|Horace and Kate Lewis’ home in Ketchum, circa 1885. The Elephant’s Perch outdoors store now occupies this site.
Photos courtesy of The Community Library, Regional History Department
The first official Wagon Days took place Aug. 15-17, 1958. The event was organized by the city of Ketchum as a birthday celebration for beloved Ketchum resident Kate Lewis on her 85th birthday.
Lewis, aka “Aunt Kate,” was the wife of Ketchum entrepreneur Horace Lewis, who—among other business interests—owned the Lewis Fast Freight Line, which operated the famous Big Hitch wagons that steal the show every year when they turn the corner of Main Street and Sun Valley Road in Ketchum during the annual Wagon Days parade. The ore wagons were used by Horace Lewis to transport supplies to the area’s mines and miners and to return to the railroad hub in Ketchum with silver and lead ore tunneled out from the area’s mountains.
In 1997, Hailey resident and Wagon Days historian Ivan Swaner related the history of the first Wagon Days in an interview with Ketchum resident Tom Bezdeka,
“The city of Ketchum decided that since the Lewis wagons had always been a part of history, and that Isaac Lewis, who was Horace Lewis’ father, was considered to be one of the founders of Ketchum, it would be nothing but appropriate to give [Kate Lewis] a birthday present, using her husband’s wagons as part of the celebration,” Swaner said. “Kate Lewis … was an elderly lady at that time. She was known as the grand dame of Ketchum. Her birthday was Aug. 15.”
Kate Lewis was honored as the first Wagon Days queen, and her nephew, George Venable, was given the honor of being the event’s first marshal.
“Every celebration must have a queen, and who could wear the crown of this occasion with more grace, charm, dignity and authority than Aunt Kate,” states a 13-minute film of the first Wagon Days parade, shot on Aug. 16, 1958 by Palmer Lewis, who was Horace Lewis’ and Kate Lewis’ nephew. The film can be viewed in the regional history department of the Community Library in Ketchum.
“Off she goes in her own carriage drawn by a team of spirited, matched blacks,” the film states as Kate Lewis rolls through downtown Ketchum in a lovely black carriage. “Our queen to receive a bouquet from Huffy Huffman, a close friend and neighbor.”
Kate Lewis states in the film that her horses had been given tranquilizer pills to “calm them down” so they wouldn’t “smash things up.”
The color film shows a large crowd of people lining the streets of Ketchum, especially on the corner of Main Street and Sun Valley Road. The sky is bright blue and there isn’t a cloud in sight. The scene does not appear much different than the parade looks today, with the exception of the cars parked in the background and the lack of people taking cell phone snapshots.
The first year’s parade set the precedent for exciting moments during the Big Hitch demonstration, featuring Horace Lewis’ Ore Wagons. The Palmer Lewis’ film shows footage of the team of 14 horses that pulled the Big Hitch that year as they take fright for an alarming second or two before control is regained.
“The horses are not used to being greeted by such large crowds and loud applause,” the film states. “Excitement is in the air and the horses sense it. They break into a run and for a moment it looks like trouble lies ahead, but the riders alongside get the teams under control and avert disaster.”
Some of the other events listed in the first Wagon Days’ brochure include a Barber Shop Quartet Contest, held at the Trail Creek Cabin amphitheater on Friday night, Aug. 15, and Saturday afternoon, Aug. 16. Admission was $1.50 (children under 14 entered free). On Saturday afternoon after the parade, chariot team, pony express and jockey races were held at the Warm Springs Ranch Inn track. Admission was $1.25 (children under 14 entered for 25 cents and children under 6 entered free).
| Kate Lewis walks through Hailey (date unknown).
Other events included a Chuck Wagon Supper, held in a “circle of wagons” and a Wagon Train Dance at Legion Park on Saturday evening. Admission was $1.50. After the dance, attendees enjoyed an ice show at the Sun Valley Ice Rink.
“Aunt” Kate’s birthday celebration closed on Sunday with a Trail Ride Breakfast at the Trail Creek barbecue grounds for $1.50, an Arabian Horse Show at the Warm Springs Ranch Inn arena for $1 (children under 14 entered for 25 cents) and the Barber Shop Quartet Championship Finals at the Trail Creek Amphitheater for $1.50 (children under 14 entered free).
Kate Lewis passed away shortly after her Wagon Days birthday present. She died in October, 1958, just two months after the original parade.
“Her wit and charm will always be remembered by the people of Ketchum and the Wood River Valley,” the film states.
The last page of the first Wagon Days’ brochure, compiled and edited by Agnes Barry and Margaret Doyle in August 1958, offers the original attendees a message of gratitude that remains pertinent today.
“We wish to express our gratitude to all those who so graciously loaned their horses, teams, wagons and other equipment, as well as to those who so generously gave their time, to help make our Wagon Days a success,” reads the brochure.
The message is signed, “The People of Ketchum.”