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From Soldiers to Campers

Farragut’s varied history demands exploration

By Dan Thompson

As long as Errin Bair has a say—and she has for more than a decade so far—Museum at the Brig inside Farragut State Park will not become stale.

About 18,000 people passed through the museum in 2019, and the park ranger wants to ensure each year there is a new reason for them to come back. So, the newest addition is an exhibit on Women of World War II, which she has been working on for some time.

It follows any number of exhibits at the museum, which celebrates and chronicles the ever-churning use the park endured since it began in 1942 as a training camp for United States soldiers.

One of Bair’s many roles at the park is to be in charge of this museum, as well as the volunteers who help keep it and the rest of the park humming during its open season. The park gets loads of donations from veterans or their families, and there’s never quite enough room for all of it, despite the ongoing renovation projects Bair oversees.

“If there’s not a space in the museum that I’m developing for something, then I’m bored,” Bair said.

There’s also a Junior Ranger program at the park, located about midway between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint. As of early April the park was closed for camping but open for day use as part of Idaho’s effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Park use continues to change and continues to increase, especially at this North Idaho state park. Museum visits continue to increase every year, and more and more school groups seem to find their way there, Bair said. It is nearly impossible to decide last minute to go camping and actually find a site at Farragut.

But despite those hurdles, Bair sees this as a wonderful time for the 55-year-old state park.

“I want people to know that the woods are good,” Bair said. “We just want to encourage people. We want people to know that you don’t have to have brand-name equipment, and you don’t have to have fancy backpacks and fancy hiking shoes, and you don’t have to be a certain size. Come out and play with us, and we’ll help you.”

When the United States first got involved in World War II, the military needed a place to train soldiers in the Northwest. They were looking for something inland, Bair said, a place that the military didn’t think Japanese bombers could reach. They also wanted a lake, and Pend Oreille fit that perfectly.

Pend Oreille is very deep, so much so that the military still uses it as a test site for unmanned submarines. At its deepest the lake is somewhere between 1,100 and 1,200 feet deep, though Bair said the silty bottom doesn’t bounce radar well, so it is difficult to know its precise depth.

The military base took six months to build, and once operational its six camps each housed 5,000 soldiers. It was the largest city in Idaho for four years, Bair said, and in all 293,381 men went through boot training at Farragut between 1942 and 1946. But after the war, the military disbanded the facility and opened up “a giant community yard sale,” as Bair put it.

“You can go to any long-standing family in North Idaho, even Eastern Washington, and you can find silverware that said FNTS (Farragut Naval Training Station) on it, or you can find cabinets or linens, all kinds of things,” Bair said.

After that, various groups came through to use the space: Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the National Guard. When Idaho established a state parks department, Farragut was enfolded into its number. Since then, the park became home to the museum, campgrounds, swimming areas, hiking trails, and more recently disc golf courses and the Tree to Tree Adventure Park.

All that on top of the interesting geological history of the region, and Bair can talk for hours about what the park has to offer visitors. She leads mountain biking tours every week during the open season and encourages children to engage with the park through the Junior Ranger program, which she also leads.

She and the other rangers also lean on the 42 volunteers who help in the museum, play host in the campgrounds and aid in other ways, Bair said, because there is no shortage of work.

There are also challenges. The forest recently endured an invasion of pine beetles that killed massive swaths of trees. Many have been felled and chopped, creating views of the lake that previously were obscured. But even in the face of that, Bair holds an optimistic tone.

“You can’t have change and growth in the forest without some sort of disturbance,” she said. “You have to cause disturbance to have healthy forests. That’s what we try to educate people about.”

As much as Bair sees her role as an educator, there is an element of it that requires enforcement too: Leash laws for pets are often disregarded, she said, to name one example.

“There’s a lack of understanding from people who come out to a park like this that’s so big and has such big open spaces, they want to let their dogs run,” she said, “even though there’s a huge sign that says you’re gonna have a $72 ticket.”

The park gets more use from Washingtonians and Canadians than Idahoans, she said. Site reservations can be made nine months in advance, and so people do. But that means locals can’t so easily pack up and stay at the park on a moment’s notice, even mid-week.

There are no plans to expand the camping offerings, either, because there just isn’t the money to fund another ranger position, which would be vital if there were another loop of sites, Bair said. And so, the rangers’ focus is on improving and fixing the existing infrastructure. This is the fate of parks across Idaho, Bair said, as the population grows.

“The state in itself from all the way south to all the way north has such incredible recreation opportunities,” Bair said.

The mountain biking is superb, she said. Farragut connects to massive national forest spaces, and people can use the park as a base to explore all of it. There is also a growing demand for the kind of camping Farragut offers because of its convenience.

But Bair said she wouldn’t do anything else. She has a knack for puns—the museum plays war DVDs in the “Pacific theater”; the scale models of boot camp buildings, she said, were constructed by an area “model prisoner”—and faces the challenges of maintaining the park with a smile, even as she walks the museum and sees evidence that rodents are evading her defensive efforts.

“Dang it. Pack rats. Seriously. Shredding my velvet. There’s a pack rat! I hate him,” she said. “He’s making himself some sort of cape, I can imagine.”

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