Friday, November 24, 2006

This House is at home

Miner Rupert House reflects on 70 years in the Wood River Valley


Rupert House relaxes in his East Fork home. Photo by Tony Evans

Despite its reputation for deep powder, not everyone came to Sun Valley for the skiing. In 1936, Rupert House struck up a conversation with two women eager to visit the area.

"These gals said that things were looking up in Blaine County," he recalls. "They said the Triumph Mine was up and running again, and some railroad people were building a fancy hotel near Ketchum."

The hotel turned out to be the Sun Valley Lodge and would soon be in use as an infirmary for veterans returning from World War II. House was dismissed from military service due to colorblindness, and one could hardly imagine him taking interest in any "fancy hotel."

House was no stranger to hard work when he arrived at the North Star mine in the town of Triumph. He came of age during the Great Depression, broke rock for his father in a gravel pit near Twin Falls, and at age 18 won the title of southern Idaho heavyweight boxing champion. Like many men before him, he decided on a dangerous vocation that would take him deep underground in search of valuable metals that once helped fuel the U.S. economy. At age 17, he traded a quart of bootleg whiskey to a mine foreman to win back a job.

"Back in those days, 20 or 30 men would rustle in line for a job. And they were pretty picky about who they hired."

House reminisces in his kitchen, which is still heated with a wood-burning stove. The grounds of his 20-acre farm near the Triumph Mine on East Fork Road are decorated with implements and personal memorabilia that would not look out of place in a heritage museum. Yet it soon becomes clear that most everything here is, or once was, put to practical use by House and his five children, some of whom are now retired. Outside, the first snow has fallen on the 70th winter he and his wife, Bonnie, have seen in the Wood River Valley.

Born in 1917 near Hansen, Idaho, Rupert Theodore House was the fourth of 11 children born to Oscar and Angeline House. Their home was lit for a time with pirated electricity, while Oscar House rode a horse to work at the Nye Coal Co. to feed his family, often carrying young Rupert on the back.

"When I started working in the mines, I was never poor again," says House, now 90. He started at $3 a day and paid $1 for room and board.

"After the sparse food we had at home it was like hog heaven to have three good meals a day."

House first signed on at the Vienna Mine nearly 10 miles up Smiley Creek in the Stanley Basin, and later at Jarbidge, Nev., where he learned to blast with dynamite, muck ore and set timbers during what would become the twilight of the great mining era in Idaho.

"I've only been around since 1936," he says. "So there is a lot of history that came before me."

The Northstar Mine at Triumph was begun in 1880 a mile and a half north of East Fork Road. It employed as many as 200 men and yielded $28 million dollars of silver, lead and zinc before closing in 1957. The closure left 52 miles of tunnels in the hills.

House and his men endured bitter cold, mine tunnel collapses, and other mishaps while removing ore from the area's mines.

"Independence Mine in Sun Valley was very productive, but steeper than a cow's face," says House. "So it was eventually connected by tunnels and a tram to Triumph. It got to 36 below zero one winter in Triumph, and my pants were as stiff as stove-pipes."

Until 1945, the House family lived on 30 acres of pasture in the China Gardens section of western Hailey, where the Chinese once set up shops and peddled vegetables. Rupert's children peddled milk from his 20 cows to the townspeople of Hailey.

After the war he sold the pasture and purchased 500 acres adjacent to the Triumph mining operations where he built from salvaged logs a rambling farmhouse, shop and barn. He and his wife still maintain 20 acres of the original homestead in view of Hyndman Peak and the Pioneer Mountains.

"I recycle my tin cans and feed most of the garbage to the birds," he says. "This property will all go to my children one day, but I tell them that I will be watching to see what they do with it from wherever I am."

Rupert House managed the Triumph Mine for the last 17 years of its operation, eventually purchasing all 20 of its claims for $4,000 in 1970, hoping to capitalize on the ore left in its tailings. But the tide had already turned against his way of life and toward an environmentalist ethic that severed the rich history of mining from the future conservation plans of now liberal Blaine County.

"The county commissioners hated mining so much that a man had to get a permit to mine," he says. "To me it was like having a farmer in Camas Prairie get a permit to farm."

The worldwide decline in metals prices, combined with an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup designation posted to Triumph in 1990, marked the final end of North Star mine. It was a designation that House still thinks produced a bit of a boondoggle.

"It seemed there was no limit to what the EPA might spend here," he says.

The mining company Sarco undertook wide-scale reclamation efforts, eventually plugging a 12,000-foot exploratory tunnel that the EPA said leaked water contributing to high levels of lead and arsenic found in the area of Triumph.

"Supposedly there was this water coming out that was poisoning us all, but as far as I know they never had proof one of anything ever dying or getting sick from the water here," he says.

House served on the Blaine County Board of Commissioners for 16 years and admits that he was at odds with the concerns of a new generation.

"I always felt that people have rights on their land and that they already know what to do with it. It just bothers me that mining became a dirty word around here when it was mining that made these towns in the first place."

Upscale residential development has finally reached the House homestead, filling the rugged valley to the north and south with elaborate and expensive dwellings. A retired heart surgeon who lives across the river recently made a house call when Rupert fell, injuring his head.

"I guess you could say I am lucky to have neighbors like this," he says with a smile. "People tell me I should move back to Twin Falls and get away from the cold, but sometimes in the winter when the snow covers the windows, someone, I don't know who, will come along and shovel me out. So, I think I'll stay on a bit longer."

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