Published April 8, 2011
During the summer of 1948 I was able to borrow $3,500 to buy a vacant lot in Ketchum and build my dream cabin.
It took me about three weeks to stash my Redwood surfboard in a safe place and load up my teardrop trailer for the trip to Idaho. I had bought some of the necessary tools and as soon as I arrived in town I ran into an old friend, Austin Lightfoot. He had a dirt-floor garage that he rented me for $5 a month. In the garage I stashed all of my tools and materials and in the process he sold me my first piece of ski resort property. It was on Trail Creek along the road to Hailey and the log cabin I had designed fit perfectly.
This story is more about the garage than building the house.
The first thing I did was to build a wood floor made of one-by-sixes on top of two-by-sixes that I just put on the ground. Once I got the floor finished I drove down to Hailey and bought a used oil heater. Once it got cold in October, the heater wouldn’t get hot enough to melt the ice in the pan on top of it.
I had built a large drawing board so I could continue my sign painting business on the side. Before I could turn around, the days were getting a lot shorter and the temperature was dropping. When I got back from my month-long, infamous nylon shoelace-selling trip with Klaus Obermeyer there was frost in the air and ice along the riverbanks. I got busy dying shoelaces in a five-gallon can on my Coleman stove as I waited anxiously for the snow to arrive. I slept on a borrowed mattress right up against the oil heater and I showered in the Skiers Chalet.
By the time the snow showed up, I had heard they were having tryouts for ski instructors on Dollar Mountain. So I got out my ski gear, shook the moths out of my sweater and showed up in the large group of people trying out for the few jobs. Otto Lang was most generous when he said, “If you go take a shower and get a haircut, and get your ski pants dry cleaned, you can show up for work on Dollar when the ski season starts. The salary is $125 a month and room and board.”
I was really excited because I didn’t have to sleep in my cold garage all winter while I was manufacturing nylon parachute-shroud shoelaces. The siding on the garage was quarter-inch lap strake that sort of kept most of the wind out but none of the cold. I returned to it occasionally to fire up my Coleman cook stove so I could paint yet another sign for a customer. It sounds crazy but I could straddle the burners and barely feel their warmth.
Enter another business opportunity:
My longtime friend Edward L. Scott, who went on to invent the lightweight ski pole, was working in Pete Lane’s ski shop and got in an argument with the owner about his girlfriend. Pete fired him and he lost his bunk in the employees’ dormitory so I said to him, “Why don’t you go to the Goodwill in Hailey and buy your own mattress and some blankets and I will rent you floor space in my garage for 50 cents a night.” He thought that was a good idea. By now Scotty was making silver belt buckles with your name on them and was keeping ends together. He was a great tenant. Somehow he managed to stay warm while he was making his belt buckles in another part of the garage.
In early March, Bob Brandt, who later married Janet Leigh, had started a starving-to-death job as a stockbroker. He got another mattress and blankets for about $3 and also paid me 50 cents a night. Not too bad for a $5 a month rental to sub-rent it for $1 a night total.
I tried to make the garage a bit warmer by hanging a tarp below the rafters but the tarp was only half as big as the garage. I returned to the garage fairly regularly to package and ship my thousands of pairs of shoelaces that Flush the Plumber’s wife had dyed in her log cabin. The ends had been burnt by a group of shoelace tip burners who were so fast they were earning as much as $1 an hour when minimum wages were still 25 cents an hour.
Austin Lightfoot’s wife was also very understanding, and since there was no bathroom in the garage the tenants had to take their slop bucket with them when they left in the morning and bring it back empty at night after they had bootlegged a shower in the Skiers Chalet. This was a small price to pay for a night’s lodging in what has become the middle of Ketchum, the gateway to Sun Valley.
Those one-car garages are a thing of the past anywhere near a ski resort in America. They’ve been replaced by million-dollar condos that the owners use for two or three weeks a year. Looking at all of this from the outside, that $200 teardrop trailer that I lived in for two winters in Sun Valley is still the bargain in real-estate opportunities.
It was cold, but it was still a bargain.