Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bellevue woman celebrates 107 years

Chrystal Harper has a rich history in the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

Bellevue resident Chrystal Harper enjoys a quiet afternoon last Friday. She celebrated her 107th birthday last week. Photo by Willy Cook

The city of Bellevue donated flowers to Chrystal Harper on her 107th birthday last week, celebrating the life of perhaps the oldest woman in Blaine County.

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 in an interview last summer. She lost her mother when she was 5 and to help out around the house climbed onto a box to wash the dishes. She 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 took the 15-mile trip to Bellevue only twice each year, to get supplies in the spring and school clothes in the fall. Her family lived on the road to the 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.

Harper has been known for defending animals that were not treated well, reporting to the sheriff rodeo stock left out in the sun.

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 southern Blaine County—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, people Harper described as the "Zoot Suits" came to Laguna Beach. Thinking they were bad company, probably gangsters, the Harpers 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 for herself many formal gowns for occasions at the lodge, using a pre-electric treadle sewing machine.

Harper donated some toys and household objects from her childhood to the Bellevue Historical Museum many years ago.

On Sept. 1, 2010, there were 70,490 U.S. citizens aged 100 or more. This corresponds to a national incidence of one centenarian per 4,400 people. It is estimated that only 27 people in recorded history have lived to the age of 115.

Tony Evans:

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