Unearthing Ketchum's past
The cupboards behind the bar in Ketchum’s Casino Club are worn from years of passing hands and glancing fingernails. The antique stain is nicked, the handles are worn, but the wear and tear is part of the character that has made the rustic watering hole an integral part of Ketchum’s evolving narrative for more than 80 years.
“The Casbah,” as the establishment is affectionately known by Sun Valley’s late-night crowd, is a place where bar goers can smoke, drink and party until 2 a.m. Its bartenders are among the best booze slingers in Idaho, and on a busy holiday weekend they mix drinks and pour beers with a deftness unmatched in more laid-back taverns.
The Casino is also an establishment fit for Darwinian examination. With the changing decades, it has evolved to cater to different breeds of socialites. In the 1920s, anglers ate early morning breakfasts before heading for the Wood River Valley’s blue ribbon waters. In the 1940s, gamblers played cards and spun roulette wheels beneath the log-beam ceilings.
In the 1970s, beard-clad hippies filled out the Casino’s devoted ranks, and illegal poker games continued in the dark corners of the old, log building. Today, the Casino is one of the hubs of Ketchum’s late-night party and social scene.
Sometimes, when the stars are aligned just right, strange things still happen at the Casino. Men on horseback and Harleys have been known to ride through the front door for an evening appearance.
“I like the mix of people you get. Throughout a day, you see everyone who lives in the valley,” said Shannon Beall, the business’ owner. “It’s kind of everybody’s bar, especially the locals. We love tourists, but we know who pays our bills.”
The locals have been helping pay the bills at the Casino since the business’ historic building was built as a 1920s Main Street hotel.
The Casino Club, which is housed in one of Ketchum’s few remaining historic buildings, literally grew from ashes.
The popular late-night party establishment is housed in a building with a long and storied history, but the story didn’t begin until the building that came before it burned to the ground in a major, block-wide conflagration in 1904.
It wasn’t until 16 years later, in 1920, that the Ketchum Kamp Hotel opened its doors, and the lore of what was to become the Casino Club began to take shape.
Elmer Ebbe, a carpenter from Twin Falls, arrived in Ketchum in 1919 and bought the lot. Within a year, he completed the three-story Ketchum Kamp, complete with neighboring cabins, one of which still stands across an alley behind the bar.
Ebbe leased the restaurant space to Gene Ahern, who was said to be well known in the Twin Falls area for his cooking and accordion skills. Anglers used to arrive at 4:30 a.m. for breakfast before heading to the nearby Big Wood River or Trail Creek.
In 1927 and 1929, Esther Merrill ran the dining room at the Ketchum Kamp, and her family, including two young sons named Bill and Ted, lived in one of the hotel’s upstairs rooms.
“My memories are pretty vague,” recalled Ted Merrill, now 81 years old and a resident of John Day, Ore. “I was 4 and 5 years old. It just seemed like ordinary rooms, not like hotel rooms now. Just ordinary bedrooms with old beds and wood floors. When we were living there, Sun Valley didn’t even exist.”
The Ketchum Kamp was a place where family-style meals were served, where patrons could get a drink and where tourists could find clean, comfortable beds, Merrill said. “It was popular for anglers, but it was also kind of the commercial center for the area.”
In the early 1930s, Idaho allowed gambling to pull out of the station, so long as it was governed at the local level, and Ketchum and Hailey jumped on the train. Because Union Pacific—the company that opened Sun Valley resort in 1936—did not allow gambling on the resort property, many of the resort’s guests made the one-mile trek to Ketchum for a roll of the dice. The Christiania, Alpine, Sawtooth Club and Casino all allowed gambling, and also provided an arena for resort guests to mingle with valley residents on local turf.
“These clubs reportedly interested the many guests as did the slopes,” wrote Wendolyn Spence Holland in her book, “Sun Valley, An Extraordinary History.”
Merrill, who returned to the Sun Valley area in the 1940s as a Naval officer working at a convalescent hospital in Sun Valley, said he would sometimes fish along Trail Creek, beginning at the resort and making his way toward Ketchum. He sometimes met his father for a trip to the old hotel, which had been renamed the Ketchum Kamp Hotel and Casino.
On one occasion, he said he was watching as his father played on the roulette wheel, and he noticed some men playing poker. Merrill was 19 at the time.
“I was a pre-medical student, and so I guess I took note of these things,” he said. “A guy went out the back, and I heard him retching out there. I asked the waiter what he was doing and if he was okay. I was told that the man had just played a big poker game and had bet the farm and lost.”
Though table gambling was outlawed in Idaho in 1949, and slot machines outlawed in 1953, Friday evening poker games continued at the Casino through the mid-1980s.
“I always wondered how they got away with it,” said Beall, who moved to the Wood River Valley in 1979 and leased the Casino in 1994. “It was illegal, but it was right out in the open.” A sketch that is framed and hung in the Casino’s entry corridor depicts several long-time local residents hunching over cards at a big, round table.
The second floor of the old Ketchum Kamp Hotel is falling apart and dusty. Horsehair plaster has fallen off or has been pulled back, revealing antique, slatted framework. Textured plaster on the ceilings is peeling off. The old hotel rooms, about 15 in all, are cluttered and dusty.
“It’s a mess up here,” Beall said. “Years back, someone ripped it apart because legend had it that, before Ted (previous owner Ted Werry) died, he hid his money in the walls.”
Although gambling funneled substantial amounts of money through the building in the 1940s and 1950s, no money was ever found, said Kevin Werry, Slavey Werry’s grandson and one of the historic building’s owners.
“If you tore the place down, you might find something,” Kevin Werry said. “There’s no telling.”
The Casino is very much a family affair. Ted Werry and his wife, Beverly, inherited the Casino from Ted’s parents, Dora and Slavey Werry, who bought the building from Elmer Ebbe after he moved to California in 1935.
Ted Werry’s children, Kerry Ann Armstrong and Kevin Werry, still own the half city block that includes the Casino Club today. Beall began leasing the building from them 10 years ago when they decided to quit running the business themselves.
According to Kevin Werry, Dora used to sleep in a first floor room and would leave the front door of the Casino unlocked. “She would never lock the front doors. People would come in after the bar was closed and get a six pack,” he said. “She’d say, ‘Who’s out there?’ They’d say, ‘It’s me, Dora. I’m just getting a six pack.’ She’d say, ‘Just leave your money on the bar.’ It’s amazing she never got robbed.”
That was a different time in Ketchum, Kevin Werry said. “Everyone was really close in town. My dad knew everyone else who lived here. He knew everyone who came in the bar, from Stanley to Twin Falls.”
In 1959, a fire charred the building’s kitchen and parts of the third floor near an old chimney.
“Everybody, especially the women, went across the street chanting, ‘Let it burn. Let it burn,’” said Kirk Smith, a 48-year Sun Valley resident and a long-time Casino patron. “Women didn’t come in this place, hardly at all.”
Old, charred timbers from the 1950s fire still help suspend the roof and a large rooftop sign declaring “CASINO.” Because of the sign, tourists sometimes still show up looking for a roll of the dice, Beall said.
Even though the framework of the old Ketchum Kamp Hotel continues to comprise the building’s foundation, subsequent remodels have changed its appearance. Logs are apparent, but not as plentiful as in historic photographs. An old grand staircase to the second floor has been sealed off and is now a locked liquor cabinet. The old, log bar has been replaced with a more conventional service station. Parts of the building have been sectioned off to accommodate other businesses.
“It was a standard, old, log building. That’s how I remember it,” Merrill said. “The only thing that has really stayed the same on the exterior is that gable on the roof on the front.”
Kevin Werry said he and his sister have no plans to change the Casino, short of some minor remodels. It’s a part of Ketchum’s history that will be preserved as long as they own it, he said.
“I have people all the time asking about it,” he said. “There’s so many buildings going up in town. People are just so adamant about keeping something that’s just the history of Ketchum.”
Plus, he said, if he tore it down, “people would string us up by our thumbs.
“We’re going to leave it like it is.” •