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Frontier Modern

Hailey’s celebration of America’s birthday represents a marriage of heritage and the modern world, much like the town itself.
By Tony Evans
Photos by Karl Weatherly

The 1883 Hailey Fourth of July Parade got off to a rough start. Despite the new town’s rising fortunes, Grand Marshal Baker’s scheduled “procession of the horribles”—a 19th-century Independence Day tradition featuring grotesque costumes—fizzled due to low attendance. While a few colorful floats trotted down a dusty Main Street, the hired band played only briefly before catching the train south to Bellevue in pursuit of a livelier audience. Many Hailey-ites followed.

Only businessman H.Z. Burkhart’s spectacular Japanese fireworks display finally brought the town alive. An explosive display of full-sized paper dragons, elephants and other animals erupted from behind Carbonate Mountain, followed by volleys of Roman candles and other pyrotechnics. For the grand finale, Burkhart set the sky alight with a flaming balloon. Combined with a bonfire in front of the Hailey theater, the general impression was that this booming mining town was on fire.

Within a decade that boom went bust, and for the next century Hailey’s flame would flicker and sputter in the cold shadow of the increasingly grandiose towns of Sun Valley and Ketchum. In 1936, the development of America’s first destination ski resort shined a limelight on the northern towns that could be seen around the world. However, thanks to a gentlemen’s agreement struck between city leaders, Hailey did steal back some of that glow by being granted the right to celebrate America’s birthday in a big way all on its own (Ketchum took dibs on Labor Day).

In 1949, it was decided the rodeo would join Hailey’s parade. The Hailey Times described that year’s event as “the finest in local history.” And so Independence Day was forever joined with cowboys and bucking broncos in the next-town-down-the-road from Sun Valley.

The Fourth’s festivities have always been a celebration of the city’s rough-and-tumble past. But in recent years it has also become a celebration of diversity in the fastest growing city in Blaine County. Burkhart would likely be proud that his town has moved forward without losing touch with its past.

Former territorial Congressman and stagecoach driver John Hailey laid out the town in 1881 after making his fortune in the Boise Basin gold rush.

“Wild West” is a fitting description for the city of Hailey at the end of the 19th century. In 1889, Hank Lufkin was shot and killed by William Kennedy at the latter’s Broad Gauge Bar, the same year Lem Chung, a Chinese cook, was fatally stabbed by Charley Bah, following a quarrel over a $2 gambling debt. John Hailey’s own son, George, allegedly stabbed a man to death in front of the post office and fled, never to be captured.

At that time, about 250 Chinese lived and worked in Hailey. They operated “joss houses”—where they worshiped ancestors and deities—and stored their treasures underground in what is now the China Gardens subdivision. Cat-houses and gambling establishments persisted on River Street until after World War II.

Hailey citizens also built architecturally significant churches, homes and meeting halls that currently claim spots on the National Register of Historic Places. Today’s city leaders are moving forward with plans to build wayfaring signs directing visitors to these historical sites. One of them, the rodeo grounds, is set for a major redevelopment.

Sitting on the south end of town, marked by a white wooden palisade painted with Western murals, the rodeo site is emblematic of the region’s ranching traditions and Hailey civic pride. When Sun Valley Resort owners cancelled sponsorship of its rodeo in 1946, the Sawtooth Rangers Riding Club was formed in the south valley to continue the tradition. Students from the Hailey High School shop class dug postholes for fences, and wire mesh was used to create a makeshift corral. The Sun Valley bucking chutes were salvaged, as were bleachers from a racetrack in Nampa, Idaho.

City leaders hope to redesign the rodeo grounds into a $7 million multi-use facility combining some very 21st century activities, including ice hockey and skate boarding, as well as bronc riding, barrel racing and roping. The complex will neatly represent the new cultural forces shaping Hailey today, and speak volumes about a town that has come into its own in recent years. Hailey no longer takes the lead from its northern cousins. The deluxe jets of the rich and famous that have lined the city’s airport runway for decades may one day be gone, as Hailey leaders support relocating Friedman Memorial Airport farther to the south. A premier golf course is planned for Quigley Canyon east of town, but its construction has been protested by a growing environmental ethic in the community.

The gambling halls have crumbled, leaving in their wake as many wine and martini bars as beer and burger joints. Ranching has given way to “equestrian activities.”

The 2010 Fourth of July parade highlights this Frontier Modern sensibility. Wild West-style shootouts, antique tractors and coaches will parade down Main Street alongside low riders, a Volkswagen motorcade and hippies on stilts. Following the parade, the Hailey Criterion Bicycle Race takes center stage. At dusk, following the barbecues, bandstands and at least one ice cream social, fireworks will once more light the eastern sky. And this time Hailey expects to be lighting its own way to a brilliant future.

Teddy Daley and Bob MacLeod of the Blaine County Historical Museum provided research for this story.

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Hailey Main Street 1913
Courtesy of Blaine County Historical Museum