Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2001 Sandpoint Magazine summer 2001
Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2001

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Barbara Rothacker pauses in front of her
underground home during filming of
A Life Apart
in 1977. (Photo by Duane "Cap" Davis)

A life apart quietly ends

She was known as the "hermit lady" amongst her neighbors on Upper Gold Creek Road, a rural area about 20 miles northeast of Sandpoint. Since 1968, Barbara Rothacker had lived simply in a one-room, earth-covered home on 40 acres about two miles off the county road. She had retired early from the University of Delaware, where she was the dean of physical education. Since a brief stop in Coeur d'Alene years earlier, she had dreamed of retiring in Idaho.

Rothacker was only 46 when she sent her only child, Mark, off to college, sold everything but her Jeep, a few books and her camping gear and drove cross country. She soon embarked on building a concrete, free-form structure on property she had purchased two years earlier, fulfilling her desire for a solitary, low-impact life.

By 1973 she noticed "the increase in uninvited visitors with questions about the house." She wrote a book, published in 1983, and provided copies to the local library to deter these visitors and provide answers about the unique structure. In Deer Graze on My Roof, she wrote, "I would deny that I am antisocial, but I like people one at a time."

Some of the men she hired to help tried to sway her from building an earth-sheltered house, but she stood firm. "I know it is a fault to be unable to separate a simple construction job from the weather, roads, wildlife, local personnel … and of course my own cranky, willful, stubborn, female, hermit-self," she wrote.

Rothacker's lifestyle and philosophy attracted the attention of a local director, Robin DuCrest, who secured a grant in 1977 from the Idaho Humanities Commission to film a documentary about her. He enlisted a host of renowned, local artists: Leon Atkinson and Beth & Cinde created the musical score; and cinematographer Erik Daarstad and photographer Cap Davis filmed it. The 22-minute, color film A Life Apart was released in 1978.

"The film was about her lifestyle and philosophy of preservation of the environment," Daarstad said. "She thought there was tremendous waste in our whole society, so she gave up that life. The message of the film was that we had to take care of nature, the environment."

Daarstad recently found a videotape copy of the film in the Spokane Library and watched it for the first time in more than 20 years.

"Unfortunately, the original got lost somehow," he said. "I was surprised at how good a film it actually was. I think the message is stronger now than it was then."

Verna Mae and Cap Davis had been close friends of Rothacker since her first year here. Cap had taken her portrait at Schweitzer in a beautiful parka that was a retirement gift from her University peers. Verna Mae says that Rothacker would stay overnight with them on her regular trips to Sandpoint to get mail -- before there was a mail route on her road.

"She would walk all the way, 23 miles, over two days every two weeks," Verna Mae said. She and Cap and their three daughters would spend long hours visiting with Rothacker, who they found fascinating. "She was probably the most well-read woman I ever met," Verna Mae said.

Just a few months after Cap died in 1996, Rothacker died at age 74 in January 1997. Her body was discovered at home by neighbors who had been summoned by her son to check on her. He was worried because he hadn't heard from her in a while.

Rothacker's "life apart" had spanned nearly 30 years and ended just as she had probably wished -- privately in her beloved home.

-- Billie Jean Plaster

A Life Apart will be screened at the Panida during the "Cream of the Crop" event July 7-8.

Summer 2001

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