Down the Garden Path

by H. Clay Gorton

My grandparents were among the early pioneer settlers of Soda Springs, the second oldest town in Idaho. After fighting in the Civil War, Grandfather had worked his way west on the intercontinental railroad. He died before I was born, and my parents lived with Grandmother Gorton in the large two-story, twelve-room house Grandfather had built before the turn of the century to accommodate his wife, six boys and five girls.

As I reflect on my own childhood days in that big old house we all loved, I recall the stories my father used to tell about how Grandfather selected the site and built the old home. Curiously enough, the house was built on a "soda mound." As its name implies, Soda Springs was the site of a number of open springs of highly carbonated water with a very high mineral content. Over perhaps eons of time, as the water bubbled up, spread out, and evaporated, mineral deposits were left behind, locally known as "soda mounds." This rock is extremely dense and hard; at the old home site it’s between two and four feet thick. Under this hardpan is a thick layer of clay with very high water content.

Dad told me that Grandfather hauled in two-hundred wagon loads of soil to cover the hardpan so the family could have a lawn.

To provide additional shade, Grandfather planted a number of black willow trees in the front yard. In order for the trees to grow, he had to blast through the hardpan with dynamite so the roots could have both depth and moisture. With the abundant water below the hardpan, the willows grew to enormous size, soon dominated the front yard, and became the pride of the entire neighborhood.

Almost erased from memory, but brought back to my mind through who knows what chain of thought processes, are the repeated accounts my father gave during my younger years of another tree. I suppose that as I asked Dad about the origins of the huge black willows, it reminded him of his own childhood inquiries about an old oak tree that stood on the property when Grandfather first built the house. Perhaps it was this oak tree that had attracted them to the otherwise inhospitable site on the soda mound. Who planted the oak tree no one knows, but Dad used to describe how his father would often postulate that some early pioneer had brought along a few acorns from the East, stopped for a time at the refreshing soda water springs, and, finding some orifice or crack in the hardpan, had inserted one of the acorns down into the clay and water, where it took root and grew—perhaps with the rapidity of the black willows we knew.

Since the oak is normally a very slowly growing tree, and since the first pioneers came through not earlier than the 1820's or '30s (as Dad recalled from his father’s ruminations), the tree must have had an extremely rapid growth rate to achieve its huge size by the time they moved onto the property and built the house in the late 1800's. Especially noteworthy were the oak’s spreading roots. Much as the black willows had done in front of the house, the old oak tree had pushed the hardpan up around its base as the broad roots broke the surface.

Dad told me that he never actually saw the tree; Grandfather cut it down before he was born. The details of why it was cut are vague, but it had something to do with the lifting of the hardpan, which threatened the foundations of the house. Anyway, as the account goes, Grandfather, wanting to preserve something from the tree, and being—as I imagine most men were in those days—familiar with carpentry, determined to make his own coffin from the broad, exposed roots. So, after the tree was cut down, using an adze, he shaped the coffin as he cut down into the roots.

Although my father never saw the tree, he did see the coffin. He would tell me how he spent many hours in the workshop back of the house watching his father working a design into the exterior and polishing the wood. My father seemed to have quite an attachment to the thing and never tired of telling me the story of how the coffin came to be. He always referred to it as "Dad's old-fashioned root bier."