Over the Edge with Ranch Kimball
by Tom Alder
Most of us who live along the Wasatch Front are familiar with Kimball Junction, located at the site of the original Kimball Ranch in Summit County. A white frame house which can be seen from I-80, and is adjacent to the main sandstone Kimball home, was used as a way station for the Pony Express. If you Google "Kimball Ranch," you will probably also receive information on a descendant of that famous homestead family, Ranch Kimball, a talented early Utah artist who is better known, however, for his association with Lagoon during its explosive growth years of the 1950s and 1960s.
Kimball was born in 1894 in Salt Lake City. According to local distinguished architect John Pace, he was named on a bet. I remember hearing some years ago that Kimball's parents and some other relative who was also expecting a child made some sort of agreement. According to the story, which was also confirmed by a long time friend of Kimball's I recently interviewed, one expectant mother evidently said to the other, "I'll name my son Ranch if you'll name yours Park." Presumably, "Park" was from the family of Park City (up the road a piece) prominence. This kind of shabby folklore reporting would have never cut muster in my thesis, but then I'm not working on another master's degree and so I can use urban legends, whispers, and age-induced stories. I'm hopeful that someone out there will solve the mystery of the wager, or at least contribute more to the folklore.
Kimball, an energetic man, described as gracious and humorous, was driven by both an artistic and an entrepreneurial spirit. As a teenager, he founded his own enterprise, the Kimball Sign Company. He went on to study, art, though, and created it for twenty years before giving it up and returning again to business.
Kimball studied art at BYU under B F Larsen in 1912-13, prior to three years of study at the Art Institute of Chicago where the artist studied, among other things, lettering, under Oswald Cooper. Cooper may not be a household name, but he is credited for inventing a number of printing fonts, including the popular "Cooper Black." Cooper thought highly of his young student and predicted that Ranch Kimball would invent his own script, which he did and which he incorporated into his artistic endeavors. Kimball also studied in New York at the Art Student's League and then worked in Manhattan and Chicago as an artist. Returning to Salt Lake, exhibited his paintings at the Utah State Fair and Art Barn in the 1920s. At this time, he had moved to the Sugarhouse area (1182 Ramona Avenue), where a number of other artists lived in the residential neighborhoods growing up around the State Penitentiary (now Sugarhouse Park).
The Great Depression of the 1930s impacted artists like everyone else. Kimball fortunately received commissions under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1934 and was charged with chronicling the activities of another government project, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). The beginnings of many of Utah's National Park facilities, roads, and trails, were a direct result of the CCC, and Kimball was there to record them on paper and canvas. Kimball's "CCC Camp," (1934), is not only evocative of the hard times, but it shows Kimball's use of a flat and lean palette. This Kimball pastel shows a CCC camp site that demonstrates the pride of the workers with neatly situated tents and whitewashed rocks that line several perimeters.|1| His sketch of workers creating a flood-control barrier |0| shows the Corps performing back-breaking labor, though they likely felt grateful for the work. Notice the boss standing on the top left with hands in pocket. Some things never change. Another charming pastel shows two workers and a team of horses scraping a road with a beautiful backdrop of the multi-colored hills and mountains of Southern Utah. |2| These Kimball Depression scenes are to me reminiscent of the style of Maynard Dixon's "Forgotten Man" and "Nowhere to Go" period. An additional gem is "Woods Cross Canning Co," which doesn't seem to belong with the other images but nonetheless shows laborers bringing in freshly-picked produce.|3| The otherwise darkish scene of men and buildings is contrasted by the Stars and Stripes atop the Cannery.
Kimball's art is perhaps best represented by his memorable oil on canvas, "Entrance to Zions," (1934) |4| which depicts the CCC check station at the entrance to Zions National Park. Commentary from the Springville Museum of Art suggested "The painting was modern for its day. The pigment is thin and flat, and the grandeur of Zions is not lost in a painterly study of color or light." If someone told me, "You have made it. This is Zion," I would be fully gratified that my attendance at Primary and Sunday School all those years had finally paid off!
In 1934, Kimball abruptly announced that he was giving up painting. He would resume when either he made a million dollars or turned 75, whichever came first. Kimball’s attentions then followed the collection of art by local and regional artists. He also re-established his Kimball Sign Company, and by 1930 had relocated to 482 3rd Avenue.
Kimball's association with Lagoon began in the late 1940s. Established in 1896 by the Bamberger family, the park had been shuttered during World War II. Shortly thereafter, David Freed and his brothers, owners of a rail line that ran to Farmington, decided that it would be a good idea to refurbish the historical amusement park. Freed and Kimball, both amateur magicians who performed along the Wasatch Front, had been friends for years. Jane Freed Hinckley, David's daughter, remembers being part of the act as a young child and showed me a 1943 Tribune article and picture of a Kimball performing for several of her cousins. As Peter Freed, David's brother, remembers, Kimball had been involved in advertising at Lagoon before the war and since the Freeds didn't know much about running an entertainment enterprise, Kimball was invited to run it with them. The Freeds and Kimball created an attractive amusement park and in 1946 re-opened it, to the joy of families who could find thrills on the vintage 1921 roller coaster, picnic in shaded boweries, dance in an attractive pavilion, and enjoy fine food and music.
At work, Kimball would answer the phone, "It's a beautiful day at Lagoon." Although he was called "General Manager," Kimball's big contribution was directing the building of the "New Lagoon" after a fire destroyed a number of buildings in the 1950s. His fanciful colors of purple, blue and turquoise brought new zing to the old merry-go-round, where he introduced several characters from Mother Goose.
Kimball's own signature lettering style, established years earlier with Cooper, could be found on signs located throughout the Lagoon of the 1960s. For those of you old enough to remember those days, notice Kimball's distinctive signature on his paintings and your mind may take you immediately back to those fun-filled days and nights at Lagoon. Kimball even managed to be pleasant when he had to paint a warning sign. He stated the warning in a kindly but assertive manner and then would sign it (in his loopty loop style) "L.A. Goon."
I spoke with one of Kimball's many friends who said he was interviewed by Ranch and the four Freed brothers in 1953 (5 separate interviews), and he still works with the Lagoon Corporation. Sounds like that thorough examination paid off. He recalls Kimball was funnyreal funny. He was the life of the party and everyone felt at home with him. "It was always good to have Ranch at a client lunch because he was so entertaining and calmingand he picked up the check every time." He says Kimball performed magic tricks for all the Lagoon employees annually at the Terrace. He also remembers Kimball's imitation of his famous relative, J. Golden Kimball, which he said no one could do better than Ranch. You'll recall Jim Kimball, Golden's grand nephew, frequently appeared on KUED and performed in the profile of Golden. Having been a friend of the late Jim Kimball, and having witnessed him perform many times, I'd be hard pressed to think that anyone could do as well as he. I am fully amused to think of Ranch and Jim performing for Golden in their current heavenly estate.
So, why did I title this column, "Over the Edge?" Kimball's second wife, Helen (his first wife Rowena had passed away) and my mom had been sorority sisters and their relationship allowed me to know the Kimball family. (Every year, usually about the first week in June, the Alder family was invited to "Kimball Sign Day," sort of the commercial equivalent of Stake Lagoon Day, where we got free ride passes). Several times each year, my mom assembled with four or five of her Pi Phi's and Chi O sisters, including Helen, for lunch. Mom usually had her 10-year old son, Tom, accompany her. The reasons for this are somewhat unclear but I think it had something to do with the baby of the family being interested in explosives, and mom wanting to return to an intact Cottonwood home. The Kimball house that I remember was located at 204 Canyon Road, just over "the edge" of 4th Avenue (see below). The stairs that allow people to descend into City Creek Canyon from 4th Avenue are still there. Being the restless sort, I walked all around the neighborhood rather than listen to the ladies playing "Mah Jongg," or whatever. Located across the street from the Kimball home was the old Ottinger Hall (watch for my next column on George M. Ottinger), and I remember peering into the windows of the mysterious building.
One day, returning to the Kimball house I noticed a salad bowl on the dining room table chock full of silver dollars, brightly illuminated under the chandelier. Helen told me that Ranch had come home earlier that week and she noticed him dragging a large bag up the sidewalk and she had no idea what it was. The bag was full of 1,000 real silver dollarsa gift to Helen for their 25th wedding anniversary. Helen allowed me to play with them for the rest of our visit. She was wonderful. I don't remember her searching me when we left.
John Pace, whose mother was among the sorority sisters, remembers that Kimball was a master gardener and was responsible for the gorgeous gardens that drew everyone's attention on the midway at Lagoon. Kimball also tended his garden at home. One day, a lady strolled by the house where Kimball was on his knees working in one of the flower beds. Recognizing the similar style, the lady said, "I love your garden. It's like the ones at Lagoon. Do you work on those gardens, too?" "Yes I do," was the response from Kimball. "How much do you get paid?" asked the woman. "Well, I don't get paid anything, but once in awhile the lady who lives here lets me sleep with her."
My good friend, Alice Telford, told me that all she remembered about Kimball was that he kept everyone laughing when in his presence. Her cousin, Dick (Maynard Dixon) Stewart said that Kimball would occasionally visit his father, LeConte Stewart, with his friend, fellow Utah artist, Gordon Cope. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of the Stewart home and listed to LeConte, Ranch, and Gordon!
When Ranch Kimball retired, he considered taking up his painting again, but never did. A major retrospective, Ranch S. Kimball: Artist and Collector, was held at the Salt Lake Art Center (Finch Lane) in the spring of 1971, where 120 works were exhibited, 99 of which belonged to Kimball. The list of artists' works in his collection reads like a “Who’s Who” of Utah artists and then some: Ev Thorpe, Mahonri Young, Lee Greene Richards, Frank Zimbeaux, Waldo Midgley, John Hafen, LeConte Stewart, and Pablo Picasso.
Kimball passed away in 1980 at the age of 86. Descriptions from the Springville Museum of Art summarize Kimball as a vivacious man who “...worked as cartoonist, sign painter, graphic artist, illustrator, actor, magician, and businessman. He was “...a man too spirited to limit himself to a single pursuit.”
Thanks to my good friend Dr. Donna Poulton who extracted several of these Kimball images from the UMFA, some of which will be featured in her forthcoming book, Red Rock, with co-author, Dr. Vern Swanson. The book, to be published in 2008, will feature a series of paintings, many of which have not been seen for decades. Thanks also to my friend Lila Abersold of the Utah Arts Council, who continues to be patient when I show up at her door looking for images of state-owned paintings.