Women’s History Month: Early Women of the Wood River Valley

For the second week of Women’s History Month, we are honoring four women who have shaped the history and heritage of Sun Valley. These ladies have all had an impact on the Wood River Valley, dating back to before the establishment of the ski resort and through its early years. 

Two of these women were integral in establishing the Community Library in 1955. They, along with 14 other trailblazing women, “founded the Community Library Association, a privately-funded, privately-governed public library to encourage intellectual and creative adventures in the remote mountains of central Idaho,” (ComLib).

All four women contributed to the pioneer spirit of the Valley, fostering a momentum for woman-led innovation that is alive to this day.

Marge Brass Heiss 1910-2007

Marge Heiss, Photo by the Community Library

Marge Brass Heiss, daughter of Ernest Brass, was born in Caldwell, Idaho in 1910. She moved to Ketchum two years later when her father bought what became known as the Brass Ranch until the family sold the land to the Union Pacific in 1936. He traded 3,888 acres for $39,000, and Sun Valley was born.

In fact, Marge, along with her sister Roberta, gave a tour of their ranch property to Count Felix Schaffgatsch. Within a few months of that visit, Schaffgatsch and Union Pacific Chairman Averell Harriman began building the nation’s first destination ski resort. At that time, Ketchum’s population was less than 100, but a year later, the mountain town surged with hundreds of America’s rich and famous.

Marge leaves a legacy behind her, not only for the sale of her family’s land, but for her leadership roles in the community and love for the Wood River Valley. She was one of the founders and presidents of the Idaho Trail Council, being very passionate about the outdoors and recreation. In 2004, she was elected to the Heritage Court of the Blaine Society, which honors notable women of the Wood River Valley.

Jeanne Rodger Lane Moritz 1921-2000

Jeanne Rodger Lane Moritz in the center, Photo by the Community Library

Jeanne Rodger Lane Moritz was one of the 17 women who founded the Community Library in Ketchum in 1955. She was born and raised in Chicago and visited Sun Valley as a tourist for the first time in 1940 but later moved to the area with her husband, John Crandall “Pete” Lane. 

Pete Lane grew up in Ketchum in a sheep ranching family. The family owned and operated what was known as the economic and social hub of Ketchum at the time, the Lane Mercantile Building on Main Street in Ketchum. Now, Enoteca occupies that building and the Lane Ranch is now a subdivision in south Ketchum. Pete Lane also opened up a sports store, Pete Lane’s Mountain Sports, that now has locations in the Sun Valley Village and at all three mountain bases.

In 1980, Pete Lane passed away suddenly and Jeanne remarried Dr. John Moritz, Sun Valley’s first doctor.

In addition to helping found the library, Jeanne also helped start The Gold Mine thrift store to help fund the library in 1956. The 17 ladies all donated $1 to start the fund and encouraged friends to send them clothes for inventory. On its first day of operation, they made $100, and were able to open doors by 1958.

During her life, Jeanne was the director, vice chairman, and honorary life director of the library. She also played a crucial role in the Episcopal church congregation in Ketchum and the Snowshoe Club. The Gold Mine was dedicated in her honor and the Community Library’s Center for Regional History named after her.

Anita Gray 1922-2011

Anita Gray, Photo by the Mountain Express

“I am really proud…when I look around and see the things that I had a part in. Look at how beautifully [the library] has expanded with no public money – not a dime from the city, county, state or nation. I’m told that there’s only three like that in the United States – and I had a part in it.”

Anita Gray in an interview with the Heritage Court of the Blaine Society

Anita Gray was born in Chicago in 1922 and moved to Sun Valley in 1948 with her husband, Winton Gray. Anita lived here for the rest of her life in which time she raised her two sons and befriended Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway and Anita would go on long walks together, hunt, and enjoy cocktails at the Gray’s home. 

Anita was one of the 17 forward-thinking ladies who helped found the library in 1955. She recalls that her husband Win, and Jeanne’s husband, Pete Lane, did not think that they would be able to do it: “They thought that we were biting off more than we could chew. We were, but we did it, anyway – for the people in town because they didn’t have any books,” (Anita Gray in an interview with the Heritage Court of the Blaine Society.

Her tenacity has not gone unnoticed. In addition to her efforts in founding the library, Anita was also responsible for adding kindergarten to the Blaine County school curriculum and helped found the Papoose Club to serve the youth with an after-school ski program.

Mary Jane Griffith Conger

Mary Jane Griffith Conger, Photo from the Community Library

Local area historian Mary Jane Griffith Conger  was born in 1925 with deep roots to the Wood River Valley. In 1879 her grandfather, Al Griffith, mined the land for silver and gold with David Ketchum. A year later in 1880, the town of Ketchum was founded.

Ketchum had a population of only 200 when Conger was growing up here. When the ski resort was built in 1936, she took up skiing and would even help pack down the snow with ski patrol in return for a free lunch. She had a love for the outdoors and especially loved riding horses.

Until recently, Mary remained one of Ketchum’s most active citizens, contributing to Ketchum’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan and the Big Wood-Little Wood Action Plan to try to preserve the town’s charm. In 2012, Mary was named Grand marshal at the annual Wagon Days celebration.

To learn more about these women, please visit the Heritage Court of the Blaine Society. If you missed out on last week’s blog featuring the Shoshone-Bannock women who have kept the history and culture of the Wood River Valley’s original people alive, visit here.

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