The Jewel of Idaho

Week 14: #52 Ancestors – Water

By Eilene Lyon

Smith family wading in the shallows of Priest Lake.

Priest Lake, near Canada in Idaho’s panhandle, has long been a popular recreation area. In the 1920s, actor/director Nell Shipman “discovered” the lake and established Lionhead Lodge and her own film production company there. Though she stayed only a couple years, her movies introduced the country to the beauty of Idaho’s northern lakes.

S and B with an unknown friend in the innertube.

While my mom (“S”) was growing up in Spokane, Washington, her family would take vacations regularly at Priest Lake in the 1940s. My aunt (“B”) shared some memories of that time with me:

“We had a kayak that we enjoyed taking out on the lake. Once when [second cousin] Peggy Myrick Hansen and family were visiting us at the lake, they were trying to get into the boat just off shore and in shallow water, and the boat kept tipping so that they couldn’t get into it. They got to laughing so hard that they had to just give it up.”

Peggy’s husband, Ralph Hansen, worked as a forest ranger at Priest Lake after returning home from World War II.

The family kayak on Priest Lake.

B recalls that the family rented a cabin for the time they stayed at the lake. S, a voracious reader, could sometimes be difficult to pry away from her latest book to partake in family activities.

B, Clare, and S on the beach. Though my hair was lighter, I looked a lot like S when I was that age.
Laurence Smith strikes a goofy pose.

“There was a stationary raft some distance from the shore.” said B. “Many of the kids that were there when we were would swim out to the raft. S swam out there and had a great time with the kids. Mom, Dad, and I watched from the shore. I wanted to go, too, but wasn’t permitted. I was too young.”

S (my mom) possibly on the stationary raft or on a dock.
This raft does not appear to be stationary at all!

My aunt did get to swim closer to shore, though:

“The water was very cold, being near a mountain, and was crystal clear. I played in the water near the beach. The humidity is very low there, and when I got cold I was still comfortable. I would actually be shivering. My mother tried to get me to get out of the water; but I said I wanted to stay. I also enjoyed picking up smooth rocks that sparkled on the beach.”

B and S on the beach at Priest Lake about 1946.

S remembered that, “Dad [Laurence Smith] borrowed a wooden-framed trailer, no top, used for hauling. Got there and cut up ferns and stuffed them into stitched canvas. B and I slept on it. It was really hard. Not soft at all.” She also recalled a scary incident when she thought her little sister, B, then about age 2, was drowning. She ran to get their mother, Clare (Davis) Smith, and all was well.

Time to relax. Probably Laurence seated on left, B standing, and S seated on right.

My mom must have had an overall favorable impression of Priest Lake from her childhood. She and my dad spent their honeymoon there!

My parents in their honeymoon cabin at Priest Lake in 1957.

I’ve never been to Priest Lake, though I have visited other lakes in the region. From photos, I’d say it is just as picture-perfect today as it was when Nell Shipman made it the scenic backdrop for her films.

Feature image: Kayaker on upper Priest Lake, Idaho (Wikimedia Commons)


Email from my aunt, May 11, 2020.

Interview with my mom, July 12, 2013.

Peterson, Keith C. 2019. Idaho: The Land & Its People. Idaho State Historical Society, Boise, ID, pp. 15, 46.

“Rites Friday for Former Valley Man.” Obituary for Ralph H. Hansen. Ravalli Republic (Hamilton, Montana), July 17, 1958, p. 1 – via

39 thoughts on “The Jewel of Idaho

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    1. That may have originated with Shipman, who said, “Did you ever come to a place and instantly recognize it as…the one spot in all God’s world where you belonged? Such a spot…was Priest Lake.”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It is bigger than you’d think, beautiful steel blue waters and the elevation of a high mountain lake, clean water and lots of wildlife. Even when it’s busy there’s still privacy. From canoeing to houseboats and great fishing and water sports. Lots of camping and hiking. It may just Be compared to closer lakes that are all wall to wall houses and always busy, priest is a nice getaway from that.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. It’s fun to see old photos of people just being people. Nothing staged for Instagram like 90% of the photos I see now. That being said, I’d sure like to have one of those old innertubes to float on– and a lake in which to do it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s funny you say that, since when they had to use film, I think they tried to make each shot count. But I get what you mean. Now it isn’t about preserving our memories as much as it is about showing them off.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We visited Idaho for the first time a couple years ago and was impressed with its beauty, and we were only in the southern part. Looks like they made some great memories. How awesome of you to interview your mom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a beautiful state and I have family there, but I don’t think I’d want to live there myself.

      I tried to “pry” some information from a variety of relatives in phone interviews some years ago. I should try to find time to do more. When I’ve tried it by email, haven’t gotten much. An actual interview works best.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your stories, every one thoughtfully and lovingly written. It is a beautiful experience to see the world, even a past era, through another pair of eyes and brought to life by a gifted writer.

    Liked by 1 person

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