In 1994, I was nailing shingles on the side of my new studio that I was building, when I thought about the first house I ever tried to build.
It was in Sun Valley, Idaho, during the spring of 1949. It had been a good winter, teaching skiing and discovering a financial bonanza when I spent every spare moment dying pieces of Army surplus nylon, parachute shroud and making shoelaces out of them. But the shoelaces are another story altogether.
I had made enough money to finally buy my first piece of real estate, a beautiful lot with Trail Creek on two sides of it, and the highway into Ketchum on the third.
I would be able to catch trout from what would eventually be my bedroom window, and I even saw a family of ducks swimming in a back eddy of the river the day I decided to buy it.
A piece of land this nice didn’t come cheap, so I had to spend a lot of time negotiating with the owner. He was a good friend and former mountain guide who would guarantee you a shot at a bighorn sheep for $25. That included the horse to get you there, food, tents and two pack animals.
We finally settled on an unheard of high price for a parcel like this, and so I wrote the biggest check of my young life — $350.
As the snow began to melt on my property, I knew that the ski lifts would be closing soon and I knew I would have a couple of major problems in building my house. I had gotten used to the good life of three meals a day as a Sun Valley ski instructor. My $5 a month garage rental where I was painting signs and wrapping and shipping my nylon shoelaces all over America was no place for a former ski instructor to live.
I needed a night job so I could build my house during the day, a job that required no thought and yet supplied room and board. I soon became such a good dishwashing machine operator in the Challenger Inn dining room that, when they would have convention dinners over in the lodge, I would get transferred over there. I could handle more dishes quicker than anyone else and stay ahead of 275 soup bowls, seafood cocktail glasses, cups, saucers, salad plates, dinner and dessert dishes that came back to the kitchen ... with or without food or cigarette butts on them.
I was earning a bed in the ski patrol barracks, three meals a day and $100 a month. What more could a man ask for?
Now I could begin gathering the materials to build my dream house. I borrowed a friend’s pickup truck and made a lot of trips to the Triumph Mine to load crushed rock on the back of the truck, one shovelful at a time. When I got it safely to my property, I would empty it a shovelful at a time. When I purchased the lumber necessary to build the forms for the foundation, the lumberyard loader told me about a cement mixer that I could probably borrow for a day or two.
I now had my own shovel, a pile of sand and gravel, a bucket to haul water from the creek, enough bags of concrete, the forms built, and I was ready to start pouring concrete. I had to wait, however, until I had the night off from washing dishes. That way, if it took longer to mix and pour the concrete than I anticipated, I wouldn’t lose my great dishwashing job when I didn’t show up.
My house was going to be a small one, about 800 square feet. But, when you’re filling the mixer up a shovelful at a time, it takes almost 16 hours of nonstop work to shovel sand and gravel, haul water from the river, mix cement, haul it to the form in a bucket, and repeat the process.
I did this over and over and over again until the last few buckets-full of cement were poured by the light of the occasional car that drove by my property.
Way out, by what today is the base of the Warm Springs ski lift, there was a sawmill that was powered by a sometimes running, gigantic steam engine from an old thrashing machine. Here, round logs were squared on three sides so you could stack them into a house a lot quicker and more cheaply than round logs. The price for the logs was low, the mill was only a couple of miles away, and I could get them as I needed them. When you are laying up log walls by yourself (called par-buckling), you don’t want big stacks of logs laying around the property to fall over.
I was progressing rapidly on the walls during the day and washing dishes at night when a box arrived at the Ketchum Post Office.
In it was a note from two of my former ski school pupils, Hal Geneen and Chuck Percy, who were comptroller and president of Bell and Howell, respectively.
In the box was a Bell and Howell 16-millimeter model 70DA motion picture camera with three lenses, a leather carrying case and a roll of color film. They had kindly included a set of directions for its use!
The note recapped the dinner we’d had together in March and apologized for not sending the camera to me sooner. They wished me well in the Travel Film Lecture business and also said that I could pay them the $216 out of my earnings when, and if, I made a travel film.
I had, by this time, in the spring of 1949, already made several 8-millimeter surfing films and had an 8-millimeter color film record of my years living in the parking lot at Sun Valley. If I was going to make adventure travel films, I finally realized that there was no sense in building a house by a river in Sun Valley.
I would have to travel all over the world to make my movies, so I should be living down in Hollywood where all of the film business is.
While I sat staring at this fantastic hand-wind camera and wishing I was down on the beach for the spring-storm surfing, I painted a “for sale” sign on a log on my partially completed, up to the bond beams, log home on the river. Before I knew it, I had a buyer for the land and building. I sold everything for $900 and made $100 on the deal, not counting my labor. I packed up all my belongings in my teardrop trailer and headed for Southern California.
Three days later, I had a job testing air mattresses in an air mattress factory and started building my first waterproof camera box to film surfing and other water sports.
I wanted to film men riding 100-pound redwood surfboards on waves that sometimes came clear up over their shoulders. That was 45 years and over 500 movies ago.
Now, I’ve finally finished my autobiography/memoirs that recounts all the experiences I had with that camera and that Ketchum, Sun Valley, Idaho, house went on the market this spring for $949,000. Times have changed!
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.