The Gentrification of the Rural West

What happens to a working-class town when developers put a resort where the sawmill used to be?

Ryanne Pilgeram

Lakeside houses in Idaho. Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from the book Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the U.S. West” by Ryanne Pilgeram, published in 2021 by University of Washington Press.

Most of the windows in the Dover, Idaho community hall face old Dover, still looking over the original mill workers’ houses and church that were transported upriver in 1922. Slipping into the kitchen and peering out the back window, however, is a reminder of how much Dover has changed. In the 1950s, it would have looked at a tangle of trees, then a deep meadow in the distance, and the community’s sandy beach just beyond that. Later, the view would include massive piles of woodchips, the birch trees providing some cover between the building and graying piles of sawdust.

Today, there’s a walking path that skirts the back of the community hall and, beyond that, brand-new homes. Dozens of buildings, from condominiums to bungalows to massive mansions, now sit in the fields where the mill once stood. Adorned with natural wood shingles and crisp white trim, the homes share a similar architectural style, meant to evoke the craftsman style that was popular when the buildings of old Dover were floating up the river. But the homes are unmistakably modern in their attempt to blend the ruggedness of the Pacific Northwest with the comforts of upper-middle-class living.

Lining freshly paved streets, the new homes nestle against the development’s headquarters, which features a fitness club and an upscale restaurant. The development was approved in 2004 after a lengthy and contentious struggle with the inhabitants of old Dover. Since then, new Dover has brought waves of new people to the community, drawn by the scenic beauty (and recreational potential) of the river and adjoining lake. 

When looking out the window of the old Dover community hall, the new homes are so close, it seems like you might be able to peer inside them. But the new homes are built with their backs to the community center so that they can face the lake and river. 

And so it is: old and new, back to back, a path winding between them. 

Dover is the story of the rural West, where survival for working-class people once meant logging or agriculture and now means building homes or waiting tables and being grateful that you have a house to build or table to wait on.

What brought me back to Dover was not how unusual this bifurcated community is. Rather, it is how typical it is of the changes gripping many rural communities in the United States. 

Dover, like almost the entire American West, followed a path that led from the boom of a once-strong timber economy to its bust in the 1980s. Regardless of the industry — timber, mining, or agriculture — nearly all rural communities in the 1980s followed this path. Dover has probably never had more than five hundred residents, but through the 1980s the lumber mill supplied jobs, the town’s drinking water, and perhaps most importantly a sense of community and identity. In the 1980s, as the timber industry and extractive industries in the West weakened, the mill in Dover closed, one in a long line of mills that closed in the region. In 1992, after sitting unused for years, the mill burned down, and the community of Dover faced the decision of what would become of their community. 

Zoned for agricultural use, the mill site was privately held land. But it was privately held land that for generations had been used by residents of Dover. The mill owners had allowed them to build a baseball diamond, where the Dover River Rats team hosted games. Scores of young mothers had carted children to the beach to learn to swim, one of the last undeveloped natural sandy beaches on the lake. Most of the residents of Dover had never had lakefront views, but they had always had quick access to the lake for swimming, picnicking, fishing, and relaxing. The mill workers’ homes were built in tidy rows a mile from the mill, sitting far back from the water to ensure they didn’t flood in the days before a dam was built downriver.

In 2004, the Dover City Council voted 3 – 1 to approve a 600-unit upscale development, forever altering their community and transitioning the once-bustling lumber mill town into a destination for retirees and outdoor enthusiasts. The development branded itself Mill Lake” (a pseudonym) and included plenty of opportunities for recreation for those with money. There’s a huge marina that juts into the lake, where people can dock their boats or even their floatplanes. Helicopter parking is, of course, also available. There is a restaurant and a fitness club with a pool. There are fountains and statues. There’s even a branded, oversized Adirondack chair where visitors are encouraged to pose with all their friends and then share on social media how carefree Mill Lake has made them.

But mostly there are houses and condos and bungalows. On its website, Mill Lake bills itself as a master planned waterfront community with 14 different neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood is outlined on the map of the development, with names like Marina Tower” and Reedwalk.” The map is drawn so that the opposite shore of the Pend Oreille River is eliminated, and the river is renamed Lake Pend Oreille.” It is as if the development exists in a different world, where the rules of naming bodies of water are more like guidelines. 

Mill Lake is a simulacrum for an American West that never existed. It features reproductions of old-timey street lamps that line the tree-edged boulevard into Mill Lake. There are no streetlights at all in old Dover. 

Join Our Rural America Newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

What happened in Dover is a common story in communities across the American West, especially in those lucky” enough to be situated against scenic landscapes, ripe for tourism and outdoor recreation. As extractive industries such as timber, mining, or agriculture faltered in an era of automation and globalization, the dwindling remnants of communities that had relied on those industries were saved” by new developments promising more people and the return of steady employment. Sitting on the edge of a river ringed by mountains in every direction, with bald eagles nesting on the riverbank, Dover was a prime target for developers who might have peppered the shore with megamansions or gated off the land to the whole community. Now the material extracted from the region is the cheap labor of those left behind to staff the restaurants, marinas, ski lifts, and coffee shops. 

Of course, most communities have very little say in what becomes of them, but Dover, because of decisions made years earlier, seemed to maintain some power. The city council could have used zoning regulations to control the mill site and stop any new developments in their community. And the decision to allow the development was controversial, given the dramatic changes the new construction would bring. Decision Inspires Both Delight and Horror” was the headline story for September 4, 2004, in the Bonner County Daily Bee, after the council finally voted to rezone the land. According to the article, opponents of the development were moved to tears,” while another was inspired to rip to shreds a stack of pamphlets touting [Mill Lake]” during the meeting. 

So why did the council approve the development? Dover was hardly thriving in the decades after the lumber mill closed and then later burned to the ground, but the community maintained a stubborn pride in its autonomy, resisting annexation from nearby Sandpoint and clinging to its identity. What would lead this tight-knit community to so radically alter their beloved town?

The inequalities that result from development are dismissed as the “natural” outcome of progress or growth. But the processes that led to a development like Mill Lake are anything but “natural.”

As the story of Dover unfolded before me, I began to realize that the history of the development was written a century before it was built. On the surface, it was the people of Dover who decided the fate of the old mill site and whether it would or would not be rezoned. But once you step back from that city council vote to see the longer historical trajectory, it becomes only one in a long series of decisions and policies that led to the new Dover. The story of that vote is not just the story of a new development but also one of an aging infrastructure that left an already economically depressed community constantly in the red. It is the story of a community struggling to get the owners of the mill site to take any kind of responsibility for the fate of the town and to recognize the community’s rights. And, looking even further back, it is the story of railroad barons and timber tycoons who made their riches off stolen lands only to leave a legacy of neglect and inequity in the communities they helped to create.

The city council’s decision to approve the development and the long history leading up to that decision serve as an illustrative case study of change in rural communities. One of the ways scholars have understood this change is through the lens of what has been termed rural gentrification,” or the in-migration of more affluent urban and suburban populations into rural areas, drawn there by the charm of rural communities, the scenic beauty of rural spaces, and the lower cost of living.

While some rural communities are losing population and suffer from chronic poverty, others have become popular destinations for in-migrants, thanks to the economic opportunities of the energy boom or the draw of rural lifestyles. This amenity migration” draws new residents to the scenic beauty of the areas. As part of this amenity migration, new arrivals bring with them cultural and economic power that outweighs that of current residents, which often radically alters the communities these amenity migrants move to.

Communities that survived the shift away from extractive industries, then, did so by following this model, turning to tourists, many of whom became residents. While many others in North Idaho and the Mountain West have struggled, communities like Dover (and its larger neighbors Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene) have been able to use the lure of picturesque mountain lakes to transition into tourism or service-based economies. Even if these in-migrants change the towns they enter, the resulting population gains are often celebrated as reinvigorating rural communities, bringing people and jobs to areas hit hard by the decline in extractive industries.

Now the material extracted from the region is the cheap labor of those left behind to staff the restaurants, marinas, ski lifts, and coffee shops.

But for many communities in the Rocky Mountains, the relationship between population and jobs is fraught. This transition does not necessarily mean the kinds of stable career opportunities that extractive industries created in the recent past. An influx of people, drawn by the scenic beauty, may well create jobs in their new communities, but most often these are low-paying service-sector jobs, while at the same time, the cost of living, particularly in housing, often rapidly increases. So while new populations — whether temporary or permanent — increase the overall population, good-paying, stable jobs might still leave these towns. 

In this way, rural gentrification has real consequences for the people and places impacted by these demographic changes. These include the displacement of poor, working-class, and middle-class people from areas experiencing gentrification because of the increasing price of housing and land, sometimes pushing existing residents into communities that are considered chronically poor,” where they can afford housing. Thus, these demands create new opportunities and tensions within the community, particularly its land-use patterns. 

Too often, the inequalities that result from development are dismissed as the natural” outcome of progress or growth. But the processes that led to a development like Mill Lake are anything but natural.” A long history of exploitation, coupled with a legal and political system that privileges the rights of property owners over communities, has shaped Dover as a town since its inception. The path to development was determined by the same political and economic forces that placed Dover on the banks of the river over a hundred years ago.

Dover is the story of the rural West, where survival for working-class people once meant logging or agriculture and now means building homes or waiting tables and being grateful that you have a house to build or table to wait on because it means your community is still there. 

Dover, in other words, can tell us a very specific story about particular people struggling to hold their town together, but it also tells an expansive tale about changes in the American West driven by economic, environmental, and political pressures to fix” the problems that capitalism itself created. 

Ryanne Pilgeram is associate professor of sociology at the University of Idaho.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.