Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not Ralph Harris’ first valley rodeo

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Ralph Harris

Sun Valley brought skiing, big money and Hollywood glamour to the Wood River Valley many years ago. Some locals with deep roots in the area have enjoyed this international mystique while retaining connections to their historic frontier heritage.

Artist and ski instructor Ralph Harris, now 71 and living north of Ketchum, has brought the history of the Wood River Valley to life in murals, featuring everyone from Sun Valley founder Averell Harriman and Olympian Gretchen Fraser to mountain men, Native Americans and the soldiers of the Idaho National Guard.

Harris has also enjoyed a career as an illustrator for Ski magazine, and this year will retire from a 44-year career as a Sun Valley ski instructor.

"At least I made it to the 75th anniversary," he says. "When I started teaching in the ski school, ski instructors were like gods. There would be 1,000 people waiting for lessons on a Monday morning at the top of Baldy."

Harris' paintings are community projects. He recently enlisted volunteers to complete a mural at the newly refurbished Idaho National Guard Armory in Hailey. The painting depicts a history of the National Guard from the birth of the nation to the war in Afghanistan.

Since enlisting in the Air Force in 1967, Harris has painted portraits of top military brass. He has also designed commemorative stamps, medallions and stained-glass windows, along with friend Herman Lirk, at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Sun Valley.

The Harris family came to Hailey in 1881. His mother's family, the Arriagas, came as shepherds from the Basque region of Europe. Harris' father, Charles E. Harris, ran a mortuary and furniture business on Main Street. His mother, Pilar Arriaga, had famed author Ernest Hemingway over to dinner several times at her home.

In 1953, Charles Harris, a founding member of the Sawtooth Rangers Riding Club, brought his son Ralph to Twin Falls to meet Slim Pickens, a Hollywood actor and rodeo star who would help put the Hailey rodeo arena on the map.

Harris rode back to Hailey with Pickens in a pickup truck, talking all the while about rodeo and making movies.

"He really loved rodeo. He did it for the fun of it," Harris said.

Pickens did horse stunts at a theater on Main Street before performing his comedy routines at the Hailey Days of the Old West Rodeo on the Fourth of July.

"He came out in the arena dressed as a matador, rather than a rodeo clown. He even wore a red cape," Harris said.

Pickens may have been a big movie star at the time, but he was also no slouch at rodeo. Harris watched as Pickens saved a cowboy from being dragged and bucked by a bronc after getting his hand tangled in a rope.

"That cowboy was in dire straits," Harris said.

Harris rode in the Hailey rodeo as a kid and competed in drill team events elsewhere in the region. He rode to nearby towns with his father to promote the Hailey rodeo, plastering rodeo posters and using a loudspeaker mounted on top of a car to draw attention to the event.

"The Fourth of July has always been a major reunion time for Hailey families, and the rodeo arena has been a major economic boost for the city ever since it was built," he said.

In the 1950s, Harris' aunt, Paulita Arriaga, was assigned as a maid to Room 206 in the Sun Valley Lodge, the part-time hideout of Hemingway. Hemingway often used the back service entrance to the lodge to avoid fans and admirers. That's where Harris' mother, Pilar, met him while walking with her sister.

"She told him her name and Hemingway said, 'I have a cruiser (boat) in Cuba with that name. It must be named after you.'"

Hemingway had more than a passing interest in Basque culture. He had written about the running of the bulls in Pamplona in "The Sun Also Rises" and documented bullfighting in Spain in "Death in the Afternoon."

Pilar and Ralph Harris entertained Hemingway at their home in Hailey, serving Basque cuisine and perhaps a few stories from the old country.

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