Being a historical re-enactor and avid history buff, I enjoy traveling and finding museums that have a hometown story to tell. Recently I discovered just such a museum, filled with not only local flavor but also a true step-back-in time of daily living in the West. Nestled on the corner of Clark Street, just off Hwy 14A, in Powell, Wyo., is the Park County Homesteader Museum.
When I arrived at the large log-cabin museum building, it was a delight to see the Free Admission sign welcoming the visitor to come on in. The large wooden front door reminded me of a heavy cabin door on a homesteaders lodge, made to hold out the cold and winds of winter. Just inside, in the porch area, two old slot machines stand proudly, their shiny metal bodies looking as good as new, tempting the passerby to deposit a nickel or quarter and try their luck. Stepping through the inner door, I entered a huge room, filled to overflowing with artifacts of all shapes, types and sizes. Here historical memorabilia from 1908 to the mid 1950s chronicles the lives of the homesteaders and residents who populated the Powell Valley.
Founded in 1968, the Homesteader Museum has several permanent exhibits, the first of which tells of the valley’s massive irrigation project, which brought water to the valley. The Shoshone Reclamation Project was one of the first of its kind and truly an engineering and construction marvel. A Dam was built, along with miles of canals, turning the once dry arid lands into a lush agricultural hub, where farmers and ranchers could prosper. A large map and photographs spotlight the growth of the valley and the impact of the availability of the irrigation water to the area.
As I continued touring the museum, I discovered Indian artifacts, fossils, antique firearms and military items. Memorabilia from a local barbershop, drug store and blacksmith shop are displayed, donated from families that still reside in Powell. I got a giggle out of seeing several very small screened, televisions, so modern for their time, as well as a wide variety of antique telephones. Wringer washing machines and cream separators stood beside hundreds of common kitchen and household items I know my grandparents used while growing up. Another interesting exhibit is dedicated to the history of the Powell Fire Department, complete with vintage fire hats, hoses and fire preventive items. A leather Fire-fighters helmet is on display, along with the story about the “Leatherheads.” Seems that because firefighters wore a leather helmet while fighting fires, it became a slang term to refer to all firemen as Leatherheads.
One very unique item I found fascinating was a grandfather style wooden clock, standing over 6 feet tall and all intricately hand carved. The front had two bear cubs climbing up two pine-tree trunks, one on each side of the clock and another cub looking down from the top. The Shoemaker family had inherited the clock from the original owners, who had acquired the clock during a European trip in 1929. After repairing the clockworks and using it for years in their locally run hotel, the Shoemaker family willed it to the Homestead Museum, along with a matching carved wooden settee, chair and umbrella stand.
It seems that Powell also had some interesting local characters, one being an outlaw, who kept the whole county in an uproar for 12 days in March of 1939. Local newspapers recount the tale of Earl Durand, whose notorious fame included a jailbreak, posse chase and robbery attempt at the First National Bank. VistaLee Dunton, a local lady, was in the bank at the time, wearing a nice brown straw hat. When Durand started shooting inside the bank, a bullet narrowly missed VistaLee’s head, slicing a notch in her hat and that hat is here on display. Earl Durand ended up killing four lawmen, a bank teller and finally himself. As in all good western shoot-um-ups, Durand’s story made national news and the museum has several copies of different newspaper articles. There is even a “Police Files” comic book about a True Crime Story, titled: “Tarzan, Wyoming Killer,” based on Earl Durand of Powell.
Outside the Homestead Museum, the grounds feature the 1913 Bever Family homesteaders home, moved from its original location east of town and renovated here in 2004. When you step through its narrow door, you can glimpse into the life of a pioneer family who lived within its small quarters here in northern Wyoming. Nearby a bright red Burlington Northern caboose welcomes visitors to explore railroad history and a second building is filled with all types of antique farming equipment, wagons and implements.
The Homesteader Museum is also one of the 22 interesting spots included in the Powell GPS Walking Tour. Visitors can take a GPS guided audio/visual tour of Powell’s Historic Businesses and learn the town’s history over it first century. Come explore the Homestead Museum and if you want, visit the site of Miss VistaLee’s now famous hat escapade. ❖