“Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West,” Ryanne Pilgeram (2021)
Film About the Farm Crisis of the 80s Sets the Stage for What’s to Come, Civil Eats (2017)
"Trains: ‘Funnel’ an attraction for rail fans," Sandpoint Magazine (2014)
“Globalization and the ‘Spatial Fix,’” David Harvey (2001)
Guests: Ryanne Pilgeram, Jacqueline Albright, Mike Lithgow, Randy Curless, Gail Curless
Host, creator, producer and principal editor: Megan Torgerson
Story editor: Mary Auld
Sound design, mixer and music composition: Aaron Spieldenner, Hazy Bay Music
Additional music by: Sean Dwyer
Reporting location: Dover and Sandpoint Idaho (Kalispel land)
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Ryanne Pilgeram: It’s o.k. for me to be having a reaction to inequality. That is a good impulse not a bad impulse. It’s probably not in my best impulse to react negatively every time I see change, but it is o.k. to react negatively when I think people are being hurt.
[sound of construction] Yeah I mean it’s super interesting, you can hear all the construction equipment and you might think that it's to be fixing up this community hall and this church that are central to this community. But instead, it's to build this probably million dollar home next door to it, while you know they are trying to get grants to rebuild their community hall.
Jacqueline Albright: You know, the people that have moved into Dover, the people that are moving into Sandpoint with their million dollar homes, and all of that kind of thing, what they have done is they have pushed out the uniqueness of why they moved here.
Pilgeram: [sound of construction] I think when we think about like, what is happening with the politics of the West, like, why are people feeling left behind? Why is there this frustration? Why are people voting the way they're voting? We just fundamentally don't acknowledge what it's like to exist in a space, where, on the one hand, you don't even have money to rebuild your community hall. And on the other hand, you know, you have this private home that may only be occupied 30% of the time.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, we’ll take a deep dive into how rural gentrification is harming communities in the West as an influx of wealthy in-migrants and tourists are breaking down community bonds and pricing out long-time residents in towns across the region. This is a subject that has been on the minds of many and that I have been keenly interested in since hearing from folks who’ve left communities like Whitefish, Montana, who’ve struggled to find housing in Bozeman or who are unable to afford to retire in Missoula or Sandpoint, Idaho. As we learned in my last episode with Butte-based journalist Kathleen McLaughlin, the wealth gap is widening between working class Westerners and newcomers with more expendable out-of-state incomes. Developments are being designed and built with higher-income-earners in mind in quirky places like my college town, Missoula, that once drew writers, artists and entrepreneurial small-scale farmers due to its space and affordability. Now it can be harder to access open spaces. And some long-time residents are being forced to make the decision to leave the communities and family systems they know and love, in order to make a living for themselves and their families in places with more affordable housing options or better-paying job opportunities.
Hungry to learn more on the subject, I reached out to the scholar who popularized the term “rural gentrification,” Dr. Ryanne Pilgeram. Ryanne wrote the book “Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West,” which uses Dover, Idaho, a small town in North Idaho neighboring Sandpoint, as a case study for how Western communities are exploited for their proximity to natural amenities from snowy mountain vistas, to serpentine rivers and beckoning lakes. In “Pushed Out” Ryanne searches for answers to how plans for a high-end development could move forward in the once-tight knit working class community where she graduated high school.
Eager to see Dover for myself, I asked Ryanne if she would be willing to drive up to Dover from her home in Moscow, Idaho to show me how the community has changed in person and further explain the economic structures and cultural forces that lead to rural gentrification. Before we convened in the small river-side town, I enjoyed connecting with Ryanne over email and the phone. She says creek [crick] like a rural Montana girl and she’s familiar with the Eastern part of the state where I grew up. We can both relate to being born into multi-generational Montana farm and ranch families, have both studied creative writing and we share the tendency to make sense of our rural upbringings through terms and theories we learned in grad school. (Our academic backgrounds are a bit different though, Ryanne went on to earn a doctorate in sociology).
So on a smokey Friday in mid-Otober, Ryanne meets me wearing Griz gear for a walking tour of Dover. We start in a parking lot at the Dover Bay Resort joining the town’s new city hall. She leads me to Dover’s iconic bluff, a steep and rocky outcrop that marks the end of Idaho’s largest lake, Lake Pend Oreille, and the beginning of the Pend Oreille River. It looks much different today than when Ryanne lived here and the sandy beach next to the steep pine-covered bluff was accessible to the public. Today the bluff is surrounded by 5,000 to 8,000 square foot homes with private docks.
Pilgeram: But yeah so this is where we would have all gone swimming. Yeah, so you can see like, the bluff just kind of came sloping down. And then everybody would just go swimming. There was a big sandy beach there that kind of runs all the way along the shore of the lake.
Torgerson: So now this homeowner has that beach.
Pilgeram: Yep and the bluff is really interesting, because it's a granite bluff. And so there's tons of little boulders that come out of the lake and so they kind of ring around the outside of the bluff, so it was almost like a graduated swimming hole.
So you know, the moms could bring their kids down to the sandy beach. And then the teenagers could – like the preteens could kind of sit on the rocks closer. And then the older kids could go around the edge and people would skinny dip. And yeah, it was just pretty magical, and really close to the community of Old Dover.
Yeah, so you can think about like space and proximity.
Torgerson: So you would just walk over?
Pilgeram: Yeah, walk, ride your bike. Yeah, you'll see we're really close to old Dover. And this was heartbreaking for the people in Dover. This is the one thing that they – a lot of them say like, oh, we wish we would have fought harder. But they did fight really hard. They fought really hard to save this. And it just didn't work out for them.
Torgerson: How much do you think this house is worth?
Pilgeram: I wouldn't even hesitate a guest, but I can't imagine less than five million. But I don't know for sure.
Yeah, so this was one of the last sections of sandy beach that was still open. I think it was just a huge loss on so many levels to a community like or to Bonner County. Right. You know, one of the last stretches of sandy beach that was undeveloped. And now…
Torgerson (narrating): This massive empty home, blocking a beach once enjoyed by the public, is a stark example of rural gentrification. Scholars define rural gentrification as an influx of urban and suburban residents to rural places, but it’s not just about in-migration. Similar to urban gentrification, the process of rural gentrification commodifies space, meaning once-public spaces become private and only accessible to those who can pay to access them. This often means that people who have long standing relationships with these places are excluded.
In rural places flush with scenic settings, new residents moving in with higher incomes and greater social mobility often expect this access along with the luxuries they’re used to. Things like private marina slips, organic juice bars, high-speed chairlifts and high-end restaurants. When services crop up to satisfy newcomers’ desires, they inevitably alter the character of the rural communities the new residents were initially drawn to. As Ryanne writes in her book, this has been normalized as the “natural order of the West.” Some people say these changes create opportunities for small towns with shrinking populations and stagnant economies. But in this case a rising tide thought to lift all boats, does not yield equal results. The service-industry jobs that support luxury-living and the tourism economy, don’t provide wages that can keep up with the steeper living expenses. So established working class residents are pushed out.
Before Dover became a popular site for second home owners, it was a timber mill town where mill workers and their families viewed private land as common space, even letting their milk cows graze the grass around town. Today, people call the part of town that existed before the new development and features the old mill homes “Old Dover.” Now, as evidenced by the beach, residents of “Old Dover” are excluded from gathering and enjoying the natural beauty of landscapes they once frequented. That land has been sold to the highest bidder like the timber that was once processed in Dover.
As Ryanne details in her book “Pushed Out,” since the mid-1800s, corporations have taken advantage of the American philosophy of Manifest Destiny to stealthily prioritize expansion and profits over people. Profits were priority when the mill in Dover neglected laborer’s working conditions and rights in the early and mid-1900s, as well as when the town’s water became undrinkable after the mill closed. When a developer bought the land where the mill once stood to build an expansive high-end waterfront resort neighborhood, profits again took priority over the people who made Dover a community. After the Dover Bay Resort was green lit in 2005 housing prices skyrocketed, jacking up the prices for even Dover’s old mill homes along with the cost of living. With a lack of affordable housing and service industry jobs that couldn’t keep up with the cost to live in the Dover/ Sandpoint area, some locals, especially younger residents who didn’t yet own homes, were forced to leave.
For those who stayed, the once close-knit working-class town of Dover became divided into two class groups – the working class people of “Old Dover,” like Ryanne and her friends, who swam at the beach by the bluff before the development was built, and the wealthy newcomers of “New Dover” who moved in after the Dover Bay Resort was built.
But Ryanne’s story begins in Montana. She grew up on a ranch near Gold Creek between Helena and Missoula. I drove through the area in October on my way to a hunting trip in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness when the peaks were beginning to collect snow and the tamarack trees shined a deep autumn gold. Growing up, Ryanne got to take in this beautiful setting while riding bareback.
Pilgeram: I had a horse that I had for years named Big Red. And so I used to just ride him all over the ranch. And sometimes I'd get to ride him down to the post office. So right down to the post office, which is a couple of miles and I was too little to get back on the horse, so the post mistress would have to come put me back on big red and back home I would go with the mail.
Just those kinds of memories I loved being in the old pickup trucks, idling in the middle of a really cold snap and watching for cows who are calving and stuff like that smell of like diesel idling and like the old cart or truck seats, you know with like the woven fabric those are just like, they're my favorite memories, but they are the memories that just immediately come to mind when I think about those years.
Torgerson: And feeling like you have so much clothes on too.
Pilgeram: Yep [laughing]
Torgerson: Are there any other formative experiences from your childhood that you think led you to wanting to as you’ve written before “imagine ways we can create space where everyone can thrive.”
Pilgeram: I give a lot of credit to the environment I grew up in. I grew up Catholic and that was really – my Catholic faith was really important to me. It's still important to me, in certain ways, but our family priest was Father Burke. He would come out and give Mass every Sunday in Gold Creek. So he drove out from Butte to Gold Creek. And I don't know if I was picking up a subtext or what it was, but I believed it was my duty as a person to do what was right and to think about justice and to think about people who are suffering and to think about my role in all of the world. I took it so seriously and I look back, and I'm like, well, here's this priest who's, you know, an Irish immigrant and preaching to all these miners who are like, union activists. Right, like I was getting labor liberation sermons, probably on some level, and I think they really impacted me in thinking about, like, we have to work together, we have to see ourselves in community with each other to seek justice. That justice is not an individual action, it's a community action. It's something we owe each other. We have to work together, we have to see the best in each other to work together.
Torgerson (narrating): Ryanne lights up when she talks about the people and abundant landscape that surrounded her childhood in Gold Creek, Montana, though that’s sadly not where she would live out her formative years. Ryanne’s family was among a quarter million other families across the country whose farms foreclosed during the 1980s farm crisis.
Pilgeram: Yeah, it was devastating. My family had ranched for generations. My grandparents are buried there. And when we left the ranch, it felt so lonely. It felt like we were the only people in the world that had gone through that. It was our whole identity. And for me, as a kid, it was my identity, but for my dad, it was his entire identity was to be a rancher. He had an eighth grade education and so when we left the ranch, he went from being a really important person in his community to being somebody who couldn't get a job. And what's really painful. And I think part of what drew me to sociology as a discipline is it helps us see our personal problems, and their connection to social issues. And it wasn't until I was in college that I even knew there was something called a farm crisis. And when I learned about the farm crisis, I realized I had this narrative that my family fit into, and it helped explain, sort of the personal tragedy that our family had gone through in a way that took away a lot of the blame that we had, I think, placed squarely on our own shoulders.
Torgerson (narrating): After Ryanne’s family lost their ranch, they moved to Missoula then Kalispell before settling in the Dover/ Sandpoint area. It was the summer of 1995, before her freshman year of high school, when Ryanne moved to the forested North Idaho community. This was before the area became a trendy hub for amenity-seekers, before climate change curbed annual rainfall and during a time of great difficulty for Ryanne’s family.
Pilgeram: There's a saying in Sandpoint, that when you cross the long bridge, which is the bridge that crosses the lake, and it opens up and you see all these beautiful mountains around you that everybody wants to put a gate on the bridge. They want to be the last person here because it's so beautiful and they don't want other people to be here.
Well, I came in Sandpoint the back way. I came in from Kalispell on Highway 2, and it was dark and gloomy and it was a time of a lot of turmoil in my family. And we moved into a little house between Sandpoint and Dover on Chuck’s Slough. And I started high school having never met a single person in that school feeling completely alone, and really alienated and really lonely. And I happened to ride the school bus, the Dover school bus. And there was something about the people on that bus. One in particular named Megan.
I moved to Sandpoint there was no locker for me and so I just had to carry all my books like in my backpack. So I had this really heavy backpack and Megan saw me hauling all my books on and offered like you can share my locker with me. And I don't know, there was just this like innate kindness and generosity and goofiness, and like people, I don’t know, it turns out like probably kids of working class people who we're trying to do the right thing and looking for a little bit of fun and trouble.
Torgerson (narrating): The trouble, I found out, included skinny dipping off the bluff and BB gun fights that left one friend with a BB forever embedded in his tongue.
Ryanne lived in Dover for four impressionable years. It’s where she made lifelong friends and got into her first traffic accident. After she left for college, plans were approved to rezone the former mill site and build the planned use Dover Bay Resort development. This set into motion the closing of the locals’ beloved beach and part of the adjacent bluff, which was also a communal space for the Kalispel Tribe for at least 9,000 years and formed 48,000,000 years ago through volcanic eruptions and lava flows that crystallized into granite. Part of the development’s plans included blowing up a section of the bluff with dynamite. The developers went through with mutilating the bluff’s side so they could pave a road leading to several multi-million dollar homes. One of those homes was built for the lawyer who helped the developers to build the 285 acre resort community.
Ryanne said having lost something as precious as her family’s ranch as a child, helped her empathize with friends who lost their community when Dover was gentrified.
Pilgeram: Maybe if we hadn't lost our ranch, maybe I wouldn't have cared so much, or I wouldn’t have been able to empathize so much with what people in Dover were talking to me about. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered to me so much.
Torgerson (narrating): I have also seen how money changes a place. Williston, North Dakota, the closest major town to my family’s farm in Dagmar, Montana where we traveled for groceries and doctor visits, and where I went to high school from 2006 to 2009, dramatically changed when the Bakken boomed. Ryanne brings up the Bakken Oil Boom in her book in conversation with how rural places are “booming or bypassed.” In other words how rural economies are either stagnant, or swing back and forth from booming to busted.
One thing that Dover and Williston have in common is that their booming economies, whether linked to oil and gas, timber, tourism or amenities, are all based on extracting material resources. Population increase is another similarity. Williston’s population more than doubled from 13,000 when I graduated high school in 2009 to 27,000 today. Dover’s population doubled from around 400 people when Ryanne graduated high school in 1999, to more than 900 today. In this time, people in both places, especially real estate developers and oil company executives, have made a lot of money. This dramatically changed the fabric of both communities. At the height of the oil boom for instance, my high school girlfriends didn’t feel safe going out alone with all the pent up men with cash burning a hole in their pockets, crowding the bars.
The social changes are different in the Dover/ Sandpoint area. Ryanne says that those who are able to afford to remain in the area have been culturally displaced, while some residents can no longer afford to stay.
While I was in Dover and Sandpoint, I met with someone who has been pushed out of the area due to the rising cost of living. Jacqueline Albright lived in Sandpoint for over 50 years. She is an interesting figure in the story of rural gentrification for a number of reasons, and you’ll hear from her throughout the episode. Jacqueline was also the city clerk for Dover as the resort community was being developed, and it was her story of being priced out of the area that I kept replaying in my head on my drive back home.
Jacqueline is originally from England. She moved to New Jersey after graduating from Manchester University and the story of how she journeyed to North Idaho is quite unique.
Jacqueline Albright: My history comes from marrying into a Sandpoint family. I was living then in New Jersey.
So I was in a bar with other English and Scottish girlfriends. It was kind of a country western thing, and it was close to Monmouth military station and so sometimes the guys would come in and that’s where I met my husband and he was from Idaho and along with him were his classmates from Dover.
We got married and then we hitchhiked from New Jersey across the Trans Canadian to Sandpoint, Idaho. We made the paper when we stayed with people that we knew like relatives from North Dakota.
Torgerson: What were your first impressions when you got to Sandpoint?
Albright: I made the biggest mistake of my life because where the railroad station was, the depot was in the icky, horrible, main street of town. It was this end of town and I thought maybe there are some redeeming qualities anyway, but my mother would have just rolled over.
Torgerson (narrating): Jacqueline moved to the area long before it became a beacon for outdoor recreation, when trains in Sandpoint transported timber that was felled in area forests and cut in Dover’s mill. Sandpoint is the largest railway funnel in the Northwest, connecting three transcontinental rail lines that move such commodities as oil from North Dakota and grain from farms like my family’s in Montana.
Before some 50 trains a day barreled through Sandpoint, the major thoroughfares through the area were watersheds. The Kalispel Tribe navigated this wet landscape using lightweight sturgeon nose canoes that were specifically designed to navigate the region’s reeds and winds.
Ryanne and I stand together on a trail at the top of Dover’s bluff, admiring the Pend Oreille River that flows West to join the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. We can also see the south end of Lake Pend Oreille with its steep mountainous sides that connect the Cabinets, Bitterroots, Coeur d’Alenes and the Selkirk mountains that extend north into the Canadian Rockies.
Pilgeram: It’s a little smoky today so you can’t tell, but this is also where Lake Missoula ended, where that big glacial dam was. And you can just imagine the water rushing through all these glacier-formed valleys out of this very spot. Right, this bluff would have probably been under thousands of feet of water, and then rushing all the way to the scablands.
Torgerson (narrating): The bluff and the miles of river along Lake Pend Oreille’s outlet, were once a shared space between the Upper Kalispel band, now often referred to as the Pend Oreille, and the Lower Kalispel bands, known today as the Kalispel tribe. I spoke with Mike Lithgow, from the Kalispel Tribe Natural Resource Department, to learn more about the Kalispel’s history in the area, which he said began 9,000 to 10,000 years ago when the glaciers began receding and the area became habitable.
Mike Lithgow: So my name is Mike Lithgow and I'm the information and outreach coordinator for the Kalispel Tribe's Natural Resources Department. I also do policy work as well.
So KNRD, Kalispel Natural Resources Department, we safeguard the natural and cultural resources for the health and well-being of the Kalispel people.
Torgerson (narrating): Curious what life was like for the Kalispel Tribe before they were forced to live on the Kalispel and Spokane Reservations in Washington and the Flathead Reservation in Montana, I asked Mike to share what lands and watersheds the Kalispel’s original homeland encompasses.
Lithgow: First, let's start at the 20,000 foot level. The Kalispel people occupied the area from Pend Oreille River watershed from its extent into Canada, where the Salmo River dumps in just across the border into British Columbia, all the way downstream to the south, and then to the east and north. All of Priest Lake, that watershed, which is a sub-watershed off the Pend Oreille. And then across the Panhandle of Idaho into Northwestern Montana. The Thompson Falls area was kind of the extent to the east.
They would migrate depending on the season. They would have winter villages, spring villages, summer villages. You know, the seasons were incredibly important. When your whole life revolves around gathering resources to eat, you have to be in the right place at the right time where those resources are. So, oftentimes that was done by family groups. So you would have a family group that would have a fall camp at the mouth of this specific tributary where the bull trout were running, and that's kind of how they would disseminate themselves across the landscape. And then winter villages were often larger. One of the main winter villages is where the present day reservation is in the Cusick area.
Torgerson (narrating): It was only 215 years ago in 1807 when some of the first white people came to the region. They were led by David Thompson, a surveyor and explorer from the Northwest Company, who helped establish a trading post upstream from the bluff. But Mike says the impact of white settlers preceded their arrival.
Lithgow: I think one other component that is often not well understood, it's just the, the amount of the population [that] decreased due to epidemics and disease. You know, just the population of the Kalispel went through four major reductions where it was approximately cut in half those four times. And that was all post-European contact on this continent, not necessarily in this area.
These die offs began to happen very early, kinda like the fact that the horses arrived before the Europeans did. The horses spread faster than the settlers or the trappers or the explorers. The disease's spread incredibly rapid because all of these populations aren't in these tidy little boxes. They are they're not, you know, islands of people. They’re fuzzy lines that connect people and their genetics and their ability to spread disease.
The conditions that we found on this landscape when the early European explorers, the trappers, landed here was significantly different than they would have found, say, 400 years earlier.
As you move into the settling of Pend Oreille County, which was really late, I mean comparatively, right? You have Pend Oreille County becoming a county in 1911. And the GLO survey, the federal land survey of this area, didn't start happening until like 1910-1911. And so that the Homestead Act didn't apply until that point, so you didn't have the mass influx of European settlers, until much later than you know most of this continent.
Torgerson (narrating): Mike’s history of the Kalispel people shows that gentrification is not a new phenomenon. It belongs to a history of destroying people’s lives and forcing them to leave their homes. It’s important to note that being priced out of your small town is nowhere near the same experience as the horrific loss of your family or tribal community to ruthless murder, disease or the forceful removal of your children.
The one thing that the attempted genocide of Indigenous people in America and the modern experience of rural gentrification have in common though, is that there is always someone profiting off of another person’s traumatic or painful experience. When Western Expansion was occuring, it was the railroad barons, the copper kings and the already-wealthy politicians profitting.
So to recap, here’s Dover’s history in a nutshell: what we now call Dover was the center of Kalispel’s homeland for 10,000 years. Then the trappers came, followed by Thompson and his crew in 1807 and the arrival of Jesuit priests, along with diseases that killed many Kalispel people. Then the Northern Pacific Railway lobbied the US Government for subsidies to construct a rail line and were handed over 40 million acres of land stolen from Indigenous peoples. The east-west rail line connected Sandpoint to ports at either end of the country, linking the town and the area’s timber to the global commodity market.
Jacqueline Albright, who hitchhiked to the Sandpoint/ Dover area, developed an interest in local history in her years living there.
Albright: My interest was always history. History to me – Dover isn’t that, I mean I have furniture older than Dover, you know? And so it was just local history but then I was getting to know these people who were local history. They were the people that had created the local history. And they were delightful and it was great.
Torgerson (narrating): Given Jacqueline’s propensity for studying local history, I ask her
to describe the mill.
Albright: This was one of those mills that had a grocery store. So it had a store here, and you got paid in tokens. I mean, you were owned by the mill. Your house was owned by the mill. If you lost your job, you lost your house. I mean, it was horrible. I mean it was kind of like what was the movie that Jimmy Stewart was in where the angel gets its wings?
Torgerson: Oh, yeah. “What a Wonderful Life.”
Albright: Yeah, it was kind of like that. The town was owned by the factory. You were just a cog in the wheel.
Torgerson: Do you think that people look back on that time with rose colored glasses, comparing with what happened during the development years?
Albright: Yes, they were in denial about what was going to happen with this development. For me, from my point of view. It was something that was going to happen, it was inevitable.
This was a landlocked town, landlocked meaning there was only one entrance in one entrance out.
So they were very insulated. I mean Sandpoint is insulated. 99% of the people are white. It’s so insulated, there’s no diversity. Same here, these were pioneer people. They worked hard. They played hard. They were resilient. They were brilliant pioneer spirits. And it wasn't sustainable. You know, it couldn't be sustainable. The timber was owned by the mill. The mill bought the land and timbered the land. And once that had gone - like A.C. White did with Laclede - then you torch it, get your insurance money and move on. They moved on. Because they have extracted everything that they could.
Torgerson (narrating): The mill in Dover did follow the trend Jacqueline described. The mill closed in 1989. Then it burned down. If you look further back into the region’s history, in 1922, a mill burned in Laclede, the town downriver from Dover. As Jacqueline referenced, the owner of that mill, A.C. White moved his company and floated a church and community hall from Laclede 10 miles up river to Dover.
Ryanne has come to think of this history as part of a pattern of extraction where powerful companies manipulate places in order to extract profit from them over and over again. Here she is to explain.
Pilgeram: The book uses the spatial fix, which is about - saying that capitalism’s fist step is to create a space for itself to profit. And then the second phase is that space has to be destroyed, for the third phase, for people with wealth to be able to move into that space again, and re-profit.
Torgerson (narrating): You may be hearing the word destruction and thinking about the side of the bluff that was blown up, but what Ryanne describes as the destruction phase, actually occurred through the mundane but devastating form of infrastructure breakdown that followed the mill’s closure.
Pilgream: This is one of those aha moments I had in the book. I was like, this is one of the takeaways for other communities. And that is that, you know, thinking about the spatial fix: building a space for capitalism, destroying and rebuilding it. That destruction in Dover, and I think actually, in many places, is around infrastructure. So Dover faced a six year boil order. So they had water they could not drink. Then their sewer system was red tagged. They also had the bridge leaving town that was so bad that it ended up on an episode of “America's Crumbling Infrastructure” because the mayor yoinked a chunk of the concrete off the bridge and crumbled it on air, right?
So they're facing all these infrastructure crises. And on a practical level, you can think about what that's like, if you're trying to – if you have a newborn baby, and you can't use your water. Six years! A six year boil order. And it wasn't just a boil order. So every time the power went out, which happens all the time up here, because we get heavy snow, but every time the power go out, the pump would turn off for the water. And then the pump room would flood and so they'd have to bail out all the water to the pump room, fix the pump just to get water that they couldn't drink to their homes, right?
Torgerson (narrating): Jacqueline Albright lived in the neighboring town of Sandpoint, so her water wasn’t affected, but she remembers how intimately the sewer system issues impacted her friends who lived in Dover. The water issues even shaped the potluck table at church gatherings.
Albright: Always Sunday morning after church, you'd hear all of what was going on with the people in Dover, you know, we couldn’t make the pies, we didn’t have water. You know, I couldn't bring anything for the potluck, you know, so I had to bring Kentucky Fried Chicken, because we didn't have any water.
Torgerson (narrating): According to the spatial fix theory Ryanne uses in her book, companies cause destruction in order to profit from a space again. At first glance, crumbling bridges, or failing water or sewer systems don't seem like destruction engineered by a corporation. But as Ryanne dug into the issues behind Dover's infrastructure problems, she found that corporations were indeed behind them.
Pilgeram: The community of Dover worked so hard to provide for their community. And what was fascinating about like, well, what's the relationship between building a place for capitalism and then the crisis? Like why isn’t the mill owner responsible for the water?
Well, in Dover, when the mill was built in Dover, the mill itself provided water to the community. And they didn't do that out of the goodness of their hearts, right, they need workers and how do you attract workers? Will you give them drinking water. Right? Like, sometimes I think some of those basic things like people are always like, “well, what responsibility does the mill owner have to fix it?” Well, when he built the system, he wanted workers and so you know. But those pipes that the mill had built were wooden pipes, which were pretty typical at the time, because wood was very cheap. So they were wooden pipes, and so the mill closes in the late ‘80s. The mill site is sold, it's sold a lot of times, and so it's kind of hard to keep track of, so I just use one pseudonym in the book. So it’s sold and the person who buys it sends a letter to everyone in the community and tells them their purchase of the water system, with the 300 acres was, quote, unquote incidental to the purchase, which just the audacity to tell people I just purchased your water system, but it was incidental! I'm not going to make any profit off of giving you water, so that’s incidental.
So the city of Dover has to try and figure out how they're going to rebuild their own water system. So they own homes, where they don't have water. They’re also not eligible for loans for low income communities, because they're not actually an incorporated city. So they have to go through the effort of incorporating, and then applying for USDA loans, which is why it took six years from the start of the crisis until when the water started pumping.
Torgerson (narrating): This puzzle piece plays an important role in understanding the answer to Ryanne’s initial question of how did the working class residents of Dover allow for the former mill site to be rezoned, so that an upscale development could pop up. How the infrastructure crises unfolded is key here.
When the land was sold, the owners also bought the rights to a water system that had not been kept up for years. Dover residents couldn’t drink the water coming out of their taps, but the company that had just bought the water system told them it wasn’t their problem. As Ryanne identified in her book, “by allowing the water system to decay to the point at which it was no longer usable, the owners of the mill property could leverage Dover’s literal need for water to their advantage by pushing the community to rezone it.”
Since the town didn’t have enough money to pay for a new water system outright, they had to jump through the hoops of petitioning to the state government to incorporate as a city in order to be able to qualify for the federal assistance they needed to pay for and rebuild their water system.
Things only got worse. Their sewer system, also in need of repair, began failing at the same time as the water crisis and subsequent boil order. But with the sewer crisis, they not only needed more federal loans to pay for rebuilding the system, they needed 12 acres to build a new sewer plant on. The mill site owners said they would only sell the acres if the city council agreed to rezone the property to a planned use development – the key the developers needed to unlock the high-end resort community cash cow they envisioned all along.
Ryanne continues sharing how the zoning decision unfolded.
Pilgeram: In the middle of that crisis, towards the end of the water crisis, their sewer system is red tagged, meaning they cannot build any more homes. And the city once again, goes and gets loans for low income communities to rebuild their sewer system. And they need 12 acres to build the actual sewer plant on. So they tried to use eminent domain to get 12 acres from the mill site, which is a 300 acre lot, right? So like 5% of the mill site.
Torgerson: At this point the mill is closed.
Pilgeram: [Right] at this point, the mill’s closed, it’s owned by a developer. It's after they've rebuilt their water system, they're trying to get their sewer system.
They try to pay them with the land as appraised for and the mill’s owner already has been trying to get them to rezone the property, and they've been denying the request for a rezoning for a couple years. And so when they make the request to get the sewer system rebuilt, the developer takes them to court and basically demands the judge offer a sort of quid pro quo. Like we'll give you the 12 acres at market value, but you have to rezone the property, and the judge agrees.
Torgerson (narrating): This decision was heartbreaking to learn of when I read the book but infurarating to hear straight from Ryanne. To recap, the city was forced to rezone the mill site from agricultural use to a planned use development so they could purchase the land required for the town’s sewer system. The mill site owners wanted this all along. They needed the area to be rezoned in order to break ground on their fancy new resort community.
The city then had to build a sewer system big enough for the development’s high-end single family homes and condos. The city could only afford to build the sewer system if they got grants for low-income communities, while the development would later drive out the city’s low-income residents!
It took Ryanne five years, incredible diligence and thousands of hours of rigorous academic research, interviews, transcribing, coding, writing and rewriting to knit togethr these facts and plotlines into a cohesive narrative. While the infrastructure crises were happening, Dover residents weren’t yet aware of where the twists and turns of their heartbreaking story would lead them. Jacqueline says the residents of Dover didn’t fully grasp the impact the development would have on their community.
Jacqueline: You saw the writing on the wall, it had to change. And the people of Dover, I don't know what they thought was going to happen. That people were coming with money, and they would still sustain the life that they had, without it being touched without it being tainted in any way.
So I wouldn’t say that it was their fault. I think they were sold a bill of goods with the developer here. I think the people that have bought here, have bought in good faith. And I don't think they see that what they've bought has been to the detriment of somebody’s family. I don't think they see that.
Torgerson (narrating): While I was in Dover, I wanted to hear from someone who had been involved in the rezoning process, so I stopped in for a visit with the Curlesses.
Randy and Gail’s home is set back into the forested foothills north of town. They keep horses, raise sheep and train cattle dogs on their ranch and when I arrive, a herd of border collies, of all ages and sizes greet me before I step into the beautiful log home that Randy built. Randy Curless served as mayor when Dover city council voted to rezone. He also once worked for the railroad and was a general chairman for the union.
Randy Curless: Then I was welding on a bridge and Bonners and we built 13 of them all together. But on this one bridge, the bridge superintendent decided that he would cut down on time, and they would paint the steel before we welded it. Well, they did it with red lead paint. And I got a collapsed lung out of it. And dang near died.
Torgerson (narrating): Randy’s wife Gail was raised on the ranch where they live today.
Gail Curless: My dad always said cows laugh when they see people. They don’t laugh when they see you on a horse. And so cows are out, you catch the horse.
Torgerson (narrating): Gail was on the city’s planning and zoning committee before Randy became mayor. She also served as the school district’s transportation director and used to drive the Dover school bus, so she had first-hand experience with the dangers of Dover’s failing infrastructure. She tells me how semis and school buses handled the deteriorating bridge.
Gail Curless: And if you drove a school bus across it, you drove down the middle because that was the only safe sort of place. But we were sure that if they didn't fix the bridge, we were going to have a bus go through it. I was terrified at that bridge. I mean, I'd lived with that bridge my whole life. But I knew the terrible shape that it was in and I’d tell the drivers, you see a truck come, you pull over. Do not ever get on that bridge with anybody else.
Torgerson (narrating): Randy and Gail are resilient and deeply embedded in the Dover community. It was when Randy was working for the railroad that he suffered a collapsed lung, and when I visited them, Randy had just arrived home from knee surgery and was recovering without any pain meds. One of the biggest questions I had for the Curlesses was what they thought about the decisions that led to the approval of the high-end housing development on the old mill site.
Torgerson: So how does the zoning come into this, and to bring it back to Ryanne’s original question, how did the board come to approve the development too?
Randy: There was all kinds of promises made and the council at that time, by then we had one or two of them that really thought they were going to probably get some benefits out of it. You know people are funny. They think if they get close to somebody with money and help them out along the way, that they’re going to suddenly get money. And those people who were doing those projects didn’t get the money they have by giving it away. Then a couple of the other ones they were convinced that Dover was dying because of the mill being shut down, that oh there’d be children back in Dover and a large portion of them really, they were just common everyday people and they liked kids and they kind of liked the lifestyle that had been there all along and they thought they were getting that and that everybody in Dover would be able to utilize the marina and the docks and those things.
Gail: That they could fish off the docks and put their boats in for free.
Randy: Which they worked their way around that. They let ‘em fish for a little while and then they shut ‘em off there. They let ‘em put boats in for a little while, and then they shut ‘em off there.
Torgerson: So did people think that the new development would bring in families and more kids into the community.
Randy: More of just a regular, normal community.
Gail: Everyday people.
Randy: And of course things were so high priced that the vast majority of them are summer homes.
Torgerson (narrating): Like Randy said, the development was built shortly after the city gave it the o.k. in 2005. Ryanne writes about the new residents who moved in, people with enough wealth for homes in multiple locations, expensive outdoor gear and the leisure time and bodies not worn down by manual labor to pursue recreational activities.
In Dover Ryanne takes me to the city’s new beach. It’s next to the city hall in the center of the Dover Bay Resort. People from Old Dover call it goose shit beach. The new beach, which is most popular with the area’s Canadian geese, was built as far as can be from Old Dover and the rip rap they put in to prevent the land from becoming further eroded by the waves from motor boats, makes it harder for people to access.
Walking through the resort community I can see curvy roads that seem to mimic nature’s graceful curves, but bring me to sharp and vacant multi-million dollar homes that obscure the view of the river. It is estimated that only 25% of the homes house full-time residents. The grandeur of these hollow homes and keep out signs at the end of a public walking trail, make me feel anything but welcome. And this doesn’t look like the Dover Randy says the developer promised either. They painted a vision of a community restored with young families and community picnics, but what the developers built was a neighborhood facing away from its longest standing residents.
I came across a real estate video from Dover Bay with the parting words of “civilization is nearby, but you just can’t see it from here.” It reminded me how Ryanne pointed out on our walk that New Dover is built with its back to Old Dover, even though many residents only live there for a small fraction of the year.
Dover’s story is laden with injustices, but it’s not just about class divides and people not being able to swim or gather where they used to. The new construction has also impacted the ecosystems around the development. Brad Smith and Jennifer Ekstrom with the Idaho Conservation League said the development is built on a location that is harmful to the area’s flora and fauna and that the new homes may be vulnerable to flooding. That’s because the developers filled in wetlands that store water during flood events. The Idaho Conservation League told me the region’s unique weatlands, which took hundreds to thousands of years to form, are what keep watersheds healthy and that they should be home to fish and wildlife.
On the day we walked through Dover Bay Resort, Ryanne and I also visit “Old Dover,” the part of town that was built before the development. In Old Dover, the neighborhood is arranged in a practical grid, that I imagine is easier to drive a snow plow through in winter. There are old mill homes Ryanne has stories for, that weren’t trying to look bucolic or mountain chic like the newly built homes in New Dover.
Sandwiched between Old and New Dover is the town’s local community hall and the cedar bark-sided church with forest green trim. These are the buildings that were floated up from Laclede a century ago when the mill there burned down. Ryanne and I run into a volunteer with the church and community hall who graciously lets us step inside for a look. Inside, the church feels like a log cabin. There are beautifully handbuilt wooden pews and old photos and newspaper clippings from 1922. The community hall features a big open room with tables where Ryanne sat with the “Dover Girls” – a group of old friends who all grew up there – to share a potluck lunch when she was working on her book. There’s a kitchen in the back that has a grandmother’s charm and 1950s style cabinets. A sign inside asks patrons for donations and the volunteer tells Ryanne and me they are actively fundraising for the hall’s maintenance. But outside there is a different kind of construction project in the works, and it isn’t one that will benefit the residents of Old Dover.
Pilgeram: You can hear all the construction equipment and you might think that it's to be fixing up this community hall and this church that are central to this community. But instead, it's to build this probably million dollar home next door to it, while you know they are trying to get grants to rebuild their community hall. So I think when we think about like, what is happening with the politics of the West, like, why are people feeling left behind? Why is there's this frustration? Why are people voting the way they're voting? We just fundamentally don't acknowledge what it's like to exist in that space, where, on the one hand, you don't even have money to rebuild your community hall. And on the other hand, you know, this private home that may only be occupied 30% of the time.
Torgerson (narrating): This right here is the crux of an issue impacting communities across the West. We get caught up in the semantics, use terms like amenity migrants, service economy, boom-bust, housing crisis, rural gentrification, planned use development, cultural extraction, wealth gap, income inequality and intergenerational displacement. We can understand this all more clearly looking at the history of resource extraction and frameworks like the spatial fix, but on the ground the issue boils down to the haves and the have nots. The person with multiple homes paying for sole access to the best beach in Bonner County, and the community raising funds for their one and only community hall.
Jacqueline Albright can speak from personal experience regarding the effects of the amenity migration on established residents, because she is living out the experience of rural gentrification. Jacqueline who is retired now lives in Rathdrum, a community 13 miles north of Couer d’Alene, a town that has a bigger hospital and that she says is far more affordable to live near than Sandpoint.
Albright: I sold my house in Sandpoint last year. I had a lot of California, out of state people inquire about my house. I sold my house to a local person. I lowered the price. I know the neighbors would have tarred and feathered me if I would have sold it to somebody that was going to turn it into Airbnb, and build two RV garages.
We were neighbors. We were good neighbors. We were nice neighbors. We’d been there a long time and we'd watched kids grow and Ryanne's mother lived down the road to me.
So Sandpoint has lost its uniqueness. It's lost its individuality. It was a great little town. Yeah, we had a Penney’s store that sold Levi's and red flannel shirts and that was about as dressy as you got. But it evolved and it evolved slowly and the residents in Sandpoint kept the sustainability of the businesses by frequenting the businesses. So yeah, we knew we could go to Couer d’Alene and get it for less.
At this juncture in my life with the inflation being what it is, that $10 extra I'm paying you, I need it for myself right now. So that comes a cut off for me helping that sustainability with that community. I can't do it anymore. So when it comes down to dollars, there is a cut off point. And um, and it's sad.
You know, the people that have moved into Dover, the people that are moving into Sandpoint with their million dollar homes, and all of that kind of thing. What they have done is they pushed out the uniqueness of why they moved here.
And I moved out of Sandpoint last year. I'm a result of this rural migration after living in Sandpoint for 52 years.
Torgerson (narrating): When I asked Ryanne how stories like Jacqueline’s set in places like Sandpoint, Dover or Missoula make her feel, she says one of the reasons she wrote the book was because she wanted to understand what these communities were experiencing along with her emotions around the displacement of her friends and neighbors.
Ryanne Pilgeram: It’s o.k. for me to be having a reaction to inequality. That is a good impulse not a bad impulse. It’s probably not in my best impulse to react negatively every time I see change, but it is o.k. to react negatively when I think people are being hurt. And when I go somewhere like Missoula, or Sandpoint – you know, one of the hallmarks of rural gentrification is intergenerational displacement, or displacement across generations. So one of the things that's pretty typical, and that it's so typical that like, when I say it, people are like “yes, of course,” but haven't really given it voice before because it's been so normalized is that older people who have bought bought their homes like in the ‘70s, or ‘80s or ‘90s, can afford to stay in those homes because they're paid off. But their children and grandchildren can't. So their children or grandchildren like in somewhere like Missoula, okay, first, they're moving out to East Missoula. Well now I’m priced out of East Missoula, now I’m going to Bonner. Now I’m priced out of Bonner, okay, now I’m going to move to Seatttle. And so we're seeing that intergenerational displacement where people can't live where they grew up. I'm always asking myself hard questions like do people have a right to live where they grew up? And I think actually do. But I also think people, and maybe I'm using the word right too broadly, but I also think people should have the opportunity to live with the communities that they were part of. I think it's in our best interest for people to be able to live by their parents and grandparents and children and grandchildren grow up together. And, you know, I think if people want that, then to deny them the opportunity is not in a community's best interest.
Torgerson (narrating): I think people will be turning to Ryanne’s work for a long time to understand the impact of unfettered capitalism on human lives and ecosystems at this juncture in history. Since writing “Pushed Out” people across the country have been coming to Ryanne seeking answers. Her advice to communities is that they must first come together to envision and create a plan for what they want their future to look like. And they need to do this far in advance of any scheming developers.
People have a lot of love for where they’re from. It’s not about preventing our beloved places from changing, that is inevitable. But it’s important to weigh what makes your place unique and how those traits, if exploited, could threaten the cohesion of your community and the health of your natural environment.
In “Pushed Out,” Ryanne wrote an alternative vision for Dover’s future – one where Dover residents had been prepared to defend their community from profit-seeking companies. As my day with Ryanne concludes and the sun begins to slip out of reach of the illustrious pines, I ask Ryanne to read it.
Pilgeram: Okay, you want me to read it or just talk about it?
Torgerson: Yeah, could you read it, please?
Pilgeram: “But imagine a Dover where a portion of the mill site was zoned for agricultural use and the old barn houses animals again. The land around the barn could have been set aside for agriculture and put under long term lease for local farmers. Such an operation could run a small market serving the community where locals could walk their dogs down the road and grab a dozen eggs or cheese or a few tomatoes in the late summer for dinner. Maybe this farm would have been successful enough that in cooperation with the community, it could host a pumpkin patch in the fall or a fiber arts fair in the summer. And if these events and community markets brought people from Sandpoint, or other area towns, maybe someone would open a diner in the long shuttered saddle repair shop in Old Dover using food grown at the old barn farm. Maybe children and the grandchildren of the residents of old Dover would find a spot to sell furniture made from driftwood to the folks who come to town for dinner. Businesses might pop up at first out of people's garages renting bikes to ride on the trails along the river or getting horseback tours of the bluff. And more visitors would come if the town opened Dover Beach Park, ensuring public access to one of the last sandy beaches on the increasingly developed lake. Perhaps the land along Old Mill Road could be zoned residential, and working families could afford to buy a modest home there.
The streets that got built would be open into old Dover, and then new and old homes would sit face to face. And the grandchildren would build homes next door to their grandparents. It would be a place where the city council could write a junk ordinance that would force the mill owners to clean up the mess they left behind and restore the wetlands. It would be a place where Shamrock either provided clean drinking water to the community or handed over its land as compensation. It would be a world where people would end up in prison for poisoning a community with contaminated water for years. It would be a place where the city would have to spend its time applying for grants to build trails to explore the beaches and wetlands.
To be fair, it would probably also be a place where teenagers should not be shooting each other with BB guns for entertainment. But it would be a place without a marina, without worries about the riverbank eroding. It would be a place it would be a Dover without riprap. It would be a Dover where you could launch your boat for free and fish on the river. It would be a place where the sandy beaches and bluff covered and wildflowers were for the community. It would be a Dover built on the belief that environmentalists must center all people across races and classes to preserve the natural world for everyone, not just for those who can write a check for their piece of paradise.
Torgerson (narrating): I don’t know what it’s like to experience the degree of loss that residents of Dover have. But I notice how changes to places like Missoula I’ve loved for a long time, hurt the people who make it special. There are certain street corners where I can see how the influx of extragavent wealth, be it corporate or personal, grinds down like sandpaper on the town’s interesting edges.
And I know the wreckage of extraction, have walked past abandoned oil tanks that litter the sides of crop land, seen limbs claimed by machinery and lives cut short by hard living. I’ve watched as working class culture and natural landscapes have become trendy and turned into commodities, know the harm of caricatures, of fetishes and of charades. I’ve sat with people who’ve known poverty, and people who talk down to them while sharing their bread and reaping the abundance of their hosts’ natural surroundings.
I can imagine the hurt of rural gentrification, though I’ve never fully experienced it. It wasn’t a preacher that sparked my distaste for inequality, but I seek out books like Ryanne’s and feel a painful stirring in my gut when I learn of harm done to people by extractive industries whether that’s the fracking of oil, or the extractive toll of amenities and tourism on the environment and local communities.
I hope that the story of Dover can galvanize a different kind of relationship to rural spaces. One that appreciates nature without having to own a piece of it. One that respects the people who have lived in these rural spaces for generations or for millenia. And one that seeks kinship with its surroundings, rather than seeking to consume it until it’s all gone.
Torgerson (narrating): Many thanks to Ryanne Pilgeram, Jacqueline Albright, Mike Lithgow, Randy and Gail Curless, Brad Smith and Jennifer Ekstrom for sharing your time, expertise and experience. If upon hearing this story you would like to make a donation to the Dover Community Hall, please call or leave a message with the Dover Community Church at 208-263-9481. Next month I’ll bring you a bonus episode from Working Wild U, the new podcast by Montana State University Extension and the Western Landowners Alliance. Then in March we’ll publish an episode on how two Balckfeet nonprofits, Piikani Lodge Health Institute and FAST Blackfeet are getting people onto the land and restoring physical, mental and spiritual health through Blackfeet food systems.
I produced and co-edited today’s story on Kalispel aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Kalispel lands. The story editor for this episode was Mary Auld from Missoula, MT. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer of Hazy Bay Music out of Seattle, WA. Aaron Spieldenner also provided mixing and sound design for this episode. Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation and listeners like you.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC.
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