Out for an after-church ride with friends, Rita Hurst didn’t let her new red suit keep her from enjoying a splash in the Big Wood Rver with her dog, Joker. She waded in and was “laughing so hard I about fell off the log,” she said. Friend and photographer Michael Edminster captured the spectacle.
She may have been able to outwork many men by the age of 10, but inside, Rita Wade was all girl from her nurturing nature to her fondness for sparkly trinkets and her penchant to swoon around cowboys. A cowboy's widow at 80, Rita Hurst saves her best jewelry for Sundays, is credited with hosting more than 33 fundraisers for people in need and is playfully coy with her gentlemen callers—including her pastor. And she won't be caught dead in long pants.
She raised badgers and bear cubs rather than kids, had no formal education, worked to the bone "by choice," was isolated for months on end and epitomizes the sentiment that there is nearly nothing a woman can't do. Still, she thinks the best work a woman can do is keep home and hearth in sync. And that along with a good mind, girls should bring back more of the femininity and mystery that make women unique, "Don't you think?"
This is a woman who as a little girl had a smile and a wave that so charmed the engineer of a steam engine traveling through Bellevue that he threw her bags of candy every week for nine years. His widow wrote her parents when he died that Rita was the only child who had affected him so deeply.
"Women are so different now, don't you think?" she said, without judgement. "They're so self-sufficient. There's just not the family life that there used to be. But the way things are now, it takes two to make a living."
Though her thinking may make feminists shudder, Hurst is not suggesting a Stepford wife existence for women; she just suggests that while women have proven they can do a man's job, the jury's still out when it comes to proving a man can do a woman's.
"The perfect valley woman? She would have her education, be a good homemaker and loving mother and bring home the bacon if she wanted to," she reasoned.
Hurst herself never had to conform to anyone's expectations or conventions. She was just 6 when her ailing mother and stepfather moved her from Hailey to Beaver Creek in the Sawtooth Valley. Walter Wade provided timber for the area mines and harvested for the local utilities to make power poles. Rita got her first workhorse at age 9, which she used to move logs and then drove harrowing roads to deliver the timber over Galena Pass. She had her own chainsaw and in the field developed first-aid skills so deft that doctors complimented her style.
The petite powerhouse stacked crates so she could pump gas at 34 cents a gallon to customers who came to her parents' Beaver Creek Store where her wood-stove cooking got such a reputation that area ranchers, miners, loggers and tourists crowded in to meet and eat. It was their news from the big city of Ketchum that led her to cross-country ski once for hours to get there for a picture show, only to be derailed by snow blindness.
One would expect photos of her to resemble a tomboy, but Rita was only practical in her clothing when forced to be. She preferred her dresses, frilly tops and skirts—even while playing with her baby bear—to boyish dungarees.
A cowboy named Arthur Hurst from Bellevue married her in 1954 and they were together for 51 years, running the Wade logging business until he went to fight in World War II. He was in the Signal Corps, which laid phone lines to support troops, and earned the Silver Star for his heroics during the Battle of the Bulge.
They sold the logging business and Rita worked for 20 years at the Silver Dollar Café, where her baked goods became legend.
To showcase her love of finery and antiques, she semi-retired to running a secondhand store along the old Union Pacific Railroad turned bike path in Bellevue, and was a regular riding her horse in the annual Labor Day Parade.
She still cooks weekly for the staff at Atkinsons' Valley Market, who donate food for her to distribute to people in need through her Bellevue Community Church. The antics of her animals, like dog Joker, and a cat she swears is part bobcat despite his tender demeanor, are her diversions. Yard sales are a pastime, but she really yearns for work, even though her body begs otherwise.
"I think that's what kills people when they get old—they stop working," she said.
Her love of people and inability to let anyone leave her presence hungry, or otherwise lacking in the basic necessities, keeps her active and still interested in cowboys. She won't, she insists, go looking for him on Facebook.
On a recent rainy night, while most of us girls were home in our sweats, Hurst was in a simple well-made dress, cracking eye-rolling inside jokes with a few of her "adopted sons" from the neighborhood who had stopped by to check in and visit.
Pastor Tad Walton said Hurst is the perfect role model for today's girls and women.
"She's about being your own person, not filling a stereotypical role," Walton said. "Deciding to do what you want to do without worrying what people think or if it's a man's job, and showing you can do all that and still be a lady.
"Do what your heart tell you to do. That's what a lot of people look up to her for."