One of the most popular events every year! Wagon days in Ketchum, brings the history of this region back to life. For details please visit http://wagondays.org
One of the most popular events every year! Wagon days in Ketchum, brings the history of this region back to life. For details please visit http://wagondays.org
Did you know Groucho Marx was married in the Sun Room? Or that Ernest Hemingway penned For Whom The Bell Tolls in Suite 206? How about the fact that the Hokey Pokey was invented in The Ram? Or that one building at the resort has its foundation’s in Rome’s Coliseum? Historical tidbits such as these and many more can be discovered in Sun Valley’s new historical walking tour, “If These Walls Could Talk.”
The three part tour takes in the interior of the Sun Valley Lodge, the buildings of Sun Valley Village, and historical points of note around the resort’s grounds. Designed to help guests discover one of the most unique elements of a visit to the oldest destination ski resort in the country; its history, the tour delves into popular stories from the resort’s past, as well as revealing some lesser known ones. (The hotel was almost called Ski Haven and early guests scaled Bald Mountain in a “tank.”)
I was lucky enough to have the honor of researching and writing this tour for Sun Valley, and I hope you have as much fun walking through it as I did writing it.
For history buffs and lovers of Sun Valley however, time is of the essence. Sun Valley Company is undertaking an extensive remodel of the Lodge, beginning in April. The building, originally constructed in 1936, is about to undergo a complete refresh; including refurbishing the guest rooms and updating the lobby, restaurant and other amenities.
So, for one more stroll the Lodge’s history before its facelift, come visit before the workmen move in later this year. Of course, the history will still be there when the new Lodge is revealed in the summer of 2015 – the Holding family, owners of the resort, have stressed that the character of the historic building will be carefully retained. But one thing that won’t be retained is the iconic Lodge Dining Room. The 78-year-old eatery is making way for a state-of-the-art, 20,000 square foot spa facility. The work begins here next month, and the room where Ginger Rogers once tap danced and David O’Selznick punched a banker to preserve the honor of Claudette Colbert will take its final bow.
Pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour at the concierge desk in Sun Valley Lodge. Or, if you can’t make it to the resort, read the tour on the blog:
Click here for Part One: The Sun Valley Lodge
Click here for Part Two: The Sun Valley Village
Click here for Part Three: Sun Valley Resort
If you have ever enjoyed a summer ice show under the stars, skated a few laps around Sun Valley’s iconic outdoor rink or taken in a Suns hockey game, you have seen something Herman Maricich helped create. For decades, he simply defined skating in Sun Valley. This showman, technician, teacher, visionary and Sun Valley icon passed away peacefully in his sleep on January 4 from congenital heart failure. He was surrounded by family in his Sun Valley home and had recently reached the ripe old age of 90.
He may be best remembered as a daring barrel jumper, a skating polar bear or comic bull in the ice show, or as half of the elegant duo performing to “Singing in the Rain” clad in a tuxedo, but Maricich’s contribution to skating in Sun Valley goes much deeper.
Maricich arrived in Sun Valley in a roundabout way. He began skating in Oakland, California, his hometown, when he was 12 years old. His first laps on the ice were taken on speed skates that he bought for $7 with paper route money. He took to skating right away and trained in speed skating, figure skating and stunt skating; the genesis of acts that would captivate Sun Valley audiences for years.
In 1942, just after the Resort opened its doors, Maricich heard they needed skaters for the show, then called the Ice Carnival. At the time, he was working in a shipyard and the lure of sunshine, clean air and mountains made it an easy decision to hop on a Union Pacific train to Idaho. During that summer, he lived in dorms in the Lodge basement, called the Lower Three, worked as a skating instructor and performed in the weekly shows. In a 2011 interview he said, “All the pretty girls in the show were college girls. They waited tables during the day and skated. The boys also worked at the Resort, as bellmen and waiters. Everyone was young. It was a great time.” He spent free time hiking, picnicking and falling in love with Sun Valley.
Training to be a fighter pilot took Maricich away during the war years. He was an officer in the Air Force, flying P47 single-engine fighter planes. After the war, he returned to California and earned a degree in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley on the GI Bill.
During this time, he kept skating and competing and became Pacific Coast junior champion and skated in two national competitions, taking third place in the pair skating Nationals of 1947. He returned to Sun Valley’s summer shows in 1947 and it was here that he was discovered by Sonja Henie’s producer. Maricich got a part in the Sonja Henie Ice Show and started a career touring the country skating men’s pairs and singles programs.
Sun Valley’s spell brought Maricich back to the Wood River Valley, however, and he settled among the mountains for good in 1953. Sun Valley’s Hans Johnson invited Maricich to come teach and skate at the resort full-time and the Maricich era began in earnest.
In the early 50s, the Resort had two outdoor seasonal rinks. One, a smaller precursor to today’s, had refrigeration system, and one relied on Mother Nature to stay frozen. In 1954, the Resort expanded the outdoor rink to the current size. But by 1962, maintenance of the outdoor rink in winter was proving expensive for the new president of Union Pacific who was trying to cut costs. “Sun Valley never paid for itself,” chuckled Maricich. “We had all these extravagant things going on.”
“I told them, “Why don’t you let me take this over? Clean the ice? Run it?” Maricich said. “I had an old cheap truck with a snowplow. I’d clear the snow and blow it off the end of the rink. I even had my own re-surfacer system.” This truck, called the Hermoni, was only retired last winter after 36 years of service. Maricich began to lease and run the rink in the winter.
When Bill Janss bought the resort in 1964, Maricich secured a year-round lease for the rink and was officially in charge. He said, “With that,” he said, “I changed the idea of the staff. I went out and got as many great pros as I could without all the hierarchy.”
The program gained momentum and credibility. “There weren’t as many skating schools back then. I could build the teaching program and get prominent pros on staff and they brought students with them as well as working with local skaters,” explained Maricich.
As head instructor, Maricich taught the famous and beautiful. He took Lucille Ball and her children for spins around the rink and had to keep reminding a gaggle of Kennedy kids that hockey was not allowed. During his heyday as manager at the rink and lead pro, he rubbed elbows with the likes of Ann Sothern, Leonard Bernstein and Gary Cooper. He took over the children’s skating program and directed their numbers in the ice show. Maricich went on to put together a skating school that has evolved into today’s Sun Valley Figure Skating Club that boasts more than 200 members.
Soon, the program that got so busy that it became evident that the resort needed an indoor rink. “Janss said it was a good idea, but he couldn’t finance it. He was investing in the mountain,” explained Maricich. “I thought about it for a few years and approached him again. I proposed trying to get it done privately with investors. Janss kind of laughed at the idea but wished me well.”
Maricich was determined. “I wrote up a proposal and presented it to about 100 people. Out of those, I got ten people to invest and I found financing for the rest.” He took over as the general manager of a project, paid rent for the land and secured a 15-year lease. Construction took a little more than a year and cost $450,000.
With the addition of the indoor rink, hockey was sure to follow. Bob Johnson came and ran a hockey camp while Maricich set the wheels in motion for a resort hockey team that evolved in the Suns. A strong junior and senior program quickly followed. Today, the Sun Valley Youth Hockey Association coaches almost 200 children every year and adult leagues are filled to capacity.
But even during this period of innovation and construction, Maricich continued to do what he loved to do: entertain. He performed in the ice shows for decades and was known for comedic and daredevil acts. Maricich would choose a theme for each summer season and help to choreograph all the numbers. “He was pretty much the dominant force in coming up with the acts,” said longtime friend and collaborator, Dick Haskell who started in the shows in 1957. He would also create intricate costumes for many of his roles: animal heads likes bulls and donkeys and bears that had moving tongues and tusks and eyes.
“Everything you see at the rinks today are just an extension of what Herman developed,” said Haskell. “He did an awful lot to keep it going.”
Maricich’s “Hermanettes” were also part of the glamor. The “Hermanettes” were beautiful ladies clad in figure flattering costumes who performed support roles in Maricich’s numbers. “We’d pop a bottle of champagne after the shows,” Maricich said. “We were one big family.”
Maricich came to Sun Valley to skate, and skate here he did, for a lifetime. Generations of locals who took their first turns around the ice with the Learn to Skate program, hundreds of pros, Olympic skaters and recreational enthusiasts alike have all benefitted by Maricich’s vision, passion and dedication.
On a personal note, Herman was my friend and my neighbor. He never forgot to ask about my two daughters who are figure skaters, wondering what jumps they were working on or what level test they were preparing for. He was charming, debonair, intelligent, perceptive … truly one-of-a-kind.
The 55th Wagon Days parade takes place tomorrow, Saturday Aug. 31 at 1 p.m. In honor of the event, The Valley Sun’s guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy digs into the history behind the centerpiece of the parade, The Big Hitch, also known as the Lewis Ore Wagons, the only wagons of their kind in existence today.
On August 15, 1958, Katherine Lewis rode down Ketchum’s Main Street as the Queen of the very first Wagon Days Parade. It was her 85th birthday, and the town she had called home for seven decades was honoring her in a way only this town could. Behind her snaked a line of seven unique ore wagons that had been pulled out of storage especially in honor of Ketchum’s grande dame.
As Kate, as she was known, watched the giant wagons rumble through town for the first time in over a decade her thoughts likely travelled back through the years to the story behind this remarkable sight. A story that began, as many stories of the Wild West do, with the quest for gold.
In May of 1879, David Ketchum arrived in Idaho’s Wood River Valley searching for metallic treasures in its mountains. Although he discovered the first lead and silver deposits in the area, Ketchum left a few months later. But many came behind him, chasing the same dream, and on August 2, 1880, the town of Ketchum was born.
One of those who followed in Ketchum’s footsteps was Issac Lewis. But he didn’t come just to mine, he came to build a community. Hailing from Butte, Montana, Lewis was a banker and a businessman and – as many businessmen did in those days – he saw an opportunity to create a community out of this town of dusty mining tents and dirty miners. He quickly invested in real estate, opened the town’s first drug store, helped build the Gueyer Hot Springs Resort, purchased the weekly newspaper, and constructed the town’s first bank. In his own words he “virtually made the town.” The effort Issac put into building Ketchum is still visible in the form of the First National Bank building which still stands on Main Street.
Issac’s son, Horace, soon joined him from Montana, along with his wife, Katherine. They settled on the brand new Lewis Ranch, which extended from just east of what is now Spruce Avenue in Ketchum to the mouth of Trail Creek Canyon. Horace, looking out at the daunting mountains surrounding his new home, spied another investment opportunity for his family: transporting the lead and silver from the valleys beyond into the new railroad-town of Ketchum.
In 1884 he formed the Ketchum & Challis Toll Road company to construct a road over the precipitous Trail Creek Summit and built a chain of massive wagons known as the Ketchum Fast Freight Line. A testament to human engineering and masterful animal husbandry, these giant wagons carried between 18,000 and 24,000 pounds of ore along a road no wider than a wagon. They careened around hairpin turns and teetered along sheer ledges on giant six-foot wheels, covering 12 to 14 miles per day. Built to withstand the stresses of traversing the summit loaded with ore, the wagons were daisy chained together and powered by a team of draft mules, chosen for their temperament, strength and stamina. This awesome combination of metal, wood and beast was masterfully controlled by a unique craftsman, the mule skinner. Using a jerk-line, a rein approximately 100 feet long attached to each member of the team, the mule skinner controlled as many as 20 mules at a time through a series of distinct whips and jerks.
This video demonstrates the skill of the mule skinner, showing how each mule in the team of up to twenty, must be commanded to perform a different task. (Not displaying? Click here.)
At the height of the mining activity in the Wood River, Big Lost, and Salmon River valleys the Ketchum Fast Freight Line employed 700 mules and 30 wagons to haul 700,000 pounds of ore to the Philadelphia Smelter on Warm Springs Road annually. There it was turned from raw ore into precious metal and shipped down the Oregon Short Line railroad.
Between 1880 and 1885 approximately $12 million worth of lead and silver left the valley. By 1902, when rail service to Mackay and Challis arrived, the Ketchum Fast Freight Line became obsolete and in 1909 the wagons were retired for good. Two years later Horace passed away.
For a couple years, the wagons sat sadly in a barn on the Lewis Ranch. Then, in 1911, Horace’s widow, Katherine, sold the ranch to Ernest Brass, moving down the road to a house in town. Her home is also still standing, currently occupied by the Elephant’s Perch sporting goods shop.
Connoisseurs of the history of Sun Valley Resort will have already made the connection in this story. That ranch between Ketchum and Trail Creek, which Kate sold to the Brass family, had a grander future in store.
For the next 20 years Ernest Brass and his large family struggled to get by. In January 1936, after losing half his herd to an appetite for the poisonous purple larkspur, Brass met a handsome foreigner named Count Felix Schaffgotsch. Schaffgotsch was on a scouting mission for Averell Harriman, searching for the perfect spot at the end of a railroad track on which the president of Union Pacific Railroad could build a luxurious ski lodge. Brass Ranch was that spot. In April, Ernest Brass sold his 3,888 acres to Union Pacific for $39,000. That December the Sun Valley Lodge opened its doors. Among the names on the guest list for opening night was Katherine Lewis.
The wagons on the other hand, were not invited to the party. Mining had long since been replaced in the valley’s economy by sheep, who had no need for breakneck rides down mountain sides. These giant emblems of Ketchum’s past sat in a rapidly crumbling barn along what is now Sun Valley Road until 1925 when one of the valley’s last teamsters, Sam Sanders, brought them out for the Fourth of July parade, and then one more time in 1940 for the Sun Valley Rodeo. For the next 15 years the wagons were left silent and forgotten. Then, in 1958, the city of Ketchum was looking for a way to honor its founding mother Kate Lewis’ 85th birthday. What better way to do that than to resurrect the source of her family’s fortunes, the Lewis Ore Wagons, and parade them through town, in what became known as the first Wagon Days parade.
In October 1958, two months after riding triumphantly through Ketchum, Kate Lewis passed away. Her nephew Palmer G Lewis, donated the wagons to the city on the condition that they be displayed once a year to commemorate Idaho’s mining heritage, and so the annual event that is Wagon Days was born.
In 1985 the wagons were given their very own home, a museum designed and built especially to house them, and allow them to be on display year round. The city has kept its promise to the Lewis family, and trots out these massive symbols of American history annually (barring wildfire and city politics) for the grand finale to the Wagon Days Parade. Held Labor Day weekend, the event has extended into a 5 day festival celebrating the area’s heritage, but the Saturday parade at 1 p.m. is still the centerpiece, and the Lewis Ore Wagons’ hair-raising trip down Sun Valley Road and around the corner onto Main Street is still the highlight. If she could see what “her town” has become, and the smiles of joy the parade brings to the thousands who gather to watch the largest non-motorized parade in the West, Kate would be so very proud.
Preserving this unique and irreplaceable relic of history is a costly effort. As the Lewis Ore Wagons near their 130th birthday, the Wagon Days Committee is looking to raise $10,000 to help maintain the wagons through an indiegogo campaign. Donate to the campaign here.
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen … but do you recall? Streamer, Liner, Clipper, Saint and Nick? Probably not. Their’s was a short and unhappy life in Sun Valley, as the resort’s first and only reindeer herd.
It was 1937, and in anticipation of Sun Valley’s second ever Christmas, marketing genius Steve Hannagan, the man who gave Sun Valley its name, convinced resort owner Averell Harriman that a herd of reindeer was an essential ingredient for a picture perfect Sun Valley Christmas. Hannagan tasked Andres Bango, a Laplandar whose father had brought the first reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in 1898, to round up 13 of the beasts from the tundras of Teller, Alaska and escort them by boat, plane and train to the heart of Idaho. Newspaper reports from the day indicate that Harriman and Hannagan had hopes this group may be the nucleus of a permanent stand of reindeer in the Sawtooths.
Once arrived in Sun Valley, the beasts were fitted with special harnesses and sleighs for ferrying guests from the railroad to the resort and, most importantly, to pull Santa’s sleigh. However, while every comfort was afforded the reindeer – including a special barn built just for them – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, Streamer, Liner, Clipper, Saint and Nick had a difficult transition to life in Idaho. Reindeer are the only domesticated deer in the world (in the wild they are known as caribou), and in general they are easy to domesticate, being naturally docile with a trusting disposition. But the 13 reindeer that ended up in Sun Valley were not so cooperative. They did not take kindly to being required to abandon their usual diet of tundra moss in favor of the more readily available alfalfa and by all accounts arrived from Alaska on the verge of starvation. A train load of moss was quickly dispatched from their homeland, but before it arrived the creatures had made the switch to alfalfa, refusing to return to their native diet.
By this point, the baker’s dozen were a nervous and ill-tempered bunch and when Bango hitched them up to a sleigh he couldn’t control them. To keep them running away or attacking passengers he had to hold their antlers until the sleigh was loaded and then release them and leap into the driver’s seat. According to his biographer Rudy Abramson, Harriman witnessed the creatures’ cantankerous nature first hand during the 1937 lighting of the Christmas tree. Santa Claus was delivered to the Lodge on his sleigh, but as soon as he stepped down, the reindeer charged at the jolly red man. The sight of a terrified Santa being pursued by angry reindeer in front of all his high-profile guests was enough for Harriman, and the reindeer were banished from Sun Valley.
But what became of the Sun Valley reindeer? While there is no record of exactly what happened to them, today caribou do exist in Idaho, although they are one of the most critically endangered mammals in the country. The last herd of Woodland Caribou in America lives in Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho, eastern Washington and southern British Columbia and numbers just 34. It’s nice to think that maybe, just maybe, Streamer, Liner, Clipper, Saint and Nick led their brethren to the cooler, wetter climes of northern Idaho, where they lived out their lives as wild caribou. Perhaps, 75 years on, their descendants are still roaming that land.
Monday night members of the Sun Valley Snowsports School will gather with lighted torches to ski in unison down Dollar Mountain in the Torchlight Parade. This spellbinding trail of fire has snaked down the mountainside almost every Christmas Eve for the last 75 years, providing a unique spectacle for the crowds assembled below.
To get the scoop on this centerpiece of Sun Valley’s Christmas celebrations, I spoke with Nelson Bennett, 98, an early director of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. Bennett arrived at the resort in 1940 and is one of the last people with memories from the resort’s infancy. ”Friedl Pfeiffer was instrumental in starting the parade,” Bennett recalls. “I believe it was in his second winter season. It was something he brought from Austria. It occurred each Christmas on Dollar Mountain.”
A famed Austrian ski racer, Pfeiffer joined the Sun Valley Ski School in 1938, taking over from Hans Hauser as director later that winter. Pfeiffer left the resort in 1941 following the outbreak of WWII. While his Austrian origins initially aroused the suspicion of the FBI, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. army and fought with the 10th Mountain Division, along with Bennett and others from Sun Valley. After the war, Purple Heart in hand, he headed straight for Colorado to found Aspen ski resort.
“It was sort of interesting to be watching [the parade] from the valley or the village,” Bennett continued. “Because every so often a torch would get out of line and you’d come to find out that the torch had an intoxicated skier on it,” he said with a chuckle.
After a few years as a spectator, Bennett came to participate in the tradition himself. “Yes, I skied in it eventually,” he said. “Led the damn thing down the hill in later years.”
This year the parade is dedicated to the memory of Andy and Alice Schernthanner, two local residents who passed away this year following a collective century involved in Sun Valley and skiing. It will be the first time the parade has been a dedicated event.
The torchlight parade and holiday fireworks begin at approximately 5:30 p.m., December 24, following the free performance of Nutcracker on Ice at the Sun Valley outdoor ice rink, which begins at 5 p.m. Free hot chocolate, cookies, carol singing and visits from Santa round out the festivities along with free ice skating after the show.