Dallas Clinger flew his P-40 into a swarm of Japanese Zeros and came home as Wyoming’s first fighter ace, but it didn’t earn him any credit.
In 1944 the Flying Tiger pilot had his eye on 125 acres along what’s now Highway 89 just north of Alpine, a stretch of dusty sagebrush and thin grass on the market for $1,200. But he had just $600. He went to the bank in Afton to ask for a loan.
The answer: Welcome home, but no.
“The bank turned him down flat,” said his son, Michael Clinger. “They said, ‘Worthless land.’”
But the war hero hadn’t been raised on a ranch in an empty corner of Wyoming and gone to China to fight the Japanese without having some determination. He came up with the money, added another 80 acres a few years later and more after that, finally owning about 250.
In 1944 his dad, well-known cowboy, teacher, coach and gubernatorial candidate Wardell Clinger, started work on the Flying Saddle Lodge. It opened in 1949 under the direction of Dallas and his wife, Anne, a big log hotel with a restaurant, two bars, gambling and an airstrip steps away.
“You could park your airplane in front of the lodge,” his son said recently.
The Clingers once owned nearly all the land on both sides of U.S. Highway 89 north of the Wyoming Highway 26 junction, along with a lot more around Alpine and south toward Etna. But now Clinger and his sister, Karyn, are the last of the family, and they hope to sell the second-to-last piece they own.
The unincorporated 38 acres adjacent to their Nordic Inn — itself on about 15 acres — could be anyone’s for $12.5 million. And, Michael Clinger said, it’s a great place for the housing and locally oriented commercial space Alpine needs if it’s going to become a real town. It could be, he said, a center of a community, a downtown that Alpine lacks.
“Alpine will be a city whether it likes it or not, that’s a given” Clinger said, looking over the neighboring land. “And this will be part of the city of Alpine.”
Alpine Mayor Kennis Lutz isn’t as sure as Clinger that Alpine lacks a center but agrees the Clinger parcel will play a big part as his town grows.
“It’s a great piece of property, on our westerly border,” Lutz said last week. “So it would be ideal for that to become part of the town. We’ve got no other way to grow.”
What most people think of as Alpine is on the south side of the Snake River bridge, where Alpine Market and a majority of other of local businesses sit. But it’s in a tight spot. Alpine is wedged along the highway by U.S. Forest Service land to the east and north and by the Snake and Greys rivers.
The result, in Clinger’s estimation, is that Alpine has a “roadside look.” He said Alpine, with a planning commission but no professional planning staff, has “randomly grown.”
But it’s growing nonetheless. It was a crossroads with a few scattered ranches when the Clingers arrived from Idaho in 1920 to run sheep, when “the nearest neighbor was 3 miles away.” The population was still only 200 in 1990. By 2000 it was up to 550, then 828 in the 2010 census. A 2019 estimate put the population at 924.
Almost all the growth — and even suburbs growing on ranchland to the south — has been driven by the boom of tourism and rising property prices in Jackson, nearly 35 miles north. Mayor Lutz estimated that “between 70% and 80% of the people commute” to Jackson. The average daily traffic count north on 89 is about 4,800 of the 7,100 count at the 89-26 junction.
But while Alpine is a Jackson satellite, Lutz said, it could become more of its own place with new development.
“There’s not enough business here to be self-sustaining yet,” he said. “We need homes, we need restaurants, need support business, like auto parts, retail, that are the things it takes to make a community.”
“Whoever buys the land will do their own thing,” Clinger said. But he agreed that he’d like to see the land become “hotels, restaurants, shops, galleries, commercial development where you could buy things, places where people could live.”
Alpine has already spread in that direction, filling in the available private land, however narrow. The Flying Saddle, in redeveloped form after the original burned in 1978, is owned by Jackson businessman and former mayor Abi Garaman. At the meeting of 89 and 26 the KJ’s Alpine truck stop is always busy, and near the intersection a clinic is planned by Star Valley Health, which has its hospital in Afton, 30 miles south. Across the highway the walls are up for a 56,000-square-foot Broulim’s supermarket, planned to open in the spring. A 120-space RV park is planned next door.
So Clinger’s idea for mixed residential and commercial fits in with what’s already happening. With the development already along the highway, the 1,600 feet of road frontage of his 38 acres is natural commercial, Clinger said. Back from the road could be dense housing, up against the rise to the hilltop where the Clingers developed 58 house lots years ago.
Don Kundlinger is a longtime resident of the area — he lives in Grover — who does business as Jackson Hole Advisors Inc. and is helping Clinger market the parcel. He praises it as a place to make a center for the town.
“There are not many large properties that could accommodate a large city center. ... and it’s the largest property in Alpine that not part of the city of Alpine,” Kundlinger said. “What it needs is an excellent, well thought out master plan.”
Clinger, 73, and his sister Karyn, 75, said they’ll leave that master plan to whoever buys the acreage. But they have their own personal plan. Two brothers, Kirby and Dallas, died in a 1969 light plane crash. The surviving Clingers have no children, and “there are no heirs,” Michael Clinger said: “Our time will soon be over, and we have a responsibility.”
That responsibility, he said, is to wrap up the Clinger family’s role in Alpine, especially disbursing the wealth they’ve inherited and worked to preserve.
“Mother and father were hard workers, and smart,” Clinger said. “And they worked on the idea to have no debt.” And all that “paid off, and we’ve done well.”
The Clingers have decided not to leave the future of what they own to chance. Other parts of their holdings have been sold in pieces over the years, and selling the 38 acres is the first step of the rest of their plan. If they get their asking price, they said, it’s much more than needed to carry them the rest of their lives.
They’ve engaged three trustees who will handle what’s likely to be a large pile of cash that they will leave behind. The idea, Michael said, is that the trustees will find people who combine need and worthwhile goals and can use the money.
“The family created a lot of wealth, and we’d like to give other people a chance,” he said. “People that banks won’t work with. We’d like to give them a little shove — all our parents needed was $600.”
There is no official “Clinger Foundation,” and for the people who receive the help it will be a blessing that comes without them asking and without them knowing where it came from.
It also works the other way: “We won’t be named, and we will never know who those people are,” Clinger said.
“We used to own everything around here,” Karyn Clinger said. “If there’s a way we can change someone else’s life anonymously, I think that’s the best we can do, make a difference.”
After all, she said, “what’s the money to us? We’ve lived our bucket list.”
The same for the Nordic Inn property, which they own with Brent Johnston, a musician and the chef at its Brenthoven Restaurant. The buyer of the 38 acres will have right of first refusal to buy the Nordic property when the Clingers are gone or ready to give it up.
But the lodge with its eight rooms, guest house and the house where the Clingers live isn’t included: Money is already set aside to demolish it.
“All the buildings will be removed, the property restored and sold,” Clinger said. “Let the next generation of owners do with it as they please.”