Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rupert House: A miner who valued a good day’s work

Pioneer, county commissioner passes away at 92


Rupert House in his element: Looking up at lead, zinc and silver ore, 1,600 feet down in the last shaft he worked by himself, in the Triumph Mine in 1974. Photo by Willy Cook

The economy stinks, which was pretty much the case when young Rupert House first moved to Blaine County in 1936 to work at the Triumph Mine.

House was born on the first day of spring in 1916 at Hansen, Idaho, and was 20 years old when he signed on at Triumph Mine, which produced lead, zinc and silver out East Fork.

Much of the silver was poured into dollars, the standard legal tender in the Ketchum casinos, bars and stores of the day—deep in the midst of the Great Depression.

"It was a hell of a time to need money or a job," said House, who bought his first Ford, a coupe, for $600 in 1937 when daily wages were $4.

When House went on a trip to California in 1938, it was the first time he had seen paper money. He recalled taking a look at the greenbacks and saying, "That stuff will never last."

It did. So did Rupert House.

House, a Wood River Valley mining pioneer who served as a Blaine County commissioner for 16 years from 1980-96, died Sunday at a Caldwell care center. He was 92. Funeral services are pending under the care of Hailey's Wood River Chapel.

House, a highly quotable commissioner known for his direct manner and laconic speaking style, worked hard to remind Blaine County residents that the valley's roots were in mining as well as tourism.

That's why House, who worked at 15 local mines over his 30-year career, was particularly pleased to serve with his wife, Bonnie, as grand marshal of Ketchum's Wagon Days Big Hitch Parade in September 1997.

He said, "The main theme is the ore wagons. This is the only time anyone has any reference to mining. The wagons were built big to carry supplies out to the mines. Ore is very heavy—sometimes a cubic foot of lead can weigh a ton. And that represents something because those ore wagons had to go over Trail Creek Road."


Big families in olden days

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.

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.

He never regretted it. It was a job and jobs were hard to come by. House said, "Back in those days, 20 or 30 men would rustle in line for a job. And they were pretty picky about who they hired."

"When I started working in the mines, I was never poor again," said House, who 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."

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 of silver, lead and zinc before closing in 1957. The closure left behind 52 miles of tunnels.

House and his men endured bitter cold, mine tunnel collapses and other mishaps while removing ore from the area's mines. In later years, he may have understated how dangerous the work was.

"It might be dangerous but so is logging and walking across the street. Like a boxer, when you become a miner you learn how to hit and not be hit," he said in a 1995 interview.

House married Bonnie Rayborn in Rupert, Idaho, in 1933. They had dated in high school. In a 1997 interview, Bonnie recalled about her husband, "He had a motorcycle. I would run down the lane to meet him. My father said that wasn't too dignified, but that didn't matter to me."

They were married 74 years until Bonnie's death in 2007.

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 Hailey residents.

After the war he sold the pasture and bought 500 acres adjacent to the Triumph mining operations where he built from salvaged logs a rambling farmhouse, shop and barn.

Their two-story timber-frame house was first an old hay barn located across the street. Rupert and Bonnie thought the barn seemed in good shape, "although it didn't have a roof to speak of," Rupert said. For $80, they bought logs to build the kitchen.

Bonnie and Rupert raised five children in their home that was, in earlier days, just the third house from the highway some miles in the distance. They also raised four Indian boys who came from the Blackfoot reservation.

As always, there was a story behind the large log gate across East Fork Road from Rupert's and Bonnie's house. The copper sign by the gate said, "Rupert and Bonnie's Gate." Funny thing was, it wasn't on Rupert and Bonnie's property. They had sold it to a California man.

Rupert wanted to make sure he retained access to part of the sold property so he could get to the deeded water and also to occasionally check out the fruit on the property's apple tree. So he told the purchaser that he needed a gate to get through "so I didn't have to climb over that cockeyed fence."

House managed the Triumph Mine for the last 17 years of its operation. He eventually purchased 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 overshadowed the county's history of mining.

True to his nature, House stayed busy as he aged. He mined the Silver Star Queen Mine in Bellevue from 1962 to 1970. He started working for the city of Hailey in 1970 repairing wooden water pipes, installing new water service connections, patching streets, maintaining the parks and plowing snow.

He served on the Hailey City Council and retired as Hailey street superintendent in 1986 at the age of 70. When he got a letter from the Hailey Chamber of Commerce telling him he'd been chosen grand marshal of the Days of the Old West parade in 1996, he figured it was because he was finally old enough to deserve the recognition.

House was elected to the Blaine County Board of Commissioners in 1980. He served for 16 years and admitted 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," he told an Idaho Mountain Express reporter in 2004. "It just bothers me that mining became a dirty word around here when it was mining that made these towns in the first place.

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

Rupert and Bonnie dearly loved their life in retirement and stayed busy maintaining their 20 acres in the shadow of the Pioneer Mountains.

Above all, Rupert House was a working man who recognized the value of toil and the bang of a buck. He said, "If you can make a living up here, why, it's a nice place to live."

"We have enjoyed living here all the time. We like meeting the people who come here and especially those who are interested in learning the valley's history," House said in a 1997 Express interview.

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