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Wagon Days
For the week of August 30 through September 5, 2000

The genuine article

Swanner ‘interprets’ ore wagons, history


A group of barflies struck on the dubious idea of resuscitating some old ore wagons that had been neglected for so long the building they were stored in had fallen down on top of them.


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

When Ivan Swanner declares from behind his two-inch-tall handlebar mustache, his perfectly blocked cowboy hat riding low, that mines in the Wood River Valley are "scattered from hell to breakfast," you would swear he’s some miraculous anachronism zapped through time to spread the Old West gospel.

And Swanner is not the only awe-inspiring anachronism in the valley. Witness the half dozen Paul Bunyan-sized ore wagons—with their 7-foot-tall wheels, keg-like hubs and two-dozen, road-rumbling draft horses—that have been thundering through the local mountains and towns for over a century.

Swanner, 66, the Wood River Valley’s self-proclaimed research historian, says that naturally, "people ask questions" about the awesome behemoths, and Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m., he’ll be available with answers.

His "interpretive sessions," as he likes to call them, are scheduled to take place at the Ketchum Ore Wagon Museum on the corner of Fifth Street and East Avenue, where the wagons are on display.

Swanner will also give an evening tour of the museum tonight from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at 5 p.m., he’ll be one of several old-timers to spin yarns at the Ketchum Heritage and Ski Museum.

"My basic story will be the beginning of Wagon Days," Swanner said during an interview. "…why it was formed, how it was formed and why we decided to keep it as a celebration."

In 1958, the event’s first year, the valley was different from the way it is today. Swanner was a 25-year-old cowpuncher. The Bigwood Golf Course on the north end of Ketchum was a rustic field that served as an airstrip, a rodeo ground, and, well, an arena for chariot races. Most roads were dirt. People still built cabins in town. Locals, some say, rode their horses through bars just for the thrill of it.

When conservatives in the state Legislature outlawed gambling in 1954, not only did the local economy plummet, but people were bored.

To make matters worse, the last major local mine, about 10 miles southeast of Ketchum in Triumph, closed in 1958.

Perhaps with too much time on theirs hands in the slack town of Ketchum, a group of barflies struck on the dubious idea of resuscitating some old ore wagons that had been neglected for so long the building they were stored in had fallen down on top of them.

Why not fix up the wagons and drive them down Main Street to celebrate the town’s founders? And if it drew in a few tourists, too, well, that couldn’t hurt.

Swanner said he spent two weeks driving around the state borrowing draft horses from farmers for the event. Then there was the complex job of training the beasts to pull the wagons.

"They’d never worked together before," Swanner said, which was significant considering there were 24 of them, all being controlled by the unusual and antique "jerk line"—one jerk, the 24 horses and six wagons go left; four jerks, the rig goes right.

"As far as I know, we didn’t have any runaways, or anything like that," Swanner said.

For over four decades, Swanner has participated in the annual event, except in the 1970s when highway roadwork dampened almost everyone’s enthusiasm and the event stopped happening for a few years.

Swanner said he gives his free "interpretive sessions" because of his love of the event and because he feels "history is an important part of the valley. I feel it’s something people should know about."

 

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