As Gladys McAtee, 91, sits by the picture window of her Croy Canyon home, sunlight filters through an aspen grove and lights her snow-white hair.
From her house, the first permanent settlement built out Croy Canyon, east of Hailey, she has become accustomed to the seasons' changing scenery. In mid-June, McAtee expects the sounds of a thousand head of sheep passing through the canyon on their journey north.
McAtee, Hailey's Heritage Court Lady for 2005, is familiar with the cyclical patterns of life in the Wood River Valley. She and her late husband, Val McAtee, first moved to the valley from Shoshone in 1936; Val was a carpenter with the Union Pacific Railroad and was enlisted by Averil Harriman and Count Felix Schaffgotsch to help build the Sun Valley Lodge.
In the years that followed, the McAtees became part of an era in Ketchum in which the city was populated almost entirely by Union Pacific employees.
"It was like one big family," remembers McAtee. "You were always helping your neighbors and your neighbors were always helping you."
They built a small log cabin in Ketchum and attached a tent that acted as a bedroom. That cabin, on the corner of First Avenue and Fourth Street, would eventually become home to Felix Gonzalez and his family. In September 2000, Gonzalez converted the space into a popular restaurant, called Felix's.
For the McAtees, the Wood River Valley was a place of community and fun. As members—and eventual leaders—of community organizations such as the Oddfellows Lodge and the Rebekahs for more than 60 years, the McAtees met many friends and helped many neighbors.
Eastern Star, the women's counterpart of the Masons, would hold live folk music dances at a Gimlet schoolhouse.
"We would square dance, we didn't drink, would just go out and have a good time and then go to somebody's house for breakfast," McAtee remembers modestly, thinking nothing of dancing straight through until morning.
The McAtees had reason to dance. While still living in Shoshone, they had worked through the Depression and its meager wages before the railroad brought them to Ketchum.
"Sometimes I think, 'How in the world did I put food on the table for my family for $1 a day?' but I did," she says.
As for the sheep, well, McAtee had her fair share of them as well. The McAtees grew alfalfa on a 20-acre Hailey farm just south of where Friedman Memorial Airport stands today; they brought their hay to the sheep corral at the end of the Union Pacific line in Ketchum. The corral, located near today's Park and Ride lot, would hold sheep before they were loaded onto Chicago-bound cattle cars.
With Val at the wheel, the McAtees would drive their hay-loaded truck to the corral.
"I used to go out in the truck and pitch the hay to the sheep—it was kind of fun," she says.
On that same farm, Gladys' daughter Marilyn McAtee, 65, remembers a farm that took a lot of family work, but that was a little slice of heaven. A large garden fed the family. Cows, sheep and pigs grazed and Gladys would sell milk to the local creamery and would occasionally sell chickens in Sun Valley.
"Time was fleeting for (having) a farm in Hailey," says Marilyn of the early growth that sent the McAtees looking for land again. They would eventually find their private Shangri-la five miles out Croy Canyon.
Near the front door of the McAtee home hang the trophy heads of various animals that Val and his sons hunted back in the day: deer, antelope, and mountain goat. The house's water comes from the same well built when they settled there in the 1960s. The McAtees paid the city of Hailey to bring electricity and telephone wires, lines now used by dozens of Croy Creek homes.
Val and Gladys McAtee were born and raised in Center, Colo. Val's grandmother was the first McAtee in the Wood River Valley; she moved to Bellevue's Poverty Flats, where she would eventually die of a tick bite and its attendant Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
As the oldest living member of a five-generation family, Gladys McAtee is today a great-great grandmother to Adrian, 3, and Ivan Gonzales, 7 months, of Shoshone.
McAtee is honored that she has been chosen to represent Hailey as one of this summer's Heritage Court Ladies, a program established by the Blaine County Historical Museum to honor the valley's living heritage.
"I feel like Cinderella, I feel like someone is shaking a wand over my head," McAtee says. Meanwhile, she is readying herself for the four summer parades showcasing the Heritage Court.
"I have to go out and run around the hills to get my legs where I can climb up on those wagons," she said.
McAtee represents some of this valley's best heritage; the story of her life is rife with tales of community support, simple pleasures, and the astounding success of a 72-year marriage.
"We came up the hard way, but we made it," McAtee reflects, adding "We had a good life, a wonderful life really."
Heritage Court Ladies
The Heritage Court Ladies—Anita Gray, of Ketchum/Sun Valley; Orpha Smith Mecham, of Carey; Lula Banker Shoemaker, of Bellevue; and Gladys McAtee, of Hailey—will be honored Sunday, June 26, by the Blaine County Historical Museum at a coronation and pageant at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey. The four ladies will ride in a vintage carriage in Hailey's Days of the Old West Fourth of July Parade, Carey's Pioneer Days Parade, Ketchum's Big Hitch Wagon Days Parade, and Bellevue's Labor Day Parade.