You’ve probably heard of Juneteenth, but have you ever heard of Emancipation Day? Emancipation Day has been celebrated on different dates in the U.S. since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The tradition of Watch Night is still sometimes celebrated in Black churches on December 31st to commemorate the night that abolitionists waited up for word of whether Lincoln had signed the proclamation. For many, continuing to celebrate Watch Night and Emancipation Day on January 1st was also a way to commemorate another new year of freedom each
As you have probably noticed, January 1st coincides with another big holiday, so other dates were also used over the year but the federal government now officially recognizes Emancipation Day on April 16th, the day Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. Juneteenth is an iteration Emancipation Day, first celebrated in 1865 and now widely recognized in the U.S., which commemorates the day enslaved people in Texas were notified of their freedom two and a half years after it had been signed into law.
At Cheyenne’s Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in the 1960s, Emancipation Day was recognized in January. The Allen Chapel AME is the oldest Black church in Wyoming. It was founded in 1878 by Reverend Whitlock and continues to operate more than 140 years later.
The American Heritage Center has a small collection of the Allen Chapel AME church’s records covering mainly the years 1967-1969. From these records, we can get a glimpse into what was important to the pastors and the congregation, including drives to raise funds for Christian educational and missionary work, annual conferences, Sunday school, and other special projects. For instance, Robert “Buck” Rhone included a letter to the congregation in the church service packet of 3 December 1968 appealing for funds for the church’s organ.
Robert “Buck” Rhone and his wife, Sudie, were active members of the congregation. Also active was their daughter Harriett Elizabeth Rhone, later known to Wyomingites as a dedicated teacher and the first Black woman to serve in the state Legislature, Liz Byrd.
In January of 1969, congregation member Casper Leroy Jordan included a multi-part history of Emancipation titled “Our African Methodist Heritage” in the church service packet. Jordan gave special emphasis to the role of various church leaders played in convincing Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, like that of AME bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. Meeting with Lincoln just days before he signed, the “ascetic prelate knew the evils of slavery, and sought, along with other communicats (sic) of his church to persuade the President to free the black man.” Like many other churches, the Allen Chapel AME took the opportunity in January remember the roles that both abolitionists and churches played in the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States.
A rider and his horse thunder into view over the desert horizon, barreling towards the way-station where water and a fresh horse await. As the rider leaps off his horse and onto another, his mail bag swinging from his hand, he shoots the station manager a devilish grin. With a hollered “Thanks!” he’s off again, rapidly disappearing from view in the desert twilight.
The Pony Express has long been an icon of the American West. Although it only ran for 18 months, it played a crucial role in delivering important news, letters, and telegram messages across the country efficiently at a time when our country desperately needed it.
The Pony Express began operating on April 3, 1860, roughly a year before the American Civil War officially began. The route went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California and covered nearly 2,000 miles.
The Pony Express was first created as an attempt to connect the West Coast with the central government power in the Eastern part of the country. The idea was first thought up by Senator W. M. Gwin, who proposed it to William H. Russell. Russell was one of the partners of the Russell, Majors, and Waddell freighting firm, currently operating in the Western territories.
When Gwin first suggested the ideas to Russell, he intimated that “the seeds of possible division within California, as between the North and the South, might be rendered impotent by fast mail communication east and west.” During this time, there was a movement to remove California from the Union. If the Pony Express had not been created by and maintained at a great personal loss to Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the only communication between the East and West coasts would have been the sea. The Pony Express was created to prevent massive miscommunication due to distance during a tumultuous time in America’s history.
Stations were placed along the entire route where fresh horses or riders were swapped out. When the Express first began, stations were 25 miles apart. This turned out to be too far of a distance, however, and the system was altered to make each station roughly 10-15 miles apart. Every 10-15 miles, the horse was swapped out, and every 75-100 miles, the rider swapped.
In total, there were about 190 stations along the Pony Express route. Each station was manned by two or three men and contained provisions needed for survival. One of the original Pony Express stations in Hanover, Kansas, actually still stands today and is preserved as a historical site. Of the stations, there were about 25 where riders would be swapped out. These were much larger to accommodate the riders who slept there. Riders were able to keep up an average pace of about 10 miles per hour and delivered mail from Missouri to California in eight to ten days.
An ad was placed in the Leavenworth Daily Times on April 2, 1860 reading “The great western enterprise, the Pony Express to California, starts on Tuesday, or April the 3d. It will run through in ten days, and will carry letters and messages at four dollars each. The telegraph on the California side, is finished to Carson Valley. Virtually then, the Pony Express will put the Atlantic States within eight days of San Francisco. For a private enterprise, this is one of the most important yet undertaken in this country.”
As previously mentioned, the Pony Express only lasted 18 months. During the time the Express was running, workers were busy stretching telegraph wires across the American West. By October 24, 1861, the telegraph wires connected the East Coast to the West Coast. On October 26, 1861, the Pony Express was terminated. However, the final letters in transit on the Pony Express route were not delivered until November.
Riders on the Pony Express were some of the toughest people in the West. They endured fast-paced, grueling horseback rides across the country in all sorts of weather, often riding through dangerous terrain for hours on end. Now, we’re able to send messages with a single tap of our finger. We’ve come a long way from paying someone to deliver a message by pony.
Post contributed by Archives Aide Sarah Kesterson, AHC Reference Department.
 The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1959, Box 89, Coll. 115, Agnes Wright Spring Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
 News of the Society Meeting Recap, March 1950, Box 89, Coll. 115, Agnes Wright Spring Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Like many American industries, the sugar beet trade grew from perceived opportunity and weakening in other formerly profitable U.S. markets. A decline in mining and agriculture in the 1890s led some entrepreneurs to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The sugar beet industry appeared to hold some promise as it could provide income for farmers, laborers, industrial workers, and capitalists. In 1899 a beet sugar factory was established in Grand Junction, Colorado, with funding from Denver mining magnates. In 1901, the same men incorporated the Great Western Sugar Company, which became the dominant producer of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska beet sugar for more than sixty years. Another company, Holly Sugar, was established in Holly, Colorado, in 1905 and became another mainstay in the Wyoming sugar beet industry.
Beets were heavy and perishable, making them expensive and risky to transport great distances. Therefore, to make the industry profitable, factories to process the beets were located close to the source. Factories of this type were opened near the Wyoming beet growing fields in Lovell (1916), Worland (1917), and Torrington (1923). Each new factory quickly became the hub of the agricultural community in which it was built.
Russian German families (who had experience with sugar beet farming), single Japanese men (until immigration restrictions eliminated them in 1907), and Spanish-speaking laborers from Texas, southern Colorado and New Mexico were brought in to help with the labors of sugar beet farming. Over the course of the twentieth century, the list of preferred fieldworkers would also include Native Americans, Filipinos, and South Asians. Low land prices in the early days of the industry led to upward mobility for Russian Germans as they were able to purchase their own farmland, a mobility not seen by workers of color.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 lessened the number of Russian Germans workers when the legislation restricted immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans. But the Act set no limits on immigration from Latin America, due in part by lobbying by the sugar beet industry. Mexican nationals, called “betabeleros” (beet workers), were increasingly recruited to fill the labor void and lower field labor expenses.
Migrant laborers were almost exclusively perceived as “outsiders,” people different from the typical hired hands in the family farm system due to the work they performed and ethnic or cultural differences. While hired hands typically lived and socialized with the family for which they labored, this was a rarity for sugar beet laborers.
Growing sugar beets in the early twentieth century was an incredibly labor-intensive process, especially in terms of the hand or “stoop” labor that could not be mechanized. In the spring and early summer, laborers would first use a short-handled hoe to block (cut out undesired beet plants to have plants properly spaced) and then used their fingers on the other hand to thin (remove all but one beet plant from the cluster left by the blocking). A summer-long task was regular hoeing to keep out the weeds. By October, the beets were ready to be harvested. After the ground was loosened with a machine lifter, laborers pulled the heavy beets out by hand. Leafy tops of the beets were also cut by hand with a curved beet knife. The beets were piled in rows and then loaded by hand into wagons and hauled to a beet dump for processing or loading onto railroad cars.
Very early in the industry, labor gangs consisting of single men were quite common. However, recruiting families quickly became a high priority for sugar company agents. Families were readymade labor gangs with a cook and children, who were well suited to certain portions of the necessary labor. Indeed, after a day of fieldwork, women still had household duties of cooking and cleaning, making for a “double day.” By age 8 or 9, children were encouraged to take on work in the beet fields and were regularly pulled out of school. According to a 1923 study, children under the age of sixteen made up 52% of the labor force and accounted for 47% of the acreage tended. Although laborers saw education as beneficial, language barriers and the need for family income got in the way of effective education. Students often had to repeat grades due to the length of time they were out of school. Nevertheless, public school education was an integrative force as it allowed some immigrants to move into occupations other than field work, a crucial step to becoming integrated members of a community.
Laborers employed on farms near a city often lived in ethnically segregated settlements in the city and traveled daily to the fields. If the farm was too far away, they would live near the fields in temporary housing that was often shoddily built or run down.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 made things worse as the economic downturn hurt sugar-beet production. The rate paid to growers dropped from about $7.00 per ton in 1930 to about $5.15 per ton in 1932; total acreage fell 10%. A resulting labor surplus meant that companies and producers had little incentive to provide migrant workers with benefits or amenities to ensure their return the next year. Housing for migrants was often without indoor privies and water had to be drawn from wells and nearby streams. Children and adults of all beet-worker families during the Depression suffered high rates of illnesses and often lived together on the edge of starvation. In Torrington, children tied soiled rags around their bare feet and walked as far as a mile to school in temperatures twenty degrees below zero. Photos from the American Heritage Center below show living conditions of sugar beet workers in Torrington during the Depression in 1931.
World War II led to labor shortages and in 1942 the U.S. and Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, creating what is known as the “Bracero Program.” The program, which lasted until 1964, was the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history. Sugar beet field work was one of the many agricultural areas in which they were employed. The Mexican government actually prohibited its citizens from working in Wyoming after 1963. But a discussion of the Bracero program in Wyoming will have to be left to another post.
As I was talking to my Wyoming native husband about this blog, he told me of trips in the early 1980s that he took from Sheridan, where he was employed, to his hometown of Green River. As he drove through the Bighorn Basin, at times he would see groups of about 30 laborers hand working the beet fields. By the early 2000s, mechanization, chemical applications, and hardier cultivars such as Roundup Ready sugar beets led a lessened need for human hands in the fields. 95 years after its first processing campaign, the Torrington factory closed in 2018, although the Lovell and Worland facilities are still operating as cooperatives.
There is a lot more to say about the sugar beet industry in Wyoming and the American sugar industry in general. Information can be found in holdings at the American Heritage Center, including the papers of University of Wyoming History professor Larry Cardoso, Wyoming historian Grace Raymond Hebard, sugar economist Joshua Bernhardt, Denver businessman John E. Leet, and others.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
Margaret (Mardy) and Olaus Murie were fiercely dedicated to protecting America’s most beautiful places and wildlife. The couple enriched the concept of conservation, all while experiencing the outdoors and enjoying the wildlife and beautiful scenery around them. The story of their lives and commitment to conservation inspires me, as a fish and wildlife management major, to carry on their love for animals and the environment into the future.
Mardy Thomas and Olaus Murie met in Fairbanks, Alaska. They were both avid outdoors people and had a great interest in backing conservation efforts with science. Olaus worked with the U.S. Biological Survey doing research in Alaska on caribou. Later he was in Wyoming, doing research on elk. Throughout the time that Mardy and Olaus were in Alaska, Mardy wrote an autobiography of their married life and their activities there.
Olaus was quite successful during his time in Jackson, Wyoming, and was asked to take a council seat for the Wilderness Society in 1937. He was the voice for wildlife, encouraging people to respect animals and give them the space they need to be free.
Olaus and Mardy educated others on the importance of having protected wild land both for the sake of the ecosystem and the wildlife that inhabits it. The effect of their knowledge and passion led to the creation of Grand Teton National Park; however, they didn’t stop there. In 1950, Olaus moved on to be the president for both the Wildlife Society and the Wilderness Society.
Mardy and Olaus visited Alaska often after they made their move to Wyoming. During one visit, the couple thought that turning the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska into a refuge would be beneficial for wildlife, the ecosystem, tourists and environmentalists alike. With the help of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, they set aside nearly 8 million acres of untouched land to be protected by the US government, and it became known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The rise of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sparked a new movement in America. Conservation began to become a more popular concept, and people were excited about it. Olaus’ and Mardy’s names became well known for the conservation work they were doing and the difference they were making for the wild lands they cared so much about.
In 1959, Olaus Murie earned the Audubon Medal for his continued work protecting America’s beautiful places. In addition, the Wilderness Act was signed by Congress with the help of Mardy and Olaus.
After Olaus passed in 1963, Mardy continued her conservation efforts. She took a position with the National Park Service to help initiate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. She eventually earned the Audubon Medal in 1980, the John Muir Award in 1983, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. She died in 2003 in Moose, Wyoming.
The work that Olaus and Mardy did to help conserve wild lands will always be appreciated by conservationists and environmentalists, and I hope to continue their legacy in the future. To learn more about the Murie Family, see the Murie Family Papers at the American Heritage Center.
Post contributed by AHC staff member Ashley Townsend.
It seems only right to send to commemorate the life of actor Edward Francis Michael Patrick Joseph O’Shea on St. Patrick’s Day. Not only was he Irish American, he was born on March 17 in 1906. He went by the name of Mike O’Shea.
If things had gone his way, Mike wouldn’t have been an actor. “I always wanted to be a policeman, but I was too short,” explained the five-foot-nine O’Shea in a 1966 interview. “For three years in a row after I turned 20 I tried to join the force,” he recalled, “but the answer was always the same: ‘Try the fire department.'” It’s only natural for him to feel this calling. It was in his blood. His five older brothers had all entered New York City law enforcement. His Irish immigrant father looked after the shoeing of horses for the New York police and fire departments.
Mike O’Shea’s formal education ended in the fifth grade and he went to work running errands and selling newspapers. A husky boy, he soon became head of a neighborhood gang. He had his first crack at show business as a singer at the amateurs and won several contests, a feat he credits to the fact that his gang rooted for him.
In the Prohibition years, O’Shea worked as a comic and emcee in speakeasies and started his own dance band, “Michael O’Shea and His Stationary Gypsies,” where he played banjo and drums. Billing himself as “Eddie O’Shea,” he also acted with stock companies and in radio, until the point he was noticed by the film industry for his 1942 Broadway appearance as a World War II soldier in The Eve of St. Mark.
O’Shea preferred the stage and was somewhat reluctant to enter the Hollywood scene. His first outing as a film actor became his best known when he played wisecracking comic Biff Brannigan who woos Dixie Daisy (played by Barbara Stanwyck) in the RKO Pictures production Lady of Burlesque (1943)
But it was in his next film, Jack London, that O’Shea found his own true love in the person of actress Virginia Mayo who played a supporting role in the film. They married in 1947. Her star shined brighter than her husband’s, but that didn’t seem to matter to Mike. The two were married for 26 years until his death from a heart attack in 1973.
According to an interview given in 1972, O’Shea finally fulfilled his policeman wishes after a fashion by working as a plainclothes operative for the FBI in the mid-1960s by helping to break up a gambling ring plaguing O’Shea’s home turf of Ventura County, California.
O’Shea’s papers at the AHC include correspondence, photographs, agency contracts, newspaper clippings documenting his acting career, and more.
Post submitted by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
Actress and photographer Jean Howard was a great favorite of Cole Porter, the urbane composer and songwriter known for scoring such successful productions as Kiss Me Kate (1948) and High Society (1956). His numerous hit songs include Begin the Beguine, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and My Heart Belongs to Daddy.
Porter was an avid traveler, even after a serious horseback riding accident in 1937 left him disabled and in constant pain. The travel bug helped bring Cole and wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas together in marriage in 1919. Although he was openly gay, their marriage was a close one as the couple spent the next two decades in lively partying and social traveling, sometimes together, sometimes apart. The Porters bought a home in Hollywood in 1935 and became famous for their lavish parties and the circle of celebrities in which they moved.
One of those celebrities to whom the Porters became particularly close was a new starlet in town, Jean Howard. Jean arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s ready to make her mark. She appeared as a glamour girl in a Busby Berkeley musical and in Florenz Ziegfeld’s last Follies. But, before she could launch a serious career, she met and married talent agent-turned-producer Charles K. Feldman in 1934. This led Jean to the role of a high-level film executive’s wife who was expected to frequently entertain, mother-hen new stars, and help ensure that the Feldman’s remained a sought-after Hollywood couple.
From her early days in Hollywood, Jean Howard benefited from her close friendship with Linda Porter. It was from Linda that she learned how to dress, how to serve simple food for small lunches, how to manage giant parties, and how to be a friend to the famous.
After Linda’s death in 1954, Jean became one of Cole Porter’s favorite traveling companions. She joined Porter and other friends on two luxurious trips in 1955 and 1956. No matter where he journeyed, Porter always did it in style. He often traveled on the yacht Eros, owned by Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. When on land, Porter frequently rented private railroad cars for long trips. For shorter jaunts, such as the commute from his suite at the Waldorf Towers to his Massachusetts country home, or for spins around Palermo and Monte Carlo, he used his chauffeured Cadillac limousine.
For an unpublished autobiography, Jean wrote a funny anecdote that occurred on one of her trips with Cole Porter.
Porter, driving through Spain with [me], would sit in the front seat with the driver to compose in his head. Once he leaned over the seat towards me to hum a song he had just though up, True Love, which Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby would sing in High Society. What did she think? [I] said it was as good as anything he had ever written. Porter threw up his hands. “How would you know?” he snapped. “You can’t carry a tune!”
Box 32, Jean Howard Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Jean’s journeys with Cole ultimately resulted in a book titled Travels with Cole Porter (1991). The book is both a travelogue and a memoir of her 33-year friendship with the Porters. So devoted were they to Jean, they left her a fortune in jewels upon Cole’s death in 1964.
Learn more about Jean’s relationship with Porters, and her wonderful photographs of her travels with Cole Porter, in the Jean Howard papers.
Post submitted by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
To commemorate March as Women’s History Month, the AHC would like to feature the life of adventurer Idris Galcia Hall (1906-1996) who christened herself “Aloha Wanderwell.” In 1922 at age 16, she answered an ad calling for “a good-looking brainy young woman” willing to “forswear skirts” and “rough it” in an expedition traveling around the world by 1917 Model-T Fords. “Be prepared,” it added, “to learn to work before and behind a movie camera.”
A restless tomboy shuttered away in a French convent school, Idris couldn’t resist the opportunity. One the most amazing things is that her mother actually approved! But then she had seen her daughter travel unaccompanied by rail and ocean liner at age 12 to be with her when her husband (Aloha’s stepfather) Herbert Hall was killed in World War I.
In preparation for the Model T expedition, Idris took on her childhood nickname, Aloha, and tacked it onto the expedition leader’s surname. Aloha Wanderwell was her name from that time on. At 6 feet tall, blond and attractive, she became the face of the expedition, which captured her adventures in a series of movie travelogues. Newspapers began calling her “the Amelia Earhart of the open road.”
The trip was led by “Captain” Walter Wanderwell (born Valerian Johannes Pieczynski in Poland). During the five year expedition, he and Aloha fell in love, although Walter was still married. Upon returning to the United States, Walter divorced his wife. Walter was a controversial figure who had been arrested under suspicion of being a German Spy during World War I. Marrying Aloha in 1926 foiled an FBI plan to arrest him under the Mann Act which prohibits transporting women across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
The couple created a career out of leading competing teams on world tours, where the team that traveled the most miles would win a cash prize. The couple would film their adventures and became known for screening them to audiences in the U.S. while describing the events of the journey.
In 1930, the couple’s plane crashed in the Amazon, According to Aloha, she was left with the Bororo tribe while Walter hiked back through the jungle to buy replacement parts and lived with the tribe for several months. She documented the Bororo’s on camera, and the resulting film became an important anthropological resource.
By 1932 Aloha had become estranged from the Captain, who had proved to be a philanderer. They lived separately, Aloha in Los Angeles and her husband on his schooner in Long Beach. On December 5, 1932, Walter Wanderwell was aboard the schooner when he was fatally shot in the back by an unknown assailant, a crime that remains unsolved. Aloha’s detached reaction to his death and her marriage the next year to another Walter–Walter Nicholas Baker (eight years her junior)–were found suspect by media observers who christened her the “Rhinestone Widow.”
Her new husband Walter Baker (1915-1995) was born in Jireh, Wyoming. He was an 18-year-old gas station attendant in 1933 when he met Aloha in Laramie during one of her lecture tours. Walter joined her crew as a driver and mechanic, and the two married two months later. Together, they toured the world and filmed their experiences.
One of their film collaborations was Explorers of the Purple Sage (1945) which features the flora and fauna of Wyoming with sequences of ranching, horseback riding, and a wild horse round up. In the horse round up, they captured the only known footage of the stallion known as “Desert Dust.”
In the post-war period, Aloha and Walter continued filmmaking and touring. Aloha lectured alongside their films while wearing her complete expedition costume. She died in 1996 not long after the death of her second husband. Her life and career endure as a remarkable, if complex, example of the power of a woman who defied the limitations of her era.
The American Heritage Center holds the papers of Aloha’s second husband Walter N. Baker which includes biographical information and photographs as well as the couple’s 1945 silent movie Explorers of the Purple Sage.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
In February 1969, Wyoming Governor Stan Hathaway took pen in hand to enact a 1% severance tax rate on all mineral production. Wyoming had levied no severance taxes on minerals from the time of statehood in 1890 until that time. Legislative rumblings for a severance tax had occurred in past years, most significantly in 1889 and 1924, but with no results.
Why 1969? The drumbeat for a severance tax began with the 1966 gubernatorial contest between Hathaway, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent Ernest Wilkerson. Campaigning with the slogan, “Wyoming’s Wealth for Wyoming’s People,” Wilkerson referred to “the quiet siphoning of Wyoming’s wealth” and foresaw the potential of mineral/energy development in the state.
During the campaign, Democrats proposed measures that included a tax on crude oil exported from Wyoming; a preferential assignment of state mineral leases to companies processing their product in Wyoming; a severance tax, with revenue earmarked to permanent funds and investments for education and other governmental functions; and a study of taxing minerals-in-place as a means of stimulating production.
As for Hathaway, he judged the idea behind the study as unconstitutional and just ignored the rest of the ideas. But as T.A. Larson notes in his History of Wyoming (p. 563), “In 1969 the pressure for a severance tax became so great that one per cent had to be conceded. State government had to have more revenue, and the alternatives, higher sales tax or an income tax, were even more dangerous politically. Some observers suggested that Ernest Wilkerson’s advocacy of severance taxation in 1966 had educated the public and made severance taxation possible.”
Besides, at this time Wyoming’s economy was still largely tied to agriculture, and it just wasn’t paying the bills. As the story goes, Hathaway found $80 in the general fund and figured he better act before the state went completely broke.
Soon after the tax was enacted, the national energy crisis of the 1970s spurred oil drilling that triggered a massive and memorable Wyoming boom. Wyoming was transferred from the Cowboy State into the Energy State. By the time Hathaway retired in 1974, he had also overseen establishment of the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund to hold a percentage of severance tax revenues inviolate.
Wyoming became reliant on mineral revenues for a significant part of its budget—a situation that has proved to be both a blessing and a curse. In one of his last interviews before he died in 2005, Hathaway told journalist Sam Western: “I passed the first severance tax. I got the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, and they’ve carried Wyoming’s expenses very well.” But, he added, it bothered him that most people in Wyoming believed they were getting “a free ride.” “The truth is,” he said, “we all should pay our share of government costs.”
Henning Svenson arrived in the frontier town of Laramie in September 1905 with one dollar in his pocket and an ambition to open a photography studio. By the next month, he was already advertising his new business. Henning passed away in 1932 at age 53 and his daughters continued to operate the studio. In 1943, the business went under the name of Walter “Doc” Ludwig, a chiropodist who married one of Svenson’s daughters. More than 110 years later the studio is still in the family at the same location. The family generously donated a large portion the studio’s historic images to the American Heritage Center.
One hundred years ago, Henning, or perhaps one of his daughters, was invited to the home of prominent Laramie businessman Henry Neale “Neal” Roach for some Valentine cheer. If I were a judge for the costume contest, the woman on the far left would win hands down. Love the shoes. Like us today, these folks had recently been through a pandemic, in their case the Spanish Flu which lasted from 1918 to 1920. It must have felt good to celebrate in-person with family and friends.
Twenty years later in 1941, Home Bakery went all out on a Valentine’s week window display featuring sweetheart cakes made from a Betty Crocker recipe. During the early 1940s, surveys showed that the name Betty Crocker was known to nine out of 10 American homemakers. The fictitious Betty Crocker was the “First Lady of Food.” Putting the brand name on the cakes must have been a seal of reliable good flavor. Home Bakery was a Laramie fixture from the time it opened in 1898 to its closure in 2010. I still miss it.
Lora Webb Nichols was born and raised in Encampment, Wyoming, and spent most of her life there. She called herself “Snapshot Sal.” Indeed, she was rarely without a camera around her neck. After all, she said, “You never know when there’ll be an elephant down the street.” She captured life in Encampment and Saratoga from the time she picked up a camera in 1899 at age 16 to her death in 1962.
On Valentine’s Day in 1958, Lora Webb Nichols sports a new dress and samples a treat from a box of Valentine candy given to her by youngest child Dick (born 1921). She and Dick were quite close. He often traveled with her on hunting and fishing outings.
Speaking of Lora’s Valentine’s Day candy, three days later her cat claimed it by laying on the box.
We wish you a fun and happy Valentine’s Day full of costumes, candy, cake, and even cats.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.
In celebration of Chinese New Year on February 12, we’re featuring the life of Wyoming’s China Mary, a longtime resident of Evanston. Most Americans opted to call the Chinese living among them “John” or “Mary” in lieu of learning their Chinese names. For example, there was also a “China Mary” who thrived in Tombstone, Arizona, as a “godfather” in that town’s Chinese community.
Most likely there were other women in the American West with the moniker “China Mary” but finding accounts of them can be difficult. Racist biases in the 19th century and into the 20th century meant that Chinese were often excluded or unnamed in newspaper or written accounts. Chinese women are even more invisible in the historical record.
We do know that Evanston’s China Mary was also identified as Ah Yuen. Yuen is a Cantonese Chinese surname. Because of the Chinese practice of putting the surname before the given name, Chinese migrants’ surnames were often incorrectly listed as their first names on official documents. “Ah” is a Chinese prefix used with a shortened form of peoples’ names to express familiarity, roughly equivalent to Mister or Miss. Based on this, Ah Yuen is most likely not her given name.
As Christopher Merritt of the Utah Division of State History explains in a short biography of Ah Yuen, U.S. Federal Census Bureau records show that she arrived in the United States sometime around 1863. She was likely born in southern China between 1848 and 1854. This would make her quite young when she made the long trip to the United States.
Ah Yuen’s voyage to America was most likely not a pleasant one. Chinese immigrants generally rode in steerage, which is the lower deck of a ship where the cargo is stored. These passengers were often placed by the hundreds in a single large hold. Beds were routinely long rows of large, shared bunks with straw mattresses and no bed linens. Travelers dealt with limited privacy and security, inadequate sanitary conditions, and poor food. The voyage could take several weeks.
Why she came to the U.S. is not known. We do know that people living in China between the 1840s and 1860s were facing violence from a civil war, rampant unemployment, dispossession of land and wealth, famine, and overpopulation of coastal cities. Girls in China were at a further disadvantage.
Because daughters could not provide hard manual labor needed to support the family or carry on the ancestral name, they were considered inferior to sons and therefore expendable. As more and more Chinese men immigrated to the US without their wives, a natural market for prostitution was created. Families in China facing economic hardship and starvation often decided to sell their daughters overseas not only to survive, but in hope of giving them the chance at a better life. Most girls in such circumstances accepted their family’s decision out of filial loyalty and allowed themselves to be sold to “labor contractors” in China. Maybe Ah Yuen was one of these girls? Her birth and emigration dates coincide with the time period.
Instead of forced prostitution, some of the more attractive girls were “lucky” enough to become the concubines of wealthy owners, who might treat them decently, although if they failed to please, their masters could return them to the auction block. However, most of the girls did endure prostitution, ending up in high-class brothels reserved for Chinese men or in “cribs” where they serviced anyone from sailors to teen boys to drunks for 25 to 50 cents. Ah Yuen may have been one of the lucky ones. According to a Works Progress Administration-era biography in the Wyoming State Archives, she had been a woman of unusual beauty.
Ah Yuen’s own stories about her life indicate that, like many Chinese immigrants, she started her American journey in San Francisco. At some point she was in Denver, but that part of her history is still a mystery. By 1868, she turns up as a cook in Bear River City, Wyoming Territory. She may have been married by this time, possibly to a railroad worker since Bear River was an end-of-track town during construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. She recalled witnessing what is now known as the “Bear River City Riot” on November 19, 1868, that began after the vigilante lynching of a murder suspect who worked for the railroad. Friends of the lynched man revolted against the vigilantes and the town erupted in violence. Sixteen people were killed. Later in life she would show interested parties a long trench where bodies were buried.
By the 1880s she was in Park City, Utah, which had a Chinatown created when the first railroads into the city were constructed in part by Chinese labor. Ah Yuen and a husband opened a shop selling Chinese wares to local laborers and European-Americans alike. Life there may have been uneasy for the couple. According to an article in the Utah History Encyclopedia, the Chinese in Park City were victims of sporadic, racially inspired difficulties well into the first decade of the 1900s.
After the death of this husband, Ah Yuen moved about 65 miles east to Evanston, Wyoming, around 1900. By now she would have been in her late 40s or early 50s. Why Evanston? Perhaps opportunity beckoned. The town had lost its wild edge. By the time Ah Yuen arrived, the Union Pacific, in partnership with Pacific Fruit Company, had developed an icing station between the railroad tracks and the Bear River. The UP had also constructed a brick depot to replace the first wooden one. Soon after, Evanston could boast of a federal courthouse and a post office. The town even had one of the few Chinese temples in the United States, which were known as Joss Houses. It was built in 1894. When Evanston’s Chinatown burned in 1922, the fire took the Joss House with it. Many Chinese had already left Evanston by this time; others left after the fire. Ah Yuen was one of the few who stayed.
Once moving to Evanston, Wyoming, she would marry twice more. Her final husband was a gardener referred to as “Mormon Charlie” who she may have married in the late 1920s. His name was recorded as Lock Long Choong (or Chung) and his birth year as 1862. According to an entry in the Findagrave website, he was given the nickname “because he assimilated well with the locals.” The entry also notes that he migrated to the US in 1881. He was described as a small man who was remembered for carrying large amounts of vegetables around town using two baskets supported by a long pole. Sometimes he would give children rides in the basket. He was well-liked and trusted, to the point that he was allowed to enter people’s homes to leave vegetables while they were out for the evening.
As for Ah Yuen, the WPA biography notes that she had a cheerful spirit, spoke English fluently, and would regale those who listened about her time in San Francisco, Denver, and Park City. She became one of Evanston’s town characters. Tourists asked to take her picture, for which she charged ten cents. She in turn paid Evanston children a dime for bringing her fish from the Bear River. She loved to gamble, to the point she was forced to go on county assistance for many years before her death. The biography states that she had three children, although their names or whereabouts were not mentioned.
Ah Yuen spent the rest of her life in Evanston, until she died in her small house on January 13, 1939. That she was a loved figure in Evanston is seen by her memorial service that was attended by a number of town residents and overseen by a Presbyterian minister. Although her burial site is in the pauper section of Evanston’s cemetery, her grave is marked, courtesy of the city. There is even a “China Mary Road” today in the town.
Ah Yuen’s story, while mysterious in so many ways, is an example of the grit and endurance of Chinese women in the United States. It is hard to imagine the hardships Ah Yuen must have endured in her home country and then in her adopted country. Somehow, she made the journey in good spirits and with an apparent zest for life.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.