By David Wasson
No roads. No electricity. Just long summer days filled with fishing, huckleberry picking, and exploring the northern shores of remote Priest Lake in Idaho with family and friends.
It was 1948 and plans to develop a private retreat for Washington State College faculty and staff were taking shape at Beaver Creek, a primitive 54-acre resort accessible only by boat. The site, purchased by former WSC President Wilson Compton (1944–1951) and his wife Helen, already had eight small cabins. It was eventually subdivided into about 40 private lots selling for as little as $300 each.
“There’d be potlucks and children’s activities,” recalls Lois Castleberry, whose late husband, Paul, had accepted a faculty position in 1951 and bought a Beaver Creek lot a few years later. “My husband was fresh out of graduate school and we didn’t have any money…but we took the leap.”
They, like dozens of other faculty and staff members over the years, were glad they did. Summers became an experiment in self-reliance and communal cooperation. Each family had its own private lot but the isolated community would band together to help with everything from site improvements to supply runs.
“What most of us did, to begin with, was work on our cabins,” recalls retired Graduate School Dean and sociology professor Jim Short. “We had to float lumber in. We worked our tails off.”
It was the kids who did much of the exploring, fishing, and marking the huckleberry patches. “They know more about those mountains than we do,” Short said with a laugh.
That was the idea.
Enrollment had boomed at Washington State following the end of World War II. The campus expanded rapidly and was in the midst of an ambitious reorganization.
Beaver Creek was envisioned as a place where faculty and staff could escape the rigor while reconnecting with their families and fellow academics in a rustic, communal camping experience.
The Comptons paid $25,000 for the former Shady Rest resort at the head of Priest Lake. The Beaver Creek Camp Association was created to manage the site and the Comptons recovered their initial investment from the sale of the subdivided lots.
Compton initially looked at institutional options but was unsuccessful in his bid to get at least a portion of the surplus Farragut Naval Training Station at nearby Lake Pend Oreille. He then turned his attention to the unconventional Beaver Creek plan.
The endeavor got off to a rocky start. Faculty and staff were slow to buy in, even with buyers able to pay in installments. Perhaps more significantly, differing ideas emerged over just how “communal” the camping experience should be.
“All of those tensions were playing out,” explains Kris Runberg Smith ’85 MA, a history professor at Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, and co-author of a new book about Priest Lake’s history. “It came pretty close to falling apart.”
Wild Place: A History of Priest Lake, Idaho (Washington State University Press, 2015), examines nearly a century of efforts to develop the remote region known for its rugged beauty and brutal winters.
The retreat at Beaver Creek represents a unique part of that growth, said Smith, who wrote Wild Place with Tom Weitz ’70. Although it struggled at times to find its identity, and eventually allowed buyers with minimal connections to WSU, the development grew to 30 cabins or more and continues to thrive as a summer destination.
“What’s unique about it, in terms of Priest Lake, is the notion of owning your land privately but making decisions as a group,” Smith said.
Indeed, little of Priest Lake’s waterfront is privately owned. Most belongs either to the U.S. Forest Service or the state of Idaho. That’s partly why the former Shady Rest resort was so appealing to the Comptons, who turned the original founder’s cabin into their summer home.
The remote location, however, posed logistical issues. It took nearly a full day to get there from Pullman, particularly in the early days when the final stretch had to be traversed by boat.
Helen Compton had secured two surplus ship-to-shore Navy boats known as “launches,” which ferried people and supplies to the isolated site.
“We only went up for a couple weeks at a time because it was strenuous,” recalls Susan Castleberry, whose father is Jim Short. “It was an all-day affair just to get there. I remember the boats were so noisy, just kind of a chug-chug-chug.”
Meanwhile, the lack of refrigeration meant families relied on canned foods and supplemented their meals with whatever they could forage from the nearby woods or fish from the lake. They had to learn to cook on wood stoves.
Helen Compton organized huckleberry-picking excursions and families shared reference books to help identify other edible vegetation native to the area. At night, they gathered around bonfires on the beach.
“There was this solitude there,” Susan Castleberry, currently serving as president of the Beaver Creek Camp Association, said. “I remember taking up boxes of books. We hiked a lot…and we also read a lot.”
These days, Beaver Creek has grown well beyond its origins as a primitive hunting and fishing camp but has retained the rustic feeling of an isolated academic retreat.
Although there’s electricity and running water, the cabins generally are still the small, practical structures built by families with limited choices of material.
Also, while it’s now possible to reach Beaver Creek on a Forest Service road, it’s maintained only in the fair-weather months. Signs warn visitors about bears.
Susan Castleberry said very little has changed. “We stand at our cabins and look across the lake and that’s when you realize it.”
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