Wyoming’s Historic Governors’ Mansion in Cheyenne has been carefully dressed up for visitors. A special exhibit of Christmas trees to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources “Tinsel through Time: Christmas at the Mansion,” was unveiled Friday, November 30. This special exhibit will run until December 22, Wednesday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. Admittance is free and children are welcome but should be accompanied by an adult for there are special activities that may need supervision. No touching but photos are allowed. There is an accessible ramp on the west side of the mansion.
The mansion was built in the heart of a middle class neighborhood of Queen Anne houses five blocks from the State Capitol in 1905. Nineteen first families of Wyoming lived in the mansion until 1977 when a new Governor’s residence was built near Frontier Park. Before the first mansion was built governors were required to pay for their own housing during their term of office. In 1905 it would have been $2500, almost half of their annual salary.
Wyoming residents have a special relationship with their first families. Many in the community remember having tea with the first families or chatting about politics with one or another of our governors. Outside our children have played on the grounds because the mansion was never enclosed by a fence or had on site security.
Visitors first notice the stone columns and stone steps at the entrance. The stone was quarried in Ft. Collins, Colo., and the columns were sculpted on-site by Frank Therlen, a famous Denver, Colo., sculptor. My daughter, Jill Van Overbeke and grandson, Thomas Van Overbeke, accompanied me on my visit December 1, 2012. We first noticed pine cones were strewn along those steps rendering a festive mood that has been created for guests.
The Mansion’s first Christmas was the social event of 1904 with Governor and Mrs. Bryant B. Brooks entertaining guests. Electric light fixtures were decorated with greens and swags of greens were strung throughout the home. There were palms and ferns and bowers of scarlet carnations. The 300 guests were served a buffet, fruit punch and lemonade. The foyer is decorated in the same décor during the special exhibit. Take a peek at the dining room set for company and imagine the past.
Written texts are available in each room explaining significant events during the last 70 years. The mood created by soft music in each room allows visitors to retreat to their own bank of their Christmas memories.
A text in the foyer explains that Germans hung a pickle deep in the tree for the household to discover. Whoever found the pickle was given an extra gift and visitors should look carefully in each room because they will be given a prize by museum staff if they find the pickle. Adults, don’t let your children do this without supervision. Many of the antique decorations are delicate and collections are rare such as the turn of the century tree in the Library off of the foyer.
This tree is lit with candles for before electric lights adorned trees tinsel was used to reflect light. Germany introduced icicles of pure silver and lead foil. Next to the tree sets an ordinary galvanized pail representing the pail of water that was used to put out an accidental fire. Most of the decorations were handmade as were the unwrapped gifts under the tree.
Electricity lights up the lavish tree in the Drawing Room. Many of the decorations on this tree were imported from Europe, especially Germany and Czechoslovakia. World War II brought many changes and bitter feelings towards the Germans and Japanese that led to a boycott and some destruction of these ornaments. Artificial trees were introduced during the Depression by a manufacturer of toilet bowl brushes. Widespread use of plastic and aluminum trees allowed year round displays. The 1960s outside decorations became popular as neighbors competed against one another.
We spent two hours roaming the mansion, top to bottom. Every room offered a splendid surprise. We liked the music of the 1960s room. Thomas asked me to come with him to the attic and he showed me boxes that held Christmas decorations and pointed out one that I had at home. He liked the looks of the attic, a place where the children were allowed to play. Stephanie Lowe, an employee at the museum, told us about donations.
When I asked my grandson about his favorite room he told me to come with him to the Fallout Shelter in the basement. He showed me the alternative living space with a TV and pantry stocked with food that he had discovered on his own. Thomas then guided me to the laundry room with its old washing machines and dryers for he seems to be fascinated how these machines worked.
Later I met Edith Garrett in the laundry room near the Fallout Shelter looking at the historic display. Our conversation started with the Cold War, “Duck and Cover” activity, during her elementary school years at Alta Vista Elementary School that Thomas now attends. Our conversation then drifted to how technology has certainly lightened the load for women. My daughter, an art teacher, feminist and friend, added a lot of detail to the visit. She shared a lot of stories about neighborhood mischief for we have lived near the mansion for forty years. We did not find the pickle ornament but this was the best Christmas visit ever we have had to the peoples’ house. ❖