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Farragut State Park

To look at it today, you’d never know this was once the largest city in Idaho, and the world’s second largest naval training center.

When you visit Farragut state park, named after the first admiral in the U.S. Navy, plan to spend some time catching up on the history you probably never learned in school.

“First of all, no one expects to see a navy base in the middle of the Rockies,” explains John Mackay, one of the park volunteers. “The reason for that was, before we were actually involved in the war, there was a lot of fear that the Japanese would actually attack the west coast of the United States; and for a while that was a distinct possibility.”

Farragut US Naval Training Station aerial view
Farragut US Naval Training Station aerial view

Military veteran John Mackay is one of a handful of volunteers who keep the museum open to the public. Without volunteers, the museum would have to close. Mackay has studied up on what Farragut meant to America during the Second World War. “The navy knew that they were going to have to have an explosive expansion of ships. There were less than 900 ships in the active navy before Pearl Harbor. When the war ended, we had over 4,200 ships. You have to have a lot of sailors. This base in 30 months produced just under 300,000 sailors.”

Seventy years ago the museum building was the brig, or the jail. And it’s pretty much all that’s left of the massive base that once comprised the largest city in the state.  At one time there were 776 buildings, 35 miles of roads, and about 50,000 sailors and support staff.

The recruits arrived here from all over the country, from the inner city of New York to the corn fields of Iowa. Their average age was 17, and many of them had never seen the ocean.  They trained here for about six weeks, part of that time on Lake Pend Oreille, the deepest lake in the state.

Farragut US Naval Training Station barbershop
Farragut US Naval Training Station barbershop

Mackay explains what a typical day would have been like for a sailor. “Their days would have been long, would have been tiring, would have been a mixture of classroom, practical experience, marching and knot tying, and signal flags. Aboard ship you can’t use radios when you’re out at sea. You have to have other ways of communicating. You need carpenters, you need diesel mechanics. The list goes on and on. But first you have to have a cohesive force that can be trained to do other things. You have to learn discipline, and you do that by marching, by calisthenics to get in to shape.”

Farragut US Naval Training Station knot training
Farragut US Naval Training Station knot training

Not only did Farragut play a vital role in the war effort, it also helped convince lawmakers that Idaho could really benefit from a state parks system. Actually, it was the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts that did that. Governor Smylie invited them to hold their annual gatherings at Farragut. In 1967 the World Boy Scout Jamboree convened here, 17,000 scouts from around the world.

 “Farragut has actually not only satisfied what governor Smylie was looking for,” explains park manager Randall Butt; “but Farragut went beyond that and satisfied what our current government is looking for; and that is, how can state parks be as self supporting as possible?”

1967 Farragut Scouting Highway Map cover
1967 Farragut Scouting Highway Map cover

In order to survive, state parks now have to generate a significant portion of their own revenue. “If you aren’t providing the services people want, then you aren’t going to generate the revenue, because people don’t come back.”

In 2012, more than 400,000 people visited Farragut; it’s a number that suggests people are coming back. “We’re full for 12 weeks out of the summer. If you want to come stay at Farragut, you don’t show up at our doorstep at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. You make a reservation nine months ahead.”

During the summer months, Farragut is the 30th largest city in the state. “On the average we have a population of about 1,600 people a night in the park. We are a city during that time, and so we’re providing all those services. When I came here 10 years ago, our revenue was around $300,000 a year. We’re just under a million dollars now, so we’ve pretty much tripled it in ten years.”

Farragut Plaza
Farragut Plaza

Farragut State Park has enough space and enough activities that it can actually help bring families closer together. “When people ask, what is the value of Idaho state parks, I say the best value is you get rid of the electronics that drive families to be individuals rather than a family anymore. While they are here, they’re a family. The unit is strong; they’re interacting with each other. They’re sharing an experience, and when they leave, they take that with them. The value of Idaho state parks is making the community that much stronger.”

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