Seventy-five-year-old Bob Miller can tell you most of the history of Melba, because he lived through much of it.
Today, Miller is dressed up for a special occasion, in pressed black pants, held up by thin suspenders, a pressed white button-up shirt, complete with a bow-tie, shined shoes and a bowl hat, common attire of 1919. He wants to look the part of a Melba man in 1919 (he was born in 1944) because the museum building where he volunteers, and the church of which he is a longtime member, are both 100 years old.
The museum was not a museum for the past 100 years. It started as a hotel for people seeking rest in their railway travels. Later it became a private lodge, of the Oddfellows and Rebekahs, where residents remember having community dances on the upstairs floor. That now hosts exhibits featuring Melba’s contribution to agricultural and military history and local genealogy.
People come to Melba for an experience of small town America: homemade burgers and BBQ, to celebrate the Fourth of July, to escape the noisy, busy bigger cities. Museum volunteers hope people will come visit them, stop in at the museum on a Saturday to find out why Melba is known as the Seed Heart of America, who ran the homesteads that made it so, what keeps this 106-year-old city alive.
“The feeling around Melba has always been a real compassionate community,” Miller said, adding the “pioneer spirit” started around the 1920s. “Everybody helps everybody else. You’ve got sickness in a family … somebody broke their leg and couldn’t milk their cows … couldn’t put up the hay that year or pick the corn … they were there, and it’s still true today.”
On Saturday, Aug. 11, community members, nearby neighbors and some invited guests came to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the museum, and the Community Baptist Church of Melba, two iconic landmarks for their community. Over 60 people attended the event, celebrating the milestone anniversary and taking some time to familiarize themselves with a piece of the Treasure Valley’s history, of Idaho’s history.
VETERANS, FARMERS, NEIGHBORS
Over 100 years ago the city’s founder, Clayton C. Todd, saw the potential for the land that is now Melba, named after his daughter, museum volunteers will say. Todd helped coordinate parcels of land for services like a post office and school. He also donated three parcels of land for a church, the Community Baptist Church of Melba.
“As long as it was a church those lots would remain in the name of the church,” Miller said. “If it changed to anything else, a house or a bar or anything else, all the property goes back to the city.”
Some local homesteaders, like Miller’s grandfather, helped build part of the church, starting around 1919. Over the decades, the church would add a baptismal pool, two stained glass windows created and donated by Miller’s brother, additional classrooms and expand the building.
Despite the church’s and the city’s growth, the feel of the Community Baptist Church remains small town, said pastor David Rowe.
“We’re a little country church,” Rowe said. Rowe and other church members said anyone is welcome to come attend service.
“We have a great singing group and music group,” Rowe said. “The friendliness (of the city) … really impressed me. You feel the heart of the people, who love the lord and treat each other like they love each other.”
As the church grew, Melba area farmers even pitched in to grow the town they were living in, helping build dams for Deer Flat Reservoir and Lake Lowell, Miller said, and helping dig canals like the New York Canal for irrigation. Miller’s grandfather was one of the original homesteaders.
Melba would come to be known as the Seed Heart of America, for its sweet corn, alfalfa and, of course, potato farms. The original city sign, Melba Valley Seed Heart of America is on the second floor of the Melba Valley Museum.
“There (were) a lot of potatoes hauled out of this valley, and the first ones were dug by horses of course, lifted out of the ground,” Miller said “Then in the fall they had a week of school closed for kids to go work ... so the kids are out there digging spuds by hand, putting them in sacks … .”
The potatoes were then cleaned and sorted in a couple of sheds that replaced Melba’s railway depot.
“Railroad cars shipped (them) to Chicago, New York and those places, Idaho Number One Russets,” Miller said.
All the good ones still go out of state.
“You can’t buy a number one in Idaho,” Miller said “Go to Arizona and you’ll find some of the best number ones you’ve ever seen.”
IF YOU GO
The Melba Valley Museum is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday May through October. Upstairs hosts the veterans exhibit, the agriculture exhibit, an example hotel room, and pictures detailing the genealogy of families. Downstairs includes the “six brides, two wedding dresses” exhibit, displayed class graduation photos and a large glass-paned case featuring memorabilia of a local family. In honor of the building’s 100-year anniversary, the Gardner family is featured.
Museum volunteers recommend seeing the Melba veterans exhibit, displaying uniforms Melba veterans wore, model planes Melba veterans worked on in the wars and more military memorabilia.
Ann Pettijohn Tomlinson, the one of the Museum founders and a leader of the Melba Historical Society, helped design the exhibit in honor of her three older brothers, who served in World War II, and to help preserve the stories of Melba veterans.
“I just remember World War II changed the lives of so many people in the Melba valley,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson is one of a few who helped change the former hotel/meeting lodge/dance hall building into the museum it is today. Various grants, donations and memberships help support and preserve it.
“I was inspired to start this whole thing because I love my hometown,” Tomlinson said.