Prior to that time, the Sheepeater band of the Shoshone Indians resided in the Salmon River country in Central Idaho for hundreds, if not thousands of years, as did the Nez Perce Indians. Ancient pictographs – reddish-orange Indian symbols painted on rock walls – can be found not far from the South Fork Wilderness Ranch. The instigation of the Sheepeater War 1879 occurred not far from the ranch.
The first white settlers to occupy the South Fork Ranch were the C.F. "Frank" Smith family, who carved out a living there in the 1870s. The Smiths were distant relatives of Sylvester "Three-Fingered" Smith, a legendary mountain man who lived on the South Fork at a ranch on Elk Creek, about 10 miles upriver. The Smith family homesteaded 100 acres in 1913. They built a log home, a barn and raised hay for livestock on the benches above the river.
He earned his nickname after an accident with a shotgun that blew off two fingers on both hands. He literally made do with the three fingers he had left. A native of Virginia, Smith came to Idaho in 1861 during the earliest days of the Florence gold rush. He staked the richest claim in the area and opened a general store in town. He kept three miners busy working his claim, the story goes, and made about $1,000 a day.
A year later, two of Smith’s partners in the general store traveled south across the Salmon River and staked claims in Warren just as the mining boom began in that frontier town. They staked a claim for Smith, who had found a wife in Oregon and started a family. Their first son, Sam, was born in Oregon, and the second son, Warren, was reportedly the first white child born in Warren in 1870. Eventually, the couple had four sons.
After the Warren gold rush subsided, Smith moved his family to the Elk Creek Ranch. But in that isolated location, he was subject to running into the Sheepeater Indians, a subset of the Shoshone tribe that lived in the rugged Salmon River country, feeding on trout, salmon, steelhead and bighorn sheep; hence, the name. In 1878, Smith and three companions went searching for horses that had been stolen by Indians. They followed tracks all the way to the falls of the Payette River (east of Garden Valley), where they got ambushed. Three men were killed, and Smith got shot in the thigh and arm but got away on a wounded mule. He fled to Meadows Valley where he crawled to the post office, seeking medical help. A doctor eventually came to tend to his wounds.
But the Indian skirmishes were not over. At Elk Creek, two of Smith’s neighbors, Hugh Johnson and Peter Dorsey, hired two Indians to help them on their property. The Indians apparently were treated poorly and Johnson and Dorsey refused to pay them. As a result, the Indians killed them, not long after some Chinese miners were found dead in the Loon Creek area. This triggered the Sheepeater War in 1879. The U.S. Calvary penetrated the Central Idaho wilderness and captured 51 Sheepeaters by October. They relocated the Indians to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
The Smiths lived at the South Fork Ranch at least through 1916, when Smith’s second wife died. The property changed hands several times until Lou Thompson bought it in 1928. Recently remarried, Thompson took his new wife and three children to the ranch. They had a garden and raised cattle on the ranch for many years. The kids attended school elsewhere in the winter, and lived at the ranch during the summers. The Thompsons raised hay in the meadows and built the cattle herd to about 500 head. The cattle grazed in the nearby mountains in the summer, and the Thompsons would trail them over tough country to McCall to sell calves. A new owner, Wallace McDowell, and the Thompsons built the existing ranch house in the late 1940s. The Warren Postmaster helped build the house and install a Pelton wheel for electricity. A tough and handy fella named Jim Bragg, who ran cattle for the Thompsons for many years, lived on the South Fork for most of his life.
In 1951, McDowell looked into building an airstrip at the ranch. He sought advice from Johnson Flying Service in McCall. He built the first grass airstrip with horse-drawn equipment. Richard Holm, author of “Bound for the Backcountry,” a wonderful book about the history of backcountry airstrips in Idaho, discovered that a Ford Tri-Motor airplane landed successfully on the airstrip soon after it had been completed. It hauled in a Ford tractor. “This is the largest airplane known to have landed on the strip,” Holm wrote. Ford used a photo from the historic flight in a 1952 tractor advertisement published in Reader’s Digest.
The following year, Lawrence Hettinger bought the South Fork Ranch. Hettinger was a lumber man. He owned Producer’s Lumber in Boise. He mainly used the ranch as a vacation and summer home, but he wanted to log timber in the South Fork, float the logs to his sawmill and truck the rough-cut lumber to Boise. Hettinger had a D8 Caterpiller dozer, and he extended the dirt road 4 miles to the ranch from Hays Station, so it was accessible by vehicle. That was a big improvement. He also extended the airstrip to 1,000 feet, and purchased 40 acres of land on the east side of the river. To fulfill his logging dreams, Hettinger built a sawmill and the teepee burner at the ranch. Apparently the mill was never used much because Hettinger didn’t get the logging permits he hoped to obtain from the Payette National Forest. He was a pilot, and flew a Cessna 182A to the ranch on a regular basis, Holm said. His wife, Edna, also was a pilot, and their son, Larry, piloted aircraft as well.
In the late 1960s along with the Mackay Bar Guest Ranch on the Salmon River. Hansberger wined and dined many top business people at Mackay Bar over the years and took people hunting and fishing. At that time, interest in hunting and whitewater river trips was building to a crescendo. Mackay Bar was a popular place to visit.
Tim Hull, the current caretaker of the South Fork Ranch, led guided elk and deer hunts in the fall for more than 20 years. Currently, he is raising horses at the ranch and growing hay for their winter feed. He and his wife, Judy, still enjoy living at the ranch. Judy Hull recently published a cookbook titled, “Idaho Backcountry Cookin.” The recipes have been used to feed hunters, anglers, city folk, bush pilots and more.
If you see a landmark named “Smith” on the way to the South Fork Wilderness Ranch, think about the different Smith families and Sylvester “Three-Fingered” Smith and what they went through to raise families and eek out a living in the frontier days of Idaho before much of any civilization existed. You can see Smith’s grave near the Elk Creek Ranch along the South Fork of the Salmon River, 10 miles by trail upriver from the South Fork Ranch. And there’s a small graveyard on a bench overlooking the South Fork Ranch with several unmarked graves, which may date back to the original Smith homesteaders in the late 1800s.
“History of the South Fork Ranch” by Valerie Hull
“Payette’s Past – The story of Sylvester S. “Three-Fingered” Smith, Payette National Forest Heritage Program, condensed from “Wilderness Pioneer” by Sheila D. Reddy
“South Fork Ranch – The Early Years,” a chapter in the book, “Bound for the Backcountry,” by Richard Holm .