Pearl, Idaho is silent. There aren’t even enough skeletons lying about to call her a ghost town. Many drive past – unaware they missed the old town entirely. Yet the curious, still attracted to the swath of land separating the Emmett Valley from the town of Horseshoe Bend, continue to make the 12 mile trip in from Boise.
Perhaps for some, the attraction is the loud voice she once had. At the turn of the nineteenth century Pearl flourished as an Idaho mining town and home to more than 1,300 residents. Although she rests quietly now under the wild yellow roses and the native grasses that cover her stories from the past, she was once hostess to a thriving community.
The only thing visible today is a location where the Brambly Hotel used to stand proudly. In its stead are a handful of old, lonely trees and a few broken concrete pieces that exist to remind the living of generations past – those who lived out their dreams, and their lives, over the course of 140 years, with the earliest discovery of gold dating back to 1867.
To others, this land is home. It is a harsh, robust land full of wonder and peace, with the quiet landscape beckoning to keep her company. For those who own Pearl property, their ties to the land date back several years.
The Burkhart’s are the only living link to Pearl and the old mining days. Joe Burkhart first arrived as a young boy in 1912; he was 4 years old. Pearl has since enchanted the family with a sweet, mysterious embrace, for the Burkhart’s remain loyal to the vigorous terrain. Although Joe Burkhart has passed away, there are still other Burkhart members who maintain the house and the land which has survived many years of changes.
In 1990, another man looked over a plot of land known as the St. Mary’s, and Pearl whispered that same sweetness in his ear. He dreamed of an opportunity to purchase property and leave it as a legacy for his family. This dream blossomed over the course of seventeen years. Having acquired nearly 300 acres, including parts of the original town of Pearl and several mines, Gaius Cunningham proudly calls Pearl home.
Semi-retired from his locally owned and operated demolition company, Cunningham now enjoys the hours he devotes to working closely with his land. He uncovers the underground springs which he gently maneuvers, re-directs, and diverts into holding tanks. A careful development that provides running water to his home and a means to water the assorted vegetation he and his wife Kathy, have transplanted to the dry, ground.
Additionally, Cunningham relocates the hillsides, forging beautiful settings with lush grass and gratifying sunset views for his household dwelling. In the modest home he built from salvage material collected over the years in his demolition business, he and his family take great pleasure in his many accomplishments.
“I look around and see what I’ve done – there’s a certain admiration in that.” He says humbly. Both he and Mrs. Cunningham live in Pearl, but the entire family enjoys Pearl year round. The summer offers hot afternoons for biking, horseback riding, 4-wheel activities, or a dip in the lake he has created. Typically, evenings are cool and spent relaxing on the porch with a glass of iced tea or a cup of coffee. The winters tend to bring enough snow for sledding and snowmobiling. However, the road to Pearl is not maintained year round and unsuspecting travelers have found themselves at mercy of the bitter winter temperatures and the benevolence of Mr. Cunningham and his Caterpillar loader to free them from disaster.
One particular fascination for Mr. Cunningham is the native rock of Pearl. Having spent countless hours with his loader, he has moved the rocks from one section of land to another. Such beautiful geological contributions include blue granite that he dug out from The Easter Mine, a light brown stone, Mrs. Cunningham likes to call the Dam Rock because it was harvested from the rock formation by the dam, and Mormon Brown stone (a dark rock resembling tree bark when crushed), named after the Mormon City Mine. Similar stone can be found all over the country; it is utilized for ground cover (after crushing) or as landscape rock in subdivisions and housing developments. In Pearl, Cunningham uses it to beautify his property and maintain its natural state.
The families’ passion for the land is observed in creative efforts to foster the native habitat. They enjoy a variety of annual traditions together. For instance, a fall ritual is performed by gathering plums from old fruit trees to make “Pearl Jam” for gifts at Christmas-time. Winter provides them with a personal playground – and in the spring, buckets of wildflowers are picked from their hillsides. They have even entertained the idea of a web-site featuring seasonal cards from their personal photo collection and native jam to purchase for anyone interested in a taste of Pearl.
Many locals and enthusiasts of all kinds enjoy the elements of the Pearl area. It is a popular biking road, out of the mainstream of traffic. Motorcyclists and site seers enjoy the quite, dusty 13-mile road that takes them from the hustle and bustle of the city for an afternoon drive. Even hunting and target practice is noticeable throughout the changing seasons.
Not everyone loves and appreciates the land like those who live on it. This is evident by the occasional loads of garbage found dumped in the ravines, or the empty shell casings and trash left behind after a weekend bonfire or afternoon of target-practice. The assorted beer bottles, soda cans, and cardboard to-go containers are all increasing signs of disrespect to the land and to those who live there.
“I hate to see people come up here and treat it [the land] like that. That’s why I moved so far from the city, to get away from people. We didn’t come here for the gold. I wanted this for me and my wife and my kids,” says Cunningham.
Both Mr. Cunningham and the late Joe Burkhart share the same sentiments. In an Idaho Statesman article written by Tim Woodward in 1980, Burkhart told Woodward, “I liked it [Pearl] busy the way it was in the old days, but I like it this way too. I’m 72, and that’s too old to be a miner. It’s not so bad if people come and go for the mining, just as long as they don’t start movin’ in. You get too many neighbors and then you’re stuck with ‘em.” When Woodward asked Burkhart how many neighbors he considered too many, he replied, “Well, you get two families and if they stay, that’s too many.”
Mrs. Cunningham has a slightly different take: “I think it’s nice to see family’s go for a drive and dink around together. As long as they are smart [not going in to the mines] and respect the no-trespassing signs, there is room for all of us.” She likes the idea that, “although Pearl is only 12 miles from town, it feels as though you are hundreds of miles from anything.”
Pearl is a place for those who like serenity; a place to sit quietly and observe the raw, high-desert beauty. Those who appreciate Pearl get excited to see the sage hen courting in the spring, or watch the Oriels build their grey hammock nests high in the tree tops.
It is reserved for those who marvel at the miles of wild yellow and lavender Buffalo Bean flowers growing up from the deep red and purple clay that dapples the hillsides, or for those who enjoy the fragrant smell of sage floating along on the consistent breeze. It is a place of tranquility where you can watch a Red Tail hawk soar above in the undisturbed blue sky, or experience the symphony of native birds while they busy themselves with daily duties. An entire afternoon can be consumed simply watching the brilliant colors of the birds darting back and forth, weaving through the warm, dry air.
The silence of Pearl is often interrupted with sounds of running creek water, jingling aspen or cottonwood leaves, croaking frogs, and chirping crickets. In the evening, those same busy birds chatter among themselves, unseen and content as nightfall approaches. While a Mourning Dove softly coos at twilight, you might also hear the lonely far-off sound of a coyote’s howl gently penetrating the sunset that is busy setting the sky on fire with a dozen shades of violet and orange. Pearl is a place that helps you to forget what you left behind – 12 miles back.