Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chrystal Harper: 106 and still counting

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Chrystal Harper

At 106, Chrystal Harper may be the oldest person in Blaine County. She lives with her cats in a house on Main Street in Bellevue, next door to a log cabin she once shared with her beloved husband, Ed Harper, who died 52 years ago.

Hand-knitted blankets, family pictures and mementos surround Harper in her home. Aid workers bring her meals and her longtime next-door neighbor Sharon Schrock checks in regularly.

"When she was 93, she rolled her car and broke her back in three places," said Schrock. "She considered moving to Blaine Manor but decided she didn't belong over there with all those old people."

Harper fell and broke a hip at 103, and another one at 104, but is surprisingly limber for her age, scurrying quickly around her living room with a walker. She has a mischievous grin and delights in having company.

Harper's father, William Uhrig, moved to Idaho in 1887, raising three girls and three boys on a farm near Stanton Crossing, about 15 miles south of Bellevue. As a child, Harper rode about two miles to school, wrapped in quilts in a horse-drawn sled.

"The schoolhouse was so cold we had to hug the heater," said Harper, who lost her mother when she was 5. She climbed onto a box to wash the dishes, and stood on a fence post to mount the family horse. Harper rode with "no saddle. Only bareback!" She remembers flushing "sage chickens" nearby as well.

Harper went to Bellevue only twice each year, to get supplies in the spring and school clothes in the fall.

The family lived on the road to Camas Prairie, and she often encountered Native Americans passing through on wagons, probably on their way to gather camas bulbs, a staple in their diet.

"They were rough-looking Indians. They had a poor old team of horses that should never have been hitched up," she said.

William Uhrig rounded up his kids and hid them in a closet upstairs when the Native Americans passed through. The young girl held on tightly to a doorknob in the dark until they were gone.

"I was scared to death of them," Harper said.

When the family farm was sold in 1917, Harper moved to Boise. She met Ed Harper, who had just completed his military training in preparation for sailing to Europe to fight in World War I. After the war ended, Ed Harper was playing baseball when he spotted Chrystal Uhrig for the first time.

"He walked up to me and said hello, and that was it," Harper said with a shrug.

The couple drove a Chevy truck over Timmerman Hill in 1924 to Washington state, and then followed the West Coast south into California in search of work. They settled in Laguna Beach, where they operated a dry-cleaning business for the next 17 years.

"Laguna Beach was nothing but a big expanse with three houses. We had one of them," she said. "I liked California. I'd kind of like to go back there," she said.

In 1943, Harper said, people she described as the "Zoot Suits" came to Laguna Beach. The Harpers thought they were bad company, probably gangsters. So, they packed up and drove back to Idaho.

In 1945, Harper became a member of the Mayflower Rebekah Lodge in Bellevue, serving for many years as the group's financial officer. Over the years she sewed herself many formal gowns for occasions at the lodge, using a pre-electric treadle sewing machine. She donated some toys and household objects from her childhood to the Bellevue Historical Museum many years ago.

She did cleaning and laundry at the Christiana Motor Inn in Ketchum until 1993 when she retired at the age of 88.

She was known for defending animals that were not treated well, often reporting rodeo stock left out in the sun.

"She would turn in the rodeo organizers to the sheriff because they weren't giving the roping calves enough water," Schrock said.

This summer, Harper is looking forward to getting a four-wheeled walker so she can get around better outside. Her favorite snack is Symphony milk chocolate bars. Her favorite TV show is "Two and Half Men." She doesn't hear very well, but likes watching the characters in the show.

I asked her if she ever attended church.

"No, I am a heathen," she said with a laugh.

"But I talk to God all the time. I ask him for good eyesight and good health, and to keep my friends safe, especially Sharon Schrock. I don't know if it helps, but I get a lot of comfort out of it."

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