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Friday, June 11, 2004


Ketchum woman is link to townís past

Conger one of five in Heritage Court

Express Staff Writer

For every old and charming building in the town of Ketchum Mary Jane Griffith Conger has a story. Her family inhabited some of them, owned others and, in other ways, she influenced the way the town looked.

Conger was born in Ketchum in 1925. Except for some stints in Colorado in college, California during her first marriage and 10 years in Alaska, this valley is her home and always has been. Conger is one of the five ladies being honored in the Blaine County Historical Museumís Heritage Court, Sunday, June 27, at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey.

Mary Jane Conger, nťe Griffith, and a partner skated in an Ice Show at Sun Valley in the early 1940s. Courtesy photo

All the women are community members who have played a role in their respective communities over the long haul. The Sun Valley Ketchum Heritage Museum selected Conger.

In 1879, mining engineer Al Griffith saw there was potential for mining here, said Conger, his granddaughter. That summer, Griffith built a cabin on the side of Trail Creek with another miner, David Ketchum. They left over the winter and by spring only Griffith had. Returned. Soon after he met banker Isaac Ives Lewis, whose son soon formed the Ketchum & Challis Toll Road Company through Galena Summit, as well as the Ketchum Fast Freight Line, which ran over Trail Creek Pass.

Eventually, a group of men including Lewis and Griffith organized the newly named town of Ketchumís layout, roads and lots. Both men also owned land to the east in what are now Sun Valley and Elkhorn. In fact, the Brass family bought 2,200 acres from Albert and Oscar Griffith in 1922.

Griffith was "one of the first ones to come and stay here," Conger said of her grandfather. At a mining camp he met a cook, 16-year-old Jenny Smith. She had been born on the ocean as her family crossed the Atlantic while emigrating from Wales. They wed and eventually had two boys, one of whom was Congerís father Albert Richard Griffith, born in 1887. The family first occupied a homesteading cabin near what is now the north end of Elkhorn.

"She moved to town with the boys," Conger said, and lived at in what had been the original Catholic church at Leadville Avenue and Fourth Street, while Al Griffith stayed up at the mines. The boys went to the school across the street, located where Giacobbi Square is today. During high school they were shipped off to relatives in Nebraska.

Congerís father, Albert, met his wife Helen in Boise when she was working at the Boise Payette Lumber Company, which became Boise Cascade. Mary Jane was born in Ketchum in 1925 and for a year lived above her fatherís store, at the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue, which still bears the imprint of Griffith Grocery on its side. Her father and his brother, Oscar, owned the building until 1937. Helen Griffith did the books for the store, and they lived in the house at the corner of Second Street and Leadville Avenue.

Conger went through school in Ketchum and then attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. During her four years, studying foreign languages and philosophy, there were a mere 3,000 students enrolled.

Married in 1946, she settled in California, where her husband taught college, and had five children. Divorced in 1971, Conger moved back to the valley. The activist in her kept her occupied even while she returned to school to get her Masters Degree from the University of Idaho in Pocatello in Special Education,

"In 1970 I got involved when the Idaho Highway Department came in," Conger recalled. "They decided to widen the highway without asking anybody." She was appointed to the Ketchum Planning & Zoning Board and became "involved in writing the countyís first comprehensive land use plans."

It is a mark of her dedication to her projects that Conger is so thorough about what she does.

"I spent one year just driving around and seeing what we could do. It was an instructive interesting time. I was concerned about hillside building, transportation, the rivers, not building right on the rivers. One off the key things I was interested in was preventing strip development," she said.

Mary Jane Conger today at home north of Ketchum. Express photo by Dana DuGan

By then she was teaching in Jerome, but the money was not good she said. Fed up, she applied for a teaching job in Alaska.

"It was an opportunity," she said with a signature twinkle in her eye. "I was a coordinator for a couple of school districts and taught in the Eskimo community. I traveled to different villages in my capacity. It was a very exciting time to work with these people."

For 10 years Conger taught Yupic and Inuit children, as well as English as Second Language to Japanese, Philippine, European and Russian children

"It was really a wonderful experience," she said. "Writing and setting up ESL programs. It was such a conglomeration of cultures. Thatís what made it so interesting."

While there her youngest son finished school in Alaska. In 1986, her mother, Helen passed away and she migrated south to Idaho again.

"I was sort of leaving it open, though I thought it might be time to come back."


In fact, Conger had another life waiting for her, one that reopened her favorite memories of growing up in Sun Valley.

In 1936, the Sun Valley Resort had opened. Young local children like Mary Jane and her brother Jim became enveloped into the family of Sun Valley, first by training for various sports and also by taking their first jobs with the company.

The Griffith children both trained to be skiers. A horsewoman, she also skated on the small outdoor ice rink as well. They both won trophies and were singled out among the local racers.

"Sun Valley was very kind to us," she said. "I skated in the summer after Sun Valley opened, danced and skated. We were in group numbers in the Ice Shows. One summer I skated with a partner in the Ice Shows. It was a lot of fun.

"Pat Rogers was the man who made Sun Valley what everyone remembers. He remembered everyoneís name. (Averell) Harriman built it as a tax write off," she said. "Mr. Rogers hired college kids from Omaha to work. He really liked the young people. Also, baseball. Anyone who played baseball could take time off from their jobs for games."

Indeed, Pat "Pappy" Rogers was a key employee in the early glory years of Sun Valley. His softball games, held on the three ball fields that surrounded the Lodge and Inn, became legendary

"I had a big job one summer, running the elevator in the lodge," she laughed. "Iíd get time off to skate but it was nothing compared to those who played baseball."

Her skating interest continued unabated. Conger served as a U.S. Figure Skating Association judge for over 25 years, as well as a test chair for the Sun Valley Figure Skating Club.

"Sun Valley wanted to get locals involved as instructors, and we were all trained to race." Conger said she skied with some of the best female racers in the country, including another Sun Valley racing legend, the late Gretchen Fraser. "I beat her once; tickled me pink."

Her brother Jim Griffith was also an outstanding skier, she recalled. He was on the Olympic team in 1951 but sadly died in a skiing accident before he was able to go to Oslo in 1952.

During the World War II, many of the men went off to serve in the armed forces. The Sun Valley Lodge was turned into a Naval Convalescent Hospital. One young man Conger remembered as a handsome archery instructor whom she would see at the sports desk.

"I was a 15 year-old-kid, and he was 25, an older man."

When this "older man," David Conger, joined the 10th Mountain Division, he left a box of things at the Griffithsí home for safekeeping.

"Dave came back after the war, stayed and married here," she said. After he was widowed, he and Mary Jane became reacquainted. They married in 1986 after she had returned to the valley.

Conger, never one to sit still, was instrumental in starting the Heritage Museum in Ketchum. "Nobody had done anything with the history of the place, which was the forerunner of the museum."

She has also served on the cemetery board but finally resigned this year when the master plan was approved.

"Thatís an historical cemetery and thereís definitely a pioneer part of it. Itís a very important part of Ketchumís history." Her grandparents Al and Jenny Griffith, her father, mother, uncle and her brother Jim are all buried there.

"Thereís not much architectural history in town with so many buildings torn down and altered," she said. "Mr. Harriman wanted to maintain Ketchum by making it part of Sun Valley from the beginning," she said amused. "Wouldn't it have been interesting if that had happened? He did a good job of making it a European resort in America. People came out here expecting Indians."

Today, Conger is pleased to find herself selected to be part of the Blaine County Heritage Museumís Heritage Court. The women are all being given the title "Lady of the Court" at a special coronation Sunday, June 27 at the Liberty Theater in Hailey. The court will then ride in the Fourth of July Parade in Hailey, and in Ketchumís Wagon Days Parade over Labor Day weekend.

"I think itís so neat that this Heritage Court is happening. Margeís mother and my mother were good friends." (Marge is Marjorie Brass Heiss another Heritage Court Lady.)

Congerís love of the land and the valley obviously has deep roots in the past, but she is nothing if not a forward thinker.

"People look at Baldy and then wonder why itís such a big deal. Well, it is a big deal. Not just the history but itís the townís focal point. Big buildings block the sun from the streets and the mountain canít be seen from just anywhere in town anymore. Iím really in favor of making Ketchum a pedestrian town. Weíve talked about this since the 1950s. All it takes is a little planning and a little will. Things change, people come in and developers pound on the P&Z."

"Iíve been concerned," she reiterated. "We need a highway plan for the future. There should be a 20- to 30-year plan for mass transportation. These are the things that have driving me for the past 20 years. We donít wasnít to be anyplace USA."

Athletic and vital, Conger still hikes, bikes and cross-country skis with a group and alone on a weekly basis. When her grown children are around sheís apt to take to Baldy again. The Congersí house is nestled into the hills just north of Ketchum. Outside it has immense natural appeal and is cozily unkempt. A large teepee is erected on a rise behind the home, and endless trails are at hand, each one as tempting as the other to Mary Jane Griffith Conger, a lady of unparalleled vitality.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.