Bill Sniffin Wyoming's national award winning columnist

Bill Sniffin News
Home Search

1831 - The center of the Cowboy World in Cheyenne

How many volunteers does it take to stage the biggest cowboy party on earth?

         Would you believe 2,500 men, women and even a few children?

         Cheyenne was transformed from July 18-29 as the 122nd version of what is called “The Daddy of them All” rodeo and other events took place.

         It had been a few years since Nancy and I made the 250-mile drive from Lander to the capital city to enjoy the early days of the 11-day series of events.

         The art show on July 18-19 was spectacular with crowds of people visiting with artists from all over the West. Some 280 works were on display, which totaled over $1 million in value.

         We spent the opening weekend at Frontier Days and took in the first rodeo and three concerts.

         We got drenched at the end of the rodeo. Then my new best friend Buddy Hirsig rescued Nancy and me and hauled us to our car. He was appropriately wearing a slicker. We, of course, were not wearing any jackets.

         Buddy is part of a huge family tradition with generations having worked Frontier Days. Buddy served as Arena Director for 37 years and his son Tom is now the CEO of Cheyenne Frontier Days.

         Buddy’s grandfather, Fred Hirsig, was on the original committee. Now Buddy’s own grandchildren are learning the ropes in the arena.  This is an amazing five-generation family, which typifies the tradition and excellence that makes this the greatest Cowboy Show in the World.

         The cowboys have to be tough to compete in this rodeo. Massive bulls shake and shimmy throwing grown men into the air like leaves blowing in the wind.  The bareback bronco riders are truly made of rubber as they get slammed around.

         Earlier this year a cowboy was killed in a rodeo in Saratoga. It is frankly surprising that does not happen more frequently.  It is a thrilling sport but it can scare the heck out of you.

         The Cheyenne arena is the biggest in the world and features huge video screens with instant replay.  My brother Ron operates one of those video cameras. Most of the seats are covered so even a thunderstorm did not slow things down.  The cowboys working the arena just put on their slickers and kept on going.

         The numbers associated with CFD are immense. The big show provides a $28 million impact to the local area with $550,000 raised in local taxes and $650,000 in state taxes. Crowds usually exceed 400,000.

         One announcer at a concert, who is a big-time disc jockey in Denver, credited Cheyenne profusely: “Thank you Cheyenne for doing this.  We don’t have anything like this in Colorado!” The crowd of greenies roared.

         We took a break on Sunday and visited my 94-year old mom in north Denver. Traffic was horrible on Interstate 25 because of all the Frontier Days visitors.  We actually stopped dead in place three times. Although we know CFD draws a terrific number of Wyoming folks, it is no secret that having the Colorado border 10 miles south of town provides for over 100,000 fans from that state alone.

         The parade featured 200 entries and more horses than any other parade in the world.  Also, the collection of famous restored carriages in Cheyenne is rated second in the world. The parade was entertaining. 

         Our favorite concert was by 81-year old Charlie Daniels, who performed in a driving rainstorm.  What a great musician and showman! He first performed at CFD in 1979, some 39 years ago. As he told the crowd, “I been coming here longer than some of you have been alive.”

         Our other concerts were Florida-Georgia Line and Cole Swindell, both of which were also terrific.  But on the advice of my Cheyenne friend Darin Smith, I wore earplugs.  Yeah, it was really, really loud. But wonderful shows.

         Ran into old friends Randy Wagner, Jeff Wallace and Mike Ceballos, who were all involved in one way or another. Spent some quality time with Gov. Matt Mead at his residence with a few hundred others at a cocktail party.

         Ran into the former Karen Hoopman at the art show, who now lives in Cheyenne. She and I went to high school together in Elgin, Iowa about a century ago.  Small world.

         The midway at Frontier Days is like nothing else. Just about everything western can be bought there. And high quality, too.

         At one point, we decided to ride the Ferris Wheel. Sure was fun and the view was awesome looking out at all those people, those cars and this massive facility. Whee!

         What a tribute CFD is to Cheyenne and Wyoming. We salute the 2,500 volunteers. There is nothing else like it in the world. 


1830 - Hectic time in Wyoming in political world

There is so much to write about concerning politics this time of year in Wyoming – where on earth do I start?

         Perhaps the biggest thing that will affect the most people is the fact that four of the five top statewide elected officials are being elected this year.

         The five people in these slots (Governor, Secretary of State, State Supt. of Public Instruction, State Auditor and State Treasurer) make up the five board positions on a great many of the decision-making bodies in the state.  The State Land and Investment Board (SLIB) is perhaps the most notable. Decisions made by members of that group of the five state elected officials affect just about every county, city and town during a four-year cycle.

         Thus, it is important for voters to check out the candidates of how they feel about their future voting trends while serving on this board. 

         A big distinction is that some candidates have strict constitutional views, which may cause them to vote nay on projects that are important to cities and towns. Up to now the SLIB board has been pretty liberal (although they will deny using such a horrible word) in their decisions in choosing to help out cities and towns with their needs.

         Although the governor’s race is getting lots of press and airtime, there are two other races that deserve a good look by voters.

Both the State Auditor and State Treasurer races have hard-working candidates crisscrossing the state and doing everything they can to get your attention.

         I am just writing about the Republican primary races because these two are contested.  We will talk about the Democrats and the governor candidates in a future column after the primary.

         State Auditor Cynthia Cloud of Cody is retiring, which opens the door for two aggressive Republican candidates who offer up different approaches to the office.

         Kristi Racines of Cheyenne is a CPA who currently works for the Wyoming Supreme Court. She brings the assumed tools necessary to a job that contains the title “auditor” in it.

         She has been pounding the pavement hard all over the state and often takes her young children with her. She has made a good impression but needs to spread her message outside of her hometown of Cheyenne.

         Her opponent is three-term State Legislator Nathan Winters of Thermopolis, who is an ordained Baptist minister.  Nathan is also working hard and often brings his wife and three kids along, to make it a family affair.

         He admits to being extremely conservative and is probably somewhat to the right of Racines. He often talks principles as part of his stump speech.

State Treasurer Mark Gordon of Kaycee is in the race for governor leaving his office open to two state senators who offer contrasting styles and different backgrounds.

Leland Christensen of Alta (west of Jackson Hole) is a former law enforcement officer and auctioneer.  It is hard to find anyone who does not like Leland.

He is looking forward to serving on the state boards and admits that he will be relying on the Treasurer’s staff to do the heavy lifting in the office if elected.

Curt Meier of Torrington offers a sober countenance, which works against him in a statewide contest.  He is well qualified for this job or any other state job. But he often comes across as dour. I have known Curt for a long time and he is as easy-going as Leland. It’s just hard to get him to crack a smile.

My advice to voters is to pay attention to these folks and then make your decision.  We are blessed to have good people running.

Watching the campaigns always causes me to bring up two things I do not like about Wyoming campaigns:

First, we should have our primary any time but August. It is a great time for parades and county fairs but not nearly as good a time as May or June. Too many people are enjoying themselves in July and August to be paying attention. No wonder our primary election vote totals are so small.

Second, is the importance that debates can play. Often a very capable candidate gets tongue-tied and comes across poorly. In reality, no state official would make a decision based on a moment’s notice in the glare of the TV cameras. So again, I would advise voters to give all the candidates a little bit of leeway when watching them trying to come up with the right answer during a moment of intense pressure. That is not how important decisions are made in the real world.


1829 - Yes, the world needs more Cowboys

Wyoming is not a state. It is a club. – Wyoming native Mike Lindsey.


         Is Wyoming really unique from other states?

         Based on a new slogan The World Needs More Cowboys, being used by the University of Wyoming, the implication is perhaps that, yes, we are unique.

         Disregard that Oklahoma State U. also used this excellent slogan. Or that a Boulder, Colorado firm came up with it. 

         And I am concerned the request for proposal used by UW to find a promotion company was written so that apparently no Wyoming company applied?  There are talented marketing companies from Cheyenne to Jackson and in-between.

Check out a very cool bit about this issue on the Internet by TV personalisty Courtenay Dehoff.

But I digress. So, is Wyoming unique?

         Some years ago, we published a column listing some unusual things people should know about Wyoming before moving here.     That column generated even more suggestions for newcomers.

Buffalo’s Jim Hicks says: “I`ve noticed over the years there are a few people who move to a small town and suddenly are in culture shock.  They may have come from a place were there was a social strata of sorts. Suddenly they realize the guy who fixes streets is part of a regular golf foursome with the local doctor, banker and attorney.  There is no seating chart at the church dinner.”

Retired UW Professor Ken Smith, who also is a former publisher of the Green River Star, says: “Get ready for the sky. I fell in love with the deep blue against the contrasting snow after my first storm in Green River. Also, don’t get cocky just because you own a Jeep, whether off road or in snow. I have been humbled in both situations.”

         My kid brother Jerry who graduated from Lander Valley High School and now lives in San Diego says: “You better buy some snow tires. Some real snow tires. Always be prepared for cold, even on the fourth of July.

         “Summertime sunsets are wondrous as are the sunrises, when the sun hits the peaks first and the amber glow works its way down the mountainsides. Wait five minutes and that afternoon rainstorm will be over. The wondrous smell in the breeze is sagebrush.”

Jean Haugen writes: “While living in Jackson back in the 1970`s, new people would move to town from all over the world and we`d usually get a new crop every year.  

“They moved there because they said they loved itthen within a short time, a year at most, they would be trying to change the way things were done back to where they came from.  My advice:  if you move here, you are most welcome, but we love it the way it is, harsh winters and all, please don`t be changing it.” 

         Meanwhile the ongoing argument between whether those ditches along a road are called borrow pits or barrow pits got some fine press a few years ago in the Thermopolis Independent Record. Then-Publisher Pat Schmidt printed an official Wyoming Dept. of Transportation report where it was spelled “barrow.”  This is after former chief WYDOT engineer Delbert McOmie reported it was “borrow” in a column that I once published.

         My thought is that both usages are correct but the debate continues.  And yes, people moving here need to know that that is what we call those places along roadways.

Of all the people who offered tips for newcomers, probably the person who moved the farthest to Wyoming is Kari Cooper of Jackson Hole. She moved here from New Zealand over 30 years ago. “Wyoming is not always an easy place in which to live, “ she says. “We deal with the harsh weather plus the craziness of driving 500 miles to make a kid’s sporting event every weekend.”

         Director of the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce is Dave Hanks, who lives in Farson.  His thoughts:

“Moving from Wisconsin 37 years ago I learned things uniquely Wyoming. First is the term “snirt” in southern Wyoming. This is a common occurrence as wind blows our very dry snow around until it mixes with dirt.

“Being a Midwest boy I had a hard time understanding ‘purple mountain majesty.’ This was answered in a very visible fashion as we drove to the Big Sandy Openings one evening at sunset in the summer of 1981.  The Wind River Mountains changed color many times in minutes with the final spectacular splash of primrose and purple.  We stood in awe of the sight that unfolded before our eyes.”


1828 - Majesty of Wyoming revealed from the air

There is probably no better way to appreciate this land we call Wyoming than seeing it from the air.

         And looking down right now is just about as good as it can possibly get. The green valleys are glistening with new growth while our purple mountains bask in the sunshine with still enough pearly white snow to sparkle in the distance.

         Our lakes are as blue as blue skies. And no skies in America are as blue as Wyoming’s.

         Ah, what a sight.  Just love seeing Wyoming from the air. Nothing like it in the world.

         I write these words as a person who piloted his own airplane for 30 years.

         The legendary flight instructors Les Larson and Larry Hastings taught me to fly in 1976.  I bought into a plane with a local accountant named J. Ross Stotts.  The plane we bought was an old Piper that had been owned by the late Mable Blakely. She was famous as one of the original “99s,” the name given to the first women pilots in the country.

         That plane was heavy but fast. Later I flew Cessna 182s, which landed like a leaf falling from a tree.  But not that original Piper – it was like landing on an aircraft carrier.

         I loved it. Every bit of it.

         As a little boy, my first flight was in a two seater.  I was jammed between my dad and my uncle Dick Johnson, both big men. We took off and flew all over the hills and valleys of northeast Iowa. I can remember how my stomach felt as we turned and climbed and soared. I even remember the smell of the hot oil coming from the engine.  When we landed on a grass strip I recall saying to myself, “Someday that is going to be me, flying my own airplane.”

         It was 19 years later when I became a pilot.

         I was part of a small newspaper company that had newspapers in Lander, Greybull, Cody, Green River and Gillette.

         Wyoming is so dog gone big; there is just about no way to make it smaller. But flying an airplane instead of driving a car definitely works.  Flying to Greybull took a little over 30 minutes. It was a 2.5-hour drive.

         That view of flying over Boysen Reservoir and looking down on Wind River Canyon, well, it was spectacular. To the northwest, the Absaroka Mountains were high and rugged. The airport at Greybull was a piece of cake. The runway is wide and long because of all the old converted bombers being used as fire-fighting tankers that were based there. Plus Greybull gets very little wind.

         Cody, on the other hand, always had a nasty crosswind that blew down from Rattlesnake Mountain right about the time you thought you had your landing in the bag.  Oops or words to that effect usually accompanied my landings at Cody.

         Later on we got involved with ownership of newspapers in Montana and South Dakota.  Thus, we flew over the entire state of Wyoming on these journeys. It was fun flying around the southern tip of the Big Horn Mountains.  Huge herds of domestic sheep could be seen. Crazy Woman Canyon near Buffalo was spectacular.

         I fell in love with buttes during these flights.  The Pumpkin Buttes southwest of Gillette were probably my favorite although Pilot Butte near Rock Springs comes close. One of the Rawhide Buttes outside of Lusk is sure an odd piece of rock. Looks more like a pyramid.

         The historic Oregon Buttes on South Pass were so significant in our history. When those 500,000 emigrants reached these buttes, they knew they had crossed the Continental Divide.

Crowheart Butte south of Dubois is a landmark that you can see from a long ways off.

         And flying over Devils Tower is unforgettable.  What a monolith!  I learned to love the Wyoming Black Hills from flying over them so many times.

         I rarely flew directly over the top of mountains. But I could look out the window and see the jagged peaks of the Wind Rivers or the impressive canyons of the Big Horns.

         Flying over Elk Mountain and Kennaday Peak between Rawlins and Laramie could be frightening.  Crazy odd winds along that route, known on the ground as the Interstate 80 Snow Chi Minh Trail.

         Here is part of a wonderful poem that I love, which talks about the love of flying. It is called High Flight by John Gillespie McGee Jr. Its final lines go like this:

“Up, up the long delirious burning blue,

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

“Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;

“And, while silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

“The high untrespassed sanctity of space.

“Put out my hand, and touched the Face of God.”

1827 - Biggest upset in Wyoming political history

A porta-potty. In a rancher’s pasture?  Really?

         Possibly the biggest campaign idea helping lead to the biggest political upset in Wyoming history was hatched in the Mint Bar in Sheridan in late October, 1976.

         John Jenkins, Byra Kite and a political consultant named Bob Goodman were trying to find a differentiating issue that would help their huge underdog candidate Malcolm Wallop surge ahead of U. S. Senate powerhouse Gale McGee.

         Much like today, Wyoming citizens in those days were chafing over what they considered federal over-reach.  The Cowboy State seemed to be a place full of good old boys (and gals) who just wanted to be left alone.

         But a series of Democratic Congresses had instituted many onerous federal regulations that even annoyed folks way out here on the frontier. Sound familiar?

         McGee was a Democratic stalwart who had served 18 years in the Senate and his whole campaign was based on all the “clout” he had accumulated during his time in Washington, D. C.

         When Republican Wallop brought in Goodman to help his campaign, he was trailing McGee in the polls by a factor of 72 percent to 18 percent. National newspapers were calling McGee’s Senate seat  “safe” which would help maintain the Democrats huge Senate lead of 62 Democrats versus just 38 Republicans. Much different than today.

         In Wyoming, the Congressional delegation was 2:1 in favor of the Democrats with Sen. McGee and U. S. Rep. Teno Roncalio on one side and Republican Sen. Cliff Hansen on the other. Wyoming was a much different state politically 42 years ago than it is today.

         McGee pretty much used his own staff to conduct his campaign. He did little polling and had no outside consultants. And why not?  He was an overwhelming favorite.

         So how could the Wallop campaign overcome such a deficit to win in November?

         Four decades later, John Jenkins, a Buffalo rancher and owner of an oil company, recalls that campaign when Wallop hired him, Goodman, and Kite. Goodman was advocating using extensive polling and something new – widespread TV advertising.

         Wallop had lost in the Republican gubernatorial primary two years earlier and was in hot water with state GOP officials because of his perceived lukewarm support of the ultimate nominee Dick Jones. That 1974 Republican primary was arguably the most amazing primary in the state’s history.  These were great candidates jousting hard with each other until conservative Jones emerged the winner.

 Jones lost to Democrat Ed Herschler in the subsequent general election in a race still recalled and bemoaned by Republican state political leaders.

         The Wallop campaign correctly tagged McGee, who was the chairman of the Senate Postal Committee, as a proponent of big, over-reaching federal government.  McGee defended the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), both of which were angering Wyoming folks who just wanted to be left alone.

         McGee was also one of the biggest backers of the Vietnam War.  As a young editor back in 1976, I recall chatting with McGee at a big Democrat rally in Hudson just before Election Day.  McGee told me he was wrong. “In hindsight, it wasn’t wise for us to go there.”  I was not able to publish that comment until after the election.  Even patriotic folks in Wyoming had gotten bitterly tired of the war, which did not end until 1975.

         As Wallop gained in the polls with general election day nearing, those three men gathered in the Mint Bar in Sheridan, as Jenkins recalls. They brainstormed what kind of message could they create which would best tell their story?

         The final TV ad (and accompanying newspaper ads) showed a cowboy getting ready to go out to work on the range in the morning. Strapped to his pack animal is a porta-potty.  The voice-over talked about how the feds can’t even let you “do your business” out in the field without their regulations interfering.  It was an instant classic.  Wyoming voters were captivated. The needle moved. A lot.

         When the general election votes were tallied, it was not even close.  Wallop won with 84,810 votes to McGee’s 70,558.

         Rodger McDaniel has a new book out about McGee that details this campaign in much more detail. I am anxious to read The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee. It looks like a wonderful history of one of Wyoming’s great political characters. It will be available in September from University of Nebraska Press.