Pioneers and emigrants have always held a special place in my heart. Their strong beliefs in their dreams and then the courage to make those dreams come true have always been remarkable to me. I am proud to say I am a descendent of an adventurous young man who helped drive horses to Oregon and Washington, braving the hardships of the trails and the challenges of venturing into new unsettled lands. Because of this love of pioneers, I was delighted to discover the Museum of the American West in Lander, Wyo. Located at 1445 Main Street (near the end of town) the museum site is really more like a quaint pioneer town, nestled in the green Lander Valley below the mountains. With the help of volunteers, many of whom are descendants of the original pioneers, and generous private and public donations, this area has developed into an outstanding historical and educational site. Here you can step back in time and envision life as it was for the earliest Wyoming pioneers.
Stopping at the museum’s log cabin, circa 1902 visitors center (free admission), I picked up one of the wonderfully illustrated free brochures, which shares the history of the buildings and monuments on display throughout the site. As it was a crisp late morning, I decided to take the self-guided walking tour but in chatting with the friendly docent, he told me if visitors would like a more in-depth tour, they are welcome to accompany one of the Tour Guides, who are known to share interesting anecdotes about each of the buildings, as well as fun local history.
Over a dozen original buildings have been re-located to this site to create a true pioneer village. Walking along the gravel path I felt as if I’d stepped onto a late 1800s street, complete with log cabins, chapel, one room school house, stables and mercantile. Each of the buildings have interpretive signs out front, which give the visitor dates and short histories. Most have interesting displays of items inside and photos of the early settlers who owned or stayed in each.
The Borner Garden School, circa 1881, was built at Borner’s Garden, an area near the mouth of Sinks Canyon by John Borner. He was one of the areas earliest settlers and was also brother-in-law to the notorious Calamity Jane. The inside is furnished as it might have been in the early 1900s, complete with desks and slates. The building served as a one-room schoolhouse until 1948 and now each June, Pioneer Summer School is held here for youngsters between the ages of six and 12. As I looked out the back window of the schoolhouse I noticed a circle of kids sitting on the grass eating their lunches. The girls were dressed in prairie dresses and bonnets, the boys in straw hats, overalls and neckerchiefs, and all were using tin cans with rope handles for their lunch buckets. What a magical way to spend summer school classes.
Across the street is the Thompson Carpentry Shop, built in 1887 and originally located downtown on Main Street. It was built as a carpentry shop by contractor John Thompson and was one of the first frame structures ever built in Lander. Over the years, the shop has housed many different businesses, including a plumbing shop and army surplus store. Today the Thompson building is being displayed as a mercantile, carrying everything townspeople would want in 1900.
Nearby is a stately two-story house built in 1917 and the former residence of Charles L. Stough, who came to Wyoming in 1880. In the fall of 1890, Stough was elected sheriff of Fremont County and throughout his career was known to be tough but fair. Sheriff Stough was most famous for arresting the outlaw “Butch” Cassidy. Records show that when the courts convicted Butch, it was Stough who escorted him to the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary in Laramie.
I next explored the large livery stable building, built in 2004 as a replica of the 1876 Dickinson Livery. Here are housed several historical wagons, including an ore wagon and bobsled. One of the famous Yellowstone Park stagecoaches, circa 1881-1917, is on display, along with many types of wagon equipment. A tack room and complete blacksmith shop exhibit tools and tack used by many of the local historic farms and ranches.
As I walked through Pioneer Village, I entered a cabin that had been home to a frontier mother who had raised 14 children under its sod roof and another that had housed a fur trading business. The St. Matthew’s Chapel dated from 1909 and delightfully, had a wedding planned for the upcoming week. There are several buildings which are in the process of being restored and will soon be renovated to house artifacts and photographs, including the original building of the Wind River Mountaineer, Lander’s earliest newspaper.
Not far from the Pioneer Village is a large grassy area beside Squaw Creek and the Pioneer Park Picnic Pavilion. Here families can gather for family reunions, picnics and outdoor relaxation out on the grass or under the covered open-air pavilion. There is a nature path where visitors can stroll along the creek to Millennium Park and a performance arena where Native American Dances are held each summer. A monument near the front of the pavilion is engraved with the names of the pioneers who settled in Lander Valley, as well as those who moved here in later years. I have a feeling their spirits are smiling right now, knowing that their history is wonderfully preserved here at the Museum of the American West. ❖