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1640 - A visit to my past at JCP store in Sheridan

As readers of this column know, I am no fan of the “new” JC Penney Company.

         It is my contention that old James Cash Penney (whose first store was right here in Wyoming, in Kemmerer), is spinning in his grave as to how his successors have managed to ruin that company.

But I loved the old Penney’s. I took a trip down memory lane at that company’s long-time store on Main Street of Sheridan recently during a recent trip. There, smack in the heart of the town, is an old-fashioned Penney Store, complete with a basement, a half upstairs and, well, the only edifices missing were the pneumatic tubes sending sales tickets flying around the store.

My first Penney store experience was in Iowa, and it was a scene right out of the movie, A Christmas Story. That store 60 years ago looked just like the one there in Sheridan.

Here in Lander, when I first came to work at the Journal, one of our biggest advertisers was the JC Penney Store, again, right in the heart of our downtown.  And yes, it had a half upstairs and it had a basement.  I think tubes were still there which would whistle sales tickets from the various cash registers back to the bookkeeping department. Even by today’s standards, these tubes were space age. They provided a way to quickly move information around prior to the age of computers.

We were overdue for a trip to Sheridan, one of our favorite towns. On this trip, we took two different scenic drives on our way to and from north, central Wyoming.

First, we traveled to Greybull so we could take US 16 up Shell Canyon and over the mountain. Near Burgess Junction I ran into Ed Kingston at the Elk View Inn.  First met Ed 15 years ago.  He has done well. The lodge is beautiful.

We encountered terrible fog descending into Dayton and on our way to Sheridan and settled into a rainy trip.

Bob Grammens and Kim Love had me on the radio for a couple of mornings and that was sure fun.

Although energy is a big deal in the Sheridan area, you would not notice it by how the Main Street feels.  It is certainly lively including a new store started by a 13-year old boy. Amazing.  His name is Luke Knudson and he started a store called the old General Store, which features antiques.

The remodeled Sheridan Inn is a real treat. The old strucure originally partially owned by Buffalo Bill Cody is now a true modern classic.

One of the premier craft breweries in the state is the Black Tooth establishment, which exists in an old auto garage.  Great beer and a great location.  John Woodward of the wonderful Sheridan Museum and Dave Barkan joined me there.

Our trip was designed as loop drive so we headed south to Buffalo and were impressed by how busy the Sports Lure store was there in the main business district.

It is hard not to love Buffalo’s Occidental Hotel. What a beautiful job its owners have done to restore it.

This is the heart of Longmire country but despite looking for them, none of the characters were to be seen on this day. Longmire is the name of a popular TV series based on books by Craig Johnson of Ucross.

While in Buffalo, I also looked for the infamous “Bench Sitters,” made popular by the Sagebrush Sven columns in the Buffalo Bulletin.  It was the wrong time of day to see them, too, I guess.

Heading home, we headed up into the cloudy Big Horn Mountains over Tensleep Pass.  Ran into fog, rain, slush, snow and wind but got through it.  Lots of highway construction on the very top. The flag people were dressed like Eskimos.

Worland and Thermopolis were both quiet on this wet Friday evening, although it was sure tempting to take a dip into a hot thermal pool on a cold, wet shivery night.  But we kept on going.

Got home just as the sun was going down, which was our goal. Hate that driving at night in a storm.

What a great loop drive it was, though. The passes were full of amazing color.  I am sure the rain and snow pretty much wiped out most of those pretty leaves, which impressed us at the time. This all occurred during the fall solstice, which here in Wyoming, truly marks a real change of seasons.


1639 - Economic landmarks disappearing

Owning and taking care of horses is obviously one of the great joys for a lot of Wyoming people. To me, I like to ride them, but have never had the urge to own one.

         Imagine my surprise back in the 1970s, when one of my former business partners (and my boss) Bruce Kennedy asked me to spend a week at his Greybull house, looking after his property and mainly, babysitting his prize horses. I also helped to manage our newspapers in Greybull and Cody, but most of my memories are about taking care of his four-legged critters.

         I really enjoyed working with those horses. And while handling that chore, I also got acquainted with the famous Probst Western Store in downtown Greybull. This store had been a landmark in the Big Horn Basin since 1944 and was famous for its horse statue on the roof.

         Well, the Probst Store is no more. The pioneer retailer closed its doors earlier this fall and the formerly busy corner of State Highway 789 and Greybull Ave. is silent.

         This is a sign of our current declining state economy. These can be challenging times for all types of retail outlets, both big and small, in big cities and small towns all across Wyoming. Owner Jeff Probst said his family, which had operated the store for three generations and 71 years, succumbed “to an economy which dealt us a thousand cuts,” prompting the decision to close the doors.

         Another landmark outside of Greybull on the way to Shell Canyon closed after 26 years. The famous Dirty Annie’s shut down earlier this year. It was a great little convenience store that made wonderful milkshakes.

         In Casper, a much bigger city than Greybull, people have been shaken by recent closures.  The landmark Petroleum Club is closing. The future is up in the air for the historical and infamous Wonder Bar.

In the Oil City, the downturn in the price of petroleum products, oil, natural gas and coal, has hit Casper hard.  The city is working with a private company to manage its vast Events Center, subsidized to the tune of $1 million per year.

         No need to write about Gillette.  That formerly booming city has been struggling. I am confident its progressive citizens will keep it humming.

         I was in Rock Springs recently. Despite being a dynamic hub of oil and gas and now feeling the effects of that downturn, most folks think the city will be okay.  General Manager/Editor Deb Sutton of the Rocket-Miner said she was proud of how diversified her town had become.

         In Pinedale, Editor Steve Crane told me that real estate has taken a hit in their town with prices “becoming more realistic” compared to the booming prices seen in the past decade.

         Kmarts are set to close in Riverton and Cody.

         Sheridan and Buffalo have not seen any major closings but both towns have a sizeable portion of their economies devoted to oil, natural gas and coal.

         Former Lovell and Thermopolis publisher Pat Schmidt reminded me of how we all watched as most of our local JC Penney and Montgomery Ward Stores closed years ago.

         Biggest growth in retailing, he believes, has been in the arrival of the so-called “dollar stores;” seems to be one or two in every town.

         Retail-wise, there have been attempts to create local “community stores,” which flourished for a while.  Worland and Torrington closed theirs and a similar Powell store recently shuttered, too.

         John Davis says Worland just keeps chugging along, yet, some stores have closed and some new businesses have opened and others have expanded.

         There is one store where you can buy socks and shoestrings, but more and more these kinds of little things can only be obtained in Billings, or, perhaps, in Cody.  Nowhere can you buy shoes in Worland. A bookstore would have no chance. 

         “All this is taking place in a town that has grown a little in the last twenty years. Not to be paranoid about it, but small town America seems to be dying.  What still is going strong here are professional offices and the hospital, banks (although some are now owned by out of town people), the Pepsi companies and agriculture.  Three or four restaurants are doing okay.”

         It has been predicted that this economic downturn could last for a decade or more.  It will be interesting to see how many other landmark businesses are able to weather these economic storms across our beloved state.

1638 - A hungry bear, et al

A unique part of the four-year curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander is a three-week wilderness course taken by all freshmen just before starting college.

         The wilderness trip is a true spiritual experience as these young people from all over the USA (students come from 38 different states) as they bond with others and attend religious services with the two priests who tag along.

         The Catholic faith involves communion with wine and bread in the form of hosts. This is where this story starts to get interesting.

         Despite having to medically evacuate one student for stomach pain and one priest from Florida for altitude illness, this year’s event was splendid. There was, however, this one situation, that I need to share with my readers.

         Seems while they were off climbing a mountain, a bear broke into the priests’ tent, drank all the wine and gobbled up all the hosts.

         Later, when a ranger was asked if he thought it was a brown bear, a black bear or a grizzly bear, he allegedly replied:

         “Not sure. But I am pretty sure it was a Catholic bear.”


         US Weekly magazine, one of those supermarket tabloids you see at checkout stands, had a big feature about actor George Clooney going on a motorcycle ride that started in Mexico and ended up in Dubois, by way of Jackson, Pinedale, Cody and Powell.

         Photos showed him and his gang hamming it up at the Trails End Motel in Dubois.


         One of my favorite towns in Wyoming is Pinedale and I found myself there twice recently on successive weeks. We camped at Fremont Lake over Labor Day weekend and got pelted by rain, slush, hail and perhaps even a little snow at that 7,000 feet elevation.

         The lake is an amazing natural pool of water. It is 11 miles long and over 600 feet deep, perhaps the deepest in the state.

         Looking out over the lake, I could not help but wonder about that story spun by convicted murderer Gerald Uden.  He killed his ex-wife Virginia Uden and her two sons almost 30 years ago. He claimed he stuffed their bodies into barrels, filled the barrels with rocks and dumped them in the deepest part of the lake.

         The past two summers, law enforcement officials have used various kinds of equipment to scan the bottom the lake looking for those bodies, but to no avail.

         Wyoming native Ron Franscell, an amazing best-selling author, is now working on a book about the Udens and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.  Ron is from Casper and used to be publisher of the newspaper in Gillette. He now lives in San Antonio, but gets back to Wyoming occasionally.

         His book The Darkest Night about two sweet young Casper girls, who were raped and one was murdered decades ago, is one of the best books ever written about a Wyoming crime.  If you have not read it, please get your hands on it.  It is a chilling read.

         Speaking of books, I am now reading an autographed copy of On Sacred Ground, the well written history of religion and spirituality of Wyoming.  Rev. Warren Murphy of Cody is the author and he should be proud of it.

         He attempts to go all the way back to earliest residents of the state with their petroglyphs and other vision quests and takes it up to today when portions of the state’s environmental movement evidence a near-religious fervor.


         Getting back to my recent trips to Pinedale, I ran into State Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) at the town’s excellent local library. He, coincidentally, was on his way home from Lander.

         We talked about the recent primary campaign for the U. S. House. “It was one of the greatest adventures of my life. There is no way to describe how big the state is and how nice the people are,” he said. “My two sons and I were welcomed everywhere.”

         He reminded me of some advice I had given him back in the spring about a statewide campaign.  I told him that early on you have a heckuva time getting people to come see you. Later on, you lose control of the campaign because everyone is asking you to come to his or her event. “Biggest problem was trying to determine ahead of time which event was more important than the others,” he concluded.

         Christensen finished second to Liz Cheney of Wilson in that Aug. 9 primary election.  Although he should look tired from a grueling campaign, he actually looks like he lost a fight with a bear.

         A few weeks ago he attempted to ride a young mule. The critter bucked him off, stomped on his face and snapped his shoulder. He is walking around with his arm in a sling. His face looks like he just lost a 15-round championship-boxing match. It did not dampen his big smile though
1637 - Cody-Powell-Lovell and Big Horn Basin

Pow! Pow! Pow!  That was the sound of the explosions coming from the high-powered revolvers used by some rough-looking, tough-talking cowboy-types in front of the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody.

         We were there in July and my granddaughters held their hands over their ears in shock at just how loud a high-powered pistol could be.

         The Cody Gunfighters have been staging their downtown shootout six nights a week from June to September since the 1980s before big crowds in front of the historic Irma Hotel.

         Earlier we had loaded up our old motor home and some of our Texas family (daughter Amber and granddaughters Daylia and Emery) and took a tour of northwest Wyoming.

         The gunfight was just one of many events that dominate the local landscape.

         Claudia Wade of the Park County Visitor Council steered us toward a number of events. We really wanted to float the Shoshone River but could not fit it in.

         The Buffalo Bill Center for the West is probably my favorite museum on the planet.  It is gigantic and the half-day we spent there did not do it justice.

         The complex consists of five different museums.  My favorite is the Buffalo Bill Museum, itself, as this man was the most famous Wyoming person who ever lived.

         What he did with his famous Wild West Show, plus his life story documented in over 1,000 dime novels, is the stuff of a real living legend.

         The Museum of Natural History is awesome and the Whitney Museum of Western Art is one of the best.  The Plains Indian Museum is a visual treat, while the firearms museum will show you guns you could only imagine.

         We could not linger, as we had other places to go to such as Yellowstone National Park.

         We made what we thought would be a quick trip through the east gate but traffic was busy and the crowds were big.  I was able to check out the famous “corkscrew,” which is an odd switchback bridge that allowed early travelers to scale steep Sylvan Pass with horse-drawn wagons.

         Hayden Valley saw a big bison herd blocking the road, which held up traffic for 20 miles.  If you are in a hurry, you better not go through Yellowstone, especially in the middle of the day.  We laughed at the new signs in the bathrooms which indicated “squatting” over the toilets is a forbidden activity with a very descriptive illustration.  This is because of the huge influx of Asian tourists and their toiletry habits.

         We exited the park at Cooke City and took the spectacular Sunlight Basin road back to the Cody-Powell area. A wonderful trip that includes the highest single span bridge in Wyoming.

         The next day, we toured the visitor center at the Buffalo Bill dam, which when built in 1910 was the largest in the world. There is a comprehensive facility there. The reservoir provides much of the irrigation water that makes the Powell area and the Big Horn Basin such an agriculture oasis.

Then we visited the Japanese-American internment center outside of Powell. History was made here when over 11,000 Japanese- American men, women and children were locked up during World War II. It is a powerful story and a remarkable exhibit; everyone in Wyoming should visit it.

Our trip also included a visit to the Medicine Wheel high in the Bighorn Mountains, and also a scenic climb up the famous highway 14A out of Lovell. Both were well worth the time and were written about in an earlier column.

Not long after we got home, I read in the local newspapers about how the Cody gunfight was suspended because something had gone awry. Apparently some kind of live round was inadvertently used and did some damage to a building and produced some slight injuries to a child watching.

The show was suspended until the situation could be sorted out.

As loud as those guns were (and they were shot a lot during this event) and as powerful as they no doubt were, it was extremely fortunate that no one was badly hurt, including the characters themselves.

Northwest Wyoming is a big tourist mecca. As the east gate to Yellowstone, it benefits tremendously from tourism. This could be another record year and if so, be sure to put the area on your list.

Lots of things to see and many more that I have not mentioned here; you really need to go explore for yourself!




1636 - Tom Bell, a genuine Wyoming hero

An old grizzled editor told me 50 years ago that during my career I should always to be on the lookout for real life heroes.  “If you are lucky, you might get to know at least one in your life.  If so, spend time with them. You will never regret it,” I was told.

         During my 46 years in Wyoming, I have known many great men and women around the state who achieved national and international stature.

         Here in my hometown, despite being a small town full of big characters, two men stand tall as I look back on my Lander-based career.

         The first was the late Paul Petzoldt, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School.  He truly pioneered how everybody in the world now views as the correct way to treat wilderness and how to behave in the backcountry. Paul died in 1999 at the age of 91.

         The other was the late Tom Bell, who died Aug. 30 in Lander at the age of 92.

         Although somewhat small in stature, Bell was a giant when it came to his impact on the state of Wyoming over the past half century.  His impact will continue into the future as the most prominent environmentalist in our state’s history.

         As a 24-year old publisher of the Wyoming State Journal, I met Tom back in 1970. He was both as a news source and a printing customer.

         He was such a visionary.  He saw things that nobody else did.  He was outraged when he saw people putting up fences on public land, which bottled up the animals trying to migrate from summer to winter ranges. He saw ranchers wantonly killing golden and bald eagles with a seemingly “wink-wink” approval from authorities.

         Against this perceived good ole boy club, Bell pretty much stood alone as a David against Goliath. His little newspaper was often a lonely but strident voice against these transgressions.

         He mortgaged the family ranch and sold all his cattle to keep High Country News going.  I had partners to answer to and they were always asking me why was I not collecting these past due printing bills from HCN?  I had no answer. I did try to collect the money from Tom but the money was just not there.  I felt it was more important that he keep publishing.

         When time ran out on him financially, he appealed to his readers and they sent in enough money to keep the newspaper going and thankfully for me, pay that long overdue printing bill.

         One of the most amazing coincidences in my newspaper career was watching and reporting on the incredible battle of wills between Bell and then-Wyoming Gov. Stan Hathaway.

         The coincidence is that both men served on bombers in World War II.  Under other circumstances, you would have thought the two men could have been friends, sharing war stories and thanking each other’s lucky stars for surviving such harrowing military careers.

         But, alas, no way. Ultimately, they sure seemed to disagree with each other.

         Bell thought Hathaway had sold out to the ranching and mineral interests.  Hathaway thought he was a good steward trying to keep Wyoming growing and financially afloat.

         History treats both men with dignity and honor. Yet they could not have been more opposed in their philosophies back in the day.  It was ugly.  And neither would give in.

         At some point, the environmental wars took too big a toll on Tom, and he moved to Oregon in the late 1970s.  In the mid-1980s, I recruited him back to Lander to be editor of our Wind River News and to produce a series of historical editions to commemorate our town’s centennial.  It was sure good to get him back here. He subsequently did some amazing historical work for the local museum. He became a local leader in getting rid of a bad Museum director and restoring our historical facilities.

         Lots of other stories have been written recently about Bell since his passing but these are the ones that come to my mind as someone who dealt with him for almost a half century.

         Tom was a deeply spiritual man who prayed constantly. He was a good husband, father and grandfather. But most of all, he loved this state and he fought his hardest to protect it.

         I am sure that when he met his maker on Aug. 30, he reported that he had done his best to preserve the Lord’s beautiful creation called Wyoming.