Raconteur, writer and photographer Robert W. Limbert is a folk hero without peer in Idaho. Across America he was once on par with the likes of Wild Bill Hickcock. During the 1920s and '30s, Limbert was singularly responsible for promoting the Gem State. He traveled around the country staging lively shows about the West—presentations that combined adventure storytelling, movies, slides, birdcalls, sleight-of-hand and trick shooting. Pre-arrival publicity often challenged the local sheriff to a shootout, and in Chicago he even called out mobster Al Capone. Though they didn't duel, they apparently got along famously.
But locally the man, who was known as "Two Gun Bob," is probably best remembered for founding Redfish Lake Lodge, near Stanley, and for being instrumental in the creation of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, 75 miles east of Ketchum, in 1924.
Two years ago, professional photographer Steve Wursta, of Arctic Circle Production, began making a documentary titled "Among the Craters of the Moon: the Life and Adventures of Robert W. Limbert." Wursta will screen the 65-minute film at The Community Library in Ketchum at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19.
"My wife is from Coeur d'Alene," he said recently. "When we were still living in D.C. (they now live in Bend, Ore.), we went on a road trip to Craters of the Moon and there was a small display about Limbert. I thought, 'Who is this guy?' It planted the seed."
Limbert was an adventurer whose explorations on his 1919 Excelsior motorcycle gave him access to vast areas of Idaho's wilderness.
"He was very fastidious about keeping anything that was ever written about him," Wursta said. "The guy is just everywhere and did everything. He was just prolific, the perfect Renaissance man."
One story Wursta uncovered took place in 1926: 10 years before Count Felix Schaffgotsch handpicked Sun Valley as the site for America's first destination ski resort. Limbert made an unexpected presentation to the Hailey City Council. "Your town can be the St. Moritz of America and become just as famous a winter sports town," he said.
After the council rejected Limbert's plans, he embarked on creating a summer tourist resort in the Sawtooth Mountains, Redfish Lake Lodge.
Limbert's only child, Margaret Lawrence, 89, still resides in Boise. She donated her father's collection of negatives, photographs, documents and newspaper clippings from 1915 to 1933 jointly to the National Park Service and Boise State University, where it is housed.
When Wursta got his hands on this documentarian's treasure trove, he was amazed. "It was a giant puzzle. There are literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pictures, but you don't know the context. No one knew anything except that he started off as a taxidermist in Boise.
"I spent the better part of the year laying it out on my kitchen table. Then I began to contact people. I interviewed Margaret last winter. The gem was that, after I did the interview, she mentioned the family bible."
Inside, Wursta found dates, names, wedding pictures, a marriage certificate, and a post card that Limbert wrote to his wife four days before he died, in 1933. He had been on his way to see his critically ill mother.
In the post card he said he'd lost weight, something was not right. His wife didn't receive it until after he died. By then his mother had also passed, and a double funeral was held.
Margaret revealed to Wursta that she had kept five more boxes of her father's papers. In the boxes were all Limbert's original handwritten manuscripts, poetry and articles.
"With these boxes we were putting together his life," said Wursta. "This guy was methodical, everything was researched. There were letters written to ranchers around Craters asking for information. He had worked as a surveyor in high school and had all the coordinates for every place he went."
His obituary in the Idaho Advertiser said, "Mr. Limbert was a genuine Westerner. He was an authority on wildlife and did a great deal to bring to the attention of countless thousands of Easterners, the scenic attractions of the West. He was in the prime of life and in his death Idaho, and the West, loses one of their most loyal friends."
In 1990, the visitors center at Craters of the Moon was renamed in honor of Limbert's contributions to the national monument.
Wursta spent many years in Washington, D.C., as a White House photographer and photo editor for United Press International and the Knight-Ridder News Service. In 1997 he co-authored the photography book "Washington, City on a Hill" with Washington Post writer Bob Levey. His next project is on the history of cowgirls.