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A Timeless Walk

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What is seldom recalled or recounted, though, is the fact that the Brass Ranch was a large working sheep ranch, and had been, off and on, since the early 1900s. The same is true for the Lane Ranch south of Ketchum and several places out Warm Springs Creek. Yes, there was some summer tourism in this region, but after the bust in silver mining in the late 1800s, the backbone of the economy in this area was sheep—lots and lots of sheep. Wool and lamb chops kept the Wood River Valley—and its environs north to Stanley, east to Mackay, and west beyond Fairfield—alive for close to half a century. And it was sheep that kept the trains running, long after the last ore car had clickity-clacked its way down-valley.

The hub of all this activity was Jack Lane’s Mercantile in the heart of Ketchum, where Starbucks now resides. The store was a clearinghouse for everything, and everybody, passing through town. A general outfitting store of the pot-bellied stove and pickle barrel variety, it supplied everything from sausages to saddles to “Doctor in a Bottle” snake oil. They cashed checks, held stakes, and handed out free directions and advice to all and sundry. Tourists and trappers alike patronized the place, but the bulk of the business went to ranchers and herders, whose far-flung operations in the mountains were in constant need of supply and re-supply.

...the progress of herders up and down the Valley is still measured by the movement of their camps.

In later years, in the sun-filled empty storefront, Jack Lane could be seen on infrequent trips to town, chewing the fat with an old crony or two from “the lower country,” sharing a cigar, probably a couple of fingers of whiskey, and many a tale of life in the old days. For skiers clomping by in their clunky square-toed boots, looking in that window was like looking into a diorama of days gone by.

In 1955, the California Woolgrowers Association (of which the Lanes were members) published a rather fanciful article in their newsletter. The article pointed out how stockmen and sportsmen could coexist, each to the other’s benefit. In glowing terms, it described how wool taken from Jack Lane’s sheep, which grazed on the slopes of Baldy all summer, was made into fine sweaters and sold in Pete Lane’s store in Sun Valley to skiers, who wore the wool sweaters in winter on those self-same slopes—thus achieving multiple, harmonic, uses of the land. A mighty nice sentiment, to be sure. But, somehow it’s hard to picture Jack sitting around the store with a passel of crusty old sheep ranchers, drinking horseshoe-float coffee topped off with a healthy slug of bourbon and comparing new designs for ski-sweaters. 

Long before Harriman decided to build a newfangled resort here, Jack Lane was already a part of the Union Pacific’s financial interest in the community. Besides shipping thousands of lambs and transporting sheep to the lower country or to California for winter holding, the railroad also had sheep of its own. At one time, Jack and his son Pete (who had the first ski shop in the new Sun Valley Lodge) ran close to 6,000 head of their own and another 2,500 head for Union Pacific, on contract. Before the resort was built, more sheep were shipped from Ketchum and farther west on the Camas Prairie than from any other place in the world.

It’s no wonder that old Jack, though a great booster of the new resort (in the early days, he was often called the “mayor” of Sun Valley), never believed that it would supplant sheep as the prime economic engine of this area. Even after the resort had been established for a few years, Jack commented, “Many of the older folks don’t approve of those who spend their time playing, drinking, and dancing . . . our main interest is in sheep, that’s where we make our money.” >>>


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