The Queen of St. Albans
St. Albans, Idaho, (population 5,276) is nestled on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River on a high, volcanic plateau about 40 miles southwest of Grand Teton National Park.
St. Albans was established in 1870 by Mormon pioneers, most of whom had emigrated from Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Given those Mormon origins, it might seem odd that St. Albans was named after a Catholic saint, but the name was a borrowed one. The area had reminded an early explorer of his hometown in Wisconsin, which, as home to a granite quarry, had been named after St. Alban of Mainz, the patron saint of hernias.
St. Albans, Idaho, didn’t have a granite quarry, but its early fortunes had also been excavated from the earth. St. Albans’ rich, volcanic soil was ideal for growing root vegetables, and while the high altitude, harsh winters, and short growing season had proven to be too daunting for previous visitors, the Nordic and Scandinavian settlers felt right at home. Within a decade of their arrival, the area was one of the largest potato-producing regions in the United States.
Agriculture still made up a large part of the St. Albans economy. Until recently, most people in the area were either farmers or ranchers, or (like Grim’s father) they worked at the college in nearby Rockford. But even though none of those occupations were particularly lucrative, St. Albans had one of the highest average incomes in the nation.
When one of your citizens is a billionaire it skews the numbers a bit.
Pete Peterson was born and raised in St. Albans, but after a brief stint in the Navy after World War II, he headed off to Chicago to attend Northwestern’s business school on the G.I. Bill. After graduating, he married Florence Smyth-Hamilton (of the Chicago Smyth-Hamiltons) and returned to his hometown with an eye toward modernizing the potato processing business.
One day he noticed that, due to its irregular shape, there were were a lot of wasted scraps when a potato was sent through a cutting machine. So he devised a way to mince those scraps, add a little seasoning, and form them into bite-sized nuggets, which he called Spud Nips. And in post-war America, where frozen foods represented the height of industrial achievement and culinary sophistication, Spud Nips were poised to take their place alongside TV dinners and chicken pot pies on the TV trays of Americans everywhere.
Unfortunately, two months after Spud Nips’ debut, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite into orbit, and the American public flew into a collective panic. They were convinced that if the Russians could send a metal sphere the size of a basketball into orbit over U.S. soil, it was only a matter of time before nuclear warheads started raining from the sky. And since the name of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, bore an unfortunate resemblance to the name of Pete’s starchy confection, sales of Spud Nips plummeted and Pete’s biggest competitors, Alma and Heber Driggs, of La Grande, Oregon, took advantage of the anti-Soviet backlash to launch a competing product. The name of the Driggs brothers’ snack, Tater Tykes, didn’t conjure up the same vision of nuclear apocalypse in the American mind, and by the end of 1959 the Driggs brothers had captured over 94% of the bite-sized potato market.
Pete lost almost everything in the Spud Nips fiasco and decided that catering to restaurants would be less risky than dealing directly with fickle consumers. So, he developed a method of parboiling and freezing thin strings of potato which could then be shipped to restaurants where they would be cooked in oil, salted, and served with a tomato-based condiment. Within a year he had a contract to be the exclusive provider of french fries for a small chain of hamburger restaurants that was experimenting with the concept of franchising. A decade later, he was one of the wealthiest men in America.
As Pete’s fortunes rose, so did his wife’s expectations. In the late 1960s, Florence insisted that Pete’s new billionaire status warranted a move from their unassuming, ranch-style home on the outskirts of town to something a little more…prominent.
The new house, designed and built under Florence’s supervision, was a mid-century behemoth of cantilevered steel, cement, and glass, perched on top of the highest hill in the valley. The original plans called for the large plate glass windows and patio to face east, overlooking the town of St. Albans, but just as construction was about to begin, Florence had the blueprints rotated 30% to the north. Ostensibly this was done to provide a better view of the Grand Tetons to the northwest, but the town took it as a personal slight.
Architecturally speaking, a building is said to be “in conversation” with its surroundings, and this change made it seem like the Peterson home had no interest in conversing with its immediate neighbors. Seen from the town, the Peterson home was like a bored conversation partner at a dinner party who spends the entire evening looking over your shoulder in hopes that someone more interesting will come along.
Pete was always considered a local and made frequent trips into town in his 1958 Ford pickup, but Florence worked hard to foster her outsider status. Even after Pete died, she rarely left the “Fortress of Solitude,” as it came to be called. What little interaction she did have with members of the community was usually unpleasant and there were credible rumors that she’d reduced each of the last four mayors to tears.
The only thing Florence did seem to enjoy was gardening. The Fortress was surrounded by five beautifully landscaped acres and while a commercial firm from Idaho Falls had always taken care of the lawn, she’d done everything else herself. She had a small orchard with a variety of fruit trees, a rose garden, a small vineyard, raspberry and blackberry bushes, a kitchen herb garden, a large vegetable garden, and dozens of exuberant flower beds, all of it scrupulously maintained.
In the last decade, however, Florence’s arthritis had progressed to the point that she wasn’t able to get around the gardens as easily as she once had. The lawns remained in good shape, but since she was too stubborn and/or proud to ask for help with everything else, the rest of the grounds suffered.
Her situation wasn’t unusual. St. Alban’s had a large population of widows, and as these women got older, health problems often limited their mobility. Getting around indoors was difficult enough; getting outdoors to do yard work was often impossible.
Grim’s introduction to the world of horticulture came when his neighbor, Mrs. Skarsgård broke her hip and Grim’s mother asked if he’d be willing to go over once a week and mow her lawn. Shortly thereafter, he started mowing Mrs. Stratton’s lawn, followed by Mrs. Brondum’s, followed by the nearly-blind Mrs. Johansson’s. Mowing led to irrigation work, which led to flower beds, which led to vegetable gardens and soon he was the groundskeeper of a dozen of the best-looking yards in St. Albans.
When Grim turned 14, he started feeling the keen adolescent need for spending money, but money was a little tight at home, so he knew that if he wanted any disposable income he was going to have to earn it. The employment options for a 14-year-old don’t extend much beyond yard work, which was fine with Grim, but he couldn’t very well start charging the widows for his services. There was really only one person in St. Albans who could afford to pay for yard work, and that person was Florence Peterson.
So, one May afternoon, Grim hopped on his bike and made the trip out to The Fortress. He was naively unaware of how nervous he should be about meeting the Queen of St. Albans, but sometimes it pays to be young and clueless because his inadvertent confidence was one of the first things she noticed about him.
Grim had a proposal: A three weeks trial period during which he would work for free. If at the end of those three weeks she wasn’t completely satisfied with his work, she was under no obligation to keep him on. But if his work was satisfactory, she would hire him as her gardener.
If Florence had known that what she was really doing was subsidizing the yard work of a dozen of the town’s residence, she might not have agreed. But she did. The truth is that she didn’t think a 14-year-old boy would be able to do the work and she’d secretly been looking forward to firing him at the end of the first week. But he was much tougher than he looked. For three weeks, he woke at sunrise, rode his bike out to The Fortress, worked like a dog until sundown, rode back home again, and collapsed into bed, his arms, legs, and back aching like they had never ached before.
He spent his first week at The Fortress doing demolition: pruning shrubs and trees, thinning the flower beds, aerating the lawn, amending the soil, turning the garden, and weeding everything. The second week, he repaired the irrigation systems, fixed the broken panels on the small greenhouse, and (with some help from his father) repaired the electrical wiring for the outdoor lighting. The third week, Grim had his Mom drive him to Idaho Falls where he picked up seeds, vegetable seedlings, annuals, ground covers, a new plum tree, and some dwarf evergreens to replace the ungainly, aging junipers that flanked The Fortress’ driveway.
As he worked, Florence would make frequent trips out onto the patio to criticize Grim’s pruning technique, second-guess his plant choices, and click her tongue at every perceived horticultural misstep, but in the end even Florence had to acknowledge the results. The grounds were beautiful again, and though Florence would never admit it, they’d never looked better.
Grim got the job.
He’d never worked harder than he did that first summer and the results were striking, but it wasn’t just The Fortress’ grounds that were transformed. That summer Grim went from being a scrawny adolescent kid to being a lean, muscular young man. When he returned to school that fall, all of the girls in his class did a collective double-take, but after realizing that it was “just Grim,” they went back about their business.
Grim had spent the last two years refining what he’d started that first summer at The Fortress and it had turned into a year-round job: landscaping in the summer; snow removal in the winter. The previous summer, when he turned 16, Grim purchased an old Volvo station wagon from a gentleman in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who had decided to abandon the high-country life in favor of a career in marketing. The car had racked up over 160,000 miles before the odometer broke and 20 years worth of road salt had taken its toll. The brown paint on the roof and hood of the car was peeling off in large sheets and parts of the floor had rusted through so that driving through large puddles usually meant getting your socks wet. Florence was so appalled by the appearance of the vehicle that she banned it from her driveway. Grim had to park at the bottom of the hill and ride the lawn mower up.
The car was not what you would call a “babe magnet,” but it ran well and the price was right. In fact, the trailer he pulled behind the Volvo was worth double what he’d paid for the car, and the mower he carried in the trailer was worth double the value of car and trailer combined.
But now he was leaving them all behind — car, trailer, mower, The Fortress, St. Albans — at least for the summer. His brother, Thór, was taking over lawn mowing duties for the widows in town and Mr. Nelson, who was at that moment receiving a lecture from Florence Peterson (still wearing the gas mask) on The Florence Peterson Immutable Laws of Horticulture, was going to be in charge of The Fortress while he was gone.
Grim waited for a pause in the lecture and excused himself. He said goodbye to Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Peterson (whose muttered response was unintelligible through the gas mask) and rode the mower down the hill to his car, loaded the mower into the trailer, slammed the tailgate shut, and looked back up the hill one last time. He was anxious about leaving the place, but this opportunity to go to England was the chance of a lifetime, and despite everything that had happened that spring, his father was still insistent that he not pass up the opportunity.
So, even though he had never in his life travelled more than 300 miles from St. Albans, the following morning he was getting on a plane for the first time and flying 4,731 miles to England. Perhaps if he’d known what was in store for him that summer, he might have had second thoughts. But, as he’d learned once before, there are times in your life when it pays to be young and clueless.