Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big Hitch is a unique piece of history

City of Ketchum maintains old ore wagons


Special for Wagon Days

The Lewis wagons featured in Wagon Days are the only ones of their kind.

In 1958, a few freight wagons were still in working condition, but none could match the Lewis wagons. These massive wagons were larger than an average freight wagon and were built to withstand the extreme stresses when loaded with ore to traverse Trail Creek Summit, northeast of Ketchum.

The rarity of the wagons resulted in the Lewis family receiving several offers, including one from the Disney Corp. Instead, they chose to donate the wagons to the city of Ketchum on the condition that they remain on display for the public.

The Big Hitch is pulled by a 20-mule jerkline. This historic technique is all but extinct in the modern world. In 2000, the Wagon Days Committee sought to return the Big Hitch to the original method of being pulled. Bobby Tanner of California, one of the last remaining jerkline skinners, has been driving the Big Hitch since then.

As a caretaker of such a unique and irreplaceable piece of history, the city of Ketchum has embarked on a project to restore the wagons. The repair of this exceptional piece of living history is done with the greatest care, in a manner consistent with methods used in the late 1880s.

To contribute to this project, please contact Sun Valley Events at (208) 726-2777.

The jerkline

The Wagon Days Big Hitch is powered by an authentic jerkline. The jerkline runs the length of the team to the mule skinner, who sits atop the left-wheel mule (the mule closest to the wheel). Draft mules rather than horses are used for their temperament, power, and stamina. With a jerkline, a rein approximately 100 feet long attached to each member of the team, the mule skinner becomes an artisan. He must perform any number of distinct whips and jerks on the line to negotiate the road ahead. With as many as 20 mules on a line, each mule must be commanded to perform a different task. Trained to the many distinct jerks on the line, the mules interpret the commands of the mule skinner. Sherm Smith, in August of 1991, wrote an article on jerklines for Western Horseman saying, "I remember once when Union Pacific Sun Valley was just getting started. They had a 20-mule team in a parade, (and) they had the team hitched correctly. ... An honest to gosh 20-mule hitch."

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