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1515 - Size really does matter when you are small

Does size matter? 

It sure does when you are Wyoming, whose massive geographic size has nothing to do with its great advantages of being the smallest state in the union when it comes to population.

         Spanning 97,818 square miles, the 563,000 people occupying our state are unique in all the USA.  For example, we are the only state that does not have a city larger than 65,000.

         The New York Times did a story a few years ago bemoaning, in the writer’s opinion, the horribly unfair U. S. constitution, and how it makes each voter in Wyoming to be the most powerful and influential in the country.

         The story was accompanied by a map, which showed the relative size of each state when it came to the individual influence of each voter.

Wyoming is huge and dominates the map. Two of the smallest states are California and New York.  You can locate the map by googling New York Times as “how much is your vote worth?”

         The Times article points out that a Wyoming vote is worth three and a half times what a vote in Florida is worth.

         This whole discussion is about how the Electoral College was set up by our founding fathers to allow small-population states to have more influence than large-population states. We should be thrilled that after 228 years, this system is still in place.

         Historian Phil Roberts reminds that our state’s right to two senators is one of the only parts of our constitution that can never, ever be amended.

Steve Mankowski, a local constitutional expert, said: “This is a compromise struck in 1787 to assure small states that they wouldn`t be trampled by a tyranny of the more populous states. “With it, Wyoming is outnumbered by California by only 18 to 1. Without it, California rolls over Wyoming at 55 to 1!”

         So, small is good?

         In another way where Wyoming’s oddball size comes into play is when you factor in the federal government controls 48 percent of our land. Thus, although we want to believe we have control over things here, the reality is that folks in Washington, D. C, have a huge say over almost half of our property.

With the presidency of Barack Obama, a lot of detractors in Wyoming thought he would be a repeat of Bill Clinton. Back in the 1990s, President Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promoted a strong environmental agenda, which limited energy development in Wyoming.

         It was the Clinton-Babbitt agenda, written largely by then-Vice President Al Gore, which put the brakes on development of an expanded national electrical grid.  That delay put the country behind the eight ball when it comes to getting electricity delivered from the hinterlands like Wyoming to population centers. 

         A few years ago, there was an excellent newspaper article by Chris Merrill, which quoted former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson of Cody:

         "Bill Clinton and Al Gore, they really just didn`t understand," Simpson said. "One was from Arkansas and the other was from Tennessee and they had no public lands of any significance in their states.” For a short while, President Obama showed a propensity to be sensitive to Western concerns, but those days are long over.

Getting back to maps, I recently found some, which showed what Wyoming looked like before it became a state.

In some, there is not even a Wyoming territory.  At different times, it appeared (according to early map makers, anyway) that the land mass now known as Wyoming was part of Nebraska or Dakota or Idaho or Oregon.

Once it was a territory where for a while the Tetons were in Idaho.  The lower counties of Wyoming were in Colorado and Nebraska. The Union Pacific Railroad was to go through Colorado.

Another well-known map shows Wyoming shaped with a funny bump in the upper northwest corner. 

You would think other states would covet having Yellowstone in their states, but these maps show the world’s first national Park (which occurred in 1872) seemed to always be located in Wyoming.

We are sure thankful for that.

Looking at those maps sure does take away that mythical inferiority complex from being the “smallest” state in the union, population-wise, when you see just how gigantic we are when it comes to land mass.

No need to mention that, though.  All of us living here know just how vast Wyoming can be, especially when you have to be some place at a certain time during a spring snowstorm!


1514 - Welcome to gadget hell . . .

Vexing.  That is the best word I could find that describes how irritated I have been lately when all sorts of modern techno-gadgets go on the blink. And after hours of talking to nice folks on the telephone, we finally got some of these devices, at least, back to work.

         Most of my career has been in the newspaper business, which involved lots of complicated, expensive machines ranging from fussy cameras up to noisy, rattling presses.  Keeping them all going was a constant worry.

         Most recently, my Samsung laser printer goes through toner cartridges like I eat popcorn.  What is it about these machines that cause them to always be out of toner?  Not always easy to fix them and often you find that companies will sell you the wrong toner cartridges. Yikes.

         Lately, my iPhone will not send mail.  Neither Verizon nor could solve my problem. It worked fine up until Feb. 27. Now all outgoing mail just goes into an outbox and languishes there.

         But it is a brave new world for equipment and we just have to keep slogging along. It is a pain.

         However, these gadgets can keep you out of a lawsuit, too, based on an experience I had not long ago.

Wham!  My head ached from being slammed into the headrest on my drivers seat. 

         I had stopped for a red light on Dell Range in Cheyenne and someone had plowed into the back of my car.  Looking back, the driver of the other car was obviously upset.  She was gesturing to me – are you injured?

         Then the light changed to green and I motioned for her to follow me. We both pulled into a fire station driveway to assess the situation. It was surprising to see no damage to the rear of my car. 

         The young mother got out of her car and hurried over to me. She was very upset that she had hit me. She had her cell phone in her hand more on that later.

         A fireman came out from their building and asked what happened and inquired if we were okay.

         My injuries were more the shock of surprise. Nothing appeared permanently damaged.  Just shook up a little. No, there was no reason to go to the emergency room.

         The gal was super nice but asked me again to repeat. “Was I okay?  Do I need medical attention?”

         “I am fine,” I repeated, realizing that I was talking into her cell phone, rather than to her.  She quickly pulled the phone back but kept quizzing me about my health.

         And it looked like my car was fine, too. We exchanged names and phone numbers, which have since been misplaced after all these months.  But it is still easy to recall how she was actually videotaping my voice and image and what was being said with her cell phone.

         Pretty neat, huh?

         My assumption is that she called somebody right after the crash and they told her to get my answer on the phone, which she dutifully did.

         Can you begrudge her that? Absolutely not.  In fact, it was pretty quick thinking.  Plus she was obviously contrite about the accident and was very serious about making sure I was okay.

         Later when I told this story to some friends, they all came to a conclusion that I totally missed – perhaps she had been talking on her phone when she ran into the back of my car?  Might explain a lot. Hmmm

         Other tips I could pass along include using your smartphone to take a photo of where you parked your car at a big lot like at an airport or sports parking garage.

         Lately, I have been photographing documents and sending them out rather than trying to find a copier.

         In business, we have sent many invoices out by smartphone photo, which saves time all around.  We recently emailed in a contract that was just a photo of a signed document.

         Some Lander friends were asking me recently if they thought their cell phones would work during their upcoming visit to Cuba.


Now that is a brave new world.  I am totally green with envy. These three couples are off to Cuba on some kind of tour.

         No, I doubt their cell phones will work. But it sure sounds like a fun experience.

         Perhaps the best part of it will be a journey back in time to a place where gadgets are not so prevalent?



1513 - Wyoming`s worst disasters

Railroads and coal. Together they made history in Wyoming. Some of it quite tragic.

         Wyomingites tend to celebrate our cowboy heritage and we use the bucking bronco on our license plates and as the state logo. But the reality is it might be more fitting to use a hard-charging steam locomotive, which caused Wyoming to come into being.

         This year during our 125th anniversary of statehood, it is perhaps fitting to try to decipher the origins of what really built Wyoming.  The Union Pacific Railroad crossing the state was pivotal.  And one of the reasons for its exact route was the proximity to coal mines in places like Carbon (near present day Medicine Bow), Rock Springs and a little burg then called Almy, near present-day Evanston.  Evanston was also known as Bear River City back in the early days.

         When I think of disasters in Wyoming’s history, it is easy to write about the 1949 blizzard or the 1985 Cheyenne flood. But it was early coal mine disasters that really took a toll. When you look up big disasters they always seem to involve mining.

         Tom Rea’s excellent history of the Hanna mine disasters revealed that 169 men were killed in an explosion at Number One Mine on June 30, 1903. Another mine disaster in Kemmerer killed 99 men in 1923.

         These tragic facts are jumping off the pages of old historical documents lately as I have been diving into Wyoming history as part of a 2015 book project. And sometimes things are just as you recalled once reading about them. But others are somewhat different. Here are some thoughts about disasters in Wyoming history:

         • An example is the Johnson County War, which the late T. A. Larson (the state’s most eminent historian) reportedly called “the defining moment of the 19th Century for Wyoming.”

         Yet, just a few people were killed in that event despite the potential of great loss based on a plan to wipe out dozens of farmers and homesteaders.

         • Rob Black reminds me that in 1955, a United Airlines plane crashed on Medicine Bow Peak killing 66.  Worst disaster in airline history in the USA up to that time.  Earlier in 1950, another plane crash killed 21 missionaries when their plane smashed into Mount Moran in Jackson Hole.

         • In Evanston, there was a riot where 16 people were killed back in that town’s Hell on Wheels days in November, 1868.  That was the nickname given to the temporary towns set up when the Union Pacific Railroad was being built across Wyoming and the USA.

         • In Rock Springs, much attention is given to the Chinese massacre in 1885, when imported Chinese workers were murdered by imported British coal mine workers. The total killed was 28, an embarrassing blot on the history of the state.

         • The famous Blackwater fire west of Cody killed 15 firefighters in 1937.

         • Farther back in history were the Grattan and Fetterman massacres plus the Willie Handcart Mormon disaster in 1856 around Devils Gate.

• Those two disasters, which seem to be more on top of my mind, included the great blizzard of 1949, which killed 12 people in Wyoming and 28 in surrounding states.  It also killed an estimated 20,000 cattle and 100,000 sheep. Numerous airlifts of bales of hay saved thousands of animals from dying.

• That Cheyenne flood in 1985 killed 12 people and left the capital city in shambles.  Rain poured down at a record rate as a storm cell would not move. It just keep raining, blowing and throwing out lightning strikes. Surely there was some wind (in Cheyenne!) but not enough to blow the storm system out of there before all the damage was done.

Wyoming is indeed fortunate to have amazing historians and historical reference points.

Phil Roberts, Mary Hopkins, Judy K. Wolf, Tom Rea, Rick Ewig, Todd Guenther, Richard Collier, Vince Crolla and others have been very helpful in compiling spectacular material.

We are also tapping into old friends to write stories for the new book like Gene Bryan, Pat Schmidt, Randy Wagner, Ray Hunkins, Rodger McDaniel and others.

Places like the American Heritage Center in Laramie, the state archives and museum in Cheyenne, Western History Center in Casper, Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody plus various local museums have all been amazing repositories of interesting and vital information about our past.

It is unimaginably easy to just get lost going through all this great history. The hours fly by!


1512 - Wyoming has lost its Good Samaritan

It would be hard to find anyone in Wyoming who is not reeling from hearing about the death of Mick McMurry, 69, of Casper March 10.

         Rarely does a family, a city or a state come across a citizen like McMurry. He was Wyoming’s Good Samaritan.

         His business career, after years of hard effort during the state’s lean years, prepped him for an amazing record of success. He was wealthy thanks to a persevering attitude that allowed him and his partners to discover two of the biggest natural gas fields in the country, the Jonah and Pinedale fields in Sublette County.

         Rather than just enjoy the perks of that wealth, Mick and his wife Susie formed the McMurry Foundation and gave away their money in huge amounts to wonderful causes. 

         Anyone with a need in Wyoming knew that his or her project would get a good listen from the McMurrys.   He and Susie endorsed Wyoming’s state-adopted Code of the West and practiced “paying it forward.”

         After the first reports of Mick’s death, the overall grief of the situation changed to puzzlement when it was revealed that he had died by his own hand. His family has subsequently announced that cutting down Wyoming’s suicide epidemic will become another important cause for their foundation.

         What is important is to reflect on how he lived not how he died.

         Just about everybody in Wyoming knew who Mick McMurry was. Thousands of Wyoming people have their personal stories about him. Here is mine.

Like many others, he helped me with my project.  He convinced the directors of their foundation to buy 500 copies of my first Wyoming Coffee Table book and donate them to the school libraries in the state. We had the foundation logo printed on the cover of those books with the McMurry philosophy “for the people of Wyoming.”

         My project did not save lives like the McMurry wing at the Wyoming Medical Center nor did it provide joy for thousands of sports fans like improving the football field at War Memorial Stadium. But it was the push we needed. 

         He absolutely loved everything to do with energy, which is by far the largest industry in the state. He was an expert and tried to figure out ways to convert natural gas and coal into other fuels.

         Although mild-mannered and quiet in appearance and demeanor, he could be tough and outspoken. He led a hard-scrabble life in the oil patch and in the construction business. He was a self-made man. He said he lived “on the corner of guts and luck.”

         In looking over the Wyoming landscape, it is hard to find someone out there who could be Mick McMurry’s equal. He seemingly has been one-of-a-kind.

         Outside of well-known politicians, he may have been the singularly best-known person in the state. Certainly he was the best-known business person.

         Now that he is gone, is there anyone who can fill his shoes? Rarely do you ever say that someone is impossible to replace, but if not Mick, who?

         We are confident that Susie, though small in stature, will continue to stand tall in directing the foundation to continue to do good works for Wyoming. Her heart is one of the biggest Wyoming has ever seen. Although it is breaking now, we know she will continue to promote good works.

         “Mickey,” as his wife and friends called him, was a visionary.  Just about everything they were doing was either helping people or creating jobs. And building Wyoming. Always building Wyoming.

         In appearance, Mick looked like his dad Neil “Hurry” McMurry who died in 2012 at a ripe old age. Everyone expected Mick to live to a ripe old age, too. 

         A highlight of a Wyoming Business Forum a few years ago was a conversation on stage involving both Mick and his dad. Two generations of folks who created thousands of jobs and helped build our state. The conversation was insightful and at times hilarious.

It is astonishing to fully realize that now both Mick and his dad are gone.  It is difficult to accept.

         Mick McMurry was a Cowboy State icon. When history takes his measure, the conclusion will be that he was a true Son of Wyoming. He really loved this place. He tried to help everyone he could. 

Oh, and that Wyoming Code of the West that he loved so much?  The best ethic in there to describe him: Ride for the brand.


1511 - So you want to be your own boss?

It seems like every year, more and more people choose to follow the entrepreneurial path that has guided my life.  Here are a few thoughts on the subject:


         • We have a small group up here in Fremont County called Entrepreneurs Anonymous.  We try to meet each month in Lander or Riverton and we talk about how to run a small business.

One of the guys who has started his own company told this story at a recent meeting: “Our little business is very small operation by any means of comparison. Yet it is truly an example of Wyoming entrepreneurship.

         “Not long ago, an agent for the IRS came by and wanted to talk about how we are paying people in our little company.

         “I told him that we have one seasonal part-time employee who delivers my products. We pay him a nice hourly rate and a bonus for any special sales he generates.”

         “Any other employees?” the agent asked.

         “Then I told him about the mentally-challenged guy who also works here.

         “He works about 18 hours a day. He even works most weekends and almost every Sunday morning.  He only makes about $1 per hour but I make it up to him by letting him have all the Scotch whiskey he wants and he even gets to sleep with my wife occasionally.”

“Hmmm,” The agent replied. “That is the guy I need to talk to. Where can I find him?”

         The businessman looked him in the eye, paused and said: “That would be me.”


         • Every so often the folks at the Lander office of Central Wyoming College ask me to teach a non-credit class on entrepreneurship.  

         And modestly, I must admit it always fills up and the grades they give me are pretty darned good.

         It pretty much involves all my years of owning businesses and starting businesses from scratch.   I have been doing it since a teenager and am closing in on a 50-year anniversary of that first enterprise.

         Funny, though, when I started doing this class I spent most of the time talking about business success.  It did not take long to realize that a portion of my program called “stinkers and clinkers” was the most memorable lesson they yearned to hear more about.

         This was a list of poor business decisions I had made or a recitation of just plain bad luck that can haunt you when you are a small businessperson. You know, events like a big competitor coming to town or a national recession.

         It is still painful to recount some of these experiences but it appears that budding entrepreneurs were really tuned in to hear about them.


         • Most of my life has been involved in the publishing business and that always involved selling advertising to small businesses.  These folks became loyal customers and dear friends.

         And their seasonal suffering became my suffering, too.

         How frustrating can it be to operate a thriving business in a small town for decades and then have a big-box chain store come into the region and take away all the profit?  It happens all the time.

         The longest-running business in Wyoming history, the Baldwin Store in Lander, was pretty much a casualty of that trend.  It also did not help when Wyoming and Lander were hit by the worst depression in their history in the 1980s.

         Most of the owners of small, local businesses need to be celebrated.  They are my heroes.  And they are vanishing.

         We also celebrate the local owners of national franchises like Ace Hardware, Taco John’s, Gamble’s and stores like this.  Although they are part of a national team, they are locally-owned and they suffer through the ups and downs like everyone else.

         My admiration for retailers swells when you realize they are sort of trapped in their buildings.  At least in my book business, I can go all over the area selling my wares.


         • After decades now of big box chain stores and huge malls, it is funny to me to see a resurgence of the tiny retail outlet, at least in some highly populated places. 

         We were in Dallas last month and one of most successful retail areas was an area populated by tiny little stores surrounded by fashionable coffee shops, restaurants and pubs.

Although literally every stick and every brick in that place was designed and built from the ground up. When it was done, it looked like a small town Main Street.  Amazing.