Forgotten Vollmer of Idaho

Idaho’s first millionaire, John P. Vollmer, helped modernize Latah County, Idaho, and created communities. Vollmer, Idaho, was one of those communities although evidence of this initial modernization, this man, and this community are all but vague memories.

Although largely forgotten today, John P. Vollmer, greatly influenced northern Idaho in the latter portion of the nineteenth century. He made his fortune in banking, loaning money to farmers, ranchers, and sheep herders. His largest bank and residence was in Lewiston. There he funded large irrigation projects to draw water for agriculture from the Clearwater River. He established the first telegraph line in northern Idaho in 1874, and in 1878 hmade the first Bell telephone exchange on the Pacific coast; however, Vollmer’s influence on the town that once bore his name came in other forms, first praise, then controversy.

During this period of Latah County history, the greater Inland Empire of eastern Washington and northern Idaho underwent a process of connecting its resources and production with capital interests back east. Major railroad tycoons of the time saw the Inland Empire as a segment of the greater economic machine of the United States. Vollmer’s capital influence in the Palouse and Clearwater regions of the empire obliged him to act as an agent for the Northern Pacific Railway Company, and in 1885 he initiated work to link the economies of Spokane and Lewiston.
Unfortunately, steepness in grade between the Clearwater Basin and Palouse Hills dictated the most direct route impossible; thus, the rail line diverted from Moscow, the county seat, and eastward through densely wooded and wet low ground known as Huff’s Gulch. In 1889, work to build the railroad between Lewiston and Spokane was complete. Soon after in 1892 the town of Vollmer, Idaho established itself on the site of old Huff’s Gulch. Vollmer himself started one of the first businesses: a mill and livery. Many congregated to the new town, which provided great opportunity because it rested on the edge of both the Palouse Hills and the western white pine forest.

Settlers within the Inland Empire supported the creation of the railroads because of the opportunity that they afforded. The railroads confirmed that farmers of the region had an active part in the country’s future; however, difficult financial times reminded farmers and settlers of external economic forces that limited profits. The railroads and those who facilitated their creation, Vollmer, symbolized those external forces. In Vollmer, Idaho, praise of the man for his role in bringing the railroad to the Palouse ended with the economic downfall created by the depression of 1893. The nationwide crisis put Vollmer’s banking business at odds with residents of the town because the poor market price for crops caused many farmers to default on their loans. This was followed by foreclosures imposed by Vollmer’s bank, which forced several farmers to lose their land. As a result, by 1900 Vollmer owned nearly 5,000 acres of agricultural land in Latah County. Due to Vollmer’s business dealings during the depression, the town of Vollmer passed a measure to rename itself to Troy in 1897.

John P. Vollmer facilitated modernization in Latah County by enabling railroad creation, agricultural processing, and loans; nevertheless, the arduous circumstances caused by the depression of 1893 created a rift between him and the residents of former Vollmer. The town came out of the depression gaining a reputation for opportunity and prosperity under its new name of Troy. The rail line that helped create the town ceased to exist in the late 1980s. Now its former course serves as a scenic bike route between Troy and Moscow. Just like the railroad and the town he helped create, Vollmer, remains only in memory.

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