Bovill is a lot like many small towns in Idaho, and far beyond.
It was named for two of the earliest settlers, a couple who at the dawn of the twentieth century bought an earlier lightly-used homestead, and started ranching. Before long, timber production became dominant in the area, the couple evolved their activities into other local service businesses, and Bovill became a timber town. In the last generation, as timber has faded as an economic mainstay, Bovill has struggled.
It’s a story similar in outline to that of many rural towns.
Not many years ago, a couple named Jeremy and Heidi Ritter and set up – in this case relocated from Moscow – a different kind of business in the central business area. It is the Camas Prairie Winery (a field covered with camas plants actually is located near town), and it produces wines and has a tasting room.
Not everyone is happy.
As the Lewiston Tribune reported, “Everything was apparently going along fine until earlier this year, when Camas Prairie Winery received a retail liquor license after another Main Street business, Bailey’s Bar, lost its license. Shortly thereafter, the winery (which previously had a wholesale license) was told it needed to make several changes to comply with the town’s building code.”
From there tensions and battles escalated into heated arguments about doorways and public records, well beyond what a simple adjustment to the building site would have suggested.
More is going on here than a simple building code issue. So what’s happening?
I cannot read the minds of the people in Bovill, but the overall dynamics sound familiar. I live in a small town, somewhat larger than Bovill but with a history quite similar. Mine is an agricultural community, situated amidst farm fields not far from foothills forests, founded a little more than a century ago, which later became a timber mill town (my house was once company housing built for mill workers), after which that faded (the mill closed) and the community started looking for other options.
Eventually it found them, in the form of wine. My community seized on wine production and sales, which were growing rapidly in the area, and embraced it. Now Main Street is packed with wine businesses, and visitors from afar stop into the tasting rooms and other spinoff businesses. The place has been growing, to the point that there’s concern about the growth that has materialized.
Not everyone is happy about it. Long-timers in town remember the way the community used to be, and the phrase “It’s a timber town, dammit!” is not unknown in city limits. The question of just how wine-friendly city officials should be is a permanent undercurrent in local politics.
This isn’t really a debate over growth, or exactly a debate over wine. It’s a debate over culture: A timber-based community, or any other based on more traditional resource industries, is going to feel and look different from one where the economic base is something like wine. You can tell the difference driving through, and it feels different living there, too.
It’s not just wine. Any kind of dominant industry in a community will leave its own cultural, political and economic stamp. If a high-tech business became the linchpin of a small farm town, that would change its character just as certainly.
Most likely, some of this is what some people in Bovill are reacting to. Change of one kind or another is coming.
But there’s a catch. Many small towns will have to change, in one direction or another, if they’re going to survive. Some will embrace change and prosper. Others . . . will not.