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1855 - 50 years ago was a terrible year

Before 2018 totally slips into our memory, I want to write about some events that occurred 50 years ago during the torturous year of 1968 across the USA.

         For those of us who lived through 1968, that year was essentially a horrible year that ended with a wonderful earth-changing event.

         Here in Wyoming, life was better. One of the biggest stories of the year was the near completion of Interstate 80.  It would change the state forever. This massive ribbon on blacktop and concrete spanned the state from Pine Bluffs to Evanston.

         Unfortunately, some totally knuckleheaded federal highway engineers insisted on putting the highway through mountains with a route soon to be called the Snow Chi Minh Trail by the locals.  In his fine book about the crazy trail, John Waggener, describes in detail how desperate the feds were to cut 19 miles from the old Highway 30 route. Their reasoning was based on thinking about all the time and fuel that would be saved over all these years.  That bonehead was right but, oh my, has that stretch of road provided excitement for sleep-deprived, flatland truck drivers in the middle of winter, which can occur any time of the year. And thrills for the rest of us, too.

         In 1968, Gov. Stan Hathaway won a second term and was positioning the state to start charging severance taxes on all the state’s energy, which was flowing out of Wyoming, mainly in the form of oil and natural gas.

         This was a time when the big coal boom had not occurred yet. Wyoming had always been a big coal producer even before statehood but the Powder River Basin boom had not occurred yet.

         It was also a time prior to trona becoming the huge economic force it occupies today in southwest Wyoming.

         Tourism was booming but not the spectacular industry that it was destined to become.  

Another big story was our University of Wyoming Cowboy football team, which went 7-3, won the Western Athletic Conference title. In early 1968 Cowboys finished off an unbeaten season with a bowl loss.  

But the stage was being set for all hell breaking loose the following year, which will be the subject of column later in 2019.

         Coach Lloyd Eaton was one of the best coaches in the country and his Wyoming teams were among the best programs in the USA.

         Along with my own memories, an author named Jeffrey Kluger compiled a list of the events of that year for Time Magazine.  Here is his summary:

         “Most years have at least a little something going for them, but 1968 was awful from the start” he writes.

On just the 23rd day, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, killing one sailor and holding the rest prisoner.

         On the 30th day, the start of the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, the Viet Cong launched a massive military offensive that cost more than 35,000 lives, mainly Vietnamese. The USA had committed 500,000 American soldiers to Vietnam.

On the 95th day, a sniper in Memphis murdered the Rev. Martin Luther King.

On the 157th day, Senator Bobby Kennedy’s murder followed in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.

On the 233rd day, Soviet army tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, ending the hopes and dreams of a people.

On the 241st day, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago descended into violence. Mayor Richard Daley had his hooligan police beating the heck out of demonstrators.

The year was shaped—and soaked in—the blood that was shed, reported Time’s Kluger. Then he wrote:

        “And then, on the 359th day, there was poetry.  Three days earlier, the crew of Apollo 8—Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders—had rocketed away from the mess at home and ventured out to the moon, becoming the first human beings to reach and orbit our closest celestial neighbor.

“They arrived, as history would have it, on Christmas Eve. During the eighth of their 10 orbits, they pointed a TV camera out of one of their five windows and showed a global audience of one billion—nearly one of every three people alive—the grainy, flickery but undeniably otherworldly sight of the ancient lunar surface crawling by below their spacecraft.

“As that image played, Anders began reading: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,’ and then handed off to his crewmates, who took turns reading further verses from Genesis—verses of spiritual renewal in a year of worldly loss.”

1854 - What a year 2018 has been in Wyoming

Obviously the biggest story of this year was the Wyoming governor’s race but there were lots of other big stories, too. Before we dissect that huge political story, let’s look at some other big stories.

         The 54,000-acre fire near Bondurant that destroyed 55 homes was a first for Wyoming.  We have had some big fires and seen some homes lost but nothing like this scale.

         We are not California so a subdivision with 100 homes is more common than 8,000 homes. But that fire showed Wyoming is not immune to nature’s vengeance for folks who love mountains and forests and hence built their homes there. I speak as someone who also owns a house in a forest.

         Biggest business story was the continued decline of Wyoming’s coal industry. From our beginning, the Cowboy State has ridden our unlimited supply of coal as a big source of state revenues. Unless President Trump uses a military base on the northwest coast of the USA to export coal, this industry will continue to decline.

         Plus it strikes close to home in Kemmerer when the Westmoreland Company threatens bankruptcy and being unable to pay retirement benefits to the hundreds of miners it employs in the coal business.

         In Evanston, the talk is about the huge expansion of the state hospital. Plus the Immigration Service may build a big facility in that town. In my town of Lander, some $75 million is being spent on the Wyoming Life Resource Center expansion.

         But the billions supposedly committed to upgrade F. E. Warren Air Force in Cheyenne dwarf these projects.  And there is the $350 million being spent on the State Capitol complex. For a state allegedly mired in economic difficulty, this is a lot of new construction.

         On the job development front, Weatherby moved its firearms manufacturing and headquarters from California to Sheridan.

         This was the year that Wyoming opened a trade office in Taiwan.  Rock Springs joined Rawlins in winning the Great American Main Street Award. Evanston is a semifinalist for 2019.

         The Women’s Suffrage Pathway was dedicated over South Pass, southwest of Lander.

         Outside of coal, the energy economy looks bright with a huge backlog of applications to drill for oil and gas on federal lands.

         Wyoming lost many wonderful people in 2018. The year started off horribly when Leslie Blythe died on January 5 from complications of the flu.  A true statewide leader, she has been missed.

         In Sheridan, long-time legislator Tom Kinnison died.

         In Cody, retired banker Victor Riley passed away.  He was a huge benefactor in his town but also was a founding supporter and major donor to Wyoming Catholic College in Lander.

         The death of Ray Plank was noted in Johnson County, mainly at Ucross, which he used to generate progressive ideas for the state and promote art.

         Just recently, Brent Kunz died. The Cheyenne attorney was a friend of everyone and was one of those people who improved Wyoming immensely during his lifetime by mainly working in the background.   

         Wyoming citizens were proud of their own retired U. S. Sen. Al Simpson of Cody who was so eloquent in his eulogy for the late George H. W. Bush.

         And then there was that election.  

         The year started with the two presumed gubernatorial front-runners dropping out. Secretary of State Ed Murray dropped out in February amid accusations of misbehavior from decades ago. Former U. S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis just decided to sit it out.

         The word “million” has not been mentioned too many times in history when it comes to Wyoming political campaigns, but this year it happened a lot.

         Mark Gordon won the Republican nomination for governor. Congratulations to him and his team. He started out a front-runner and finished strong. Gordon was chased hard by Foster Friess, Harriet Hageman, and Sam Galeotos.  Among that group, over $7 million was spent in the primary election alone.

         Friess was a late entry but was actually leading in the polls with a week to go, after being in the race just 112 days at the time. What ended up being one of the most compelling issues of the campaign was his emphasis on the lack of transparency in Wyoming government when it comes to where all the state money is spent. 

         The year 2018 will go down in history as a time when perhaps the huge cost to run for a major office in Wyoming could become a big impediment to the ordinary candidate, which is too bad.       

1853 - The darkest day of the year in Wyoming

         If my late father had a favorite winter day, it would have occurred on Dec. 22, this year.  That is the day when the nights started getting shorter and days started getting longer.

         As he got older and entered the long dark winter of his own lifetime, I think those ever-longer nights and ever-briefer days would remind him of his own life slipping away.

He always looked forward to Dec. 22.  He would have a spring in his step, as he got up as early as possible to mark the fact that we had all made it through one more dark winter season. “The future is going to be much brighter, no doubt about it!” he might be saying, if he were still alive.

The continuing theme of the super-popular TV show Game of Thrones is “Winter is Coming.”  I think that theme does not just refer to the seasons but to the overpowering darkness that occurs in the wintertime. My dad died before he had a chance to see that show but he knew what that phrase meant.

         I am now in my 72nd year. It is easy to identify with his feelings. With that introduction, let me say that Dec. 22 will be a great day.  Yes, the nights are shorter. And the days are longer.

         Alas, here in Wyoming, we still might have four and half more months of wintry weather.

         Some years ago I created markers on my patio showing the location of the setting sun during the spring, summer, fall, and winter solstices and equinoxes. I know that you feel like the sun has moved during the year, but when you see those markers, well it is almost unbelievable.

         If I stand looking straight ahead to the marker for the Spring and Fall equinoxes the summer sun marker is far to the my right.  The distance is almost unimaginable when you see how far the winter sun marker is from where the summer sun sets.

         Actually, the sun does not move.   The earth tilts on its axis but it just seems like the sun has moved a long, long way.

         Of course this time of year, the sun going down between 4:30 and 5 p.m. is a shock to the system. In my hometown of Lander, we lose about 20 extra minutes of daylight because the afternoon sun sets behind the massive Wind River Mountains to our southwest.

         And if those days do seem shorter, it is because they are massively shorter.  The longest summer day is five hours and 50 minutes longer than the shortest winter day. About a fourth of the 24-hour day in difference.

         This is one of the reasons so many people feel depressed this time of year. Too much darkness.  Two other reasons are cold and ice. Friends all over Wyoming have been slipping on the ice and breaking bones.

         Many places in the state get lots of wind, which warms up their towns and melts the ice.  Places like Lander, Riverton, Sheridan, Newcastle, Worland, and Evanston are not quite as prone to get wind, thus ice piles up.  Nothing is quite as depressing as dealing with a broken arm or separated shoulder or fractured hip from a fall.

I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon, after witnessing quite an outpouring of good cheer.

More than 300 teeming baskets of food, books, toys, and games were distributed to needy families here in the Lander area by a smiling group of Elks members who tackled the job cheerfully in unseasonably warm temperatures.

         Even if it was cold, but you would never know it by the looks on the faces of these folks. 

         For many of them it was a three-generation event with grandpa, his son, and a grandchild tagging along making sure the deliveries were made.

         What a great lesson in giving about what this season is all about.

Folks all across the state are busy helping people in need during this holiday season.

         And if you think there are not any needy folks around, did you see the story about the farmer south of Cheyenne in Colorado a few years back who offered free vegetables to folks who came to his farm and dug them up?

         More than 10,000 people showed up.  The traffic jam stretched for miles up and down Interstate 25. 

         There are needs out there during these dark days of December. Luckily there are lots of good-hearted folks helping others less fortunate this time of year.



1852 - Buy Wyoming this Christmas

Buy Wyoming! This is one of my favorite columns of the year when we try to recommend Wyoming-made products for Christmas gifts.

         Support your fellow Wyomingites this Christmas season by purchasing Wyoming-made products.  This is my annual list of great ideas for items from all over the state.

         I love books, obviously, and my favorite this year is the Wyoming Migration coffee table book.  It retails for $50 and I am looking forward to seeing it under my tree.

         Books by other authors such as Craig Johnson, Ron Franscell, CJ Box, John Davis, Phil Roberts, Rodger McDaniel, Gene Bryan, Karen Schutte, Steven Horn, and others make wonderful gifts. Be sure to shop in local book stores and other local retailers this year.  Support your local merchants!

         Pete Illoway of Cheyenne suggests folks check out the Made in Wyoming Directory on the state’s web page, which lists some 120 items made here.

         Long-time Wheatland rancher Ray Hunkins suggests Foothills Cellar jams and jellies by Henry Poling, a paraplegic rancher, who obviously has great taste.

Queen Bee Gardens of Lovell sells amazing honey candy items according to Darin Smith of Cheyenne.

         Former long-time Wyomingite David Kathka loves Serendipity Confections of Laramie.  “Wonderful chocolate caramels and fudges,” he says.

         Mike Jensen of Cheyenne raves about Maven products of Lander. This outfit was founded by Cade Maestes, Mike Lilygren, and Brendon Weaver. They sell the best binoculars I have ever seen and just came out with a line of spotting scopes and rifle scopes. Amazing optics.

         Jerry Kendall of Hudson says here in Fremont County that Jess Forton makes pine furniture, Cleve Bell does metal sculptures to order and Dubois artist Marty Dorst paints custom Christmas bulbs. I believe Jerry produces some amazing walking sticks, too.

         Central Wyoming College President Brad Tyndall recommends Farmer Fred’s Famous Sauerkraut sold in Lander and Jackson.

         Cody Beers of Riverton recommends Wonderful Wyoming Honey, as does Tony McRae of Lander.

         Dean McKee of Lander touts Wyoming Whiskey, distilled in Kirby, as the perfect gift.

         Unique Wyoming themed jewelry and artwork are hand-crafted by Jill and Denny Hendrix in Upton and sold through their website and currently at the Frontier Mall in Cheyenne. In addition to affordable glass jewelry and lariat baskets crafted from recycled lariats, Jill has added a Yellowstone collection of fine art, says her brother, former Wyoming publisher Mark Raymond.

         Amy Surdam raves about Alexis Drake handbags, belts and jewelry made here in Wyoming.

         Jean Haugen recommends beadwork by Shoshone and Arapaho tribal members.  She especially like works by Tom Lucas.

         The State Museum in Cheyenne is loaded with Wyoming products, according to Tucker Fagan.

         John Davis wrote me the following: “I’ve got some Worland area local Wyoming products for you.  We have an active honey company, Bryant Honey, which has been producing honey and distributing it for three generations.  Amish Origins is another Worland company, one that makes a salve for ‘Deep Penetration Pain Relief.’  And some of the local ranchers are specializing in custom grass-fed, hormone-free beef.  That includes Carter Country Meats (R. C. and Annie Carter of Ten Sleep) and Kendrick Redland of Manderson.

         Nancy Guthrie of Jackson recommends David Fales’ Wyoming Gourmet Beef of Cody.  Tom Satterfield of Cheyenne likes buffalo products from Terry Bison Ranch.

         Tom Cox of Lander suggests honey and Indian fry bread.

         Pat Henderson in Sheridan sent me the following: “Legerski Sausage gift box. – Fabulous tasty and such a unique product.

Koltiska Distillery -  Sampler gift box of locally made crafted alcoholic beverages.  King’s Ropes – Ropes, Ropes , ropes. 

“And hats, winter stockman caps, western gifts and much more. PS The Museum is free when you come in. Brinton Museum – season passes for the 2019 season of extraordinary 19th, 20th and 21st Century Western and American Indian art.  Their Sunday brunch is pretty tasty too! Tom Balding Bits and Spurs – state of the art bit and spur designs backed by industry leading technologies innovation for horse-back riders.

“Special shout-outs to Bill Sniffin on his beautiful work including our picks of My Wyoming – 101 Special Places and Wyoming at 125: Our place in West – a great gift for all who love our Wyoming.”

Thanks, Pat.

         Best gift you can give, though, is to reach out and help the needy.  Support your local food bank programs and reach out to people who have suffered big losses this year.  A kind word or an invitation to a lonely person means a lot this time of year.



1851 - The power of information critical to citizens

Not sure if the sun shines brighter in Newcastle than in other parts of the state - but that town’s newspaper publisher Bob Bonnar is all about bringing public activities and expenditures into the light of day.

       As a journalist in Wyoming for almost half a century, I can attest that reporters have been battling some public officials nonstop to make their meetings, their activities and their expenditures public. It has been a long, grueling battle but there is now some hope.

       Bonnar heaps credit on a joint legislative committee that recently passed a bill 8-4, which offers sweeping new ideas for shining public light on public activities. Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) was chair.

       Usually the fights over exposing public activities concern money.  My first serious fight was with the local school district over releasing test scores way back in 1981.

       Here in Lander, we thought we had the best school in the state with highly paid teachers and outstanding facilities.  The high school was famous for its open campus and its 18-credit minimum for graduation.  Kids were enjoying it and everybody else was too.

       My kid brother, Ron Sniffin, who now lives in Cheyenne and is executive director of the Wyoming Education Association, took advantage of it.

       At age 16, he graduated early from the Lander high school and we promptly hired him as Ad Director to sell advertising for the Greybull Standard. Pretty amazing story – ask him about it some time.  But I digress.

Then we tried to find out our school’s cumulative test scores were in the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a national academic test comparing our schools with other schools in the country.

       I had been looking over our daughters’ test scores at home one night and it made me wonder how our school did, as a whole.

       I was stonewalled by the school administration, which certainly me wonder what they were trying to hide?  They truly circled the wagons and my only source of information was the school attorney.

       We finally got the information after hiring our own lawyer to force the school to release the scores. We broke the story that our high school and junior high were in the bottom 25 percent of the country!  The stories created a sensation.

       Pretty soon the Superintendent (who was a very good friend) and the principals were gone.  School board members were replaced.  Graduation requirements went up to 24 credit hours and the campus was closed.

       The parents were irate to read about the horrible scores, as they should have been. And this episode surely showed the importance of transparency. 

       At one point that superintendent complained at a Rotary meeting, which I was attending, that he was a victim of “the power of the press.”

       I had to stand up and explain that, “No, he was incorrect.  What was happening here was the ‘power of information.’”

       And that is what is being discussed right now as this tentative bill goes forward.

       Although the state’s economy is improving, one of our biggest problems is that the people do not know where the tax money that is already being collected is being spent.

       With transparency and open records, the “power of information” will be given to concerned citizens and groups, which will make all our governmental agencies more accountable.

       Publisher Bonnar wrote a fine editorial about the proposed bill, of which part of which is as follows:

“Passage of this bill should provide that motivation, as it allows public officials to be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to produce requested records within the allotted time out of negligence, but more importantly it makes the offense a felony if records are ‘knowingly or intentionally’ withheld from the public.

“Legislators will be hearing how ‘concerned’ government officials are about that provision, and that is exactly why they need to pass the bill. If officials aren’t concerned about what happens when they don’t allow access to public documents, citizens won’t ever have the access they are entitled to. It is time to let the sun shine on public business in Wyoming, and the best way to accomplish that is to go after the officials who deliberately try to keep us in the dark.”

Wyoming is loaded with public agencies at all levels, that are spending the public’s money. And let’s assume that dedicated and honest public servants operate most of them. This bill can help shed much needed light on all of them.  It is long overdue.