WALLACE, Idaho - Mining has been a backbone industry for Idaho since the beginning. In fact, more than $7 billion worth of metals have been harvested from the Coeur d'Alene Mining District over the last 130 years.
The camp town of Wallace sprang up in the 1880s when miners struck silver in the surrounding hills. Since then 1.2 billion ounces of silver has been pulled from this area, making Wallace's moniker of Silver Capital of the World well-earned.
Mining has since slimmed in the Silver valley since it's heyday but Wallace has held on through hard times. And that early mining spirit lives on, an independence traced through its complicated connections with the federal government.
Despite its seeming seclusion in the mountains, the feds have found their way to Wallace a number of times.
Mining wars in the 1890s brought in the National Guard. And in 1910, thousands of soldiers were sent here to fight the largest fire in U.S. history, burning nearly 900,000 acres in three days and took out nearly a third of the town.
Then in 1967, the Federal Highway Administration came calling.
"'Hey, we want to do you a favor, build this beautiful ribbon of cement, Interstate 90, right smack dab through the middle of your town,'" recalls Rick Shaffer, a longtime resident of Wallace.
In a word, the town said "Nope."
"It would have taken out most of Wallace to put a freeway right through," said Joanne McCoy, whose dad moved the family here to work in the mines decades ago.
So city officials set out to get every downtown building put on the National Register of Historic Places. And they succeeded, meaning the interstate would have to go around.
"They did this downtown core, every building, and then all of sudden the whole town was listed, which the government said would never happen again," said Shaffer, who calls himself the Prime Minister of Wallace, and give tours of his town wearing a tux and tails.
It was during the mining downturn of the 80s that the Environmental Protection Agency claimed a century of mining had turned Wallace into a polluted mess.
Problem was, Shaffer says, they couldn't pinpoint if mining or nature caused the contamination of lead.
"The EPA cannot prove that naturally forming galena silver ore is a health risk," he said.
But a clean-up crusade began bringing negative attention to an already ailing city, a 20-year intrusion that irked some residents.
"You're steppin' on the wrong people," Shaffer said, referring to the EPA.
But one night in 2004 would forever put Wallace at the center of a philosophical conversation. It began with a conversation between four people at the Smokehouse Saloon, a watering hole dating back to the turn of the 20th century.
The idea hatched that night goes back to the EPA.
"The EPA has a rule of probability," explained Shaffer. "That says, 'If something cannot not be proven to exist, it could just as well exist."
That led then-Mayor Ron Garitone to issue a proclamation in September 2004 that read, in part:
"I, Ron Garitone, Mayor of Wallace, Idaho, and all of its subjects and being of sound body and mind, do hereby solemnly declare and proclaim Wallace to be the Center of the Universe. Thanks to the newly discovered science of probalism...and after years of diligence has been unable to unearth one scintilla of proof that Wallace is not the Center of the Universe...we were further able to pinpoint the exact center within the Center of the Universe, to wit a sewer access cover slightly off center from the intersection of Bank and 6th Street..."
In order to show what they thought was a ridiculous rule of probability, they took the EPA's theory and twisted it.
"So, they determined because they couldn't prove it's not, that historic Wallace was, not only the Silver Capital of the World, but we're also the Center of the Universe," says Shaffer.
So, since 2004, Wallace has been the center of the universe because, as Shaffer points out, "There's a manhole cover and you can't dispute a manhole cover."
Yet one more reason to make your way to Wallace even if it's just to pose for pictures at the essence of our existence.
"Is it really the center of the universe?"
That's a question Smokehouse Saloon owner Max Storch often hears about the manhole cover just outside his saloon.
His response: "But of course! Prove that it isn't!"
This summer Wallace is planning to have the biggest bash since they christened themselves the Center of the Universe, as the tombstone of the town's founder, William R. Wallace, returns after being found in California.
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