RIGGINS — The new performance stage at the Riggins City Park is more than a simple venue for musical and theater acts.

The auditorium-sized stage that sits like a benevolent canopy at the southern border of the park is a symbol of a town’s willingness to challenge the odds against economic turndowns and rural annihilation.

“I think that our community is growing,” said Mariah Crump, a member of the Salmon River Chamber of Commerce. “I think we’re expanding beyond what we previously thought were our limits. I think people want to come here.”

The stage was the brainchild of the late Clyde Hirst, Russ Mutchler, the city of Riggins and a handful of other volunteers.

The community had just put on a Hot Summer Nights event about two years ago “and over a beer or two” Clyde Hirst and Mutchler came up with the idea of building a bigger stage, said Mary Lou Hirst, Clyde’s widow.

“We’re hoping more people will come,” Hirst. “I think they will.”

The group started with a volunteer vision, energy, labor and money, a small grant, and some matching funds from Midas Gold Corp., which operates the Stibnite Gold Project in the Yellow Pine mining district.

Mutchler donated the arched beams that provided the structure of the stage, and workers built the frame, poured the concrete floors — one large middle section and a smaller side stage — and designed the interior that includes a dressing room with toilet, sink and shower and storage areas for lights, band equipment and other items.

The project is mostly completed, and Hirst said the cost is about $40,000. But several musical acts, including J.R. and the Stingrays from Boise, Muzzie Braun from Challis and High Pine Whisky Yell from southern Idaho, have already performed there. The bands autographed their names on the interior walls of the stage.

“They were blown away with the stage,” Hirst said. “The sound that it projects now is awesome. (The bands) said it’s the nicest stage in Idaho.”

Hirst said she would like to see theater productions such as the Idaho Shakespeare Festival brought to Riggins.

Crump said she hopes some children’s acts might also be scheduled.

“This is just to make the community better,” Hirst said. “You can do anything you want here now. … It’s just a simple good old-fashioned `be the best that you can be’ attitude, and be proud of what you have. Where else do you have something like this on the river?”

A resilient community

The river bar where the town of Riggins sits was used in centuries past as an Indian meeting place and for horse racing, according to “Idaho County Voices,” published in 1990.

In the mid-1800s, gold and gem mines opened up and farming and ranching grew along the Salmon River. The town, once known as “Gouge Eye” was eventually named Riggins after a postmaster there, Dick Riggins.

For years the town supplied goods to the mining districts in Warrens and other places, and as more people moved in the need for lumber to build houses became important.

The lumber business grew until 1982 when the mill, located across the river from where the Salmon Rapids Lodge is now, burned to the ground, devastating the economy and forcing many residents to move away in search of other jobs.

Rather than throw in the towel, Riggins residents set about reinventing the town, expanding its popular whitewater rafting, outfitting and fishing businesses.

With the year-round population holding at slightly more than 400 residents, enterprises have built up, and the town now includes six restaurants, four motels and vacation rentals, gift shops, coffee shops and bars.

In 1996 when the Idaho Transportation Department remodeled the segment of U.S. Highway 95 that passes through the center of town, it also made upgrades to the city park, which borders the Salmon River and includes a boat ramp.

The park is owned by the state, but the city of Riggins maintains it. Last fall a 1930s-era wooden bridge tower was removed from the Manning-Crevice bridge, 14 miles upstream on the Salmon River, and installed at the gateway to the park.

In 2011, school district patrons voted to form their own school district and have faithfully supported override levies to supplement the school budget. The school has about 125 students in kindergarten through 12th grades and has consistently earned high marks from the Idaho Department of Education for student learning and achievement.

The community now hosts a number of events throughout the year, including the Salmon River Jet Boat races in late April, the Riggins Rodeo the first of May, Rattle the Canyon music fest on Memorial Day weekend, Big Water Blowout the first part of June, Hot Summer Nights toward the end of July, the Riggins Salmon half marathon in September and fishing derbies during the season.

‘Everybody’s pretty proud of it’

Tara Walker, a waitress at the Seven Devils Steak House and Bar, said she’s noticed an uptick in tourists coming to town to take in the many events.

“It draws a lot of locals but a lot of out-of-towners (too),” Walker said. “It’s fun, it’s busy, we’re busy here, other restaurants are busy and the stores are busy. (The new stage) would be the best thing for this town. Since we’re such a little town, it would probably bring more people in.”

Mayor Glenna McClure, while noting that all performances at the new stage must be nonprofit because of the co-management between the transportation department and the city, said it is something new that is expected to add another dimension to the town’s vitality.

“Everybody’s pretty proud of it,” McClure said. “There were a lot of volunteers and a lot of donations, and they’re still coming in. It brings in people from all over.”

McClure said she does not expect any significant changes to happen to her small town, “but we love to have people come and visit. … I think the people who help promote the Riggins area, the Salmon River canyon area, they put out a lot of money to promote this area.”

McClure estimated that more than 50 percent of the Riggins economy is buttressed by the tourism industry. Having a performance stage is bound to make that revenue flow even more solid.

“We depend on a lot of people stopping and spending their bucks at all the different businesses,” she said. “It’s a big thank you to everybody that puts in their time and are seeing the big picture that the originators had.”

Crump said people in the community are willing to do the work to keep the town vibrant.

“We have a vision for putting Riggins on the map beyond what we’ve already done, which has been awesome. I think we see a lot of potential for our community,” she said.

“I think the stage really exemplifies what we want to see and what we can do. And it takes a lot of courage to build a stage that size for a community this size. Our hopes and our belief in our community and our area shows that we’re willing to put in the work. And it will take work.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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