Friday, August 30, 2013

Wagon Days almost faded away

Former mayor put out his hand to revive tradition in eary 70s

Express Staff Writer

Wagon Days goes back 55 years, but the event almost came to an end after the 1969 celebration. Express file photo

    In the fall of 1975, things did not look good for Wagon Days.
    The signature event celebrating Ketchum’s rich mining-era history had not been acted out since 1969. The city’s collection of antique ore wagons had deteriorated after a long span of neglect. And several of the key players in celebrations past had let their interests drift elsewhere.
    The once-popular event had apparently seen its better—and perhaps last—days.
    Then, as a campaign to be the city’s next mayor gathered momentum, Ketchum businessman Jerry Seiffert had an idea. In November 1975, Seiffert was elected mayor and a few months later the idea was put before the City Council.
    “The city had two responsibilities in keeping the old ore wagons,” Seiffert said. “We were supposed to display them once a year and we were to supposed maintain them. Neither was being done.”
    As Seiffert proposed that the city revive Wagon Days and its old wagons, he found a receptive audience. Yet, the concept needed a twist, he said, an incentive to get people fully behind the effort.
    “It’s hard to believe now, but by the time we reached Labor Day in the mid-1970s the town was essentially closed,” Seiffert said. “In the past, Wagon Days had been held in early August. We thought that by doing it over Labor Day it would give the business community a good solid weekend to get them through slack.”
    The yearly trend of Ketchum seeing its summer tourist trade dry up by Labor Day, Seiffert said, was evidenced in the city’s sewage flows.
    The so-called “flush factor” was sometimes used by the city to track visitor activity, with large volumes of wastewater in the system indicating a spike in the number of visitors.
    “We had a chart in City Hall,” Seiffert said. “It peaked about the third week of August and then fell off dramatically.”
    The flows became so sparse in the off-seasons, in fact, that the city sometimes supplemented them—using water derived from a local hot spring—to keep the system moving.
    The Ketchum City Council eventually agreed with Seiffert that Wagon Days should indeed be revived and should take place over Labor Day weekend.
    However, making the decision was the easy part, Seiffert said.
    “It became clear that it could not just be done with a volunteer crew,” the former mayor said. “It needed governance … There was no effective chamber of commerce at the time and the wagons were not in the best of shape.”
    Quickly, work began to refurbish five of the city’s authentic 1890s ore wagons, which were once part of the Ketchum Fast Freight Line operated by businessman Horace C. Lewis in the late 1800s.
    Using a bicentennial-related grant of about $2,500, the city acquired new hoops and canvas for the top sections and repaired the wheels so the wagons could roll down Main Street.
    All the while, Seiffert and others took to the streets to raise additional funds to put on the event.
    “We were financed primarily through donations,” Seiffert said. “We hit all the bars and restaurants, everyone who would feel a direct benefit.
    “Everyone was pretty generous. They all kicked in.”
    As a supplement, the event’s organizers put together a full-size Wagon Days brochure—complete with stories of Ketchum’s mining days—to sell for 50 cents a copy.
    Then came finding a team of mules to drive the wagon train. In the end, because such a team could not be located and brought to Ketchum, the city employed a team of six Percheron horses.
    In the months and weeks before the event, the city encouraged—and even paid—history buffs from all over the region to bring entries for the parade.
    The night before the event kicked off on Sept. 3, 1976, organizers stayed up into the wee hours, Seiffert said.
    “To get this thing going, we were practically up all night,” he said. “It took an incredible amount of work.”
    For the “Big Parade” Saturday, Sept. 4, some 5,000 people lined Main Street to watch as the massive wagons were driven through town by the Percherons.
    “During that first parade, when the big hitch came down the street, everybody just went, ‘Wow!’” Seiffert said. “A lot of people hadn’t seen them before.”
    Later in 1976, Seiffert said, when city officials checked the wastewater figures for that August and September, they showed that flows had remained high through the end of the summer, until after the Labor Day weekend.
    Seiffert, who would go on to serve as mayor for three full terms, through 1988, said: “Then, we really knew we had succeeded in the mission.”


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