Announcing the unveiling of a new Chinese American Heritage Sculpture, “Prosperity Mountain” by artist Gemma Valdez Daggatt
4:15 p.m. Wednesday, October 25, 2023
Corner of Walnut and Main Streets in Hailey
Historic records – often no more than a ragtag collection of paper scraps, faded photographs, newspaper clippings, a trophy, a recipe box, a porcelain doll – might find their home in the archives of The Community Library’s Center for Regional History in Ketchum, waiting to be brought into the light.
Such is the case with the heritage of Chinese American culture in the Wood River Valley.
Mary Tyson, director of the Center for Regional History, says, “Chinese immigrants are an extremely important part of our history and much of their story has been erased. It needs to be pieced together, little-by-little, through artifacts and archaeological evidence.”
To honor diversity and commemorate the heritage of Chinese immigrants, the Hailey Arts & Historic Preservation Commission will be installing a new sculpture on Main Street in Hailey by artist Gemma Valdez Daggatt, named “Prosperity Mountain.”
The unveiling ceremony will take place at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, October 25, 2023, at the corner of Walnut and Main Streets in Hailey. The sculpture stands eight feet tall and includes two interpretive plaques with photos of Chinese immigrants Wah Kee Lea (c. 1890) and Tom Boo (1880-1920). Very little is known about either man.
The Hailey Arts & Historic Preservation Commission states on it’s website, “While celebrating diversity and commemorating the heritage of Chinese immigrants in Hailey, the project also acknowledges an aspect of Hailey’s history that is fraught with racial violence and injustice. As evidenced in historical records and summarized in recent (September 2022) journalism by the Idaho Mountain Express:
“‘Chinese immigrants in the Wood River Valley were met with second-class treatment at best and racial terrorism at worst.'”
To help Daggatt deepen her knowledge and understanding of Chinese history in the Valley, Regional History Research Librarian Kelley Moulton provided the artist with roughly 30 pages of images, newspaper clippings, maps, and historic context, as well as welcome advice on how to distill her research into the handful of concise and compelling words needed for her sculpture.
Daggatt also turned to the Blaine County Historical Society for help on this project, in Tyson’s words, “to help further our understanding of Chinese history in the Wood River Valley.”
Daggatt used found materials and donated her time and considerable artistic vision, plus hours of historic research to the project. “I’ve only been able to pull off this project by donating all of my time and dumpster-diving for salvaged material,” she wrote in a recent email.
The photo of Wah Kee Lea in “Prosperity Mountain” is also displayed at the Wood River Museum of History and Culture in Ketchum, as part of the How in the World Did You Get to Sun Valley? gallery, which features arrival stories of ten different Wood River Valley citizens across the decades.
The most telling thing about Wah Kee Lea’s exhibit is that it is mostly empty, illustrating the absence of details and the erasure of much of the Chinese culture in the late 19th century and beyond.
Tyson adds, “Many stories from history are often cobbled together, filling gaps where books, papers, or other large bodies of work don’t exist. We are extremely happy to have the resources to help a researcher dig into their subject matter. Researchers are often forging new paths and we want to help people do that.”
One such researcher was Skye Cranney, third generation Idahoan and doctoral candidate in American History, who came to the Center for Regional History last year to look at Hollywood celebrities in Sun Valley in the 1930s. She wanted to know how these famous actresses (wearing pants, no less!) influenced the average American woman. Said Cranney, “I’m interested in questions of how masculine and feminine dynamics reach into everyone’s daily lives in ways they may not expect.”
She wondered, “How does the fact that celebrity women were in Sun Valley, wearing and doing unprecedented things, influence how the average American woman might change what she wears, how she recreates?” Read more about Cranney’s research in Social Influence: Sun Valley in the 1930-40s.
The Center for Regional History receives roughly 250 research requests per year from scholars, academics, authors, and others interested in a wide variety of topics—from ski and resort history to silver mining to Ernest Hemingway. Says Moulton, “Among the strangest requests came during what I call, “The Week of Mining, Aliens, and Castro.”
Says Tyson, many researchers are interested in the Triumph Silver Mine, the Meeker Collection of Hemingway artifacts, Sawtooth City, and the fascinating and sometime tumultuous history of sheepherding in the Wood River Valley. As to the latter, the Wood River Museum of History and Culture hosted Peruvian Sheepherding in Idaho: Una Conversación on October 5, 2023, a replay of which can be viewed on Vimeo.
The Wood River Museum of History and Culture is located at 580 Fourth Street East in Ketchum. Entry to the Museum is FREE and it is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. Reach the Museum at 208-726-8118 or email the staff here.
More here about the Hailey Arts & Historic Preservation Commission.