Modern history

Chapter 15

“Stop Roaming, Try Wyoming”

God give me mountains

With hills at their knees.

—Leigh B. Hanes

HERE is America high, naked, and exposed; this is a massive upland almost like Bolivia. The state rests about a mile high; it is eighth in size in the country, and covers almost one hundred thousand square miles. But the population is only one-tenth that of Brooklyn, and in all the intermontane emptiness there is a total of only 327 inhabited places; of these not less than 161 have populations under 100 souls. The population of Cheyenne, the capital, is about thirty-five thousand today; that of Casper, the next biggest town and Cheyenne’s craggy rival, about twenty-four thousand. In many places in the state, says Wyoming in the American Guide Series, it is still possible “to ride 50 miles or more without seeing a dwelling of any kind.”

Aptly enough Wyoming, which was the forty-fourth state to enter the union, has been called a child of the transcontinental trails. This garland of trails has magnitude and color. Oregon, Overland, Mormon, Bridger’s, Bozeman—all these bisected the area, and so did the route of the Pony Express and the cattle highway up from Texas. Come forward to today. Geography remains immutable, one relatively fixed factor in a world of change, and Wyoming is still a state of the great trails, though they are of a different type. Cheyenne is a kind of iron pivot bound in buckskin. It is a principal stop in the Union Pacific’s run across the West, and also that of United Airlines. US 30, the chief American transcontinental highway, intersects at Cheyenne with US 85, the main north-south highway that runs from Canada down to Mexico where it becomes the Pan-American highway and stretches almost to the Panama Canal. Then consider rivers, which are also trails. A spot the size of a card table exists south of the Yellowstone where rivers rise that eventually reach both the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Almost all the great western rivers are born in or near Wyoming: the Snake (which becomes the Columbia), the Green (Colorado), North Platte, and Yellowstone.

In a good many ways Wyoming differs from Colorado, its bulky neighbor to the south. Incidentally, these are the only two states in the nation to form perfect rectangles; there was no nonsense out this way about “natural” or “strategic” frontiers. Wyoming is less sophisticated than Colorado, less cosmopolitan. It is more open, more “western,” closer to the frontier, less tight-fisted. Colorado has both mines and irrigation; Wyoming has oil and low-grade coal,1 but its irrigated area is small, and it has less agricultural diversification. It still lives mostly on cattle and sheep; it is in fact, of all American commonwealths, the livestock state par excellence. Finally, Colorado has a good deal of industry, Wyoming almost none.

Less sophisticated than Colorado? Perhaps. But in Cheyenne, which at first sight—especially during the Frontier Days Celebration when I happened to be there—seems to be a pure and unadulterated cowboy town, I went to as civilized a dinner party as could be imagined, and certainly the Cheyenne folk were more perceptive, more inquisitive, more tolerant, than most of the top-of-the-world, last-ditch aristocracy of Denver.

Wyoming is the friendliest state I have ever been in, even friendlier than Texas or Nevada. Almost everybody, one point among many, has a nickname. The governor is “Doc,” and nicknames are often printed on calling cards. I have before me that of William “Scotty” Jack, secretary of state. Visiting the capitol one morning I heard about the substitute janitor, filling in during the regular janitor’s vacation. He is a former governor of the state, now come on hard times !2 But maybe this story is apocryphal.

Wyoming has a lively history, with a quite conglomerate parentage. The flags of four countries besides the United States have floated over all or part of it—Spain, Great Britain, Mexico, and France—-as well as the territorial flags of Utah and Dakota, and the state flag of Texas. The two great forces making for settlement were the iron thrust westward of the Union Pacific from 1867 to 1868, and the great cattle drives north from Texas in the early 70’s.

The first pressure group in Wyoming history was a lady, by name Esther Morris. She lived in South Pass City, and alone and unaided she prevailed upon two men, Colonel William H. Bright and Captain H. C. Nickerson, to promise, if elected to the legislature, to give women the vote and the right to hold office. This energetic lady later became the first woman justice of the peace in the country. Nickerson and Bright were as good as their pledge, and the state’s first territorial assembly voted for woman suffrage in 1869, after a venom-sparkling fight. Thus Wyoming was the first state to give equal political rights to women; many years later, in 1925, it was also the first state with a woman governor, Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross.

The present governor, Lester C. Hunt, who has a knowing and sympathetic interest in local history, showed me with amused pride his collection of Wyomingana; he possesses the photograph and signature of every delegate to the 1889 convention that brought statehood. They make a stimulating gallery. Only one delegate, so far as Hunt knows, is still alive. He is William E. Chaplin and he now lives in retirement—he must be nearly eighty—in Van Nuys, California. One delegate, Melville C. Brown, went to Alaska and there, according to the local folklore, became the prototype of the villain in The Spoilers, a noisy novel by Rex Beach. Another, George W. Baxter, was governor of the state for sixty-five days and then got kicked out because he dared to fence in the public domain, thus outraging the cattlemen. Two others, Clarence D. Clark and Francis E. Warren, were senators for interminable years, and another, who retired from politics in a huff because he didn’t get a committee job, is the father of California’s present-day senator Sheridan Downey. Another, named H. E. Teschemacher, was a doughty oldster and rich livestock man who once proclaimed in the Cheyenne Club, “I have enjoyed every sensation that human flesh is heir to, except childbirth and the consolations of religion.”

Historically the chief issue in Wyoming has been the “war” between sheep and cattle. Cattle got into the state first; immense ranches—at the beginning financed mostly by British and Scottish capital, because the British were in those days willing to lend money at considerably lower rates than bankers in New York—were established and some still exist, like the vast Warren property near Cheyenne. The cattlemen resisted invasion by sheep because sheep crop the grass clean, leaving nothing for cattle to feed on. They saw, to their horror, the limitless rich grass of the open range disappear down the gullets of countless rams and lambs. Climax came about forty years ago at the “battle” of Ten Sleep, in the Bighorn region; cattlemen sacked the sheep area, murdering herders and exploding dynamite among the flocks; thousands of sheep were stampeded and “rim-rocked,” i.e., killed by being driven over precipices. Nowadays, with the open range no more, cattle and sheep co-operate. Most of the great ranchmen maintain both, and the legend is, “There’s romance in cattle, money in the sheep.” Sheep are both “close-herded” in Wyoming and “migrated” as in Washington. They wander from place to place during the long winters, under escort, both within their own fenced ranges and on public land made accessible by the Taylor Grazing Act.

Wyoming is, naturally, extremely sensitive about anything to do with wool. This is in strict reality a wool-gathering state—no pun intended.

Cattlemen in Wyoming once had a civil “war” all their own, the Johnson County War in 1892. People in Cheyenne still talk about it as if it had happened yesterday, and some are still ashamed of it. What happened was that the big ranchmen, resenting competition from small independents, hired Texas gunmen to get rid of them. The Texas bad boys were imported in sealed boxcars, but never quite fulfilled their mission; the fracas was so lively that federal troops had to be summoned to restore order. The cattlemen today are not so touchy. The big owners still monopolize the industry, but they don’t shoot competitors. About the only thing that will make a Wyoming cattleman reach for his gun nowadays is to call him a “farmer.” A “rancher,” he wants it clearly understood, drinks only canned milk, never eats vegetables, and grows nothing but hay and whiskers.

Here is what the New Yorker might call some Incidental Intelligence. The Wyoming flag shows a bison with the state seal on his flank, and automobile license plates carry a vigorous stencil of a bucking horse. The highway police, an admirable body, was once known as the Wyoming Cowboy Courtesy Patrol, and a recent president of the senate never had shoes on in his life—only boots. The biggest ranch in the marvelous Teton area is supposed to be that of John D. Rockefeller, and there are towns named Pitchfork, Hell’s Half Acre, Jay Em, and Atlantic City (population 50). Wyoming is the birthplace of Thurman Arnold, and one of its towns, Lander, is reputed to be both the coldest and the hottest spot in the United States. There are few citizens not American born, but in the mining town of Rock Springs sixty-four different nationalities are said to be represented. Wyoming has two “inland” counties not touched by any railroad, and dude ranches play a large role in its economy. It is one of the three states in the union (the others are Louisiana and South Dakota) where no driving license for automobilists is required, and it is basketball crazy. Its university won the world’s intercollegiate championship in 1942, and the local radio station, subsidized by the merchants, follows basketball games play-by-play all over the Rocky Mountain region, even those between high-school teams.

Gun-toting is still quite legal in Wyoming, incidentally, provided that the weapon is not concealed. Aliens, however, of whom there are not many in the state, may not carry unconcealed weapons except while herding sheep.

Wyoming Growing

Lester C. Hunt, governor of Wyoming since 1943, and one of the few Democratic governors in the country to break through the Republican landslide and win in 1946, is an able, aware, and modest man. He was born in Illinois and educated in Missouri; he supported himself for a time playing semi-pro baseball, and became a dentist. Once more—we will see it many times again!—we have the spectacle of the altogether self-made man. Hunt came out to Lander, Wyoming, and set up dental practice just before World War I; he interested himself in politics, and in 1932 was elected to the legislature. He served two terms as secretary of state—during which time he really put this office at the disposal of the people—and then became governor. Dr. Hunt, pleasantly assisted by his wife, is a friendly and efficient host. His nineteen-year-old son had a recent serious illness with a bone infection; Hunt repeatedly underwent operations at the Mayo Clinic for bone grafts to assist his boy’s recovery.

Anybody can walk into Hunt’s office, where his secretary, Zan Lewis, welcomes visitors. The governor gets to work at 8 A.M. and puts in a long, conscientious day. Like so many politicians in the West—and unlike so many hearty citizens—he is bone dry, never having had a drink in his life.3

A powerful figure in Wyoming politics, and along with Hunt one of the most interesting men in the state, is Tracy S. McCracken, the Democratic national committeeman, a hotel owner and real estate man, and proprietor of KFBC.4 What makes him count particularly is the newspaper situation. McCracken came out to Wyoming without a nickel; today, he controls journalism in the state. He owns the Laramie Boomerang, which was named for its previous proprietor’s favorite mule; the Laramie Bulletin; the Rock Springs Rocket and Sunday Miner; the Rawlins Daily News; and the northern Wyoming News in Worland, which has a circulation of 4,200 in a town of 3,500. Also more important, McCracken has a 50 per cent interest in the two Cheyenne papers, the morning Eagle, which is stanchly Democratic, and the evening State-Tribune and Leader, which is vehemently Republican, and which between them dominate the state. The other 50 per cent is owned by Merritt C. Speidel, who is also proprietor of papers in cities as widely scattered as Reno (where he owns both dailies), Poughkeepsie, Ohio City, Fort Collins (Colorado), and Salinas (California). McCracken started the Eagle as a throwaway sheet to compete with the strongly entrenched Tribune. Eventually he beat the Tribune and bought it, and today runs both.

That one man should, with apparent impartiality, control the only two newspapers in a capital city, and papers which take diametrically opposite sides politically and compete zealously for circulation and advertising, is of course a striking American phenomenon. It is not, however, uncommon. For instance roughly the same situation obtains in Evansville (Ind.), Lancaster (Pa.), and Phoenix (Ariz.). McCracken’s rival twins are printed in the same shop, with a joint operating procedure for the sake of economy, but they have completely separate identities, each with its own editor in chief and staff. I asked McCracken if his Republican friends didn’t object to this system. His reply was that without it the Republican party would have no organ at all, and that he himself never interferes politically in any way; the Tribune’s editor, a lifelong Republican, has complete editorial authority. Does this mean, then, that McCracken himself has no political convictions? Not at all. He has been deep in Democratic politics since the Year One. What it does mean is that many American businessmen have a unique capacity to compartmentalize themselves. The European mind will recoil from this, and see something fishy in it. Imagine a newspaper proprietor in prewar Paris owning both the Matin and Humanité—and letting Humanité say anything it wished. But American papers, particularly in smallish towns, are seldom party minded in any exclusive way; they have about as much domestic political slant as a department store. For instance a great many print Pegler and Winchell side by side—which would also give our friend the man from Mars (or Moscow) a headache—exactly in the way the proprietor of a shop puts two competing brands of breakfast food or neckties on the same counter.

There is no boss in Wyoming, no rule by machine; the people are too independent and individualistic for that. Here we are still in the wideopen spaces where a man tries, at any rate, to think for himself, and ends up as a rule by voting for his neighbor. No governor in the state’s history has ever served two full terms, and most electoral results are extremely mixed; for instance Hunt, a Democrat, has to govern with a legislature overwhelmingly Republican. Of course—no matter how individualistic Wyoming may happen to be—there are special groupings of individuals. The Mormons (here as in Idaho they have spilled outside Utah) are a distinct influence; mostly they take a broad view and vote for what is best for all. The biggest lobbies are those of Union Pacific, the oil companies, and of course the sheep and cattlemen, which as always are a force for extreme conservatism. Incidentally there is a curious provision in the Wyoming statutes forbidding the state treasurer to succeed himself. In the old days the explanation was that anybody ought to be allowed to steal for a while, but that four years are enough. Another curiosity—which was noted by Lord Bryce many years ago—is that “logrolling” is forbidden by explicit word of the constitution.

The livestock men are so conservative because, as in Texas, only a generation separates them from gun-and-saddle days, and they are very proud of being rugged individualists who hate any kind of government interference or regulation. They do not, however, object to such items in government “shackling” as the tariff on Australian wool, or the strictures that exclude Argentine beef from the country. During the depression the federal authorities gave local relief by building wells, fences, and so on. But this made the ranchmen even more resentful and suspicious than formerly. They had never heard of a man improving any property not his own, and they cagily figured out that the public works program must be a prelude to expropriation. Now, however, many of these same folk, who still complain loudly about government interference, are the first to run for help when they get into trouble. In any case Wyoming, dominated by livestock, was a safe and sound Republican state until 1932. Then Roosevelt carried it three times. He lost to Dewey in 1944, but only by a few thousand votes. And he probably would have won except for what is known as the Jackson Hole dispute.

This is the kind of local cause celebre which, the necessary allowances being made, exists in practically every American community. It is the Wyoming equivalent—on a different level—of sewage disposal in Pittsburgh, the drinking water in Philadelphia, or smoke abatement in St. Louis. And, like all such issues, it arouses the most vigorous kind of partisanship and is of considerable complexity; I must foreshorten the details drastically. In 1926, John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought thirty-four thousand acres near Grand Teton National Park, with the intention of giving it to the nation as a scenic monument, but pressure by Wyoming congressmen held up acceptance of the gift. In 1943, President Roosevelt, largely under the persuasion of Mr. Ickes, created by proclamation the Jackson Hole National Monument, to comprise the Rockefeller holdings together with 170,000 acres of federal land, and some 17,800 acres privately owned. The proprietors of this latter were, of course, promised full and equitable recompense, with no loss of grazing rights; their land, though within the boundaries of the monument, was not to be considered part of it. But the local cattle interests opposed the proposal with biting intensity and began a fierce campaign against it; the state of Wyoming even filed suit against the government to test the validity of the presidential proclamation. Then Congress passed a bill to nullify the whole thing; FDR vetoed this, citing as authority the Antiquities Act of 1906, by which every president since Theodore Roosevelt has created national parks and monuments—eighty-two in all—in the public interest. That Jackson Hole is of unrivaled scenic beauty as well as utility—for instance in preserving game and wild life—is hardly disputable, and it belongs to the nation, safe from spoliation, as much as do Yosemite or the Grand Canyon; it fills, wrote the New York Herald Tribune, “every requirement of scientific and historic interest” that the Antiquities Act requires. But Wyoming, which ordinarily believes in conservation devotedly, still hopes to block and if possible eradicate the project under pressure of the grazing interests. This story has a moral, or else it would not be worth telling. It is that even the best-principled and most austere of public servants are at the mercy of their constituents on a local issue if it burns deep enough. No Wyoming official could dare whisper a word for Jackson Hole, no matter what he might think privately, because it would mean political suicide. Yet it is not the people of Wyoming as a whole who are against the monument, but only a splinter fraction.

Petroleum is another big issue in Wyoming, and a standard complaint—the same complaint about absentee ownership heard all over the West—is that millions upon millions of barrels of oil are drained off to other parts of the country and processed there; the eastern companies get the great bulk of the profits with only a small remainder left for Wyoming, the originator and producer. The chief companies operating are Standard of Indiana, Standard of New York, Texas Company, Continental Oil Company, and Sinclair Oil Company. The state has, however, a considerable income out of oil—though it is not so big as it might be—because it owns 3,200,000 acres of school land, given it by the federal government on being admitted to the union; oil has been found on this property, pledged in part to the support of the schools, and the state gets a royalty; the total royalty in 1945 was about $1,500,000. Another issue has to do with our old friends, the utilities. Cheyenne gets power partly from a steam plant, partly from a reclamation project on the Platte River. Handling both is the Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power Company, which is owned by the Public Service Company of Colorado; this in turn, as we know, was once part of the Cities Service Company operated by Henry L. Doherty. Wyoming is potentially an enormous producer of natural gas. But Cheyenne has to obtain its gas by pipeline—one of the pipeline companies is also a Public Service Company subsidiary—all the way from Amarillo, Texas! The retail price in Cheyenne is $7.32 for 15,000 cubic feet. At towns like Lander in the north, which taps its own limited fields, the price is $5.98.

Another Wyoming issue is MVA, though it is quiescent at the moment. Still another—it may seem minor but let us mention it in all seriousness; education is a vital matter to the West—is whether or not to expand the university, which is at Laramie. A junior college recently began functioning independently at Casper. But Wyoming is not sure that it can, or ought, to afford further branching out. Idaho, we saw a few chapters back, was perplexed recently by the identical issue—how much a state justly feels it can invest in higher education.

Labor, which till recently played no role at all in Wyoming, has become a considerable factor; Tracy McCracken told me, in fact, that it actually holds the balance of power in the state. Yet to talk of the CIO in Wyoming—heart of the virgin West, where people used to think a union was something to go with the word “jack”—seems as anomalous as to talk about a rodeo in East Chicago. But the coal miners at Rock Springs, the chief coal town west of the Mississippi, are now organized, and the Railway Brotherhoods, as in all western states, carry heavy weight. These latter were largely instrumental in killing a recent $160,000 bond issue to repave Cheyenne’s badly worn streets, which are as full of holes as any I have seen in America. It was the first bond issue of its kind ever beaten in Cheyenne. Reason: the brotherhoods didn’t want to spend the money.

The Indians have the vote in Wyoming, as in Montana, and candidates for office campaign actively among them. The Shoshones, who have a reservation almost half the size of Delaware, tend to be Republican; the Arapahoes on the same reservation are mostly Democratic. The first Indians I saw in Wyoming were performers at Frontier Days Celebration, the annual Cheyenne festival which is the most dramatic affair of its kind in the entire West. Event No. 18 was a Squaw Race by Ogallala Sioux. The names of the contestants were Zona Afraid of Horses, Zena Wounded, Julie Gray Eagle, and Alice Red Water.

Traditionally Wyoming has one senator for cattle, one for sheep. But Joseph C. O’Mahoney (born in Massachusetts) is big enough to outride the usual categories. O’Mahoney, by any count, is one of the two or three ablest men in Washington, and by all odds the first figure of the state. The second senator is Edward V. Robertson. He was born in Wales of Scotch parentage and naturalized after emigrating to America. A very rich, conservative and charming gentleman, he owns something like 150,000 acres of sheep and cattle land. Once he was manager of a small trading company.

Finally, in the general sphere of politics, Wyoming has one unique attribute. It is the only state where some proceedings of the legislature are broadcast in open session, and in the evening the secretary of state, “Scotty” Jack, gives a commentary on what happened, though not in his official capacity. Once a cowboy legislator was led to the microphone. He had never seen one before, and asked the KFBC official, in a voice that could be heard over three counties, “Do you want me to talk into that son of a bitch of a thing?”

The horrified official whispered hastily, “Take it easy, buddy,” but the legislator went on amiably to murmur, “Well, don’t think I’m afraid of the little son of a bitch! Why, the little thing—”

Nobody cut the switch. And not a line of protest ever reached the station.

Note in Autobiography

I saw Wyoming for the first time more than twenty years ago. I remember the snow slashing against the wet sides of the train and the choking purity and sharpness of the high night air. I was an extremely junior reporter on the Chicago Daily News, and this was my first out-of-town assignment. I was going to write the story of Teapot Dome.

Nobody remembers much about Teapot Dome nowadays, but the scandal boiled out of the teapot over the country as a whole. Corrupt members of the Harding cabinet were milking the Navy of its oil reserves, through leases to such men as Harry F. Sinclair. The first paragraph of the first story I sent from Casper makes me shudder now, from the point of view of style: “Forty-two miles from Casper by flivver or mule pack, midway between the Laramie Rockies and the Montana border, in the heart of the desolate Wyoming wasteland, lies a shallow basin with a hundred million dollars in it.” And I could not resist writing that Teapot Dome had no resemblance whatever to a teapot, and none whatever to a dome.

I used in this story a weather anecdote that I have seen half a dozen times since, in various forms. “They have a twenty-foot pole at Salt Creek with a log chain at the top,” one of the drillers told me. “When the chain stands out at right angles to the pole, the wind is normal. When the links start to snap off, the wind is considered strong.”

But it is not the Dome itself that prompts me to this small reminiscence. Looking back today the thing that seems extraordinary is, in a way, the fact that there was a scandal. Because, up to that point in American history, depredations of this type, though perhaps not on quite so regal a scale, were not only fairly common but were generally ignored or accepted. Since Teapot Dome we have progressed considerably. There are petty malefactors on war contracts but nobody does much wholesale tinkering with basic natural resources. If anything at all has been established during these past twenty years, it is that this country belongs as of right to nobody but itself. As the Beards say in their Basic History, it is no longer possible “for private persons or corporations to enter into secret connivance with government officials”—as had been almost a matter of routine for fifty years—“and gain titles to huge sections of the public domain without risk of exposure and retribution.”

. . . . . . .

So now we take leave of the mountain states, and it is fitting that we do so in Wyoming, which is the most unspoiled and typical of them all. One could write about the West indefinitely, but it is time to climb downward toward the plains.

1 Also it is the first producer in the nation of a mineral called bentonite.

2 Once in territorial days two men claimed the governorship. The candidate who thought he was being cheated out of the job crawled through a window in the capitol at night, locked himself in, and refused to budge, while his rival sought to conduct the business of the state in the corridors outside.

3 Another dry western governor is Ford of Montana.

4 Among other reasons why broadcasting is so important in Wyoming is the weather. Cattlemen in miles and miles of empty country must rely on radio for warnings of blizzards and flash storms. Wyoming considers itself underprivileged in allocations of wave lengths by the FCC, and there are many districts which radio does not reach at all.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!