If you’ve driven the desolate stretches of desert that comprise much of Idaho and its neighboring states, you know something about boredom. The highways are straight as a string, the scenery monotonous, the nearest towns so far away you wonder if you’ll ever get to them.
There was a time, however, when signs dotting the West’s sagebrush immensities brought humor to some of the most desolate places imaginable. Those who remember them know exactly what I’m talking about – the Fearless Farris Stinker signs.
Now, for those who never knew the iconic signs as well as those who remember them fondly but would like to know more about them, there’s a new book. “Fearless,” by Idaho historian and author Rick Just, tells the story of the signs and the man behind them.
Just, 69, grew up with the Stinker signs.
“When I was a kid learning to drive, all we had was a.m. radio and not that many stations on the dial. You’d be driving along, bored and not able to get a station you liked and you’d see a sign saying, ‘Ain’t this monotonous?’ You couldn’t help but agree. And it made you laugh.”
The sign that was most likely was the best known quipped that some large, oval-shaped rocks along the highway near Bliss were “Petrified Watermelons. Take one home to your mother-in-law.”
My favorite was on a desolate stretch of highway many miles from the nearest town, hamlet or even a gas station. Nothing but desert monotony for as far as the eye could see:
“If you lived here, you’d be home now.”
On another isolated expanse of wasteland, “Lonely Hearts Club Picnic Area.”
These were a few of roughly 150 signs erected under the direction of Farris Lind, who started a chain of gas stations with the Stinker name and the company’s trademark skunk logo. Lind was the “stinker,” fighting the big oil companies by offering cut-rate gasoline. Big Oil wasn’t crazy about the promotions, but customers loved the cheap gas and the signs that enlivened their journeys:
“Fishermen – do you have worms? (Smile anyway.)
“This is not sagebrush. You’re In Idaho Clover.”
“For a fast pickup, pass a state patrolman.”
“Let there be a minute of silence while we change back-seat drivers.”
On a godforsaken road in the middle of nowhere, “With a later start, you wouldn’t be here yet.”
Just decided to write the book (available on Amazon, at Boise’s Rediscovered Bookshop and at Stinker stations) because posts about the signs on his Idaho history blog got more hits than anything else.
“Typically a subject would get 1,500 to 2,500 views,” he said.
“The Stinkers got 25,000. I did the math; then I did the book.”
It took him six months to research and write it, during which he “got a greater appreciation for Farris Lind. He was a go-out-there-and-get-it-done kind of guy. He accomplished a lot and is to be admired for it, particularly for how much he was able to accomplish after he got polio.”
When the Sabin polio vaccine was introduced in 1963, Lind had an inexplicable feeling of dread about taking it. He did it anyway and within days was paralyzed and unable to breathe without being confined to an iron lung, a mechanical device that breathed for him. The odds of being paralyzed after taking the vaccine, according to a statistic cited in Just’s book, were one in nearly 3 million.
Lind, then 47, refused to feel sorry for himself or let his illness stop him. He continued to run his business – from his bed – and traveled to his stations in a specially equipped convertible. In 1973, he was named Handicapped American of the Year.
He was the first to admit that some of his signs were corny:
“Grizzly bear feeding grounds. Count your children. Watch Your honey.”
“This is sheep country. Let us pull the wool over your eyes.”
“The only corn raised in the desert are these signs.”
A few, by contemporary standards, were offensive:
“Report Indian massacres to your doctor.”
“Beware of Curves and Soft Shoulders.”
In a reference to dipping sheep for parasites, “Californians must be dipped before entering Idaho.”
That one brought an angry letter from California’s governor. The sign was taken down.
“He wouldn’t have gotten away with some of them today, but then they didn’t raise an eyebrow,” Just said. “Those were different times. The times have changed, and it’s just as well that they have.”
Lind opened his first Stinker station in 1941 at the corner of 16th and Front streets in Boise. I remember that station vividly, because I was nearly arrested there one night.
A police officer had stopped me and some of my high school buddies, rightly suspecting that we were up to no good. We had a case of beer in the car and were sure to be busted for it – until one the guys told the officer he was a trapper (he was a trapper) and that he kept his prey in the beer box. With that he surprised us all by producing a dead muskrat from somewhere under the seat and holding it up as proof. The officer rolled his eyes and walked away without a word.
Lind, who enjoyed American ingenuity and a good story as much as anyone, would have liked that.
The man behind the Stinker signs died in 1983. His sons ran the business until they retired in 2002. A longtime employee now owns the company, which operates 106 stores in Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.
Sadly, the signs have all but vanished, victims of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. The watermelon sign, near King Hill, and another in Idaho Falls, both on private property, are the last ones still standing.
“It’s doubtful that anyone would have complained much if the Stinker signs had stayed up,” Just said, “but the beautification act was definitely needed. If you look at old pictures of the signs, there are 14 other signs along the highways with them. We don’t want to go back to those days.”
That said, we’ve lost something. Without the Stinker signs, the desert is just desert, and driving it isn’t nearly as much fun.