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When a Historic House Becomes a Home…Again!

The Idaho Legacy of Ernest and Mary Hemingway

Standing in the spacious living room of the Ernest and Mary Hemingway House and Preserve in Ketchum, Idaho, it’s easy to imagine quiet mornings of writing, lively dinner parties among close friends, and raucous storytelling about the day’s bird-hunting adventures with the great literary giant Ernest Hemingway and his fourth and final wife, Mary. The Hemingway House is a concrete structure that echoes the design of the Sun Valley Lodge. Its interiors are notably modern and sophisticated. The surrounding landscape is notably rugged with expansive aspen groves and cottonwood trees and the sparkling Big Wood River. The Pioneer and Boulder Mountain peaks frame the near horizon.

The House and encompassing twelve acres mark the final home of Ernest Hemingway, a place where he sought sanctuary and where Mary continued to find solace and friendship for decades after his death by suicide in 1961. Mary wanted the House to be preserved as a “nature reference library” after her death, and now, under the custodianship of The Community Library, it is a site where history is studied, where creative scholarship and literary work is nurtured, and where nature can flourish.

The Community Library was gifted the Hemingway House and Preserve by The Nature Conservancy in 2017 after a two-year master planning process. Since then, the Library has embarked upon an ambitious plan of preservation and education, and it has launched a unique writer-in-residence program. The Hemingway Legacy Initiative honors the life and work of Ernest Hemingway as well as local Sun Valley history, and it promotes literature in a landscape that Hemingway loved – a landscape that is far removed from other cultural and educational institutions, and so the impact of the Initiative is particularly profound. The Ambrose Monell Foundation has played a pivotal role in this expansive endeavor.

Under the stewardship of the Library over the past four years, the House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been a site of active preservation work. Critical infrastructure improvements were made to the roof, windows, and electrical and mechanical systems. The contents of the House have been inventoried and will continue to be studied and documented in more depth. Some one-of-a-kind books, fragile photos, and other precious items have been transferred to the Library's new climate-controlled archive where these historically significant materials can be preserved according to professional standards and digitized so they can be accessed around the world.

In conjunction with this historic preservation work, the Library has initiated an educational program that provides exceptional research and internship opportunities for college and graduate students. Students from colleges across the country, including New York, Maine, Louisiana, and Missouri, as well as Idaho, have worked with the Library’s professional librarians and archivists to delve into the Hemingway House artifacts. They have developed research skills and enjoyed the thrill of unique discoveries, such as a rare book of poetry inscribed by Archibald MacLeish. They have helped create an audio walking tour that highlights Hemingway’s history in Ketchum, and they have crafted multiple online tools for students and the general public to learn more about Hemingway in Idaho.

The Library has collaborated with multiple entities in order to tell the story of Hemingway in Idaho more broadly. Perhaps most significantly, the Library worked with Ken Burns and his team at Florentine Films on the new Hemingway documentary. As part of the pre-launch activity for this documentary that premiered on PBS, the Library co-presented a live program with Ken Burns, writer Terry Tempest Williams, and producer Sarah Botstein, moderated by the Library’s executive director Jenny Emery Davidson. In addition, the Library worked with Idaho Public Television to develop a 30-minute episode on the Hemingway House and associated programs, and also a virtual tour of the House. These programs are reaching people both close to home in Idaho and around the world.

As part of the infrastructure improvements at the House, the Library completely renovated the secondary space of the garage to create a well-appointed studio apartment to house a writer-in-residence. These quarters were completed in the spring of 2019, and since then, 28 writers have used the House as a creative space. The writers have included Richard Blanco, Cheryl Strayed, Brady Udall, Timothy Egan, Tobias Wolff, Katharine Smyth, and David Cale, and they worked on screenplays, poems, creative nonfiction, children’s stories, historical scholarship, and more. While in residence, each has done a free program for the community – such as a workshop, a reading, a visit to a school – enriching our community with storytelling, reading, and writing.

The writer Wallace Stegner wrote that the American West needs a civilization to match its scenery. At the Hemingway House in central Idaho, we see this happening: History comes alive through a charismatic literary icon, connecting our rural Idaho landscape with people and places across the world and over time; and the future is inspired, each time a writer sits down at a desk and looks out at the view that Hemingway saw, and each time a group of local schoolchildren sits on the lawn, with notebooks open in front of them.

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