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April 19, 2014

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Christmas card from Idaho: The new store has Lava Hot Springs abuzz

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John Katsilometes

Steam rises from a hot bath at the Lava Hot Springs Inn in Idaho on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013.

Lava Hot Springs, Idaho

Steam rises from a pool at the Lava Hot Springs Inn on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. Launch slideshow »

LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho — On Friday night, I walked into the most important social gathering of the year in Lava Hot Springs. Standing near the entrance, just beyond the food and refreshments station, was the town’s mayor, a friendly sort named Marshall Burgin. He is both Marshall and mayor.

The town’s mayor was examining a case of a half-dozen yellow-handled Stanley screwdrivers when I told him I was visiting from Las Vegas.

“I know you,” he said, balancing a paper plate heavy with cheese pizza. “You’re George’s son.”

“Yes,” I said, sipping a Sprite and fighting the urge to say, “and Dad is planning to run for mayor!”

It was not an accident that I would be recognized by the mayor of Lava, or that we would be mingling with some of the town’s 407 residents at the opening of Dan’s Ace hardware store on Main Street. Dad is a business operator in this little resort town, which is a two-hour drive north of Salt Lake City and about 30 miles south of Pocatello, Idaho. The city sits at an elevation of 5,000 feet on the Old Oregon Trail.

The family business here is the Lava Hot Springs Inn, a bed-and-breakfast of 31 rooms in three buildings featuring an assortment of natural hot baths of varying sizes and temperatures. The original, red-brick building was finished in 1924, originally as the Lava Hot Springs Sanitarium. It was a nursing home for a long time and was closed completely when Dad came in and bought the building and started sprucing it up.

The Inn sits just off the entrance of Lava Hot Springs, its steam rising as visitors make their way from Highway 30 toward Main Street in a town that, honestly, has not a single stoplight.

Lava Hot Springs has been called a geothermal miracle and possesses some sort of mystical, restorative properties. The tradition for many travelers is to ease into the water as it is snowing. In sub-zero temperatures, icicles form in your hair, and your footprints freeze as you step from the baths.

The heated water gushes from deep beneath a layer of hard volcanic rock. The natural temperature is very hot, like 145 degrees, but calibrated to a Jacuzzi-like 100 to 105. This is natural mineral water, clean and odor-free, favored by the American Indians who have settled this region (the town, founded in 1902, was once part of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation), families traveling to Jackson Hole or Yellowstone National Park, bikers on their way to Sturgis, all sorts of travelers. We’ve met people from all over the world at the hot springs.

But in all the years we’ve visited Lava, even in the days family members have lived in the town, no one can remember a branded, franchise business in town. There has never been a McDonald’s or 7-Eleven, Starbucks or Chevron in Lava Hot Springs. The Riverside Hotel, the Royal, Dempsey Creek crafts, the Wagon Wheel bar and grill, Blue Moon Saloon, 78 Main Street Eatery are all locally owned.

The new Shane’s store does have a franchise partnership, and there is a Sinclair service station just outside the city limits on Highway 30, but this new business — which took over the original Shane’s store, which had been closed for years – is a significant moment.

In a town of just a little more than 400 residents (down by about 100 from 2000), the opening of the Ace store is a akin to the opening of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on the Strip. Of course, the scope is not so grand, but the impact to be felt in this little town will be remarkable. The store is to serve residents from all little towns nearby — McCammon, Downey and Grace — a total of about 3,000 people.

“They have everything,” Dad said as we loped through the new store’s long aisles. “Hammers, saws, paint, PVC pipe … bird feed.” The two guys who operate the Ace are brothers who own the franchise and lease the building; Dan Moldenhauer has the Ace store and brother Mike is to run a grocery store up the street.

Examining all that stuff for sale, you had to wonder if the new Ace would generate enough business from its region to survive over time. The smiling mayor sure seems to think so, and as we walked back toward the inn and another 10-degree soak, Dad turned and looked at the building. “It’s sure nice to see that corner all lit up.”

Call it the town’s Christmas light, a gleaming example of courage in business and faith in the community. One day we’ll say we were there, eating pizza and sipping Sprite with the mayor, the night she opened.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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