Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A look at history with Mary Jane Conger

Valley People

Express Staff Writer

Mary Jane Conger

Few local residents can boast a historical legacy that compares to Mary Jane Griffith Conger's. An author of local histories and founder of Ketchum's first historical society, Conger will ride as grand marshal in the Wagon Days parade on Labor Day.

In 1879, Conger's grandfather, Al Griffith, helped David Ketchum build a cabin somewhere near Trail Creek, the first reported structure built by non-Indians in the valley. The Army's Sheepeater campaign against local mountain tribes had put an end to native subsistence in the region, and the area was opened up to mining and white settlement.

Conger's published works "The Legacy of Al Griffith" and "The Chronicles of Ed Price" contain many stories from the earliest days of Ketchum history. Recently, Conger discovered by chance the fate of the mysterious packer David Ketchum, her hometown's namesake.

In 1880, Al Griffith and Isaac Lewis pitched tents in the area, becoming two of the first permanent settlers in what would one day be Ketchum. The Griffith family saw the 10-year-long mining boom come and go by 1890, and eventually settled into business at the Griffith Grocery store building at the corner of Main Street and First Avenue in Ketchum. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and today houses the Cornerstone Bar and Grill. It's a stone's throw from where Mary Jane Conger lives today on Second Street in a house built by her father in 1929.

"My mother would watch my brother and me ski race on Baldy through a telescope from the living room," Conger said.

Conger was born in 1925 and lived next door to a blacksmith, learning to ride horses on a friendly workhorse, used to carry freight around town. By the early 1930s, there was an automobile dealer selling Studebakers nearby, but Conger's preferred mode of travel was horseback.

"I was crazy about horses," she said. "I rode up Baldy and along game trails. On a horse you could get close to bear, elk and deer."

Conger, a self-described tomboy, also ice skated on beaver ponds, played with boys in the backyard and climbed on rooftops in the neighborhood. Her life changed in a big way when railroad mogul Averell Harriman decided to build a ski resort up the road at the Brass Ranch in 1936, turning a sleepy sheep-ranching town into a destination for Hollywood stars.

By the time Conger was a teenager, she was taking skiing and skating lessons, shooting bows and arrows with archery champion David Conger—her future husband—and lunching with people from around the world.

"Sun Valley really worked to get local kids involved in sports," she said. "This opened doors for me that I never knew existed.

In 1941, Conger befriended Jack Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway's son—when they were both 16. They bowled together at the Sun Valley Lodge, and listened to classical music. That year she was invited to a going-away dinner for Ernest at Trail Creek Cabin, attended by Gary Cooper and his wife, Veronica "Rocky" Cooper. The writer was leaving Sun Valley to his home in Cuba.

"Gary Cooper always stopped to say hello when he saw me. Rocky was so nice. She said I looked like a young Ingrid Bergman," Conger recalled.

Conger also took to ice dancing, learning the foxtrot, waltzes and other skating dances. She earned a degree in German from the University of Colorado, and spent 25 years judging skating competitions as far away as Alaska. She also ski raced with the legendary Gretchen Fraser. She married naval officer David Marin and had five children, later earning a master's degree in education and working in Alaska and Japan.

She returned to Ketchum more than 30 years ago, marrying David Conger, who in her youth introduced her to the short-lived sport of archery golf at the Sun Valley golf course.

"We had to start at 6:30 a.m. to avoid the golfers," she said.

In 1990, Conger joined a group of old-time locals to found the city's first historical society, with financial support from state Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. The society went on to form the Ketchum-Sun Valley Ski and Heritage Museum in 1995.

Conger's continued explorations of local history resulted in a chance encounter between a relative of hers and a descendent of David Ketchum's in Paris a few years ago.

Conger learned that Ketchum left the Wood River Valley to spend a number of years among native tribes around Salmon, Idaho, learning about native medicine, before returning East.

"He spent his later years selling native remedies in Missouri and did quite well for himself," she said.

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