Quantcast

Perpetually curious, history hobbyists keep small towns alive

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) 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.

Madge Wylie works on the Melba Herald, an 8-page monthly insert into the Melba Kuna News on Aug. 3, 2011 in Melba, Idaho.  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.  (AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Joe Jaszewski)  MANDATORY CREDIT (Associated Press) Madge Wylie works on the Melba Herald, an 8-page monthly insert into the Melba Kuna News on Aug. 3, 2011 in Melba, Idaho. 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. (AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Joe Jaszewski) MANDATORY CREDIT (Associated Press)

"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.

At 85, Madge Wylie is the preserver of the past and observer of the present.     (Associated Press) At 85, Madge Wylie is the preserver of the past and observer of the present. (Associated Press)

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.

Wylie started her column, "Of This 'n That," in the early 1950s, first at Nampa's Idaho Free Press, then at the Kuna Herald, Idaho Statesman and Kuna Melba News.

In 1972, she became a charter member of the Canyon County Historical Society and was invited to give a talk about Melba.

"You can't just stand up in front of people and say, 'Melba was founded in 1912, blah, blah, blah,'" Wylie says. So she put together a slideshow.

The approach proved popular, and she made the rounds of Scout troops, church groups and fourth-grade Idaho history classes. The role of community historian ensnared her.

"I didn't really want to do it in the first place, and now I can't help myself," she says. "Somebody always wants to know something, and who do you call? Old Madge. So I get to rooting around."

Whatever she delves into, she tends to dig deep. "Anything that happens in Melba, Madge knows the 100-year history," Kuna Melba News Editor Scott McIntosh says.

Wylie's books and columns trace the history of the community's homesteaders, city leaders, businesses and fraternal organizations. If a house burns, a business changes hands or a resident retires or dies, she records and tells the story.

Her latest book, "Of This 'n That: 50 Years of Articles, Musings and History," is a collection of her columns and stories from the Kuna Melba News. The newspaper's initial run of 100 copies sold out during the book's debut at Melba's Fourth of July celebration.

Wylie has a wealth of research on small school districts that dotted the landscape — Melmont, Glendale, Wilson, Guffey — before consolidation and school buses phased them out.

Starting in the third grade, Wylie attended Glendale School just south of Melba. Her family moved there from the Meridian area, and she writes about riding to her new home atop "a hayrack heaped with miscellaneous household items."

Wylie relates how, in 1942, Melba High let out for the whole month of October so students could harvest potatoes and aid the war effort.

When she writes about the 1994 removal of some railroad tracks, she tells the small human stories.

"Melba Todd Hays (the daughter of Melba's founder and source of its name) told me in an interview that her mother sent her laundry to Nampa by rail. When it returned in the next day or two, if they had no stop in Melba, they just tossed the laundry out the window."

On a recent drive, Wylie described the early life of places she passed: "The woman who lived there was a good old Quaker Lady; she wore a bonnet and dress out in the field."

"Right there is where Col. Dewey cut the lava rock to make the foundation for the Dewey Palace," she said a few moments later. The palace, Nampa's showplace 1902 hotel, was razed in 1963 — much to the chagrin of preservationists.

Wylie is something of a preservationist herself. Kitty-corner to her house is the red-brick former gym for Melba schools, built in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration.

"They keep talking about maybe tearing it down, and I keep telling 'em, 'Over my dead body.' So they call it the Madge Wylie mausoleum."

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company