Tuesday, November 26, 2013

William Fahle and “The Richest Little City in the World”

Teddy Roosevelt in Wallace, Idaho
Wallace has always been an Idaho town with big aspirations.  One mayor declared it “The Center of the Universe” and even today the municipal motto is “The Richest Little City in the World,” with mining as an economic engine.   William Fahle got rich by combining mining interests with serving the abundant liquor needs of Wallace and its surroundings.

Indicative of just how little has occurred in this town of currently fewer than 1,000 souls in the panhandle of Idaho is its annual civic celebration of the 1903 visit of President Theodore Roosevelt.  That seemingly would indicate it was the only time any notable stopped by. As Teddy was paraded in the rain down the main drag in a horse-drawn buggy, he undoubted was observed by Fahle, possibly in the doorway of one of the drinking establishments he operated in Wallace.
Thirsty Miners in Wallace

Fahle was of German ancestry and born about 1871. His birthplace is variously given; one record attributes Germany, another account says Missouri.  He appears to have arrived in Wallace in the late 1890s,  possibly drawn by the opportunities provided by mining.  In 1884, Colonel W. R. Wallace had been drawn to the area’s rich deposits of silver and gold. He purchased and developed 80 acres of land that eventually became the site of the City of Wallace and the seat of Shoshone County.  By 1887 downtown businesses were booming and mines were flourishing in the surrounding mountains.   Railroads brought in prospectors and miners, took out ore and put Wallace on the map. The locality became famous as the "Silver Capital of the World.”  Over 1.2 billion ounces of silver have been produced there since 1884, hence the title “Richest Little City.”

Fahle soon found that one opportunity to strike gold in Wallace was serving liquor to a thirsty population of miners who thronged to town on pay day.   He opened a saloon. In Fahle’s day everything was wide open.  Gambling and prostitution were thriving.  Not only did his saloon serve liquor over the counter, in a back room he was mixing up his own “rectified” brand of whiskey, selling it in gallon ceramic jugs and glass flasks. The latter he branded “Monogram Whiskey, A Blend.” Some of those bottles have survived showing Fahle’s highly elaborated labels in both red and gold.  The shape of the flasks also was notable and patented in 1898.  Fahle also was running a hotel, initially with a partner named Williams.  That establishment, of course, featured a saloon and like many Western saloonkeepers the partners issued tokens good for drinks at the bar.  The token shown here was worth 12 and 1/2 cents at the bar.

Meanwhile Fahle was having a personal life.  About 1909 he married Olive Leyde, known by family and friends as “Ollie.”  She was 16 years his junior, the daughter of Cyrus and Elizabeth (Clanton) Leyde.   Her father was a wealthy landowner from Morrow County, Oregon, who with his family had moved to Wallace where Olive met Fahle.  The couple would have one daughter, Irene.  Given the “fancy ladies” who frequented her husband’s establishments, Ollie must have been a broad minded woman.

In time the Williams & Fahle partnership was dissolved and Fahle went on to operate his own saloon, restaurant and hotel.  In 1890 a fire had wiped out the majority of the wooden buildings downtown. Persevering, townspeople rebuilt, this time with brick, stone and masonry.  Among the solid structures was Fahle’s hotel located on Cedar Street, the main drag of Wallace. In 1910  a giant forest fire roared through town but the hotel survived and is shown here as it looked in 1920.  Signs on the building advertised “Fahle’s Hotel,” “Gin Top Beer” and “Bull Durham.”  

As before,  Fahle issued bar tokens for his establishment. The one shown here was for five cents.  Although the advent of Prohibition meant that provision of alcohol in his hotel was done more discretely,  Fahle’s good times continue to roll even after the country went dry.  During the 1920s his hotel was the focus of a scandal when the Mayor of Wallace, Chief of Police, Shoshone County Sheriff and other officials were accused of corruption for letting the hostelry operate more or less openly as an illegal drinking establishment,  gambling den, and house of prostitution.  Those tribulations seemed to pass quickly in rowdy Wallace, however, and Fahle would own the hotel for decades to come.

Before, during and after Prohibition Fahle was dividing his attention to the mining sector which continued to be a vigorous industry in the Idaho panhandle and neighboring Montana.  A local paper in 1919 reported that Fahle had left for Lolo Springs near the Bitter Mountains to supervise work on a placer mining property that had been awarded him by the Supreme Court of Idaho.  The story noted that the ground “...Yielded much gold in the ‘60s and it is believed a rich return will be found in the gravel on the bedrock.”

In ensuing years reports of Fahle’s mining enterprises were numerous.  In 1920 he and three partners leased the Silverado mine near Osborne, Idaho, a well-developed property with thousands of feet of underground tunnels. The 1922 “Mines Handbook” recorded him as managing a placer mine
near the old camp of Moose City on the North Fork of the Clearwater River, 55 miles from Rivulet, Mineral County, Montana.
Part of Fahle's Mining Empire

The Spokane Daily Chronicle subsequently noted that Fahle as president and manager of the Independence Placer Mining Company was about to leave for the site with the coming of warmer weather.  To reach the mine, described as in a “remote region,” it would be necessary for him to travel through Montana and cross the Bitter Root Mountains divide.  Given the burden of supplying the enterprises, Fahle was quick to see the benefit of the airplane and beginning  in 1925 hired mountain pilots to transport supplies to his Moose City mine.  A landing strip was constructed there, he said, that:  ’Twas not so deep as a well or as wide as a church, but  ‘twas enough.”  As late as 1937, at age 66, Fahle was still adding to his mining empire.

With Repeal of Prohibition Fahle returned to serving alcohol openly at his Wallace hotel.  He also changed the decor.  During his years of traveling around Idaho, Montana and other parts of the West he had collected hundreds of artifacts from pioneer times,  called “curios” in those days.  He used them to decorate his bar which was tabbed an “oddity museum” and became an attraction for tourists venturing to Wallace.

By the time Fahle died it appears that his considerable fortune had dwindled.  In April 1949 Frank X. Wagner of Kalispell, Montana, who had been a brewmaster in Wallace, went to court to foreclose his mortgage on the Fahle Hotel.  He claimed that he had loaned $5,000 to its owner in return for a lien on the hotel, all its furnishings, the museum and other property.  The suit was filed against Fahle’s daughter Irene (now Rasmussen),  her husband, and other defendants.  Claims on the estate also were being made by other creditors and the Idaho Commissioner of Finance for unpaid taxes.

Fahle himself had been in the grave a year, dying in April 1948 at the age of 77.   His wife, Olive, had preceded him in death in 1937.  When he died, the town of Wallace still had much of the character of the Wild West that had greeted Fahle when he had arrived there about a half century before. As late as 1988 there were still four working bordellos in town and numerous bars. Today mining continues in the region but tourism has become a principal income producer.  The Fahle Hotel building still stands, part of the Historical District that encompasses most of downtown Wallace.  But the bar, the game tables and the women, even the museum, are long gone.  Known today as the Furst Building, the former Fahle Hotel houses nothing more exciting than a real estate company.


  1. Loved the article but as a resident of this town, I have to say that it is Poplar Bluff.....poplar trees in the river bluff. Not popular.

  2. Dear Open, etc.: I appreciate your kind words about the Fahle article and have gone over it carefully, corrected a thing or two, but fail to find any reference to "popular bluff." If that mistake was made, it definitely should be fixed and I would appreciate your pointing it out more specifically. Jack