Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bellevue woman celebrates 108 years

Blaine County native Chrystal Harper hid in the closet from Indians

Express Staff Writer

Chrystal Harper relaxes in home at Bellevue on Friday, the day she turned 108. Photo by Willy Cook

    Bellevue resident Chrystal Harper has a reached a milestone few in Blaine County—or anywhere—are likely to reach. She celebrated her 108th birthday Friday with a small group of friends who came over for an afternoon barbecue.     
    Harper lives alone with her cats in a house on Main Street in Bellevue, next door to a log cabin she once shared with her beloved husband, Ed Harper, who died 52 years ago. She lives surrounded by hand-knitted blankets, family pictures and mementos.
    Harper gets by with the help of neighbor Sharon Schrock, and the Senior Connection in Hailey.
    “I met her when she was 69 [39 years ago]. Now I am 69,” said Schrock. “I gradually moved into a caretaker position because Chrystal never had children.
    “When she was 93, she rolled her car and broke her back in three places,” said Schrock. “She considered moving to Blaine Manor but decided she didn’t belong over there with all those old people.”
    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. She spoke to the Idaho Mountain Express in 2011.
    “The schoolhouse was so cold we had to hug the heater,” said Harper, who lost her mother when she was 5. She climbed onto a box to wash the dishes, and stood on a fencepost to mount the family horse. Harper rode with “no saddle, only bareback,” flushing “sage chickens” nearby.
    Harper went to Bellevue only twice each year, to get supplies in the spring and school clothes in the fall. The family lived on the road to 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.
    William Uhrig rounded up his kids and hid them in a closet upstairs when the Native Americans passed through, she said. 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 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, Harper said, people she described as the “zoot suits” came to Laguna Beach. The Harpers thought they were bad company, probably gangsters. So, they 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 herself many formal gowns for occasions at the lodge, using a pre-electric treadle sewing machine. She donated some toys and household objects from her childhood to the Bellevue Historical Museum many years ago.
    She did cleaning and laundry at the Christiana Motor Inn in Ketchum until 1993 when she retired at the age of 88. Harper was known for defending animals that were not treated well, often reporting rodeo stock left out in the sun.
    “She would turn in the rodeo organizers to the sheriff because they weren’t giving the roping calves enough water,” Schrock said.
    When asked her if she ever attended church, Harper responded, “No, I am a heathen,” with a laugh. “But I talk to God all the time. I ask him for good eyesight and good health, and to keep my friends safe, especially Sharon Schrock. I don’t know if it helps, but I get a lot of comfort out of it.”

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