Behind the Stories

My Father’s Idaho

By Marcia Franklin
June 11, 2015

filming in the Idaho backcountry.
Audus “Red” Helton filming in the Idaho backcountry
One day Rifka Helton asked her father what she thought was an innocuous question.

I said, “Dad, don't you have some slides or something?”

And he said, “Daughter, dear, you know not what you ask.”

It turns out that her father, Audus “Red” Helton, had thousands of slides and films he had taken of Idaho in the 1950s and 60s. They were shot while he traveled the state as a plant pathologist and professor for the University of Idaho, and during family trips into the backcountry.

“I needed a camera right from the beginning to record the shape and size of symptoms in the leaves,” says Red.

Kids Roped Together.  Photo by Rifka Helton.
The slides had been lovingly preserved in metal cases, and meticulously labeled.

“I started taking them up and holding them up to the light, and I knew,” said Helton. “I mean, I knew in seconds. It's gold.”

For her, the images represented a bygone era that shouldn’t be forgotten, one in which families hiked, camped, rode horses and talked together, without the need for technology.

“We didn't drive Winnebagos and big huge rigs to go camping with satellite dishes,” she says. “We carried our stuff in, you know, and we walked. Let’s not forget this little piece of history when we used to gather our sticks in the woods and build our own little fires.”

Horses in the Snow.
So began a decade-long labor of love for Helton. A singer and musician, she decided the best way to bring the photos and their themes to wider audience was to set them to original songs in a performance piece she calls “My Father's Idaho.”

“I have this feeling that if we knew our history better we might be smarter,” says Rifka. “I think the art of historical storytelling, multimedia with music, is really a powerful experience.”

Helton projects the photos on a screen while she sings and plays the piano and guitar. She has also turned some of the images into notecards, and enlarged versions of many of the photos are also hanging in the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum.

Red and Rifka.
“Red” Helton and daughter Rifka, 1963
We've been thinking about a potential Outdoor Idaho show called “History Keepers,” so Rifka and Red's story seemed a good fit for that. Videographer Jay Krajic and I interviewed Red in his home in Bonners Ferry, and videographer Dave Butler and I taped one of Rifka's performances at the Glenns Ferry museum outside at night.

We're still looking for more stories for the show, so if you know of other Idahoans who are doing their part to be “history keepers,” especially preserving stories of the Idaho outdoors, please let us know.

For his part, Red is proud of his daughter's efforts to save and share his photos.

Rifka Helton
Rifka Helton
“I'm surprised that she gave birth to the project. But I think it's a great thing, and I think it's good to let people know there is another way, particularly with families with young children. Childhood obesity is a national epidemic right now, and I don't think it would be if kids exercised as they did when I was a kid. That's the way life was. Life's not like that now and I think it's tragic.”

To watch “History Keepers: My Father's Idaho,” click here.

For more information on Rifka Helton's project, click here.

Red then and now.
Audus “Red” Helton, Ph.D.

Photos courtesy of Rifka Helton

 


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