Your first impression of Frank Eld would probably underestimate him. He’s middle-aged and has graying hair, and his beard reaches his chest. He usually wears suspenders with a flannel shirt and is almost always wearing a hat. He looks like any other country farmer. But if you catch a glimpse of his blue eyes behind those spectacles, twinkling just a bit, you may think twice about who this man really is.
My family spent one Christmas in Frank’s beloved Long Valley in west-central Idaho, renting a friend’s cabin. I was entranced by the winter wonderland that surrounded me. But even more than being drawn to the snow, I loved the people—people like Frank and Kathy Eld. Both Frank and his wife are lifetime residents of the valley and have given the better part of their lives to preserving the history of the valley they love. For the past forty years, Frank has been in the business of preserving the Finnish history of the area—and at the same time going back to his own Finnish roots.
During the 1800s, the oppressive control of the Russian Empire led thousands of Finns to flee their homeland. Many found their way to Valley County in Idaho and settled in the booming town of Roseberry. These Finns loved the mountains, snow, and long winters that reminded them of their distant home. When the railroad moved a few miles west in 1914, Roseberry became a ghost town. Buildings were moved or left to crumble, until all that remained of the “largest town in Valley County” was the old Roseberry General Store, which stayed open until the 1940s.
In 1970, Frank Eld bought the general store and began restoring this once-vibrant mountain town with its rich Finnish influences. His methods of restoration are flawless: he locates and purchases a building that once formed part of Roseberry’s city center, methodically numbers each piece of the building with chalk so he knows where it belongs, gently takes the structure apart, and reconstructs the building near the general store. He even makes wooden nails with period tools to stitch the barns and houses back together again in their new location. There are now about twenty buildings in the restored Roseberry town, and Frank has plans to relocate several more in the near future.
A few minutes away from Roseberry, down an undulating country road, is the old Finnish cemetery, where several of Frank’s relatives are buried. About a decade ago, he heard about the Finnish tradition of placing lanterns on the headstones of ancestors on Christmas Eve. Frank and his wife decided to start the tradition again, and it has now become a community event during the week before Christmas.
The night I joined in the lantern lighting tradition, it was bitter cold, but the sky was clear. The back of Frank’s truck was filled with tea light candles and small metal lanterns. We each took a lantern and went out into the dark of the cemetery, trudging through the shin-deep snow. I placed my lantern reverently on a low headstone. It was too dark to read the name, but I hoped that the tiny bit of warmth would find its way into the icy ground below.
All across the cemetery, people were placing lanterns in deep footprints they had made in the snow, dotting the ground with little yellow glows. Frank lit some candles on a small pine tree near the entrance, using antique candleholders and tenderly guarding the small flames from the wind. We all gathered around the tree to listen to him explain the traditions of old. Every now and then he would turn and look over the lighted cemetery with eyes that twinkled and flickered behind his glasses.
“It is beautiful,” he said.
We sang “Finlandia”—a favorite patriotic song. We were strangers standing together in the snow. But in those moments of honoring people most of us had never met, we didn’t feel like strangers anymore.
After the lantern lighting, Frank and his wife invited everyone to gather at the Arling House for food and company. Frank’s grandfather built the house at the turn of the century for a pair of eccentric old spinsters, and Frank purchased and restored it in 1995, turning it into his own home. It was the perfect place for an old-fashioned Christmas party.
Throughout the night, I sifted through crowds of friendly strangers, listening to snatches of their conversations and snacking on the mounds of Finnish treats, rum cake, and lutefisk soup. My parents chatted with Frank and his wife about their historic house, and friends and neighbors answered my questions about their lives there in Long Valley. For a time, I felt like I was a lifelong resident of Long Valley too.
Back in Roseberry, Frank closes the General Store to the public for much of the winter. Roseberry then becomes something of the ghost town it was in years past. Mounds of snow line the streets and frost the roofs of the church, the museum, the row of small houses, and the barns out in the fields. It is a quaint and lovely sight—but it’s also a little melancholic to think that for so many years the town was silent, without the warm bustle and excitement of the tourists to liven it up every year.
During the Christmas holiday, the store is open, and for a few weeks, life returns to the town. If you’re lucky, you might spot Frank dressed up as Santa Claus, sitting by the old wood stove in the back of the store—a perfect picture of Christmas spirit. If you are in the area during other parts of the winter, consider giving Frank a call; he just might be willing to invite you over to his home and show you around the town that has become his life’s work. He and his wife will certainly offer warm friendship that will belie the cold and ice outside.
But even more than Christmas spirit, Frank epitomizes the spirit of Long Valley—his warmth, his good-natured love of work, and his reverence for the grandfathers and grandmothers who made his life possible in that beautiful mountain valley. These values, seemingly lost in our world of long-distance cyber chatter, are given new life every time I revisit his store and he invites me to warm myself by the stove with a cup of hot cider.