Friday, April 15, 2005

Valley historian tells tales

Take a walk through valley's past with Swaner

Ivan Swaner

By Tony Evans
For the Express

Valley historian and man-about-town Ivan Swaner was born 72 years ago at his parents' home three miles north of Hailey. His first years in school were in a one-room schoolhouse. He remembers when there were frogs and other amphibians in abundance in the rivers and creeks of the Wood River Valley, when "going south" meant riding out the winter in Twin Falls, and when skis were called "snowshoes" and used by ladies to get around town in the winter.

Last summer Swaner presided as the Grand Marshall in Ketchum's Wagon Days parade.

Swaner became acquainted with Sun Valley Resort founder Averill Harriman at the Union Pacific Railroad commissary while working for the Sun Valley Company as a young man. Harriman and Austrian Count Felix Schoftgotsch settled on the sleepy mining town of Ketchum to build America's first destination ski resort in 1936.

Since then Swaner, who has remained a bachelor, has developed a passion for local knowledge. "Haven't found the right person," he says with a grin. "At least not yet.

A talk with Swaner is like a walk through history. He'll tell you the Sun Valley Lodge is made of concrete. "Looks like logs, but it isn't." And about the excavation of the third fairway of the Elkhorn golf course, which unearthed a Neolithic site of big game hunters who populated Sun Valley 15,000 years ago, which some say led to an Indian curse on the businesses there.

"They dug up pottery shards, animal bones and spear points right on the fairway of the third hole. All of it is in the University Museum in Pocatello. I've heard about the curse, but I think it might just as well have been poor management."

Swaner's gnarled handshake is a testament to a life of hard work. "I've been everything I can think of, except a plumber and a waiter," he says of his career, which included 14 years as Ivan the Terrible, the Deputy Marshall of Ketchum. "The Alpine (now Whiskey Jacques') had a red light on top of it, and when there was trouble, they would turn it on and we would go break up drunken fights or whatever it was.'

Today, Swaner is caretaker of a ranch at Frenchman's Bend, out Warm Springs Road. Sometimes, he also ends up towing stranded tourists out through the snow. "Trouble is people from out of the area come out here in the winter with low-slung automobiles to get in the hot springs, and then get stuck."

Over the years, Swaner has become familiar with the place of his birth and the personalities that shaped its history by reading copiously and visiting with old friends like Clayton Stewart, who worked as a hunting and fishing guide for Ernest Hemingway and Gary Cooper.

"There are 19 books on railroad history in the Ketchum library," says Swaner. "I've read 18 of them. What many people don't know is what happened to Count Shaffgotsch and Averill Harriman during the war," he says.

"They met in New York when the Count was sent to America by the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria to learn about banking at Brown Brothers Harriman Bank, the oldest private bank in the country, still in business."

"They became good friends and shared a passion for skiing. The Count located the town of Ketchum for Harriman and then went back to work until World War II began, when the Count returned to Austria to fight for his homeland. Only he was conscripted into the German army. He had been royalty under the Hapsburgs, but now was a lowly soldier in Hitler's army. Meanwhile, Harriman had been appointed as the Ambassador to Russia for the duration of the war. While he was in Moscow, his friend the Count died fighting for the Germans 100 miles away on the Russian steppe."

For more stories, look for Swaner at the Atkinsons' Market café in Ketchum. As Blaine County Museum Board member he will also be involved in the upcoming Heritage Court, which honors Blaine County ladies over 70 years of age whose civic duties have earned them a coronation and tea at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey on June 26.

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