BY KAREN BOSSICK
The Wood River Journal
Marge Heiss was in her mid 20s when she and her sister Roberta showed a dark-haired man with an Austrian accent around their ranch, pushing themselves along on skis with the handles of pitchforks.
The man didn’t make much of an impression on Heiss.
“He was just a man with ski clothes on. And he had skis that were very different from our long wooden hand-me-downs with their elk hide coverings,” said Heiss, her 94-year-old grey eyes sharp as a tack beneath her wispy red hair. “I remember him coming off Dollar Mountain and I couldn’t believe the pretty short turns he could make.”
Impressive or not, the tours the two sisters gave that young man around their Brass Ranch turned out to be pivotal in the history of the Wood River Valley.
Count Felix Schaffgatsch liked what he saw and within months he and Union Pacific Chairman Averell Harriman were building America’s first destination ski resort, constructing the Sun Valley Lodge where the Brass cattle basked in the warmth of the winter sun.
Cut off by unplowed roads and rails, Ketchum sported less than a hundred full-time residents the winter before Sun Valley opened. A year later, the mountain hamlet was swollen with hundreds of movie stars and other wealthy Americans, recalled Heiss, as she kicked back in her chair at the Bellevue retirement center where she now lives.
Heiss was 2 when her family moved here from Caldwell where her father had herded cattle in the Boise Basin and Jordan Valley, Ore.
Her father Ernest Brass had brought a ranch from the widow of Ketchum’s ore wagon magnate Horace Lewis in an auction.
He moved the family into a ranch house near what is now St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Across the way, where the LDS church sits today, were the corrals. Nearby, sat the long barn, which served as a granary and machine shop. The red barn still stands, one of Sun Valley’s landmarks.
“I can still see the ranch house sitting along Trail Creek so plainly,” said Heiss, closing her eyes momentarily as she described the white and green two-bedroom home with its large, long kitchen and pot-bellied stove.
“We had so many more thunderstorms in those days than we do now. They frightened mother so much that she’d put all five of us in bed and cover us with pillows to protect us.”
Marge and two of her three sisters were avid horse riders who rented out “reject polo horses from Boise” to the Magic Valley residents who vacationed in the area. Dressed in their gabardine riding pants, the sisters often delivered mail and supplies to herders in Elkhorn, Trail Creek drainage and the Lost River Range.
In their spare time, they rode around the long-gone wetlands in Elkhorn Valley and even up Baldy.
“When I was 13 I hiked up Baldy for the first time. But I was no hiker,” she said.
Ernest Brass’ cattle operations went belly up in the mid-1920s because of a glutted cattle market. His brother, a Nebraska banker, bailed him out and he added sheep to the fold.
But cold, hard winters and the Depression continued to make it impossible for him to scratch out a decent living. When his cattle were poisoned eating larkspur on Brass Ranch land in what is now Elkhorn, he and his sister Eva traded 3,888 acres of land for a $39,000 check from the Union Pacific Railroad.
Did the Brass family think the Union Pacific people were crazy building a big hotel in the middle of their ranch or stringing new-fangled ski lifts up the mountain?
Heiss shrugged, “I didn’t really think much about it. A lot of things are done for the mighty dollar.”
“My mother loved this area so much that she thought people should see it, and she loved showing them around,” recalled Heiss’ daughter Lyn Christensen. “It wasn’t until 15 years later that she decided they’d had enough.”
Heiss put herself through college in Caldwell by working at the Bald Mountain Hotel and hot springs pool, the Ketchum Kamp hotel and saloon (now The Casino) and Slavey’s.
“I never was a good waitress,” she says. “I could hold one plate in one hand and another plate in the other and that was about it.”
She married Clark Heiss, a young man who worked for First Security Bank in Hailey, in 1933. Eventually, they moved to Jerome where Clark opened a real estate and insurance business and they raised three daughters.
All three of the daughters—Lyn, Cheryl Hymas and Jo Heiss–now live in the Wood River Valley with their families.
The family spent weekends skiing on Baldy where, Heiss recalls, lift tickets cost $5. “That was a lot of money to spend back then,” she added.
During summers they vacationed at a cabin they built along Trail Creek on Second Street in Ketchum. Navy officers used the cabin during World War II and author Ernest Hemingway rented it out for a year in 1958.
Heiss, now 125 pounds and a little shy of her original 5-foot-4 height, just celebrated her 94th birthday on March 15.
But she rode her 27-year-old Selway, a Peruvian Paso known for its smooth gait, three times last summer. And, though she laments that she can no longer saddle and brush him herself, she just got a shot of cortisone in her knee so she can ride again this summer.
“Mom started vitamins long before they were a fad and she did kicking exercises just so she could get her leg over a horse,” recalled Christensen.
In fact, Heiss was riding with two of her daughters and a son-in-law in Copper Basin a few years ago when the four got lost. Spending the night on the cold hard ground in a sheepherder’s tent didn’t seem to bother her one bit.
“What a great adventure we had!” said Heiss, who was 89 at the time.
Christensen says her mother is “a walking encyclopedia” when it comes to the trails and gulches in the surrounding Smoky, Boulder and Pioneer mountains.
“She knows every one—how long it is, how difficult it is…and she’s thrilled when she discovers a new one,” she said.
“She’s a real cow girl—but not the rough crude kind you usually think of. She’s always a lady. She never cusses, she always keeps her tack clean. She’s a grand dame of the West who is as comfortable in her Levis and cowboy boots as she is in a dress to the nines.”
Heiss keeps busy reading historical novels—“My eyes are grand.” And she relishes sitting in her massage chair, turning it on and “letting it go up and down my back” as she discusses her volunteer work as state chairman of the Republican Women’s Convention, the local Civic Club, the Sawtooth Rangers Riding Club, the Jerome Historical Society and the Community Library, which she helped found.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes—sewing machines, airplanes… They’re just old memories. And they kind of run into each other at times,” she says.
“It still fascinates me to see airplanes. I like to lay in my bed at night and watch for their lights.”
And how does she feel about the part she played in the construction of Sun Valley as a world-class resort?
“In some ways, I’m proud of what our little ranch has become,” she says. “At the same time, I’m a little sad. The world finally found Ketchum.
“I’m so sorry that it has gotten too well known, that it’s gotten so crowded. But, at the same time, you can still go two miles out and get entirely away from civilization. What a grand place to live!”
Billie Buhler hasn’t strayed far from her birthplace.
Born in a house on Hailey’s Second Avenue, she now lives a few doors down in a tidy unobtrusive home that she and her husband built next to the Ezra Pound house.
And, yes, she lived there, too.
“The Ezra Pound was about the fourth house we lived in. But I’m not sure we even knew it was his birthplace when we were living there,” she says.
“ I don’t know why we kept moving—my folks just kept moving down the street. Even when my husband and I farmed south of Bellevue we always moved back here in the winter. So I have no desire to move to Arizona in the winter. I’ve moved enough.”
Woodrow Wilson was president and the world was about to be plunged into World War I when Buhler was born on March 20, 1914.
She was named after her grandfather, William Fayette Horne, who moved to Hailey from Iowa in 1823. He found work as a telegraph operator and later opened one of Hailey’s first grocery stores—Campbell, Horne and Holland.
Billie’s father Robert Horne was a farmer, then a Continental Oil representative, delivering gas to service stations as far north as Stanley.
“I used to go with him and my brother,” Buhler recalls. “At that time, the road was only a one-lane dirt road—you had to back up to a wide spot in the road if you met someone coming from the other direction. And it wasn’t like the road they have today. Then, you drove all the way to the top of the mountain and over.”
High school was up the street in what is now part of Hailey Elementary School.
Buhler’s father and everybody in his family graduated there. There were 13 in her class when she graduated in 1932.
Older sister Roberta—the same Roberta McKercher for whom a prominent Hailey park is named—intimidated Billie
“I’ve always said that Roberta was my only claim to fame. We never went anyplace that she didn’t know almost everyone there,” Buhler recalls of her sister, a longtime reporter for the Wood River Journal. “But when we were younger, we’d go for piano lessons and she could go home and play the new selection by heart because she played by ear. So I talked Mom into voice lessons.”
As children, Roberta and Billie sang for funerals since their father assisted the town’s mortician Ralph Harris.
“Dad did it up until the snow slide at the Triumph Mine,” Buhler recalls. “Then, he couldn’t do it anymore. He said it wasn’t fun burying all his friends.”
Though she never hiked nor skied, Buhler played tennis, lettered in basketball and joined the bridge club during high school. She ironed for various neighbors, trading the quarters she earned for banana splits at the drugstore–now Shorty’s.
And she embarked on a long life of volunteer work, serving as a pink lady at the Blaine County Hospital—a duty that later led to mending the hospital sheets and gowns.
“I had to prove to my husband that all that money we spent on a sewing machine was worth it,” she says. “Wouldn’t you know it?!–I was the only one of four girls who learned to sew—my sisters all had girls while I had boys.”
Buhler was 21 when she married Harry Buhler. He had moved with his family to Bellevue the year Billie was born. But they never crossed paths until they met at the weekly Saturday night dance when Billie was 18.
They were married by Harry’s father, a bishop in the local Mormon church, at the Buhler family ranch. Beings it was the Depression, Buhler dressed in everyday clothes. There was no reception.
The couple spent their week-long honeymoon in Boise.
“Boise was very plain then,” Buhler recalls. “We visited with people we knew and toured the Capitol Building. Not the Natatorium, though. I nearly drowned in the swimming pool of Hailey’s hotel when I was a child and I never got over my fear of water.”
The new Mr. and Mrs. Buhler raised alfalfa and grain on their ranch two miles below Bellevue at the foot of Lookout Mountain. The ranch has since been subdivided into the Griffin Ranch.
“I hated to see it sold. I hate to spoil the countryside,” Buhler says. “And besides, who’s going to feed us if we keep putting up buildings?”
She and Harry also brought the Justus Dairy south of where the LDS Church is now. Billie drove her three boys around town delivering milk before school each morning.
“I didn’t know how to milk a cow and I didn’t ever want to learn. I knew if I did I’d have to do it all the time.”
After the kids were in school, Buhler worked as a switchboard operator for 12 years before direct dial telephones replaced her. “To this day, I still recognizes voices better than I remember names,” she said.
She also worked in the sheriff’s office for 13 years.
“It was pretty quiet then. I had to go out and help arrest a woman once because they needed a woman along. I guess they didn’t arrest too many women then,” she said.
Buhler retired when she was 62, taking off to travel in the Holy Land and Europe and Samoa, where one of her sons headed up the church schools.
“We spent three winters there to get out of the cold. But this is home. I never had any desire to live anywhere else.”
That said, Buhler laments the “overcrowding of everything” in the Wood River Valley.
“I used to go to the post office and know everybody there. Now I have no way of knowing everybody anymore and I don’t speak Spanish.
“And the traffic—well, it’s getting to be too much,” says Buhler, who still drives. “This fast growth has been hard but it can’t be stopped—everyone needs a place to live. And I have enjoyed seeing how people have renovated the homes I grew up in.”
Buhler’s husband died in 12 years ago, but she has continued to busy herself with church meetings and quilting on the frame that extends across the width of her living room.
She estimates she’s made a hundred quilts, many of which have been used to raise funds for the Blaine County Senior Center.
“Billie has always been a real advocate of the center—and faithful in her attendance, too,” says the center’s director, Brenda Shappee.
Currently, Buhler is jazzed about just finishing the quilt her mother started.
“Look at this square of Mickey Mouse!” she says, pointing to a patch on her Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt depicting an early version of the cartoon rodent.
Conversely, Buhler was a little taken aback that the new-fangled concoction called the Heritage Court would make her a princess at age 90.
“But I can see the good in it,” she says. “It’s good for people to reflect on the past. People need to know how pleasant this town was, how friendly Hailey was in the past.”
Bellevue~Lillian Wright surveys the colorful beds of columbine, poppies and irises that sit next to the old chicken coop and tool shed in her back yard.
Then she turns around 180 degrees and gestures as she scans the houses that sit across Fourth Street and down Poplar Street.
“When we moved here, nothing was here but the house my husband grew up in,” she says. “My, how Bellevue has changed.”
Indeed, if it weren’t for the bald knobby sagebrush-covered hills that seem to stay the same and the pine-covered outline of Baldy to the north, Wright would likely recognize little of what she’s always called home.
The mouth of Slaughterhouse Canyon where she born in 1919 is covered with quarter-million dollar homes. Gannett School where she graduated in 1937 has been folded into Wood River High School. And the Triumph Mine where her husband Chuck worked as a miner closed a half century ago in 1957.
Wright’s folks B.H. and Minnie Barker moved to Bellevue from Idaho Falls in a covered wagon, crossing the lava fields east of Carey.
In winter Wright and her 12 brothers and sisters rode to school on a camp wagon pulled by horses. The wagon—what we’d call a sheep wagon today—served as the school bus of its time, stopping for school children as it rolled along.
“If you got cold and couldn’t get near the stove in front, you had to get out and run to get warm,” she recalls.
If the family had not lived on a ranch, they wouldn’t have made it, she recalls. But Dad took the grain to Twin Falls where he had it ground into flour for Mother’s bread, and the chicken and garden produce got them through the hard times.
“We lived in Hoover’s time and everyone was poor,” she says. “We didn’t have many clothes, either. My sister and I—if it we hadn’t of had hand-me-downs, we wouldn’t have had a thing to wear.”
Lillian married Chuck Wright when she was 19 in June 1939. He, his uncle and two cousins moved a windowless two-room “shed” from what is now Eccles’ Flying Hat Ranch on skids with a team of horses and put it on a cornfield near his parents’ home.
They bought $400 worth of doors and windows—a steep purchase considering Chuck made just $4 a day at the mine. And by November they were in their new home.
“We were poor. We didn’t have money. But we didn’t care. We had each other so we didn’t care what we lived in,” she recalls.
She looks around at her home, which looks far younger than its 65 years.
“We’ve added on quite a bit since then. I’ve lived here since I started and hopefully be here until I die.”
Over the years, Chuck and Lillian had four children—Shirley, Dennis Bobby and Kenny.
Two remain—Dennis, who is a county commissioner and Bob, who lives in Wheaton, Ill., where he recruits missionaries to go overseas.
Politics seems to run in the family. Lillian’s husband Chuck was a city councilman and mayor of Bellevue. Kenneth served on the city council. And Dennis was councilman and mayor of Bellevue before moving up to the county.
“I don’t know why we’ve had such a political bent,” Wright says. “I don’t think we’re bossy or anything.”
Wright herself worked for the sheriff in dispatch and then ran for county treasurer’s office after Dorothy Povey retired. Her husband drove her from house to house as she knocked on one door after another.
“I met the nicest people up there, the nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” she says, referring to Ketchum and the area north. “Can you believe? I lost by nine votes!”
Lose or not, she has never been shy about speaking out on the issues—something she has done regularly over the years at city council meetings.
“This is just one aspect of Lillian that all of us who know her respect and enjoy, She’s a very honest and outspoken,” says longtime friend Melanie Dahl. “When I asked if she was just as outspoken at council meetings when her husband Charles was mayor, she said, ‘Well, of course!’ ”
Wright’s husband worked as a miner at the Triumph Mine until it closed in 1957 and then at the Silver Star Queen Mine on Broadford Road south of Bellevue, where he hoisted men in and out of the mine.
“He was a miner through and through,” Wright says. “After the mines closed down, he worked in a sawmill but he was never happy—he missed the mining. He took me into the mine once when he went to check on the pumps. But I never wanted to go back. It was cold and wet.”
Her husband gone since 1972, Wright passes her time volunteering at the Bellevue museum, crocheting rugs and making quilts and baby afghans for her ever expanding brood of seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She takes great pride in the grandkids who are prominently featured on the walls in pictures framed by crocheted frames.
“I’m very pleased and happy with my family—the latest turned a month old yesterday. They’ve all been good kids and good grand kids,” she says.
She takes equal pride in her garden and yard, which features towering pine trees her husband and she brought down from the Galena area and planted when her son Dennis was a boy.
“I could no more have my yard looking scroungy—like so many of them do with their rusted cars and junk—than anything.”
“There’s been a lot of changes and I’m not happy with the changes. Our economy is good enough. I don’t think we need to make this place any bigger, but it’s getting bigger.”
Then she pauses.
“But I wouldn’t trade all these neighbors I have for the world. They do work for me, they watch out for me. And they ask for nothing—oh, except maybe I bake them a plate of cookies now and then.”
Carey~Verda Edwards O’Crowley sighs as her daughter Holly Rivera bursts through the front door with the news that the house on the corner is being demolished to make way for a car wash.
The town–pushing 600 people–is getting too danged big, she laments.
O’Crowley, 74, can be forgiven for thinking that.
After all, there were so few people around when she was a youngster that her parents enrolled her in school early so there would be enough children to support a teacher in the one-room schoolhouse at nearby Muldoon, a long-abandoned townsite that grew up around a mine.
Five of the dozen students came from her own family.
In winter they rode the half mile to school in a sleigh warmed by rocks heated on the stove. In spring they had to cross a swollen creek.
“Muldoon winters were long and the springs were wet,” she recalled of the old mining townsite just 20 miles away from her current home on Highway 20. “You went to the store in October and you didn’t come back out until May.
“I remember dropping in over my head in the snow one winter and wondering if that’s what happened to the Lindbergh baby. That was the talk of the town—two years after it happened. The news just took that long to reach us.”
When she’s not canning the thousands of jars of preserves she puts up every year, O’Crowley busies herself writing histories and keeping scrapbooks chronicling five generations of her family in the Carey and Muldoon area.
It’s a fulltime occupation that stretches from her grandfather to her grandson K.C. Rivera, who has won countless honors on the soccer field, basketball court and in a choir robe.
Her father LaFell Edwards was the nephew of Jacob Hamlin, a famed Mormon missionary to the Indians. Born in 1898 in Victor, he traveled a hundred miles through the lava fields to homestead in Carey.
Twice his family sought better opportunities in southern Utah, with young Edwards walking barefoot all the way. But always they ended up back in the Carey area.
Edwards’ epic journey, in O’Crowley’s opinion, came in spring of 1919 when he learned that his beloved Marjorie Justesen was to be married off by her father to a rich Moore sheep rancher.
He traveled seven miles from Carey to Picabo where he boarded the train to Shoshone. There he caught another train to Pocatello where he boarded yet another one to Arco.
He summoned the young woman by tossing rocks at her second-floor window. The two whispered through the bushes. Then, when everyone else was asleep, Justesen shimmied down a rope of sheets.
The two journeyed to the top of Blizzard Mountain at the head of Fish Creek where Justesen’s suitcase tumbled off a cliff, splintering into pieces below.
Then Edwards left her with his aunt and uncle while he went to collect some wages owed him. While away he came down with the Spanish influenza that was killing thousands in its wake.
It was two weeks before he regained enough strength to return to Marjorie and take her to the justice of the peace in Hailey, O’Crowley said. “Mom didn’t know where he’d been all this time.”
O’Crowley’s father, who was nicknamed “Trap,” worked for the biological survey as a trapper. He earned $75 a month—good wages in those days—plus a little extra from the mink and beaver hides he sold to the Hudson Bay Company and the bounties farmers paid for bobcats and coyotes.
He built cabins at Picket Lake, Iron Mine Creek and Slide Canyon to stay in as he made his rounds.
In one cabin, he heard a swish and lit a match to find a rattler winding its way towards his bed, recalled O’Crowley, who occasionally got to check traps with her father. “He shot it.”
O’Crowley’s mother raised a huge vegetable garden that included raspberries—not easy to grow at high elevation. She also achieved notoriety by getting her hens to lay during winter.
“Mom warmed the chicken feed before she fed it to them,” O’Crowley observed.
O’Crowley got just one new pair of shoes a year—on her birthday, which coincided with the start of school. But, she says, her family was rich compared with the tent people who lived along Fish Creek who scratched out a living harvesting potatoes for 5 cents a sack.
“We don’t realize today how we have everything so good,” she says, describing how her family made do on rice and beans through winter.
When she was 16, O’Crowley moved to Boise to work as a Rosie the Riveter, entertaining herself in her spare time by climbing to the top of the Capitol Building and visiting the Old Penitentiary—while it still housed inmates. But the war ended two weeks later and the women were immediately laid off to make way for returning soldiers to reclaim their jobs.
“That’s okay. It was time to go back to school, anyway,” O’Crowley said.
Upon marrying Harry O’Crowley, Verda moved to the Picabo Livestock Ranch. where Harry worked as foreman from 1935 to 1988. She became the ranch cook, serving up three square meals a day to 40 hungry cowpunchers. The number of hired hands dwindled to seven by the time she quit.
“Once we had a couple bear roasts, and they smelled so good and fruity,” she recalled. “We got lard from bear, too. I remember one time Dad killed a bear and the lard from that bear made the best biscuits you ever tasted.”
During her stay at the ranch, O’Crowley encountered many of Sun Valley’s guests who came down to fish and hunt at Silver Creek. Among them, Ann Southern, who boarded her horses at the ranch; Jimmy Stewart, the Shah of Iran and Ernest Hemingway.
“He was a surprise. He looked so big in his pictures but he only came up to my forehead,” she said, drawing up her 5-foot-5 frame.
Now she feeds her grandchildren toast in the morning and ponders what kind of changes her grandchildren will see in their lifetime.
“Carey’s getting so many subdivisions nowadays. People want to live here because of the low land prices and because people are just people here. Sometimes we get to the upper country and they’re not people. Well, I can’t say that—they just live different lifestyles than we do here.”
Mary Jane Griffith Conger
By all logic Ketchum might just as well have been dubbed Griffithville.
After all, it was Al Griffith who poked and prodded the ground for silver and gold, along with town namesake David Ketchum that first year in 1879.
After the two left for the winter, Al Griffith came back to set up house and raise a family. David Ketchum never did.
The roots that Griffith, a former mining superintendent in Phillipsburg, Mont., established that day ran deep. Today–at age 79–his granddaughter Mary Jane Griffith Conger remains one of the town’s most active citizens, working on everything from Ketchum’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan to the Big Wood-Little Wood Action Plan to try to ensure that Ketchum retains a measure of charm.
Walking around town with Conger is like flipping through a yearbook from the 1930s and ‘40s.
The Catholic church used to be in the surf shop building across from Atkinson’s, she points out. “My grandmother lived next door and used to put up the Episcopal priest when he came to town for church services.”
Conger grew up in a two-story white house that stands next to Williams Market—she warmed herself on chilly days by sitting on the radiator that was heated with geothermal water from Guyer Hot Springs.
And you can still make out the lettering for Giffith Grocery on the brick Iconoclast Books store where she spent the first year of her life in a bed her father made out of a macaroni barrel.
Conger’s father Albert opened the store after working for the Forest Service. The store carried a bit of everything—from work gloves to hardware to groceries—for cowboys and others who were not welcome at Jack Lane’s Mercantile down the street. Open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. during summer, it also catered to what Conger calls “the people in the lower country”—the people from Twin Falls and Burley who had cabins or were attending church camp in the Baker Creek and Easley area.
“My dad—everybody called him Dirt—had a potbellied stove in the back around which the men sat around and chewed the fat. There was a spittoon there but they probably missed as much as they hit it. When we moved out of the store to the house, my Dad had to shovel a path through the snows—far bigger snows than we get nowadays—from our home to the store because there was no snowplow,” she recalls.
The Ketchum of Conger’s youth—so small that all 200 residents seemed to be related to one another by marriage—was the perfect setting for a tomboy like Conger.
She built toy bridges and buildings with the scrap metal she got from the blacksmith shop next to her home. She sledded on the huge piles of snow that piled up around town. And she rode her horse through the sagebrush fields of Elkhorn where her grandfather built his first cabin on what is now the golf course.
“There were no fences then except those people put up to keep out the animals that wandered around town. You could go anywhere,” she says.
When Union Pacific Railroad built the nation’s first destination ski resort in 1936, she and her younger brother Jimmy began skiing on the heavy wooden skis with canvas bindings using a single wooden ski pole that her father began selling in his grocery.
When she wasn’t taking ski lessons she would pack down the snow with the ski patrol, receiving a free lunch in return. Her chemistry teacher postponed Friday tests to Monday, she recalls, because all the students were training for the weekend’s big races.
“We liked being outdoors. Inside was dishes and work to do.”
Come college Conger chose the University of Colorado at Boulder over Stanford because her mother was afraid that the coast would be attacked during World War II.
She elected to study German because of her fascination with the foreigners who came to Sun Valley to ski.
College did even more to open her eyes to the world outside Ketchum. She played football with members of the Buffalo football squad. She met her first black man.
And her philosophy courses led her to question the anti-FDR sentiments her parents had held sacred and set the stage for her lifelong participation in groups such as her women’s peace group, which meets weekly to discuss issues of world concern and how they might impact local and world opinion.
Her ski racing earned her an invitation to try out for the 1948 Olympic ski team. But she turned it down because she didn’t have the money for training.
Her brother Jimmy, however, was in training to become Ketchum’s first homegrown Alpine ski Olympian when he crashed into some trees at Alta ski resort after hitting an icy patch and died.
Conger, by then married to a Russian interpreter based on a submarine near Japan, worked through her grief by skiing with the Sun Valley Ski Patrol as an unofficial member. Among the patrollers she recalls was daredevil Dick Bueck—the boyfriend of skier Jill Kinmont of “The Other Side of the Mountain” fame.
“Dick would do anything for a laugh,” Conger recalled. “One time he tied someone to a toboggan and sent them flying downhill. Another time he told someone, ‘I’ll beat you to the river.’ They got down to the bottom neck and neck and Dick, of course, won because he actually jumped in the river.”
After stints in Hawaii and California where she raised five children, Conger returned home to Ketchum in 1970 to flee urban sprawl.
She would leave only once more—to teach disadvantaged Yupic and Inuit Eskimo children in Alaska.
Today she and her second husband David Conger, who was her handsome archery instructor when she was 15, live in a modern log home just south of the North Fork store.
The home encompasses all that is near and dear to their heart. It offers big picture windows through which David can train his scope on elk crossing the hills across the highway and a wraparound porch where they often enjoy a glass of wine after trying a new spaghetti sauce or Anasazi bean recipe they’ve culled from the New York Times.
Their backyard features a teepee where Mary Jane goes when she needs to calm her always-racing mind, and woods through which they can hike to get on one of the trails that now lace the Ketchum area.
In her few quiet moments, Conger takes time to caress the trunk Grandma Griffith brought from Wales or play the baby grand piano her mother Helen brought from Boise when she and Mary Jane’s father were married in 1925..
“She would be so thrilled with all the arts and culture Ketchum has to offer now,” notes Conger. “In her time, all the social events were organized by the lodges—my father was a Shriner and she was a member of Daughters of the Nile and Eastern Star. I just worry that so many of the events are becoming too pricey for the average resident to attend.”
Conger also worries that unmanaged growth is destroying Ketchum’s charm.
She helped others stop the Idaho Transportation Department’s plans to run a four-lane highway through the valley in the 1970s. It was the first time a community had ever turned down the department. But it’s required constant vigilance on behalf of her and the grassroots Citizens Transportation Coalition since as continued growth puts pressure on the infrastructure.
If Hailey residents had been forward thinking enough to direct traffic onto the old railroad right of way rather than through Hailey, we would still be able to sit outside a restaurant in downtown Hailey and enjoy a glass of wine without sucking in exhaust fumes, she says.
Conger has also done her part to help preserve the area’s heritage, helping to start the Ketchum/Sun Valley Ski and Heritage Museum, among other things.
“She’s a very articulate spokeswoman–not only for her own family’s past but for Ketchum’s history,” said Pat Butterfield, who works at the museum. “I’ve learned a lot from her.”
Still, Conger laments, Ketchum has lost its sense of community.
“The people who come here bring where they were with them. It’s becoming every town USA,” she says. “Now every building is at least two stories high with a condominium on top. We should be making developers give something back to the community with every project they build, rather than always taking.”
Despite its faults, however, Conger considers Ketchum and its surrounding mountains, forest, sky and open spaces a special place.
“I imagine my grandfather would be quite lost with the traffic, the noise the hullabaloo. But Ketchum is still a wonderful place.”