Perpetually curious, history hobbyists keep small towns alive

By Kristin Rodine

Idaho Statesman

Published: Monday, Aug. 22 2011 11:03 p.m. MDT

Madge Wylie is planning her next book of local history, her seventh, not counting smaller publications. She's ever-willing to take on new projects.

Associated Press

MELBA, Idaho — Perpetually curious, Madge Wylie has a tendency to make everyone an interview subject. And what she learns, she remembers and catalogs.

"I'm a busybody," Wylie says.

Others in and around her tiny farming community say she's a local treasure, a prime preserver of Melba's past and a keen observer of its present.

"She really is the librarian, the historian, the go-to person for historical facts," says Canyon County Commissioner Kathy Alder, a longtime resident of Melba, population 513. "If nobody steps up behind her, we're going to lose a lot of our history."

At 85, Wylie is planning her next book of local history — her seventh, not counting smaller publications that chronicle Melba mainstays from the LDS Church to the gun club. She still writes a history-laden column for the Kuna Melba News and seems ever-willing to take on new projects.

"I think when you've got something to do, you live longer," she says.

With no formal historical training but a wealth of commitment and fact-finding flair, Wylie is among the unofficial historians who help identify and bolster Idaho communities' unique identities, earning the respect and gratitude of history professionals.

"These are the keepers of our history," says Jody Ochoa, executive director of the Idaho Historical Society and Museum. In 2008, the society honored Wylie with its Esto Perpetua Award that recognizes major contributions to the preservation of Idaho history.

"A lot of these people preserve the photographs and documents and memories of a generation that would otherwise disappear," says consulting historian Madeline Buckendorf of Caldwell.

They're a great resource, Canyon County Historical Society Director Wendy Miller says. If a question comes up about Melba, she gives Wylie a call.

Across the county in Middleton, former postmaster Lee Moberly plays the same role. Now 81, he grew up in Middleton and spent nine years in the Navy before returning for good in 1958.

History set its hook as folks came by the post office and shared their memories.

He soaked up the stories, but the real town historian at the time, he says, was Jennie Cornell, who kept voluminous records of Middleton history. She chose Moberly as her successor.

In 1990, Moberly and Cornell collaborated on a book, "Middleton in Picture and Story." In 1991, he officiated at her funeral.

Among the points of local curiosity, he says, are the two-story hotel the town sported until a 1914 fire, and the streetcar that ran from Middleton to Boise and Caldwell from 1907 to 1928.

Like Cornell before him, Moberly says he has identified his own successor: Becky Foote O'Meara, owner/editor of the Middleton Gazette and great-granddaughter of the town's first mayor, S.S. Foote.

"I've been trying to get it eased off to her," he says.

The first inklings of Wylie's future as Melba's history-keeper came when she was 15 and won second place and $2 in radio station KIDO's essay contest. The topic: my hometown.

But she wasn't initially interested in agrarian Melba, drawn instead by the more wild, rip-roaring tales of the land across the Snake River.

"I wanted to write about cowboys and Indians in Owyhee County," she recalls.

After high school, she went to work at Gowen Field during World War II and met wounded veteran Clark Wylie. They married and spent a few years in West Virginia before moving back to raise seven children. Clark died in January 2007.

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