Before the continent was called America, before settlers came looking for land, the Nez Perce people lived and traveled throughout a vast area we now know as Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. They lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, following the growing seasons of various roots, berries, and herbs. They also traveled great distances overland to hunt buffalo in what is now Montana.
A favorite and major food source was the camas bulb, known as qémes by the Nez Perce.
The Camas Prairie
A plateau of approximately 200,000 acres, the Camas Prairie lies between the Clearwater and Snake rivers in the midst of Nez Perce traditional-use areas. Over one hundred years of cultivation has changed the rolling landscape into a patchwork quilt of wheat, canola, and oat fields. But, in late May, small unplowed areas still burst forth with the familiar blue camas blooms.
(side-bar on left:)
A Blue Harvest
Camas bulbs, which grow about four to six inches beneath the ground, are harvested in a centuries-old tradition by Nez Perce women in August and early September. The bulbs are then painstakingly prepared and stored.
(side-bar on right:)
The Golden Age
From green gardens to acres of golden grain
The discovery of gold deposits in Elk City
and Florence brought thousands of miners across the Camas Prairie. Food for the mining camps became a necessity. In 1863 near Mt. Idaho, James Odie fashioned a homemade plow and broke ground for a vegetable garden.
Early husbandmen L.P. Brown, John M. Crooks, Aurora Shumway, and Seth Jones, Sr. sowed larger and more productive garden plots, quickly confirming that the rich soil was suitable for growing grain.
From 1863 to 1867, cultivated land soared from 14.5 acres to 9,096.5 acres. The plow embroidered the prairie with both texture and design, forever changing the landscape. The thrashing machine, tramway and railroad followed, and the Camas Prairie became a dry land grain supplier.
Home on the range
The raising of cattle, sheep and swine evolved hand-in-hand with soil cultivation on the Camas Prairie. The need for meat at mining camps encouraged cattlemen to increase and improve their herds. Sheep production also flourished. In 1864, L.P. Brown owned more than 6,000 sheep. Sheep and hog drives through town were not uncommon.
By the year 2000, Idaho County had 414,500 grazing acres, confirming that stock production contributes to the economic vitality of the area.