Wagon Days. August 28 – September 1, 2014

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



Sun Valley History: The wagons of Wagon Days

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.

The 2013 Wagon Days poster by Ketchum photographer Steve Snyder showcases the majestic beauty of the Lewis Ore Wagons. Click on the poster to purchase a copy.

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.

The Lewis Ore Wagons remain a centerpiece of the valley's history. Alongside Bald Mountain they are one of the most recognizable features of the former mining town of Ketchum. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Resort.

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.

Kate Lewis's moved into this home in Ketchum in 1911. It is now the Elephant's Perch sporting goods store. Photo from Google Maps.

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.

Jennifer Tuohy

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.

For a full schedule of events this Wagon Days’ weekend go hereFor a list of the 100 unique wagons from across the West participating in the 2013 Wagon Days’ parade click here.  


I Can See Clearly Now

Blue skies and picture perfect weather welcomed diners to lunch at Roundhouse Restaurant Thursday

Blue skies and picture perfect weather welcomed diners to lunch at Roundhouse Restaurant Thursday

The weather Thursday was bluebird skies, scattered white fluffy clouds, bright sunshine and no smoke: the perfect day to kick off Labor Day weekend by hopping on the River Run gondola to ascend to a barbecue lunch with the best view in town.  Sailing over the single track mountain bike trails and ski runs, the ride on the gondola is beyond scenic. As you soar above the tree line, the majestic Pioneer Mountains provide a sublime vista to the east, while the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley take form in miniature below.

But getting there is only half the fun when you decide to have lunch at the historic Roundhouse restaurant. Perched at 7,700-feet above Ketchum, Roundhouse says Sun Valley like nothing else. With its rustic interior, vast decks and unparalleled views, a meal there shouldn’t be missed.

The view is unbeatable from the Roundhouse deck -- and the barbecue lunch lives up to its surroundings

The view is unbeatable from the Roundhouse deck -- and the barbecue lunch lives up to its surroundings

Roundhouse just reopened for the rest of the summer season and will serve a tasty, varied barbecue menu through September 8. Choose from traditional beef burgers or veer into the more esoteric: buffalo burgers, chicken burgers, veggie burgers (my choice – delicious!), bratwursts and entrée salads. Sides include homemade coleslaw, potato salad, fruit salad or chips. Enjoy a beer, wine, cocktail or soft drink with your sophisticated picnic on the deck.

From Friday to Monday, the Lookout Restaurant atop Baldy will also offer its wildly popular taco bar at lunch to those enjoying a hike, bike ride or sightseeing trip on the mountain. Lift service to Lookout begins where the gondola lets off to get riders to the tip top of the hill.

A gondola ride up to the historic Roundhouse for lunch is a must-do Sun Valley activity

A gondola ride up to the historic Roundhouse for lunch is a must-do Sun Valley activity

Lunch with a view is just one of many must-do activities to put on your Labor Day weekend “to-do” list. One of the busiest holidays of the year in Sun Valley, there are parades to delight; antiques and art to browse and buy; cars to covet; pancakes of which to partake.

The annual multi-day celebration that is Wagon Days is jam-packed. Starting Friday, Arts, Crafts and Antiques Fairs can be found up and down the Valley. From 4 – 7 p.m. that day, cowboy poets, old-time fiddling, western music and more will delight at the Ore Museum in Ketchum with concerts from Matt Renner and the band Slow Children Playing to follow.  Also Friday night, local art galleries will open their doors and welcome lookers and buyers from 5 – 8 p.m.

The "Big Hitch," made up of six enormous ore wagons is a sight to behold and the grand finale of Saturday's parade

The "Big Hitch," made up of six enormous ore wagons, is a sight to behold as the grand finale of Saturday's parade

Saturday is the big show with many events leading up to Wagon Days‘ famous Big Hitch Parade. Starting at 8 a.m., bring the entire family to Ketchum for an old-fashioned, all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast with all proceeds benefiting local youth groups. The kids can work off that carb-fueled energy at a children’s carnival featuring mini train rides, astro jumps, a climbing wall, bungee run and more.

At 1 p.m. the Big Hitch Parade rolls down Sun Valley Road. This, the largest non-motorized parade in the Northwest, features museum quality buggies, carriages, carts, stagecoaches and wagons that illustrate and honor the tenacity of the area’s early settlers. Six gigantic Lewis Ore Wagons, the Big Hitch, pulled by a 20-mule jerkline, offer the eye popping grand finale. Music and festivity in Ketchum extend well into the night following the parade.

The Great Wagon Days Duck Race also follows at Rotary Park. A favorite of children of all ages, this event launches thousands of plastic ducks into to Big Wood River to ‘race,’ all while benefiting local non-profits.

Sun Valley's Silver Car Auction is eye candy for anyone who loves fabulous four-wheelers

Sun Valley's Silver Car Auction is eye candy for anyone who loves fabulous four-wheelers

In Sun Valley, on both Saturday and Sunday, be sure to come by the Silver Car Auction beginning at 9 a.m. 250 collector car owners and dealers display and auction off unique and beautiful cars until 8 p.m. There is eye candy for everyone from admirers of classic cars to sports cars and is a must-see for aficionados of every persuasion.

While in Sun Valley, be sure to stop into the Konditorei or Gretchen’s for a delicious breakfast or lunch, or grab gourmet sandwiches to go at the Short Line Deli followed by a special ice cream treat at a la mode. Village restaurants will be serving dinner over the weekend, too – the perfect way to unwind and enjoy the best in local flavors and handcrafted recipes after a very busy day.

And then there is the final Sun Valley on Ice show of the year starring Johnny Weir, rodeos, more live music, a hoedown, western dance – not to mention golf, biking, hiking, tennis, horseback riding, the Gun Club, fly fishing, swimming …! There is so much to do, it’s a good thing it’s a long weekend.

The Great Wagon Days Duck Race is a spectacle and fun for children of all ages!

The Great Wagon Days Duck Race is a spectacle and fun for children of all ages!

We can’t wait to see everyone out in Sun Valley and Ketchum enjoying glorious weather (the forecast looks great), a fantastic array of events and fun for everyone. We are all so grateful that Wagon Days is on and better than ever and can’t wait to share this spectacular weekend, as well as our own very special, very active version of normal, with our guests. It’s going to be a great Labor Day weekend!

To borrow shamelessly from the incomparable Johnny Nash, Jimmy Nash and others, “It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day…”


There’s No Place Like Home

The view out Greenhorn last Wednesday, preceding Thursday evacuation of the area

The Beaver Creek Fire gears up for its devastating assault on Greenhorn Gulch Wednesday of last week

Dramatic, uncertain, awesome (in the true sense of the word): It has been a week to remember in Sun Valley. As the Beaver Creek wildfire took control of the topography surrounding our beautiful valley, bending residents and visitors to its will, more than 100,000 acres were engulfed in a week’s time. Upwards of 2,000 homes were evacuated and close to 1,800 fire personnel from all over the nation and all over Idaho stepped into the flames and smoke. Fire visible from the State Highway 75 ran up and down mountains while the air traffic overhead, comprised of attack helicopters, small planes and even DC-10s, worked to beat it back.

And while this crisis isn’t over, when I returned to the Wood River Valley and to my home on Monday, after three days away, things were definitely looking up. Through the valiant efforts of firefighters, many residents this week were allowed back into their homes. In Ketchum, though quiet for August, people enjoyed lunch outside beneath increasingly blue skies, shopped great sales and a few friends I know even enjoyed a round of golf Tuesday morning. In true Ketchum spirit, people were out running and biking the local paths.

While the crisis is not over, Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey are showing signs of normalcy

Though the crisis is not over, Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey are showing signs of normalcy

While it is crucial to emphasize that this fire is only about ten percent contained and the most important thing we can all do is stay out of the way of emergency responders, listen to law enforcement and let everyone do their job, I have to admit, I was thrilled to be home. With my evacuated parents taking up residence with us for a time, Monday night we settled back in, thankful and humbled by the events swirling around us.

Sun Valley is place that breeds fierce loyalty. Very few people simply ‘end up’ here. The vast majority of residents, second homeowners and visitors very deliberately choose Sun Valley for everything that makes it unique. We choose to raise our children amid peace and security. We choose to retire in a place where there is a close-knit community. We choose to vacation amid some of the most spectacular lands in the country offering unbeatable skiing and snowboarding, cross-country, fly-fishing, mountain biking and on and on. We choose Sun Valley.

This isn’t just a place. It is a way of life. It is a valley personified by exactly the type of behavior seen during this fire – that of open invitations to guest rooms, couches, transportation, information. It is a place where neighbors take care of one another; where a familiar face spotted when away from town feels like a member of the family.

Fighting fire -- ski resort style

Fighting fire -- ski resort style. The snow guns on Leigh Lane on Baldy's Seattle Ridge pumped water to keep slopes damp in case embers hit

Sun Valley Resort is also an exceptional neighbor. This week, many evacuees chose to move to safety and comfort at the Resort, taking up residence at the Lodge or Inn. The company worked closely with firefighters and emergency personnel in helping to protect all that is sacred here, including a symbol of what we value the most — Bald Mountain. Snowmaking guns were turned on full force to protect Seattle Ridge and the area below and everyone fought together, and continue to fight together, to make sure Baldy comes through this unscathed.

In addition, the Resort will offer its popular Sun Valley On Ice show general admission tickets free to the public on August 24. There, they will collect donations for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

Show your support for Sun Valley over the Labor Day weekend and enjoy Wagon Days -- one of the most popular events of the year

Show your support for Sun Valley over the Labor Day weekend and enjoy Wagon Days -- one of the most popular events of the year

As it becomes increasingly safe to return to a more normal routine, my suggestion is that everyone eat at our wonderful local restaurants, shop at the Sun Valley Village and Ketchum and Hailey’s one-of-a-kind boutiques and galleries, frequent our local markets. Stay for Wagon Days over Labor Day weekend — it’s on – and enjoy the most memorable parade you will ever see as well as many other surrounding events. Supporting local businesses might be the most important thing we do once this blaze is contained.

From the ashes will come some spectacular wildflowers, an embarrassment of morels and, probably, some fantastic new backcountry skiing. After the Castle Rock fire, the ski season on Baldy was especially good. Next summer, Sun Valley will be in bloom and Mother Nature’s unbelievably violent housecleaning will inevitably produce new opportunities in and around the Wood River Valley.

Fire teams from Ketchum, Hailey, Wood River and Bellevue all staged outside St. Luke's Wood River Hospital south of Ketchum on Tuesday afternoon while helicopters worked in the distance

Fire teams from Ketchum, Hailey, Wood River and Bellevue all staged outside St. Luke's Wood River Hospital south of Ketchum on Tuesday afternoon while helicopters worked in the distance

Thank you, firefighters doesn’t begin to express it. Thank you emergency services personnel. Thank you neighbors. Please stay tuned to this blog for more information about developments in the Beaver Creek fire, opportunities for the community to come together and opportunities for visitors to enjoy our amazingly special Valley into the fall.

As for me, September is always my favorite month of the year and I am very, very happy to be home.


The Sun Valley Lodge was calm and surrounded by pretty clear skies Tuesday afternoon

The Sun Valley Lodge was calm and surrounded by pretty clear skies Tuesday afternoon

A Wagon Days Farewell


A 20-draft-mule jerkline powers this Big Hitch, a collection of historic ore mining wagons. This unique sight is the traditional finale of the Wagon Days parade.

One of the common sayings around town is that you come to Sun Valley for the winters, but you stay for the summers. As Averell Harriman discovered after he opened the doors to his extravagant palace in the snow, the Wood River Valley is an ideal summer playground. Harriman quickly decided to keep those doors open and take advantage of the spectacular Sun Valley summers. Today, 76 years later, we are still enjoying the whirlwind two months between July 4th and Labor Day, when summer wraps its arms around the communities of the Wood River Valley. It may be brief, but it is a whole lot of fun; summer in Sun Valley is something not to be missed.

This Labor Day weekend marked the official end to the summer of 2012, and for over half a century the annual Wagon Days festivities have been there to send it off in style. Recognized as the largest non-motorized parade in the Pacific Northwest, the Wagon Days parade is the highlight of the weekend, featuring dozens of “museum-quality buggies, carriages, tacks, carts, buckboards and wagons of every variety in existence today.”

This year The Sun Family was offered the chance of riding in one of the antique wagons. Having been a spectator for seven of the last nine years, being able to participate in this historic parade was too good an opportunity to miss (even if 2 hours in a horse-drawn buggy had the potential to make Baby Sun a squirmy mess).

Fueling up with Mrs Fisher Cat at Papoose Club's annual Pancake breakfast

To get prepped for our Wagon Days opus, we chowed down with our parade companion, Mrs. Fisher Cat (in town visiting The Toy Store), at Papoose Club’s annual pancake breakfast (another wonderful tradition, read about it here.). Local historian Ivan Swaner was more than happy to keep Kitty company and fill her in on the story of Wagon Days.

Little Sun and Mrs Fisher Cat of the Calico Critter Family

Next we headed to the Sun Valley Horseman Center to meet our wagon and gaze in awe at the assembled parade entrants. From Ralphie the Camel to the beautiful Eh Capa bareback riders, there was a lot to take in. Little Sun and Baby Sun were thrilled to be able to get up close and personal with the wide-array of entrants, it was better than a trip to the zoo!

Little Sun and Baby Sun survey the Wagon Days Parade participants from inside a Black Surrey pulled by spotted draft horses

Next it was time to saddle up and hop on our ride for the afternoon, two beautiful spotted draft horses pulling a Black Surrey (with a fringe on top!). While there were a few white knuckle moments as horses crossed paths and wagons rolled, overall riding in the parade was one of the best experiences I’ve had during my time living in Idaho. Waving at the crowds and seeing the smiling, happy people waving back at us we felt – for a few brief moments – like Ketchum Royalty. Baby Sun was in her element (there is a stage somewhere in her future…), waving energetically the entire time (until she fell asleep mid-wave somewhere along Main Street).

The Sun family hitched a ride in Mrs. Fisher Cat's rig, proudly sponsored by Carol Knight of The Toy Store

We owe the wonderful Carol Knight a big dose of gratitude for letting us ride along with Mrs. Fisher Cat in The Toy Store sponsored Black Surrey. It was lovely to be associated with a fixture of the Ketchum shopping scene for over 30 years, all along the route pockets of Ketchum “old-timers” cheered with extra enthusiasm when they saw Carol’s distinctive logo on the side of the wagon.

The view from the Wagon: Sun Valley Road as seen from the Wagon Days Parade

Viewing Wagon Days from inside the parade gave me a lovely perspective on my hometown for close to a decade. It was especially poignant as next month The Sun Family is moving on. After a wonderful nine years living and working in the Wood River Valley we are heading East to join my family in Charleston, South Carolina. We will dearly miss this valley. It is where Brian and I began our lives together, where we welcomed our children, Owen and Rose, and where we have made many dear friends.

In particular I will miss Sun Valley Resort. It is all too easy for locals to take for granted the special place they have on their doorsteps. I for one, only really understood the value of what Averell Harriman brought to this remote corner of Idaho when I started digging into the history of the resort, which is a rich tapestry of fascinating stories and entertaining insights into how these towns became what they are today. I challenge all locals and visitors to take a few minutes of their time to walk through the grand doors of the Sun Valley Lodge into the lobby, pause for a moment and just look around. Eighty years ago, the spot where you are standing was just a barren field of sagebrush, surrounded by nothing but a struggling mining town and untamed mountains. Today a grand resort stands there, an integral part of the thriving, complicated and extraordinary community that surrounds it. Averell would be proud.

For me, riding in the Wagon Days parade was the perfect way to say goodbye to Ketchum.


Happy Trails…

Jennifer Tuohy (aka Mrs. Sun)

p.s. While the end of the road nears for The Sun Family, The Valley Sun blog will continue. Watch this space!

Wagon Days

Wagon Days

Labor Day Weekend

Saturday, Sept 1 – Monday, Sept 3, 2012

Wagon Days features events including a rodeo, car collector’s auction, antique show, community barbeque, a western shootout, live music, and the Pacific Northwest’s longest non-motorized parade.


The Big Hitch Parade has grown into the largest non-motorized parade in the West, displaying more than a hundred museum-quality buggies, carriages, tacks, carts, buckboards, and wagons of every variety in existence today. The Wagon Days Big Hitch is powered by an authentic sixteen-draft mule jerkline. Adding spice to the parade is a lively assortment of authentically costumed individuals, numerous breeds of horses, including Arabs, Morgans, and Pasos, as well as, professional and scholastic marching bands from around the state and the intermountain west.

Contact City of Ketchum for more information:  208-726-7803