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Mural to Tell the Story of the Wood River Valley
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Sunday, December 10, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

For 12 months Ralph Harris has left his home in Hulen Meadows and driven some 35 miles to the picturesque Gardner Ranch, situated amidst cottonwood trees on Loving Creek near Silver Creek.

There, paintbrush in hand, he has lovingly chronicled the history of the Wood River Valley from the Shoshone-Bannock tribes who fished in the Big Wood River to the miners, sheep men and skiers who followed.

Next spring, he will take the 8-by-30-foot mural apart and transport it to Ketchum where it will be placed permanently on the south side of Zions Bank.

“I haven’t missed too many days,” said Harris. “But we did have a lot of powder days at Sun Valley last year.”

The project was the brainchild of Robert Gardner, the owner of the spacious barn in which Harris is painting his mural.

Gardner’s roots in the Wood River Valley go way back—his great grandfather moved in the 1890s from Milwaukee, opening a cigar store on Main Street Hailey.

“I have a picture of them making cigars,” he said.

His family donated the cabin that housed the first Gold Mine Thrift Store and Community Library on the site now occupied by Bavarian Soul in Ketchum. They were also involved with the railroad that ran through Gannett where there were spurs for a granary and cattle and sheep corrals. And they were witness to children going to the Gannett, Baseline and Silver Creek schools on a school wagon.

LaVerne Fator, a Hall of Fame jockey, grew up in Gannett, Gardner proudly points out, as did Anne Jeannette Winn, who competed on skis in the Winter Olympics in 1948.

“Then we had a couple hundred people; now, it’s closer to 50,” said Gardner who spent summers on his family ranch while growing up and moved there fulltime to raise hay, barley and potatoes in 1977.

Gardner got the idea for a mural from a “Greetings from Chicago” mural where visitors stop to pose for pictures. He looked no further than Harris, whom had been a classmate of his from first grade through high school, to paint it.

“I’ve followed him all my life,” said Gardner. “He does all these historical posters commemorating things like the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. And he’s done some wonderful murals, including the one on the side of the Blaine County Historical Museum.”

Harris’ family also has deep roots in the Wood River Valley.

His paternal great-grandfather Charles Edward Harris came from Delphia, Iowa, in 1881 to work as a carpenter in the Wood River silver mines. A decade later in 1891 he opened Harris Furniture and Undertaking Service on Main Street Hailey, which operated until 1973.

His mother’s family came from the Basque country of northern Spain in 1907, running one of the first sheep operations in Hailey. Harris’ grandmother Pia also ran a boarding house with a jai alai court on River Street.  

Harris recalls watching Native Americans fish for salmon, as he himself lay on his belly, reaching underneath the bank to grab a salmon in the days when salmon runs were so vast the locals bragged you could walk across the river on their backs.

He studied art, worked on a trails crew for the Sawtooth National Forest and taught skiing for Sun Valley Resort. And his illustrations started finding their way onto the cover of “Skiing” and “Ski Magazine and on Wagon Days and National Finals Rodeo posters. He painted a mural in the Hailey Armory.

And it was his artwork of the Boulder Mountains that graced the first of three gondola cars wrapped in art at Sun Valley Resort. It was, he said, the first gondola art in the United States.

Harris is painting this mural on 3-by-5-foot concrete boards known as hardy boards. Robert and Kathryn Gardner joined him as he painted the boards with a yellow background. Then Harris filled in the bottom with green grass.

The characters and scenes on the board include a proud Native American with an eagle feather, two Chinese men on a railroad cart and the Challenger 951, which was the last train to chug through the valley before Sun Valley’s railroad era ended.  

Ernest Hemingway and his son Jack are depicted fishing Silver Creek. Robert Gardner takes his place on one of his magnificent steads. Bobby Tanner can be seen leading his mule team to the Big Hitch ore wagons.

Harris’ uncle Eusebio Arriaga, the first non-Austrian in the Sun Valley Ski School, portrays Sun Valley’s ski heritage. Erin Schreiber plays her violin in front of the Sun Valley Pavilion, while two-time Soviet Olympic pairs champion Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina “Katia” Gordeeva take a spin on the ice outside the Sun Valley Lodge, showcasing Sun Valley’s storied ice-skating history.

“Sergei died of a heart attack at 28 while practicing with his wife Katia in 1995,” Harris said. “It was quite the shock.”

Gardner can’t wait to see the mural on the bank.

“I had no idea this was going to go on so long,” he said. “I thought Ralph could whip it out in a week or two, but he puts so much detail in his paintings.”

THOSE WHO HAVE HELPED WITH THE MURAL:

Ralph Harris, Robert Gardner, Kathry Gardner, Sarah Gardner, Julie Cord, Catherine Chanel, Joan Davies, Katrina Cord, Vicki Rosenberg, Ron Iverson and Claire Iverson.

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