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1929 - Now is best time for Wyoming road trip

Road trip. Is there any better place in the world to take a road trip this time of year than Wyoming?       

         Recently, we made two such trips and saw a bunch of wonderful sites in our great state. Two things stood out:

         First, I have rarely seen the countryside as green as it is now this late in the year.

         Second, for the first time in a long time, you can see for a100 miles or more.  There are no smoky horizons blocking views because of California or Canadian fires. What a relief that is.

         The book The Big Sky by Montana author A. B. Guthrie Jr., was actually about the big sky in Wyoming, not Montana.  The state of Montana was smart enough, though, to grab that as one of their primary mottos. The Big Sky has never been prettier than now here in the Cowboy State.

         We took two trips, both of which ended up out-of-state. The first one headed north. The second headed south. Here are my observations:

         Yellowstone National Park is my favorite place on earth. I have probably visited our country’s first national park 120 times. I just cannot get enough of it.

         This first national park is the main draw for tourists coming to Wyoming.

         But, and this is a big but: it probably is not a good idea for a Wyoming tourist to visit there around noon during the July 4 holiday. Whew! We went through the park on July 2 and there was a lot of traffic heading to and from the park and inside the park.

         We headed in through the south gate, which involves waiting 12 minutes in line to get through the Grand Teton Park entrance. Then you drive the Rockefeller Parkway. Then you wait for miles with other vehicles to get into the Yellowstone entrance. That wait took 31 minutes.  Can’t think of a nicer place to wait, but instead of being in Wyoming, all the traffic made it feel more like Interstate 25 north of Denver.

         Ran into a Mr. and Mrs. Eisenheiner at the Old Faithful parking lot. They were riding a motorcycle to Alaska. They had started in Los Angeles. Wow, what a ride. I believe that the name Eisenheiner is German for “Iron Butt.”

         On this trip, we left Lander about 8 a.m. and took US Highway 287 north through the Wind River Reservation. The gigantic Wind River Mountains were looming on our left and were just awesome.  Next comes Dubois, one of the state’s prettiest little towns and it was jammed with tourists.

         From there, we headed over Togwotee Pass, which tops out at about 9,600 feet near Brooks Lake.  As you head over the pass to Jackson Hole, the spectacular Tetons are shining in the distance – a million dollar view. As you descend into Jackson Hole, it is common to see a grizzly or two, but not on this warm day.

         This is one of the most beautiful drives in the state and is just keeps getting better, the closer you get to the national parks.  Then, on this day at least, it got a little crowded.

         I was headed to a meeting in Bozeman, MT, one of the fastest growing cities in the country at 112,000 people.

         My trip home involved coming through Cody, Thermopolis, Shoshoni, and Riverton. Everything is so green!

         Our next road trip involved heading to Montrose, CO by way of Rawlins and Baggs. Then over to Denver to see my 95-year old mother and back home via Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins.

         Wyoming is famous for its wildlife. No other state in the lower 48 even comes close to the antelope, deer, elk, moose, bear, coyote, and jackrabbit you see along our roadways.

         Some of the biggest antelope herds in the state can be seen along the route we took. Not sure we can call them wildlife, but the state’s biggest herd of wild horses roams the Red Desert between Lander-Rawlins-Rock Springs-Pinedale areas.

         Wildlife Worth the Watching was a program used for many years to promote folks visiting Wyoming to see actual wild animals actually in the wild.  A great program.

         We made the mistake of taking Colorado’s Interstate 70 going east into Denver on a Sunday afternoon. Spent an extra two hours jammed in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Horrible experience.

         Cheyenne was gearing up for Frontier Days, Laramie looked prosperous, as did Rawlins, as we sailed though on our way home.

         Great trips but a little too purposeful for me. I prefer to travel slowly and stop and visit folks and interesting places. Will do that on our next trip.

1928 - Part 2 - How Lander rebuilt after mines closed

(Part 2)


         (Note: Last week, we wrote how Lander lost 550 high paying iron ore mining jobs and Fremont County lost 2,000 high-paying uranium-mining jobs in the 1980s. This is how local leaders turned Lander around.)


Impartial observers like the late Gov. Ed Herschler would point at Lander as the “worst hit” town in the state during the 1980s Wyoming depression.  Those of us who lived through it  certainly agreed with him, although that distinction brought us no solace.

There was work to do. Our progressive Mayor Del McOmie appointed an Economic Development Commission (EDC) in the early 1980s.

         That involved some interesting work, but it was also frustrating. The FDIC had closed one of our most aggressive banks and its president was sent to prison.  It never reopened. Other banks were running tight and didn’t have money to lend to start-up businesses. 

         Our local EDC talked to lots of entrepreneurs but without money few of these folks could get started.

         I went to the mayor and suggested we form a for-profit corporation to provide money for new businesses. We called it LEADER Corporation. We recruited 100 people who invested $1,000 apiece.  With this $100,000 nest egg, we launched an effort that over the next 34 years accomplished a lot.

 Our treasurer, Rick Fagnant, estimated LEADER leveraged $4.5 million over the past 34 years, created or saved 200 jobs and helped more than 35 businesses, besides working on every other type of economic development activity imaginable.

         There were many wonderful people who worked to create the Lander Renaissance, such as chamber manager, the late Linda Hewitt. She had heard Bill Schilling talk about Main Street beautification in Cody and decided to duplicate it.     

The Denver Rocky Mountain News sent reporters to Lander to cover how our business district had been decimated.  There were even broken windows in stores on our 300 block, formerly the most expensive real estate in town.  Most of those stores were shuttered.

         It was ghostly, like in “ghost town.” Their News headline read “Modern Ghost Town” for their story about Lander’s decline.

         We weren’t ready to give up yet.

         LEADER met every week.  I was the president for the first three years.  It became a support group for the folks who hadn’t left.  I called those weekly meetings “Workaholics Anonymous.”

         More than 600 homes were empty and being foreclosed on. Downtown was almost devoid of operating businesses. Our maiiron and uranium mines had been closed for years and the future didn’t look much better than the present.

         A targeted industry study determined there were four bright economic opportunities:

         • Government.  Because of Lander’s location, large federal offices like Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Forest Service. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state offices like Game and Fish not only would be staying but might even expand.  All did.

         • Outdoor education. Lander is home to the National Outdoor Leadership School.  It was turning into a terrific employer.  Today, it employs 1,200 people. A few years later NOLS completed construction of a $9 million international headquarters.

         Medicine.   Despite the economic depression, there were 85 medical doctors on the staff of the new 107-bed hospital. Medicine continued to be a huge money-generator to the local economy and many doctors invested in other businesses.

         Art. The most interesting loan made in the early days of LEADER was to Monte and Bev Paddleford who founded Eagle Bronze.  Over time it became the largest art foundry in the country.

         The bottom of Lander’s depression probably hit in 1987, when we launched a “Vigorous Retiree Recruitment Program” as a way to find people to buy all those 600 homes. It worked well. The Welcome Wagon said at the end of the first year, more than 99 new people had bought homes.

         The hard-working people of Lander had pitched in and made a dream become a reality.  By 1992, author Norman Crampton selected Lander as the number-five best small town in the nation out of the 100 he listed.

         His book was published the following year and Lander was on its way.  The Chamber of Commerce had over 400 inquiries from outsiders wanting to know about Lander. Soon, most of those empty houses were sold and Main Street had filled up with thriving new businesses.

         The mines had, indeed, closed.  But good people in key positions were able to visualize a bright future that could be created without having to rely on mining. That goal has been accomplished.

1927 - Part One - when your mines close

(Part 1 of 2 parts)


         It is a recession when you lose your job. It is a depression when I lose mine. – Old saying.


         With the recent loss of over 700 good energy jobs in Gillette, it should be interesting to readers to read about what happened during the last Wyoming bust at the most mining-oriented town in the state. Here is that story:

         In February 1993, a book was widely quoted around the country, which rated the 100 best small towns in America.

Lander ranked number 5 and was prominently mentioned by the author during a visit to the NBC Today Show and the ABC Good Morning America.

         What was remarkable about this was that just ten years earlier, Lander was mired in possibly the worst depression suffered by any county seat town in Wyoming’s history.

         How Lander coped with these massive job losses and the steps its civic leaders took might be a guide for energy-based towns around Wyoming struggling right now with the loss of hundreds of coal mining jobs this month.

         Today, it is hard to imagine that back in the 1970s, Lander had the biggest mining presence of any town in the state.

         Let’s set the scene.

         The big player was a U. S. Steel iron ore mine south of Lander.  More than 550 miners worked there and most were members of the United Steelworkers Union.  A few years earlier, those union members participated in what was hailed as the most generous labor contract ever written.  Those families enjoyed incredibly high wages, courtesy of the union contract, while enjoying the low-cost, outdoorsy Wyoming lifestyle of Fremont County.

         Not long afterward, the contract was viewed as a fiasco at U. S. Steel headquarters in Pittsburgh.  Their company and other American steel companies were getting clobbered in the marketplace by cheap, high-quality steel imported from Japan and Great Britain.

         In the face of this, the company wanted out of that labor contract.  To do this, they had to start getting the union to agree to big concessions.  Where could they start with such a plan?

         Why not little Lander, Wyoming, where a statewide union presence was a minority position and the workers could be persuaded to give in?  Industry leaders thought they could start a domino effect with other union employees around the country.

         As editor-publisher of the Lander newspaper, I knew the iron mine wouldn’t last forever.  There was more than ten years of high quality taconite ore were still available when the company started making noises about shutting down. 

         Despite tremendous efforts by state and local officials to convince them to make concessions, the union members wouldn’t budge.  Soon the mine cut back to half its employees. Still, the union wouldn’t budge. Finally, the company announced the mine was closing and immediately sold off all materials to a salvage company.

         It happened so quickly.  The mine was closed. Those 550 jobs were gone.

         Then the other shoe dropped.

In the early 1980s, Fremont County enjoyed a tremendous boom when processed uranium ore called yellowcake soared to record prices of $50 per pound.  Mines were created overnight in the Jeffrey City area east of Lander and the Gas Hills area east of Riverton. More than 2,000 men and women were working in those mines and hundreds of other people were working for support companies.

         Property tax valuations soared. Home values went up one and half percent per month for over two years.

         Life was good.

         It all came crashing down fast. When yellowcake prices soared, the utility companies that owned the nuclear reactors went to Congress and asked for restrictions to be removed on the importation of uranium from other countries.

         America immediately exported all those uranium jobs to Australia, Canada,  and Russia. Soon, yellowcake was a glut on the world market and prices dropped under $10 per pound.

         Towns like Jeffrey City, which had grown to 4,000 people with its own high school plus a chamber of commerce, fire department and even its own Lions Club, started to lose people.  

         I even started a newspaper in Jeffrey City, which lasted from 1978 to 1985. Today, the population of Jeffrey City is measured in the dozens.

         Lander business leaders had been pretty smug, including this writer.  I had written that Lander was bulletproof when it came to the boom-bust mineral cycles that had plagued other parts of the state over the decades.

Boy was I wrong.

         (Next week: How Lander turned itself around in ten years).

1926 - When 2,000 nudists invaded our National Forest

         The signature moment in the career of Forest Ranger Hiram “Doc” Smith involved 2,000 nudist hippies who invaded Wyoming back in 1973.

         Smith was the most effective District Ranger that I ever dealt with and how he handled this event so eloquently displayed his vast skills.

         I was the local newspaper editor-publisher in Lander when we started hearing rumors about hordes of hippies headed our way.

Known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light, this international motley crew of hippie-type people would meet annually in some pristine alpine place.  They would show up in their old trucks and VW vans and totally dominate an area for one long week each summer.

         On this year they chose the St. Lawrence Basin area in the Wind River Mountains on the Wind River Indian Reservation northwest of Lander.

         Tribal officials would have nothing to do with the hippies! Some members of the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes were advocating violence to any of these folks if they occupied Indian territory.

         Thus enters Doc Smith, who was the Lander District Ranger for the southern end of the three million acre Shoshone National Forest, which borders the reservation.

         If they were headed to this area, could Smith find another place for them to land other than the reservation? 

         Long-time local Sheriff Campbell “PeeWee” McDougall also got involved but there was no way his small force could handle a major squabble between tribal members and the invading hippies.  

         Doc and PeeWee put their heads together and came up with a plan.  They approached the leaders of the hippie horde, who were already trying to set up on the reservation and enduring some serious threats.  A compromise was reached and the Rainbow Family agreed to move to an area near Limestone Mountain on the east side of South Pass. Now, all Doc and PeeWee had to worry about were bands of Wyoming Cowboys heading up there with intent to scalp some longhaired members of the Rainbow Tribe.

         The irony was that Doc Smith had picked a site that was a two-mile hike to the base at the foot of an imposing mountain – Freak Mountain! Yes, that is the name of the mountain where 2,000 nudist-hippies would be spending the next week.

         As a 27-year old journalist, I had only seen one event that was remotely similar to what was happening on Freak Mountain.

         Three years earlier, the second largest outdoor event behind Woodstock happened in my little hometown, Wadena, Iowa, a little hamlet with a population of 316.  Some 50,000 music enthusiasts attended a raucous event on a farm. 

         There was nudity and drug use.  The atmosphere was claustrophobic and otherworldly. My brothers and I staked out the place with the intent of protecting our little town and our family house.  It ended up being fun and memorable.

         Here in Wyoming, we only had 2,000 of the most peaceful folks you would ever hope to see.  Most were dressed like hippies and as soon as the famous Wyoming sun came up, off came their clothes. 

         Doc and PeeWee worked with state officials and tribal officials to keep the peace.

         An oddity we noticed was the severe sunburn suffered by many of the males especially on their private parts. The high altitude caused the brilliant Wyoming sun to scald their tender parts a more rapidly than they anticipated.

         One of the rangers’ biggest assignments was making sure the nudists were applying enough sunscreen.

         In my interviews, I found the people to be nature lovers who tried to live a carefree life without stress.  Drugs that were natural such as marijuana and mushrooms seemed to be their vices of choice. Despite many offers, I did not take them up on their offering.

         Each morning and each evening the hippies would gather in a big circle and do some kind of chanting and nature prayers. At least one actual rainbow did appear and it caused a sensation.  

         You might assume rampant sex would be occurring; but if so, it certainly was not obvious.  We were not there after the sun went down, though.

         Both Doc Smith and PeeWee McDougall rank as two of the most interesting characters I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with.  Each deserves his own column at some point in the future but for now, I will let them be the stars of my recounting of this storied event, which occurred 46 years ago this past summer.