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1934 - Battle Mountain, Aspen trees, and Thomas Edison

If you blast through Carbon County on Interstate 80, you begin to think that all there is to see is high desert and the towering Elk Mountain.

But that part of Wyoming offers so much more.

Last week, I fulfilled a bucket list item by driving State Highway 70 over Battle Mountain Pass for the first time.  Wow, what a gorgeous trip!

Near the top of the pass, almost 10,000 feet, is a prominent plaque placed where the famous inventor Thomas Edison went fishing and reportedly came up with the idea for filament to use in the invention of the light bulb. It occurred while he was messing with flies during a wonderful fishing trip. That very impressive plaque was mounted on a big brick podium, back in 1949 by a statewide historical group.  More on that later.

There are massive groves of mature Aspen trees all along the way and I kept looking for the famous Aspen Alley.  This is a narrow road cut through a mighty grove of Aspens that shimmers like gold in the fall. Famed Wyoming photographer Randy Wagner of Cheyenne has the best image I have ever seen of that site.

On this day, I missed it because it is a few miles down WYO 71, which goes north from Battle Mountain Pass all the way to Rawlins. Hopefully next time.

The name Battle Mountain Pass came from a famous fight between Indians and some trappers on Aug 21, 1841. Mountain Man Jim Baker, just 21 at the time, had to lead his men after Captain Henry Frapp was killed. After a six-day fight, the trappers left. However the formerly named Bastion Mountain has been re-named Battle Mountain because of that fight for the past 178 years. Baker went on to become one of the more famous mountain men exploring Wyoming mountain ranges.

To get to this famous pass, we drove south from Interstate 80 to Saratoga and briefly visited with Joe Glode. He is an extraordinary community leader for that area. We were going to eat some of the best prime rib in Wyoming at Doug and Kathleen Campbell’s Wolf Hotel, but they were not open yet. We had to get to our granddaughter’s wedding celebration in Montrose, CO, so we soldiered on.

After passing through the beautiful towns of Encampment and Riverside, we climbed up the Sierra Madre Mountains.  I can only imagine how that area must look in the fall.  All those Aspen trees must make the place look like it is on fire.

Cody’s Rev. Warren Murphy’s first assignment was Dixon and Baggs.  He writes about the area: “Route 70 is indeed one of the most amazing and unknown highways in the state. Especially in mid- September when the golden aspen leaves fall. They cover the highway and when driving along you are riding on a carpet of gold. There is so little traffic. Aspen Alley is a unique piece of ground but sadly the alley trees are aging out. However, the young ones are growing fast.”

John Davis of Worland tells this story about his early experience on Battle Pass: “When I was first married, Celia and traveled to the Sierra Madres to hunt deer.  We didn’t get any deer, but proceeded toward Baggs and Savery.  Celia got worried about the amount of gas we had, but I wasn’t worried, because most Chevrolet vehicles (we were traveling in a 1955 Chevrolet sedan) still had 5 gallons when showing empty. 

“Well, this one didn’t, and just before the pass, it coughed and died.  We caught a ride down the mountain, got some gas, returned to the vehicle, and proceeded home. 

“But this incident had long term consequences.  Ever since, Celia got nervous whenever the gas gauge in one of our cars got just a little past half full.  We never again ran out of gas as we did on Battle Mountain Pass, but I’ve heard complaints about getting gas about a hundred times since, he concluded.”

After enjoying the beauty of the Aspen-covered Pass, Nancy and I started our way down the mountain. We drove through Savery and Dixon, two pleasant little towns.

My friend radio station owner Joe Kenney said his dad grew up in Encampment and his mom, Maudie Lake, grew up in Savery. He recalls visiting those towns as a little kid and marveling at how high the snow was.  When I asked him how his dad and mom got together, since the highway was closed all winter, he said, “they always met up in Rawlins.” 

I grew up in a very small town and these towns reminded me of home. My wife calls these little towns “peek and plumb towns.” She says, “you peek around the corner and you’re plumb out of town!”

I always said my hometown was so small that both “resume speed” signs are on the same post, just on opposite sides.

Growing up in my little town, we had a public restroom, which was an outhouse.  The toilet tissue consisted of the town’s yellow pages. Unfortunately, the yellow pages only consisted of one page.

We always like getting to Baggs. This is a pretty little town with a great museum along the Little Snake River. Again, the roads north and south of Baggs go through high desert country, which lack scenery. But Baggs area residents have a lot of fun places to visit in their little bit of heaven.

Rocky’s Quick Stop is a wonderful convenience store which has a fine restaurant attached to it at the north edge of Baggs.

We should mention that our trip to Montrose was hot, hot, hot. We chatted with Zane Bennett of Powell at the motel in Montrose and he said he drove his motorcycle through a hail storm south of Green River.

Oh yes, about Thomas Edison and how he discovered filament for light bulbs.

Historian and author Phil Roberts of Laramie says the story is a wonderful tale but is just not true. Edison was just 31 but already a famous inventor during this visit to Wyoming.

He joined a group that traveled to Wyoming by train in 1878 to watch a total eclipse of the sun.  Edison had a device that he wanted to use to measure temperatures during an eclipse, which did not work at all.

Edison had a great trip, killing elk and deer. Reportedly his fishing party caught 3,000 trout.

He returned to Menlo Park, NJ rested and ready to invent. After experimenting with 6,000 different materials, he was able to get a filament to work in his light bulb.

 

1933.5 - I love linkiages of odd events over time

From 1989 to 1994, I was a member of the Wyoming Travel Commission. Gov. Mike Sullivan appointed me to the post. I was chairman of that wonderful entity in 1992-1993.

 

The Director of Tourism was a wonderful man named Gene Bryan, a true legend in the travel business here in Wyoming. His life is full of great Wyoming stories. He even recently wrote a detailed book about the history of tourism marketing for the state.

 

But that’s another story for another time.

 

During my time on the Travel Commission, there was a bright young guy in Cheyenne who handled international travel for the Commission. It was the now famous author CJ Box. Coincidentally 28 years later, he is now vice-chairman of the state’s current version of the Travel Commission.

 

But that’s another story for another time.

        

Box and I formed a company to promote international travel as a result of that, which was called Rocky Mountain International.  Around 1997, I sold my interest to my partner, CJ Box.

        

I had founded it  in the early 1990s and well, we did some amazing things. Box did some even more amazing things after I sold him my interest.

        

But that’s another story for another time.

        

I took the money from the sale of my interest and bought a newspaper in Maui.  Wow, was this going to be fun!

        

My wife Nancy and I loved going to Hawaii and we thought a Wyoming-Hawaii connection could be just about the best thing ever.

 

The editor of our Maui newspaper was a part-time protestant minister named Ron Winckler.

        

Our adventures in the People’s Republic of Hawaii, were, well, partly good and mainly bad.

        

But that’s another story for another time.

        

Ron is a friend of mine on Facebook. He just posted the most amazing item, which I would like to repeat here:

 

“So, this is about is my mother-in-law, Charlotte. She`s 95, having been born in 1924.

 

“We were talking a couple of days ago. I asked about her childhood in San Diego. She brought up a man that used to come to her mother`s diner. She remembered his name, ‘Daddy’ Hayes and his age, almost 100-years-old.

 

"Daddy Hayes drove a horse-drawn wagon and collected scrap. He was born into slavery. Daddy Hayes, also told her that as a young adult, he had been present at President Abraham Lincoln`s Gettysburg Address in 1863.

 

“In 2019 I was talking on the phone with a woman who once talked with a former slave who actually heard Lincoln speak!

 

“Beyond amazing!”

 

Now that’s another story I can read about any time.

 

Amen, Brother.

 

* * *

How many old-timers are there in Wyoming these days?

 

When I wrote a column some 18 months ago about the oldest people in Wyoming, we had folks ranging from 104 to 107 all over the state. Today, we are not sure if there is anyone over 102?

 

If you know of someone over 100, please let me know at bsniffin@wyoming.com.  I would like to include them in a future column.

 

 

1933 - Big news from Wyoming`s smallest college

Wyoming’s second four–year college had an exciting weekend recently when it welcomed 54 new freshmen back to ground level after they spent three weeks bonding in the towering nearby mountains.

 

Wyoming Catholic College, entering its 15th year of existence since its incorporation in 2005, welcomed its 13th freshmen class during convocation and matriculation ceremonies Aug. 25-26.

 

The Catholic school is unusual in many ways. One of the most distinctive is its outdoor program.  Each fall, all the incoming freshmen go on a 21-day wilderness expedition in the mountains.  This year the freshman women went into the Wind River Mountains near Lander and the men traveled into the Teton Mountain Range outside of Jackson.

 

Another unusual aspect is that all the students take the same liberal arts-based curriculum through their four years at WCC.  The program is based on the Great Books and on Catholic Theology.

 

A third unique aspect of the college is its horsemanship program. All students are required to learn to ride and it is an integral part of their learning.

 

The student body now has 179 students who come from all over the USA.  Enrollment should surpass 200 students within a few years with an ultimate goal of no more than 400.

 

There are 19 members of the faculty with Dr. Kyle Washut of Casper the acting dean. The school contributes about $4 million a year to the Lander area economy, according to Paul McCown, the controller.

 

The school uses buildings all over Lander for its housing and activities. Main location is in downtown Lander where it leases three large two-story buildings.  It also uses a classroom building that formerly housed students of Central Wyoming College. A former Legion Hall has been re-named Frassati Hall, and serves as a dining room and student union.

 

Most religious activities are at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, but the College also has its own small chapel inside the Baldwin Building at 306 Main Street.

 

The idea of a four-year Catholic college in Wyoming was first conceived by former Wyoming Bishop David Ricken, now of Green Bay, WI.  He mentioned the idea during a summer program on Casper Mountain in the early 2000s called the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought.

 

Bishop Ricken was joined by Casper College professor Dr. Robert Carlson and Casper priest Fr. Bob Cook in figuring out how to bring the school to reality.

 

They, along with a committee that included Ray Hunkins of Cheyenne, entertained 49 different statewide proposals for where to locate the college before settling on Lander, Wheatland, and Cody. The final choice was Lander, partially because a ranch was donated to the effort by Francine Mortenson, in memory of her late husband Chris.  Chris Mortenson had been a prominent real estate developer in San Diego and had purchased their Lander ranch from Johnny and Jeanne Lee some years earlier.

 

The Lander community also raised $300,000 in donations, which a group called the Cornerstone Committee gave to the school with no strings attached. The local Knights of Columbus donated $100,000 of that total.

 

In 2007, the school had hired a small faculty and enrolled its first class of 35 students. It took just two years from its first public mention to when students were taking classes. On May 14, 2011, history was made when 30 of those original students received the first diplomas from Wyoming Catholic College.  Wyoming could honestly say it now had two four-year college campus programs.

 

Folks at the college are not shy about referring to some amazing coincidences (miracles?) or at least, answered prayers, which have occurred along its amazing journey to reality.

 

The school does not participate in any federal student loan programs and refuses to be beholden to anything from the federal government. It survives on student tuition and a large national base of donors. Without any alumni or even an established donor base to draw upon, the college succeeded because of thousands of people believing in the need for such an institution.

        

By 2011, with the help of millions of dollars in donations from more than 10,000 families across the country, the college achieved its goal of providing graduates with a high-quality education.

 

Fr. Cook, the first president of the college, liked to point out that although the first name of the college is Wyoming, it was truly a national college with students from 37 different states by 2011.

 

Although just about everything involving WCC is conservative in nature, what it provides for its students is a “liberal, classical education” based on the Great Books.

 

Current president Dr. Glenn Arbery says that all students take the same courses. “Our mission is to form the whole person, physically, mentally, and spiritually. We want our students to take away as much as they can carry of the great wealth of the tradition of Western civilization. We need young people confident in their faith and capable of independent thought, and we know that each of them will have the ability to think clearly and to speak effectively. They will be leaders out in the greater world,” he says.

 

The college received its full accreditation last fall. 

        

From Day One, perhaps the most interesting things about the college, among many unique aspects, has been the outdoor leadership program.

 

WCC originally teamed up with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander to provide an outdoor education course for incoming freshmen that educates them on the outdoors, teaches them leadership plus bonds them together as they continue their studies for four years.  In recent years, the school had enough faculty and graduates that it now provides its own leaders for these expeditions.

 

It is easy to write a column about the nuts and bolts of the college but the key thing anyone discovers when involved with WCC is the quality of the students.

 

My wife Nancy and I know these are the finest young people.  Incredibly smart and pure of heart, they are almost impossibly optimistic.  When you deal with these future leaders, you know the future is in good hands.

 

As a disclaimer I should point out that I was on the original local committee that helped get the college started.

 

This is a true Wyoming success story.  This is the story of how a miracle can occur out on the frontier, even in pessimistic times.

 

President Arbery reminds that the college is always looking for donors and this would be a wonderful time to give.  The college web site is www.wyomingcatholic.edu and its mailing address is Box 750, Lander WY 82520.

 

 

1932.5 - Recalling my daughter`s first day of school

In the next few weeks, thousands a little children in Wyoming will be marching off to school.  Especially for those parents of kindergartners, it is a poignant time.  It sure was for me back in 1976 when our daughter Amber marched off to her first day of school.

 

Here is a column that I wrote about how I felt about that event. The column won a national award and was originally published in our newspaper, the Wyoming State Journal in Lander. It was included in my first book, The Best Part of America, which was published in 1993. Here is the column. I hope you like it:

 

 It’s been five years of diapers, dollhouses, skinned knees, pony tails, Barbie dolls, tricycles, sparklers, double-runner ice skates, Big Wheels, kittens, and hamsters.

 

Today, I’m sending our youngest child out into the great unknown. She will leave our nest and find out there’s much more to life than just that which she has learned from her folks.

 

For five years now, she’s believed that anything I told her was true. That all facts emanate from Dad. I’ve been her hero as her life has revolved around her mother, two older sisters, and me.

 

Now it is somebody else’s turn. Today, we trust an unknown teacher to do what is right for this little girl. This five-year-old, who is so precious to us, yet is just like any of thousands of other little five-year-olds here in the Cowboy State.

 

I suppose there are scores of other little girls with blond hair and blue eyes right here in Lander.

 

But, please, I’d like you to take a little extra care with this one.

 

You see, this is our baby. This is the one I call “pookie” when she’s good and “silly nut” when she’s bad. This is the last of my girls to still always want a piggyback ride.

 

And, this little girl still can’t ride a bike. And she stubs her toe and trips while walking in sagebrush. She’s afraid of the dark and she doesn’t like being alone.

 

She’s quite shy. But she is a friendly little girl, too. She’s smart, I think. And she wouldn’t hurt a flea.

 

I’ll tell you what kind of kid this is.

 

Twice in the past month, she’s come crying because the cat had killed a chipmunk. She buried both chipmunks, side-by-side. She made little crosses for them too.

 

This is the child with quite an imagination.  For example, she calls the stars “dots.”  And once when we were watering the yard, she assumed we were washing the grass.

 

She told us that telephone lines were put there so birds would have a place to sit.

 

She’s just five years old.  I’m trusting her care in someone else’s hands and I’m judging that they will be careful with her. She’s a fragile thing in some ways and in other ways, she’s tough as nails.

 

She’s not happy unless her hair is combed just right and she might change her clothes five times a day. She likes perfume, too.

She also likes to play with toy race cars and Tonka Trucks.

 

This is the one who always called pine trees “pineapple” trees. And when we visited our old home state of Iowa and she saw the huge fields of corn, she said “what big gardens they have here.”

 

And like thousands of other little girls here in Wyoming she’s marching off to her first day of school this week.

 

I know how those other parents feel.

 

There is tightness in their chests. Their world seems a little emptier. The days are a little longer.

 

And when our little girl comes home, waving papers and laughing about the great time she had at school . . . when she tells us about the stars and pine trees . . . and how the farmers raise crops, well . . . she’ll have grown up a little bit, already.

 

And I’ll have grown a little older, too.

 

1932 - The WY 2020 Hpuse race might be a real doozy

While a lot of media attention is focused on next year’s race for Wyoming’s open U. S. Senate seat, the real action might occur for the Cowboy State’s lone House seat.

Most pundits believe that current Rep. Liz Cheney will seek that U. S. Senate seat against already announced Cynthia Lummis and a host of others, including possibly GOP mega-donor Foster Friess.

It might be wishful thinking, but a lot of Republican leaders are sure hoping that Liz stays in the House.  Jean Haugen of Lander was excited that if Lummis and Cheney both win, the Equality State would have two women in its three-member delegation.  That would be worth bragging about, she exclaimed.

Personally, I believe the even bigger prize that Liz Cheney wants is to be the country’s first female president.  Now that is an aspiration. And don’t count her out.

But first, everybody has to get by this next campaign.

The topic of this column is a potential future House Race like none we have ever seen before. If Liz jumps . . . and that is a big IF, then we will see one heckuva donnybrook in the race for her House seat.

The names I am hearing are some familiar ones and some not so well known.

For example, Cheyenne Attorney Darin Smith ran before and really got to know the state again last summer when he was Foster Friess’s campaign manager.

Another guy, who was referred to as “Bush’s banker guy,” out of Jackson, is heavy hitter Bob Grady.  He has a big resume nationally and although not known statewide, he is very well known among the state’s bigwigs. Economist and expert on just about everything, Jonathan Schechter, of Jackson, says Grady “is all in.”

Up in Park County, GOP worker Geri Hockhalter says she keeps hearing good things about current Supt. of Public Instruction Jillian Balow as an ideal replacement for Liz in the House.

Republican go-getter John Brown of Lander mentioned a lot of the same candidates but also said: “Hell, Frank Eathorne (current state GOP chairman) might even throw in his hat . . .”

Several of my sources mentioned the ubiquitous Jon Downing, who had headed up the Contractors Association, the Mining Association, and the Liberty Group. Most recently he has been working for Vice President Mike Pence.

Another candidate who ran before is Tim Stubson of Casper. His name came up a lot, along with Cheyenne legislator Affie Ellis. Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) is also a possibility.

State Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance) sure has been looking a lot like a candidate lately, based on his Facebook postings and penchant to get into the news. Check out his spiel on gun control on the Cowboy State Daily.  One of the best explanations I’ve heard.

Former legislator Randall Luthi recently moved back to Wyoming to work in state government.  Was this a way to get back into the action so he could run?

Former State Sen. Jayne Mockler of Cheyenne is impressed by State Rep. Tara Nethercott. “Brilliant, competent young woman,” she says.

Two names from last year’s GOP primary came up, Harriet Hageman and Sam Galeotos of Cheyenne.  Consensus was that Harriet might do it, Sam probably not.

Several of my sources mentioned political operative Bill Novotny of Buffalo. He certainly knows how to run a campaign and has incredible knowledge of who’s who in each county.

Novotny, though, sent me this: “Hope all is well in Lander.  I understand you are sniffing around for a story on the U.S. House race.  Here are three folks you shouldn`t overlook:

“Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow.  He has the conservative bona fides and the legislative skills to make a real argument for the job.  Won a contested race for leadership against a conservative darling while maintaining his libertarian leanings.  

“Superintendent Jillian Balow.  Track record of winning in contested primary and general election races.  Scared everyone out of the field on her reelection.  Popular, tenacious, and has the ability to clean up messes.

 “Rep. Cyrus Western.  Intelligent, hardworking, and ability to deliver on campaign promises.  Lots of new legislators haven`t passed a bill. He passed the Dayton-Ranchester gas line bill on his first try.  Don`t count him out.

On the Democrat side, the expectation is that frequent candidate Gary Trauner of Jackson will run for either the Senate or the House.

Last year’s governor candidate Mary Throne was also mentioned by a number of people. Although she lost to Mark Gordon in the general election, she made a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle during her campaign. She was recently appointed to the Public Service Commission so that might rule out a run.

Pete Gosar of Laramie was also mentioned, as was Milward Simpson, who currently heads the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming.

Scotty Ratliff of Riverton suggested Rodger McDaniel of Laramie, Rich Lindsey of Cheyenne, and Michelle Sullivan of Sheridan.

It is early and these are just a few of the names that have bubbled to the top. Stay tuned. It’s going to be a fun political year in Wyoming!