National Historic Register Listing

Campbell's Ferry: 1940-1956 and Frances Zaunmiller Wisner

Frances Zaumiller Wisner lived at Campbell's Ferry from 1940 until her death in 1986. The column she wrote for the Grangeville Idaho Free Press from 1945 through 1985 provides an unusually detailed picture of the environment and day-to-day life on a wilderness ranch. Wisner's column, as well as her colorful personality and political activism, made her well-known in the area and created admirers from across the country.

In late summer of 1940, Joe Zaunmiller was leading his pack string up the Three Blaze Trail when he met a lone woman walking down. She was Lydia Frances Coyle - called Frances - who had been working at the Stonebraker Ranch in the Chamberlain Basin. Born in Texas in 1913, Coyle had come to Idaho after a youthful, turbulent marriage broke up. Once her divorce was final, Coyle had decided to pursue new adventures. She asked Joe Zaunmiller if he knew of anyone who needed a cook or ranch helper, and he hired her on the spot. That encounter set the stage for the rest of her life, all of it lived at Campbell's Ferry in the Idaho wilderness. Within a few years, she began to write about life at the Ferry, and her words illuminate life during the mid-twentieth-century period in the Salmon River backcountry. 13

When the young woman arrived at Campbell's Ferry, she saw a large barn; an orchard with plum, apple, cherry, peach, and pear trees; grape vines; a vegetable garden: a sizable potato patch with a small potato-storage shed above it; a woodshed; and another shed housing farm equipment. Grain fields had been planted and a system of irrigation ditches laced the property. There was a chicken house and a cooling shed, and high on the south bank of the Salmon River, the log cabin that Warren Cook and the Aiken brothers had built in 1906. The young woman immediately took to life on the ranch. She cooked for Joe Zaunmiller, his clients, and the many visitors to Campbell's Ferry; she cleaned, chopped wood, tended the gardens and stock, maintained the ditches, and learned to operate the ferry. Her affection for the site soon extended to its owner, and she and Joe Zaunmiller were married in Walla Walla, Washington on November 29, 1942. 14

Frances Coyle Zaunmiller was also introduced to the isolation and hardships of the canyon. When Joe Zaunmiller was out working for the national forests from the beginning of May until the end of September, his wife was on her own at Campbell's Ferry. 15

In 1966, reflecting upon those early years, she wrote, It was not just days between strangers but often weeks; at the Ferry it would be months between strange faces. For the Ferry was isolated from the rest of the Canyon during high water of spring as well as during the time of running ice in winter. 16

Jim Moore, who lived on the place across the river, became her friend and confidant, teaching her about the history of the Salmon country and helping her to learn how to live there. When the elderly Moore became too frail to be alone, the young woman brought him to the Zaunmiller cabin, where she cared for him until his death in the spring of 1942. She saw to it that his wish to be buried on his homestead was carried out and inherited all or part of his property, which she apparently sold within a short time. Three years later, she witnessed a more tragic burial. In the summer of 1945, four-year-old Norman Wolfe, son of Salmon River Canyon residents, drowned while crossing Big Mallard Creek. His body washed into the Salmon and was found 21 days later near Campbell's Ferry. Frances Zaunmiller hiked four miles upriver to the Wildt Ranch (now Whitewater Ranch) to comfort his distraught mother and accompany her back to the place where her child's body had been discovered. Norman Wolfe was buried on the ranch property, above the original ferry trail. One of his brothers later placed an aluminum marker at the gravesite, where it remains. 17

Despite the solitude and hardships, Frances Zaunmiller thrived on the subsistence style of living required in the Salmon River Canyon backcountry. She and her husband raised alfalfa and made hay to feed their stock, fished and hunted and raised ducks and chickens for meat and eggs. She cultivated a large garden and grew and preserved a wide variety of greens, vegetables and fruits. She also planted flowers to further beautify the canyon home. In 1945, Frances Zaunmiller wrote a letter about Campbell's Ferry, which was published in the Grangeville Idaho County Free Press. Subsequently, the editor invited her to write a weekly column about her daily life in the backcountry. She accepted the invitation, and her popular column appeared for 31 years, attracting a large, loyal following. 18

She wrote on a portable typewriter and described that process in one of her columns: An unpublished beauty of the portable typewriter is its adaptability to the mood of the writer . . . Only with a portable can one pull the easy chair in front of the kitchen stove, put both feet in the oven, and typewriter in lap, tell the world of the doings in the canyon. 19

Frances Zaunmiller's column entertained and educated her readers, illuminating not only the natural environment of the canyon, but the changes - and lack of changes - at the ranch and in the living conditions it offered. As such, the column offered readers in more normal settings a taste of backcountry life. In one column, she described the process of bringing in a large cast-iron range Joe bought for her at her request. Purchasing the stove, she noted, was simple, but "getting it to Campbell's Ferry was something else." 20

The stove was trucked to the Wildt Ranch (now Whitewater Ranch) where it took a hoist and several men to unload it from the truck. Then it had to be taken apart and loaded on a sweep boat for its voyage to the Ferry. Once there, it was packed up from the river by two sets of mules and reassembled in the cabin kitchen. 21 The well-used stove remains in place today.

There were some improvements Zaunmiller resisted. In a 1954 column she wrote, "For years Joe has wanted to put running water in the house, but she [Zaunmiller always referred to herself in the third person] doesn't want it. Running water would make a lot less work but Joe does not promise that the little water ditch that talks its way past the cabin door, would not be taken away - so she will keep the ditch, and listen to the water tell its tales of the places it has been. You should hear it brag sometimes." 22
Running water was never installed in the cabin, and the ditch continues to "talk" as it brings water to a small pool beside the cabin's porch.

Frances Zaunmiller's columns made her a local celebrity and helped her garner support for a number of her favorite causes. She long advocated for a bridge at Campbell's Ferry to replace the dangerous ferry crossing. In 1954 she wrote a column on the subject, started a letter-writing campaign, and contacted both her senators, creating enough pressure to gain approval and funding for the bridge. The day following the bridge's completion on April 6, 1956, Zaunmiller and various dignitaries were present at a ribbon cutting ceremony. Subsequently, she and Joe Zaunmiller cut the ferryboat loose and it drifted off down river. She considered the bridge, which created a link between two national forests, the Payette and the Nez Perce, a personal triumph. 23 She wrote in her column, "The Campbell's Ferry Bridge is finished. Since November the crew has been working. Thursday they finished doing even the last little chore that makes the bridge a thing of beauty and service." 24
The completion of the pack bridge ended an era at Campbell's Ferry, but Frances Zaunmiller continued to make the ranch her home for the next thirty years.

13. Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, pp. 10-11; Zaunmiller Wisner, My Mountains, p. 68 gives author's full name.

14. Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, pp. 11-12, 19-31, 39.

15. Cort Conley, Idaho Loners: Hermits, Solitaries, and Individualists (Cambridge, Idaho: Backeddy Books, 1994), p. 150.

16. Zaunmiller Wisner, My Mountains, p. 118.

17 Burnette, National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, Moore, Jim, Place; Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, p. 68; Conley, Idaho Loners, p. 51.

18. Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, pp. 185-186; Zaunmiller Wisner, My Mountains, p. Introduction.

19 Zaunmiller Wisner, My Mountains, p. 58.

20. Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, p. 83.


21. Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, pp. 83-84.

22. Zaunmiller Wisner, My Mountains, p. 14.

23.. Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, pp. 87-91; Zaunmiller Wisner, My Mountains, p. 23.

24. Quoted in Furey-Werhan, Haven in the Wilderness, p. 90.

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