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JoAn Walker Cultivates a Life Rich in Horses
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Wednesday, January 5, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

In 1990 JoAn Walker took part in Idaho’s Centennial Wagon Train, which took her from Boise to Prairie before heading to Mackay and doubling back towards Stanley and Sun Valley.

“It made me wonder: How in the world did the pioneers do that day after day via covered wagon?” the Bellevue woman mused. “They couldn’t run to the grocery store like we can.”

While she can’t envision herself criss crossing the country in a covered wagon, JoAn Walker surrounds herself with antiques that look like they may have come across in a covered wagon. Her expansive ranch house south of Bellevue is a feast for the eyes, what with moose and antelope trophy heads hanging on the walls amidst Indian artifacts and Pendleton wool blankets.

And everywhere there are signs of Walker’s love for horses—from pillows that state, “Life without Horses—I don’t think so” to signs proclaiming “Horse Sweet Horse.”

Then, there are the trophies and crystal bowls proclaiming a long string of racing horses that have won trophies and medals throughout the West. Among them, Zoomin’ for Spuds, a three-year-old gelding that was crowned the 2016 Champion of Champions.

“Someone saw my husband Jim on a horse and said, ‘That’s a fast horse you’ve got there—you ought to race him. It turned out to be the fastest race horse ever to win in Idaho,” recounted JoAn.

JoAn Walker’s years in Idaho have been busy ones—and that’s one of the reasons she was named to the  Blaine County Heritage Court, which honors women for their contribution to the valley. Walker was named to the court this year along with Jane Drussel, Linda Vinagre and Rosalie Kirkland.

“We moved here sight unseen and I fell in love with it,” she said. “I love it when I go over Galena Summit and see those beautiful mountains—I feel like I’m in the ‘Sound of Music.’ ”

JoAn Walker was born JoAn Wooly—a name that regularly prompts restaurateur Keith Perry to move his sheep sculpture to her table when she takes her spot in Perry’s Restaurant.

She was born in Grass Valley, Calif., a postcard town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas where the Forty Niners discovered two of California’s richest gold mines. Her father, a horseman, took donkeys into the mines there looking for gold.

“He often said that, if he hadn’t been so honest, we might have been rich,” said Walker.

She fell in love with her late husband Jim Walker in high school when Jim’s sister convinced her brother to take JoAn to the prom.

 Jim, who was two grades ahead, was drafted during JoAn’s senior year in high school so they married in Carson City, Nev., in 1955 and the newlyweds made their way to Vashon Island where she finished high school.

“I said, ‘Jim, I don’t know anybody here.’ But he said, ‘You need to finish school,’ ” she recalled. “The school said I had the credits I needed—I just needed to put my time in. So, I just worked in the school office that year.”

The Walkers moved to Idaho in 1969 because, Jim said, the valley needed a sand and gravel company. JoAn ran the restaurant at the North Shore of Magic Reservoir, then the family moved to Ketchum in 1972.

“All there was was hippies and cowboys,” recalled JoAn. “There’d be so many hippies keeping warm in winter in the laundromat—the Tub—that you could walk down the street and get a Rocky Mountain high from all the pot being smoked.”

Ketchum was not the busy place it is now, Walker said. You could stop in the middle of the street and talk to a neighbor while another neighbor would drive by and wave.

“Our little daughter had a pony that we kept behind the house in a dog pen. She’d ride through town and it wouldn’t bother me—you might see one car, maybe two.”

JoAn busied herself in winters cross country skiing in the area behind SNRA headquarters near north of Ketchum.  And she bowled on Louie’s team during summers.

Jim’s efforts to get Walker Sand and Gravel started were not quite as easy. One of the town’s doctors cautioned the townspeople that it would pollute the town and so he urged people to make protest signs and parade them in front of the Walkers’ house.

“Jim told them that it was not going to pollute the town, so they threw down their signs and we were okay,” said JoAn.

As Jim cultivated his passion for horses, the Walkers moved down valley--first to Hailey, then to a large spread in Bellevue.

“At one point, I counted 35 horses and mules. And I said, ‘Jim, I am never going to count again,’ ” JoAn recounted.

In addition to racing horses, the Walkers took part in chariot racing out Croy Canyon.

“I remember we held a chariot race in Richfield and one chariot swerved off track and jumped the fence. The horse ran it through the pasture and jumped back over the fence back onto the track. We had some wild days,” she recalled.

JoAn drove her daughter and her horse Pitito Bandito on the horse competition circuit while Jim stayed home feeding the other horses and exercising them.

“He was not a little horse, despite his name. He was a beautiful big black horse. And they won their share of competitions. I remember people would say, ‘Why is she winning? She’s just from Blaine County.’ “

JoAn did her fair share of riding, as well, riding every canyon in the valley.

“I belonged to the Sawtooth Rangers Riding Club and we’d go up Trail Creek to the Copper Basin 10 to 12 riders at a time. I had one friend who never quit talking on those rides. I remember one horse rider said, ‘Nancy, it sure would be nice to hear the birds.’ ”

The last five years have brought heartache to JoAn. A son suffered a heart attack on Baldy and her daughter died in a car accident in Boise. And Jim, her husband of more than 60 years, passed away, as well.

But she still has son Jim and his family, including great-grandchildren to keep the present busy. And, when she wants a wow moment, she simply points her car north towards the mountains.

“I love the mountains, and I’m happy,” she said.

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