Bill Sniffin Wyoming's national award winning columnist

Bill Sniffin News
Home Search

1723 - 8 generations in Wyoming

Although they have had eight generations living in Wyoming, the Driskill clan of Devils Tower originally came from Texas and as a result, it seems most everything about these folks is big.

         State Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) showed my wife Nancy and me around northeast Wyoming recently but also shared some of the more interesting things about his unusual clan.

         As for big, Ogden was feeling pretty good about his newfound self, weighing just 315 pounds. During lunch in Hulett, he was eating a salad. I had the french dip and fries.

         During the recent Legislative session, he ballooned to 345 pounds on his 6-1 frame as a result of good eats and not so good stress.  He and his colleagues had a difficult time cutting expenses to balance the budget during trying economic times.

         The Driskill ranch is comprised of 10,000 acres that abuts Devils Tower on two sides.  Campbell Soup heir John Dorrance’s family owns the ranches on the other two sides.

         Way back in the 1880s, the Driskill clan was doing well in Texas rounding up longhorn cattle and driving them to Wyoming. Over the decades, Ogden estimates over a million cattle were driven north on the Chisholm Trail.

         One of his forebears, Jesse Lincoln Driskill, made enough money selling beef to both sides in the Civil War, that he built the most spectacular hotel in Texas, for $400,000, in Austin.

         Ultimately he went broke, as his confederate money was worthless.

         In 1878, Jesse Lincoln of the Driskill clan hired an African-American driver, bought a used confederate ambulance, and drove north to the Black Hills.  He wanted a place in the hills to winter cattle and where there were no towns for 30 miles. He picked Devils Tower.

         The ranch is at 3,850 feet, which is nearly the lowest elevation in the state.  Without getting into an argument about climate change, Driskill says if they used to winter cattle in that area 130 years ago, it cannot be done today.

         Ogden’s brother Matt operated a KOA campground at the base on Devils Tower but unfortunately was killed in an accident six years ago. Matt was also a well-respected member of the Wyoming Travel Commission. By his being on the ranch, it allowed Ogden to run for the state senate and be gone during the legislative sessions in January and February.

         After Matt died, it has been difficult.  Ogden’s wife Rosanne, who is the daughter of Lysite artist Gary Shoop, now keeps tabs on the campground, which is a thriving business.

         The punch line to the story of the campground, though, occurred over 40 years earlier when director Stephen Spielberg sat at the family’s kitchen table and offered them $40,000 if he could use their land at the base for his movie Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

         The huge flat graveled area left over by Spielberg, became the base for the campground and other stores in that area.

         Folks in neighboring Hulett are planning a 40th anniversary celebration later this year to celebrate the movie being filmed there.

         We had originally planned to take our motorhome and stay at their campground but Ogden said, “heck no, stay in my guest house.”

         We did and wow, what a place!  It is not just a guesthouse but also the original home place for the Campstool Ranch. It contains four bedrooms, three baths and a spectacular view out the big living room windows of Devils Tower. 

         We had always wanted to spend more time in the Wyoming Black Hills in the extreme northeast corner of the state and on this trip, we got that done. We had a personal tour of the Vore Buffalo Jump by Glen Wyatt, where some 15,000 bison plunged to their deaths over the last 600 years.

         The town of Aladdin is pretty much one amazing country store which was sold at auction June 2 for $500,000. Some South Dakota buyers made a great deal on an amazing treasure trove of “stuff.”

         The famous Ranch A, which is owned by the state of Wyoming, thanks to the Nels Smith family, was busy when we stopped by, but what a wonderful building in a terrific location on Sand Creek.  It cost $1 million to build in the 1930s.

         And, of course, we spent time walking around Devils Tower. We ran into old friend Jeff Rose of Lingle, who was going to climb the tower with his daughter.  They did it, too.



1722 - Impending 100 year flood is scaring us

A flooding mountain river in Wyoming can be an “insatiable monster.”  That is what I called the middle fork of the Popo Agie River here in Lander seven years ago when we experienced a 50-year flood event.

       Unfortunately, based on snowpack in the mountains, it is entirely possible we will see a 100-year flood event this year.

       For those of us who lived through what occurred here in 2010, it is hard to imagine that it could get any worse.

       But snowpack levels, as I write this, are at 326 percent of historical averages.  This is just an astonishing amount of water and snow.

       Much of Wyoming has been in a flood watch over the past two weeks.     

       Back in 2010, high water victimized folks in Fremont, Albany, Johnson, Platte, Natrona, Carbon and Sweetwater counties.

       Here in Lander we were in the middle of one of the largest public disaster effort in the state’s history.

       Millions of dollars were spent.  Some 400 National Guard soldiers were here.  Over 500,000 sand bags were filled. Over 35,000 hours of volunteer effort were documented.

       Fire departments were supposed to gather in Lander on that weekend for their annual convention but it was cancelled due to the flooding.  Some 11 counties sent emergency crews to help out anyway. At one point, more than 32 square miles of (normally dry) Fremont County land was under water.

       There were 43 different agencies involved in our local effort.

       One of the main reasons we moved to Wyoming 47 years ago was the Popo Agie River that runs through Lander.

       This mountain stream is one of those rivers that you see pictured on calendars.  That image whetted the appetite for this young Midwesterner who yearned to get to the mountains.

       But our friendly little stream had turned into quite the angry foe. We always thought we were lucky to live along this river.  Its bank was about 500 yards from us.  After the flood, it is now about 450 yards away.

       We also have Big Dickinson Creek running through our back yard. Yes, that is the creek that in 1963 caused the worst flood in Lander’s history.

       Our personal flooding woes started June 4, 2010, when water breached some riverbanks at a rural residence upriver.  The storm of water that gushed through our property swamped the creek bed and caused water in basements downstream from us.

       Firemen and officials were diligent in trying to figure out where the water was coming from and getting it stopped. State Sen. Cale Case, who is also president of the Lander Ditch Association, did yeoman work in getting a dike built.

       After that incident, the town seemed safe until June 8 when a surge knocked out Mortimore Lane Bridge, washed out a half acre of my land, sucked a cabin off our property and pretty much scoured the riverbed.

       Beautiful private homes along the river belonging to Carl and Anne Huhnke (president of Central Bank and Trust) and Chuck and Cathy Guschewsky (CEO of Fremont Motors) were severely threatened and, at times, looked like they were going to wash away.

       At Lander’s City Park, the river was almost 100 yards wide in some places. 

       Watching huge machines dump gigantic boulders onto the bank of a levee only to see the river suck the rocks away was awesome.  It reminded me of a movie scene where you are feeding an insatiable monster.  Like Little Shop of Horrors where the monster says “Feed me! Feed me!” 

       And as we waited for the high water, it also felt like being a town under siege.  We knew the enemy was out there but did not know when it would attack or how big their force would be. Unease all around.  Folks were tense and sleep-deprived for days on end.

       Folks in Hudson, Riverton and all over the Wind River Indian Reservation were flooded about the same time too, as water from the three forks of the Popo Agie, the Little Wind and the Big Wind surged.

       Joe Austin of the National Outdoor Leadership School got sucked into a culvert while volunteering. He disappeared before everyone’s eyes.  Miraculously, he was shot out the other end and emerged from the river very wet, very shaken but very much alive.  It occurred on his 52nd birthday.

       There were no injuries or deaths.  Then-Lander Mayor Mick Wolfe had a bandaged right hand, a sandbagging injury.  “I wasn’t watching and a gal speared me with a spade.  I am not as quick as I used to be,” he commented dryly.

       About the only good news came from the Wyoming Department of Health whose officials thought many of the West Nile mosquito nests were washed away – maybe all the way to Nebraska. 

       Back in 2010, I wrapped up a column that I had written about the raging Popo Agie River with this final series of comments about its name:

       Most folks pronounce it Poposha.

       Some old-timers call it Popo Aggie.

       One historian says it is Popo Argee.

       Lately, I have been calling it Popo Angry.



1721 - Hey grads, your learning days are not over!

I am not afraid of tomorrow for I have seen yesterday and I love today.  – William Allen White


         This is a message for 2017 graduates – there are just two times in your lives when you feel you are done with learning and just do not want to learn any more.

         First is when you graduate.  Enough already! You have had your poor brain filled with so much stuff in your young life, that you are ready to just go out there in the working world and start using all that knowledge.

         The second time is when you reach a certain mature age and you are tired of having to learn how to use all these fancy gadgets. This is when you find yourself having your grandchildren program your smartphone or show you how to use the remote on the your new TV.

         This column concerns the first situation.

         I have given talks to graduates before and this is my annual message to high school and college graduates as they finally head off into the working world.

         This year, new grads can expect like never before to face careers of constant learning and re-learning.

         The pace of technological breakthroughs today is breathtaking. There is barely a business today that isn’t heavily invested in the internet, cloud computing and even artificial intelligence.

         Today, we live today in a 24/7-information overload existence.

         It used to be that social skills were a great asset for workers. Today, you need to add the word social media skills to that phrase.

         A favorite quote: “The problem with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”  How true.

         So, to you new grads, what can you do about it?  How can you make a good future for yourself in the face of such uncertainty?

         As a person who is even older than your parents, I can stress your number-one advantage in coping with all this is your youth.  However this all turns out, if you work hard and pay attention, you will be a better person because of all the uncertain times you will live through.

         A sense of responsibility and good character often do not come from an easy life.  They come from overcoming adversity and surviving tests that are often unpleasant.  The real definition of maturity is where a person ends up after dealing with a series of problems and solving them. You do not mature by running away from or hiding from your problems. Or having someone else solve your problems.

         It was free enterprise, capitalism and rugged individualism that made this country great. I hope you grads can grasp these concepts and realize how they can make a big impact on how you will be able to survive these interesting times.

         My parents and grandparents used words like “gumption” to describe someone who worked extra hard to try to get ahead.  What your generation of graduating seniors needs, to cope with what’s ahead, is gumption.

         Now here are four secrets about what you should do to get ahead:

         • Although working hard is a virtue, working “smart” is genius. 

• Education is the key but I am not talking about advanced degrees here.  I am talking about identifying a field you would like to work in and then learning everything you can about it. Best way to do this is talking with people in the field.  Or volunteering to work in the fringe parts of that industry.  Scanning the Internet for everything you can find out about trends in that field helps, too.  Honestly, you can never learn enough.

• It is not whom you know or what you know that counts in getting a good career going.  It is whom you know AND what you know that will make all the difference. Locate and cultivate mentors.

• Timing is the single most important thing in getting ahead.  You must stay on top of trends and always, always check which way the economic winds are blowing.  You must be a man or woman of action.  Jump when you need to, but look before you leap.

Earlier I said that your youth is your greatest asset.  You sit there at your graduation as an unformed human being.  Your whole world is out there ahead of you.

Although scary, this is the most exciting time to be alive. Approach these times with optimism and love for your fellow human beings (plus gumption) and you should turn out just fine.


1720 - My life is like a long baseball game

It was 21 years ago this spring that my old friend Loraine Ocenas emceed my 50th birthday party and claimed its theme was: “How does it feel to have your future behind you?”

         My answer, of course, was “my best years are ahead of me” and indeed, that turned out to be true.

         Now at 71, if someone asked me the same thing at a similar party, I might attempt to say the same thing, but perhaps not quite so vigorously.

         Where did all those years go?  An awful lot has happened both to me and to the world we live in.

         That 50th birthday party was in 1996. There barely was an internet back then and cell phones were, well, they were just phones. The first smartphone did not come out until 11 years later in 2007.

         We had 2 grandchildren back on those days. Today we have 13 plus a great-grandchild on the way.  We have seen our own children grow up and build lives on their own.

         I like to give talks to graduation ceremonies. One of the things that I always tell the graduates is that my over-riding feeling during my graduation was simply: “What is going to happen to me?”

         Well, I know what happened to me. Generally, it is pretty satisfying to look back with warm feelings at all those events and occurrences which make up the milestones in a person’s long life.

         Celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary last year certainly is near the top of the list.

         But those grandchildren – wow, are they ever special. Grandchildren have a purpose in life.  That purpose is to show you that you have a hidden place in your heart. And that place is full of love for someone you are just finally getting to know.

         We joke that our job as grandparents is to spoil-em and sugar-em up and then send them home!

         Our children might be thinking that we consider them chopped liver because we will travel thousands of miles to see those wonderful grandkids.

         During a 50-year-plus career, I always wanted to own businesses and we were fortunate in having that opportunity.  We owned newspapers, print shots, magazines, book companies, and a half interest in an Internet company with our daughter Shelli Johnson and even an advertising agency.

         We worked with wonderful people who became like members of our family.  It was easy to deeply care about people who worked side-by-side with you on all those various endeavors.

         Charity work was always important to Nancy and me and we believed in the pay it forward philosophy. We often got more out of these projects then we expended.

         Some years ago, I wrote a piece called “the 20 things I learned in 50 years of business.”  One of those was to “love your customers.”  We really did love ours, and that is something that I miss a lot now that we are not going to work every day.

         Over the years, we managed to indulge ourselves in big-boy toys like a nice boat, a motorhome and even an airplane. 

         After flying for 30 years, we quit when a detached retina seven years ago made that a risky business. But what a joy it is to fly over a wonderful state like Wyoming!  If you love this state from the ground, you need to see it from above.  I just could not get enough of it.

         Recently Nancy and I visited Flaming Gorge where we kept a boat for 10 years.  Sure made us nostalgic.  But our boating days are over too.

         Our old motorhome, nicknamed Follow My Nose, is not a toy but a real home for us. We like to travel south in the winter in it to get away from cold and snow.  We have made great friends with that lifestyle.

         About the only big-boy toys we managed to avoid were horses. We do rent out our pasture to horse-lovers, so we get to see horses everyday.

         A coffee klatch called the Fox News All-Stars puts up with me as we sit around telling lies most every morning at the Inn at Lander. Been attending that group for 47 years.

         Our lives have not all been rosy. Watching family and friends get ill or die has been difficult. Dealing with stubborn illnesses has not been fun. But you soldier on and finally reach your seventh decade.

At my age, I am finally a grown up. It takes men a long, long time to develop. Luckily I married a very mature woman, who at the age of 19 was more mature than I was at 50.

Guys are just guys.

Face it; we go stumbling along, scratching ourselves in embarrassing places and making horrible noises at the wrong time. We often are selfish and we don’t talk much.

         I used to refer to my life as four quarters, like a football game. If so, we are definitely in the fourth quarter.

         Today, I prefer to think of life as a nine-inning baseball game. I am now in the middle of the seventh inning. It’s time for a nice stretch.


1719 - Uden murders subject of TV show

Investigation Discovery, a network featuring the solving of horrible crimes, was in Wyoming this past week filming the story about how Virginia Uden and her two sons were murdered in Fremont County 37 years ago.

         Their bodies have never been recovered but law enforcement folks think they know where the bodies are located; the murderer has confessed and is serving time for the crime.

         I was interviewed by the TV crew sent to Lander for the story. We shall see if I get any air time.

         After 37 years of a cold case like this one, it has always been easy to believe that some unsolved disappearances will just never be explained.

         In Lander, we long pondered how Virginia and her sons Reagan, 11, and Richard, 10, vanished. Their horrible fate is now known.

         Coincidentally, Virginia worked at our Wyoming State Journal in Lander.  It seemed odd to be writing these horrible stories about a person I knew. We often pondered how a person could disappear into thin air during these modern times when everybody seems to know everything about everybody.

         But this mystery seemed destined to be perpetually unsolved. Then, just like that, it was solved.

         And the answers to all of those one-third of a century-old questions were as horrific and grisly as anyone could have possibly imagined.

         Gerald Uden was a worker at the U. S. Steel iron ore mine at Atlantic City, some 25 miles south of Lander in the Wind River Mountains.  Co-worker Kim Curtis remembered him as being  “scary.”

         Virginia must have seen something in the guy as she was married to him for six years.  Uden even adopted her two sons.

         Three years ago, if you were watching TV or reading the newspaper, you knew what happened next.  The story was on CNN, ABC and The New York Times among all the other state and national media outlets.  The story was impossible to ignore; if you proposed to write about the Uden crimes as fiction, the story would not sell because it is so unbelievable.

         My wife Nancy and I have positive memories of Virginia.

Virginia did some surveying and telemarketing for our newspaper. She had recently divorced Gerald and was desperate for money. She was working as many jobs as she could to make ends meet. 

         Gerald Uden and his new wife Alice both worked at the iron ore mine on South Pass.  As it turned out, Alice had earlier murdered her 25-year old husband and dumped his body down a mineshaft in Albany County.

         Then they conspired to rid Gerald of his obligations.

         An acquaintance of Alice’s, who worked with her at the mine, reported that Alice was always complaining about Gerald never having any money because he had to support Virginia and the kids. Thus, money appears to be the motive for the taking of these three lives.

         On a fall day in September 1980, Gerald Uden convinced Virginia and her two boys to meet him in Pavillion, Wyoming, for some target practice.  He waited until Virginia and Reagan had their backs turned to him and shot them both in the back of the head. He had to chase down Richard before shooting him in the head, too.  He stashed her car down a deep canyon off the Dickinson Park Road in the mountains west of Fort Washakie.

         The photos of the Uden boys may still be appearing on milk cartons.  There were millions of images of the Udens spread across the country. 

         Officers finally found Alice’s husband’s body three years ago and that led them to her and Gerald, then living in Missouri.  He was a long-haul truck driver. Once confronted, Gerald confessed to the murders.

         Meanwhile, Fremont County officers never gave up trying to connect the dots.  Credit also goes to a UW archeologist who, with eight students, spent some awful summer days in 2008 digging around in Uden’s old pigsty in Pavillion, looking for evidence of the Uden bodies.  They were unsuccessful.

         At this point, Gerald Uden, 74, has confessed as has his wife Alice, 77. Both are serving the rest of their lives in Wyoming prisons.

         What happened to the bodies, which was a mystery for more than three decades, is now known. Gerald claims he put Virginia, Reagan and Richard in barrels and sunk the bodies to the bottom of the deepest lake in Wyoming, Fremont Lake east of Pinedale.

         Fremont County deputies have tried to find those barrels, but to no avail.