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A rich farm legacy in Jerome County

By: Erica Louder
Published in Blog on  January 28, 2019

By Erica Louder

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation 

JEROME – “A vast, uninhabited solitude, with precipitous cliffs and yawning ravines—a land where no man permanently will reside.” 

So said Washington Irving of the Snake River Plains in 1837. 

Irving’s prediction remained true until near the turn of the century, when Congress passed the Carey Act, which permitted private companies to construct, and profit from, irrigation systems in Western semi-arid states. 

This led to the expansion of farming in the West, particularly in Idaho. 

In 1900 the Twin Falls Land and Water Co. was formed and in 1905, the Milner diversion dam was completed. These irrigation projects in southcentral Idaho, an area that later became known as the Magic Valley, were some of the most successful of the time and they transformed the “uninhabited solitude” of Irving’s musing to productive farm ground, “as if by magic.” 

That magical transformation is how the Magic Valley got its name.

That was the beginning of agriculture in Jerome County and the six-county region known as the “Magic Valley.” If you drive west through Idaho along Interstate 84, you will see the remnants of a sagebrush desert. 

However, you will also witness the culmination of 100 years of work by the region’s farmers. There are acres of potatoes, sugar beets, and beans. There are dairy farms, cattle ranches, and fields of wheat and corn silage. 

Grain bins, potato cellars, sugar factories, and creameries are scattered throughout the valley. Once inhabitable ground, it is now some of the most productive ground in the Northwest. 

Stay on the interstate until you reach U.S. Highway 93, Exit 173. At the junction of 93 and I-84 is hidden a remnant of that early time in the region’s history. It is a living museum operated by the Jerome County Historical Society. 

Aptly named IFARM, which stands for Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum, it is a treasure trove of agriculture archeology. 

“IFARM is the compilation of years of collecting antiques and historical artifacts by Jerome County residents,” says the museum’s curator, Linda Helms. “And since Jerome County’s history is entrenched in agriculture, much of those artifacts are farm related.”

“As the farm artifacts grew,” she says, “we knew we needed to find a permanent home – in 1990 we contracted with the Bureau of Land Management for 30 acres of desert ground, and IFARM was born.” 

They call it a museum, but to most patrons, it is more than a collection of objects on display. Visiting IFARM is like stepping back in time, to the time when the irrigation projects first breathed life to the desert, a time when farming in Jerome County took more than a little grit and an awful lot of luck. 

IFARM boasts one of the largest collections of historical agriculture machinery in the Northwest—implements, plows, and early model tractors litter the ground. 

The original home and barn of the Lickley family now sit on the property. The Lickleys were some of the first residents of Jerome County. 

There is an original barrack from the Minidoka Interment Camp, the first cabin in the city of Jerome, and a log-hewn building fromthecounty’s “Poor Farm,” which was established by the Idaho territorial governor to provide a place for the poor to live and work. 

The buildings and equipment are arranged in such a way that one really gets the feel of an early 20thcentury desert farm. 

On the second Saturday in June IFARM becomes the backdrop to an educational experience about the region’s legacy during an event called “Life History Days.” 

During the one-day event there are antique tractor pulls, horse-drawn wagon rides, and model railroads to enjoy. A replica general store, post office, and doctor’s office are in working order, staffed with actors ready to help a busy farm wife with her errands. 

On the Lickley homestead, patrons can eat fresh churned butter on homemade bread, test their hand at loom weaving, and get a taste for interior décor on a desert farmhouse. You can wander freely through acres of farm equipment and implements, all the while getting a sampling of what it would have been like to homestead such a place. 

When discovering this history, it is easy to romanticize the life of those early settlers. The efforts portrayed at IFARM are remarkable; however, they didn’t come without cost. 

Despite the descriptor, it was not magic or even magical. Often, it was hard, backbreaking work with little rest and less reward. The land was unforgiving but, eventually, it did work and farms and people began to thrive. 

Today, Magic Valley farms are proof that those early efforts did pay off. While the cliffs and ravines remain, the “inhabitable solitude” is a distant past. 

To schedule a tour of IFARM contact the Jerome County Idaho Historical Society at (208) 324-5641 or through email at info@historicaljeromecounty.com

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