The only other place Clair Hillman has lived besides Driggs, Idaho, is Turkey.
He’s an expert potato farmer, and J.R. Simplot needed his help.
“They were going to put McDonald’s in and they needed russet potatoes,” Hillman said. “But other than that, I’ve lived within a mile of the same place all my life.”
When he’s not at his home of nearly 40 years, Hillman, 85, swing dances better than most people half his age at the Wort Hotel, Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and Stagecoach Bar, alternating between live music nights. His cardiologist says it keeps him healthy, and after three heart attacks and multiple surgeries, that’s key.
“I could sit in that big chair over there and waste away,” Hillman said, “or I could get out and go do them things. I was dancing two weeks after my heart wouldn’t start beating.”
You might recognize Hillman by a hat that has frequented his head since he got it two years ago. The cap reads “F.B.B.I.” — “Federal Boob and Butt Inspector.”
“You’d be surprised of how many pictures there are of me in that hat, me with cute girls wearing that hat,” Hillman said. “I bet my picture is all over the United States.”
He also has a variety of other slightly off-color hats including “Clair + Viagra = Superman” and “Them Boobs Look Heavy, Can I Hold Them For You?” Some are custom made by Pine Needle Embroidery in Victor, Idaho.
“They’re a little bad,” he admitted.
Hillman said that everywhere he goes “people know me.” He once danced with Pippa Middleton, sister of Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, at a bluegrass night at The Wort. He was mentioned in a National Geographic story about the Spud Drive-In Theater, where he happened to be digging up potatoes when a reporter came by. When he was on vacation in Cinque Terre, Italy, a couple from New York came up to his table after recognizing him from vacations in Jackson.
“The people I was with at the time said, ‘Good hell, we can’t take you nowhere,’” Hillman said.
On nights he goes out dancing Hillman goes to bed a lot later than the average 85-year-old.
“Sometimes I’ll get back at 1 o’clock in the morning,” he said.
Hillman was born on April 9, 1932, in Driggs. He came into the world with the help of his grandma, who was a midwife.
Things were different back then, he said.
“We didn’t have water in the house, and we didn’t have a well,” he said. “We just got it out of the ditch.”
Asked if he purified the water, Hillman said, “God, no, we drank it.”
What did he and his friends do for fun?
“We’d take a saddle horse, tie a rope to its tail and ski behind it,” he said.
Horses also played a part in him getting to school.
“In the winter, back in the early days, the guys that lived up against the hill took their horses up in the morning and came through here and picked us up to take us to school on sleighs,” he said. “Back in them days they didn’t have big snowplows or anything, and the roads weren’t even open. About Christmastime we put the car up, and that’s how we went to school.”
His family came to Teton Valley, he thinks, because his grandpa was a miner and there used to be mines on the west side of the valley. Hillman’s parents, like him, were farmers and ranchers.
In addition to raising hay, grain, potatoes and dairy cows, Hillman worked as a lift operator at Grand Targhee Resort.
“I’d get up and milk them cows and feed them cows and go up there and work,” he said. “Then I’d come home and do it again. Back in the days of raising a family I milked about 20 cows twice a day.”
People who met Hillman during his 20-plus years on the Idaho Crop Board — including the six years he served as chairman of the advisory board — admired his knowledge, acquired by getting his feet dirty and working with his hands.
“I only got a year and a half of college,” he said, “but I got quite a degree.”
His fingers can’t quite extend all the way anymore, due to several knuckle replacements.
“I’ve milked a lot of cows with them damn hands,” he said.
Hillman met his wife, Margaret Wade, in Driggs at what he called a “confectionery,” or a little store that sold hamburgers and drinks. He scored points with her family by helping out during an emergency.
“Her cousin came down with the mumps and they needed someone to feed the cows,” Hillman said. “So I went over there and fed cows for ’em for about a month.”
After they married they lived just across the street from where Hillman lives now. They raised seven children — JoAnne, who lives with Hillman, and Lane, Craig, Brent, Brenda, Neil and Kevin — as well as two of Margaret’s younger brothers.
“I’m pretty patient,” Hillman said. “With that many kids you’ve got to be a little patient.”
Hillman has seen his fair share of tragedy. He lost his wife to liver cancer 24 years ago, when she was 56. His daughter Brenda died two years ago from lymphoma. She was 54.
How did he tackle such hardships?
“You got to put them behind you and keep going,” he said. “You can’t brood over them too long, ’cause if you do, it just makes it worse.”
After his wife died Hillman went around the West as a handler for bull riders. When asked if he rode bulls, Hillman guffawed and said, “I’m smarter than that. But I love to watch ’em.
“Did I ever tell you how they made a bull rider?” he asked. “They fill his mouth full of marbles, and every time he rides a bull he spits one out. When he’s lost all of his marbles he’s a bull rider.”
Like many hardy souls in the West, Hillman is proud he can still take care of himself. A nursing home is not an option.
“God, no,” he said.“I’m pretty independent. What I tell people is if it gets to that point I take a handful of pills twice a day and I’m going to throw them dang things away and that’ll be the end of me.”
But Hillman doesn’t let his bag of pills keep him from getting out. He recently celebrated his 85th birthday at the Driggs Senior Center, and all six of his children managed to make it. His extended family is large: 19 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, with two more on the way.
“I’ve had a lot of fun in life,” Hillman said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I keep going dancing and playing and meeting people. The good Lord and the devil, neither one wants me, so they’re gonna make me stay down here.”