Massive ore wagons rolling down Main Street, cowboy poets and roaming musicians filling the streets of Ketchum and mules and horses replacing cars on the roads—Wagon Days must be here! This Labor Day weekend marks Wagon Days’ 62nd year—well, sort of.
The Wagon Days parade began in 1958 as a tribute to Ketchum and the Wood River Valley’s mining legacy. Started by a nephew of Horace Lewis, the founder of the Ketchum Fast Freight Line, which used wagons to ship ore and silver back from regional mines, in collaboration with then-Ketchum Mayor George Venable and Rotary Club Chairman Bud Hegstrom, the first Wagon Days parade featured six ore wagons used as part of the freight line in the 1880s as its centerpiece.
Today’s Wagon Days has extended beyond just a celebratory parade; it is now a weekend-long event that takes locals and visitors alike back to a Ketchum of old each Labor Day. With an exciting lineup of kids events, live music and, of course, the Wagon Days parade (officially called the Big Hitch Parade), Wagon Days has been a destination event for decades. But the parade and event that gained statewide attention did not always run (or trot) according to plan.
Due to flagging interest by the original organizers and opposition from some residents to the sometimes unruly crowds that attended the event, Wagon Days entered into a hiatus in the late 1960s, in violation of a directive from the donors of the prized ore wagons to the city of Ketchum, the Lewis family.
It wasn’t until the parade was revitalized by the city in 1976 that Wagon Days was transformed into the packed Labor Day weekend that it’s now known as.
“It’s hard to believe this now, but this town closed over Labor Day. Nobody was here in the 1960s and 1970s,” said former Ketchum Mayor Jerry Seiffert, who was instrumental in reinstating Wagon Days in 1976. “Having Wagon Days over Labor Day would get businesses back in action for a little bit, to extend the summer season.”
There was no money in the city budget to spare for Wagon Days, and it required both extra staff time and many volunteer hours to pull off such a feat, Seiffert said.
“The City Council told me, ‘If you’re crazy enough to do it, then go ahead,’” he said. “But it’s been going strong ever since—since ’76.”
Today, Wagon Days Labor Day weekend signifies the coming end of summer—and the winding down of the busy tourist season in the Wood River Valley—with a celebration of the local history of a bygone, bustling mining economy.
“There are a few events that are really important to me, because they’re part of the vision I have for Ketchum,” current Mayor Neil Bradshaw said. “Wagon Days hits two of our core values—connecting the community and adding vibrancy to our town. It’s a chance to celebrate our history and heritage and connect with the community and the past so we can learn for the future.”
Around 25,000 people come to celebrate Wagon Days and see the parade, one of the largest nonmotorized parades in the West. Bradshaw emphasized the celebration as the symbolic end of summer for the community.
“For me, I love seeing people walking, people on the streets and just seeing different members of the community—whether they’re on the wagons or on the side of wagons,” he said. “While the city leads this event, there are so many volunteers and members of the community that participate in so many ways. Wagon Days brings a smile to our town.”
This year’s Wagon Days lineup sees a return of the beloved Papoose Club flapjack breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well as a barn dance on Friday night, children’s activities throughout the day on Saturday, cultural and intertribal dance demonstrations and the Big Hitch Parade—followed by a street party with live music from country musician Brandon Lay—all on Saturday.
The parade, Wagon Day’s signature event, features wagons, buggies, carriage and stagecoaches, all pulled by animals. The Big Hitch ore wagons, the parade’s finale, are pulled by a 20-mule team, and truly bring spectators back to the days of the Wild West, when mining dominated the Wood River Valley’s economy.
“People love Wagon Days and that makes it an easy event to support,” Bradshaw said. “I will continue to grow and support it as much as possible.”
Ketchum’s iconic event is slated to be as captivating as it was when it made its miraculous return in the late 1970s, albeit for new generations of onlookers.
Looking back at how far the event has come, the former mayor says he’s happy with where Wagon Days is today—and we have his efforts to thank for its reappearance.
“Wagon Days?” Seiffert said with a laugh. “Oh, it’s doing just fine.”