In the spring of 1881, the newly created town of Hailey consisted of little more than a collection of tents for miners who worked in the surrounding hills. It quickly hatched an ambitious political plan that would change the course of its history.
It had two businesses, both run from tents—a saloon and a grocer who set up his wares on empty boxes out front. The saloon was established first, according to Jeannette Fox LeMoyne’s essay in historian Grace Jordan’s 1963 book, “The Idaho Reader.”
The plan was for Hailey to be named the seat of Alturas County, which at that point sprawled over 19,000 square miles. That encompassed roughly the same amount of territory as Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Blaine County was not created until 1895.
Rocky Bar, near Featherville, had been the county seat since 1864, but Bellevue also planned to win the title.
LeMoyne’s parents, John and Frances Fox, moved from Salt Lake City to settle in Hailey in March 1881. They started that grocery business outside their tent.
“In later years, Frances remarked that John Fox was the second man to start a business in Hailey,” LeMoyne wrote. “The first was Coal Oil Jonny’s Saloon, in a large tent with a canvas sign that hung across Main Street.”
Bellevue was a more established city with 1,000 residents, and was the first to call for relocating the county seat, she wrote.
“The town had made improvements and the Broadford mines nearby were producing splendidly,” LeMoyne wrote. “When the railroad came, Bellevue would be a natural shipping point for ore and cattle. Hailey, however, felt it was fighting for its life. If it didn’t get the county seat, the town would soon fail.”
A vote was put before residents in Alturas County in September. Bellevue won the first tally by a single vote ahead of Hailey, with Ketchum and Rocky Bar a distant third and fourth. The count, however, didn’t include ballots from Indian Creek, close to Boise, that had mysteriously vanished. Fraud and corruption charges were levied by both sides. Fights and animosity broke out.
Because she had grown up in the South before relocating to Salt Lake City, Frances Fox had seen many ugly disputes resolved by a horse race. She suggested that as a solution to the Bellevue-Hailey spat. Residents and judicial officers agreed, and a mile-and-a-half-long race course was set up on a straight stretch of road near Hailey.
John Fox volunteered his high-stepping black mares to race, and a judge selected impartial drivers. Buckboards and carriages crowded the length of the track the morning of the race.
“Excitement was terrific among the supporters from both towns,” LeMoyne wrote. “The Hailey horses, the black Fox manes, ran their best. They took the lead, they came in ahead. They were sweating heavily but proudly tossing their manes. Bellevue and Hailey people again became friendly.”
The race did not tilt the official outcome, however, because the missing Indian Creek ballots were discovered in Mountain Home. The new ballots, apparently still kept in a locked box, gave Hailey a margin of victory of 20 votes. Hailey has been the county seat ever since.
Perhaps emboldened by the victory, a few years later Hailey tried to usurp Boise as the territorial capital of Idaho, but those efforts were unsuccessful.