Editor’s Note: Most historians consider Owen Wister’s classic western novel , The Virginian- A Horseman of the Plains, to be the first American western novel. First published in 1902, this tale of the handsome nameless hero was based on the real life adventures of Charles F. Ball. Its over-whelming success spawned a whole industry of western novel writing, It was adapted to the silver screen in several cinematic versions and The Virginian TV series starring James Drury, airing from 1962- 1971, was the third longest-running western TV series in the industry.
Charles F. Ball, better known as “The Virginian,” was perhaps one of the most colorful characters who ever lived in Lava Hot Springs.
Old-timers remembered Charlie as a tall, handsome, rugged man who came to Lava with his wife, Nellie Alexander Ball & Family after being a cattle rancher in Big Piney, WY. He was a descendant of the Ball family of Virginia and his genealogy includes Mary Ball Washington, who was the mother of George Washington, 1st president of our country.
Charlie, born March 5, 1866 in New York state, was the son of wealthy parents. At approximately age 17 he obtained a railroad pass & found himself heading west. At the end of the Central Pacific Railroad line he transferred to stagecoach and ended up in what is now know as Cassia county, Idaho. He joined a crew surveying Yellowstone National Park and worked his way through Wyoming, working for a while policing the territory for cattle rustlers…finally settling on his own cattle ranch for 48 years.
While living in Wyoming, Owen Wister, a writer of western novels, visited his ranch, looking for material for his novels. Wister was immediately impressed with Ball. Thus the novel “The Virginian.” When Charlie sold his ranch in 1927, he and his family moved to Lava Hot Springs- invested in real estate; built a home, an
d the “Virginian” apartments, and also became an influential businessman, operating a Sinclair service station. At age 76 he was one of the oldest active Sinclair dealers in the company’s entire service area.
It is said Charlie was the main person responsible for obtaining a chemical analysis of the famous mineral waters in Lava. He actually won a trip to New York City and appeared on the NBC radio program “We the People” because of a letter he’d written on the curative properties of the natural hot waters.
The book by Wister, “The Virginian” is a fable, but it is centered around Charlie and his life. Many of the stories within the book are true experiences from Charlie’s past.
Nellie and Charlie had 3 sons and 3 daughters, including Danial H. Ball of Pocatello and John Woodrow Ball of Lava Hot Springs.
Charles Ball, “The Virginian,” died in 1941 and Nellie died in 1938. Both are buried in the Lava Hot Springs cemetery.
“The Virginian rides no more!”
Source: Provided by South Bannock Museum, Lava Hot Springs, ID August 2021, images from https://www.insp.com/shows/the-virginian/ and https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055710/