funeral of the dead robber, the Iron Door legend was born. Since that fateful day, many local residents claim to have seen the iron door to the robbers' cave, but no one ever brought back any gold from there. Search parties were formed quite often to search for the lost gold, urged on by these past sightings. One sighting in 1891 was made by a thirteen-year-old cattle rancher's son during a roundup. As he was honest, reputable, and hard-working, just like his father, his statement was generally accepted as fact. When this young man grew older, he described the door in a lot of detail. He said it was made from two wagon wheels and a thin sheet of iron. He died in 1962 at the age of 84. His description of the area placed the Iron Door at a point similar to the robber's description.  And the description fits with that of a site worked by a local man who believed he had found the actual site of the cave of treasure.
A local man who was well acquainted with the person who found the cave in 1891 has spent a considerable time over the years searching for the Iron Door using his description. This same man has found evidence that coincides with the legend. Digging with hand tools and blasting with dynamite, he uncovered an assortment of bones and bone fragments that were later sent to Brigham Young University in Provo for analysis. The bones were found to be human remains. Are they the remains of the two stagecoach robbers buried under the Iron Door? We may never know the answer to this fascinating, difficult historical mystery.

No comments:

Post a Comment