Thursday, September 28, 2017

Custer's Last Stand from both sides

When we left Wyoming for the 70-mile drive to Montana to see Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, site of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's famed last stand, we had no idea it was the 141st anniversary of that battle, June 25, 1876.

We lucked into a gathering of historians, interpreters and descendants of the Great Plains tribes  - the Lakota, the Cheyenne and some Arapaho - that fought to preserve their nomadic way of life.

Life sustaining land for the Plains tribes. Photo © by Judy Wells.
You can see why they didn't want to move. It's called steppe land, gently rolling hills of high grass that graduate from "steps" of mesa-like rises to foothills then mountains that were sacred to the people who lived on their flanks. Interspersed with creeks and rivers with treed banks, it is ideal for the herds of horses and buffalo that sustained the tribes.

Like most interaction between the settlers and Native Americans, it is a sad story of promises made and broken. This had been designated by treaty Plains tribes' land but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the government decided to move the Plains peoples to another reservation. Despite having vowed to never raise his gun against a Cheyenne ever again, Custer entered the fray.

National cemetery. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Typical of all National Park properties, this one is beautifully done with a National Cemetery for all war dead,

Last Stand Hill. Photo © by Judy Wells.
an obelisk atop Last Stand Hill memorializing the soldiers

Photos © by Judy Wells.
and headstones identifying where Custer's soldiers and the Indians were thought to have fallen and even one for the horse cemetery. They are guesstimates at best for the men - all bodies were removed after the battle - but nonetheless give visitors an idea of the action.

A short distance from the hill is a circular earthwork, the monument to the Plains tribes. The "spirit door" welcomes the departed soldiers inside.
The Native American version of Custer's death. Photo ©  y Judy Wells.

Walls of the sacred circle display the names and words of those who fought and surround a sculpture of "spirit warriors."
Spirit Warriors. Photo © by Judy Wells.

There is signage from the Visitors Center to Last Stand Hill and beyond to tell what happened where.
Signage above, scene below. Photos © by Judy Wells.\

Not that historians on either side agree beyond the fact that Tatanka-iyotanka "Sitting Bull," Crazy Horse and their warriors won the battle but lost the war. As word of the massacre spread, public opinion insisted the Indians must go. Within a few years they were all on a reservation and the Crows, who already had made peace with the U.S., were given the land surrounding the battlefield.

Re-enactor of Crazy Horse. Photo © by Judy Wells.
It was to Crow land we went next to see Real Bird's annual recreation of the battle, known to the his side as the Battle of Greasy Grass. It's held on Bird property along the Little Bighorn River where Sitting Bull's camp had been. For once the warriors are young Native Americans and the 7th Cavalry are white men who have learned the cavalry ways at the U.S. Cavalry School and have taken the three-day Custer's Last Ride.

It was hot, just like on "that" day, but we were in bleachers and definitely not dressed in wool uniforms as the soldiers had been. We also had water bottles instead of canteens.
Dusty like that day, too. Photo © by Judy Wells.

According to the narrator, Custer met his end here, not Last Stand Hill. After weeks of meditating and fasting, Sitting Bull had envisioned Custer at the battle, his death and a great victory. Tribal lore says the Lakota had recognized him from his long blond hair and captured and killed him long before battle's end. Interpreters and historians we spoke with at the battlefield insisted the Indians did not even know Custer was here until it was all over, nor would they have recognized him. The summer had been so hot he had cut off that long blond hair.
A member of the 7th cavalry takes aim a Crazy Horse. He missed. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Whatever the truth may be, it was an afternoon of young riders in war paint whooping wildly back and forth on their war-painted ponies and bugle-blowing and formation keeping lines of cavalry. Quite colorful.

Battle weary ourselves, we headed back to Buffalo, Wyoming, for dinner in The Virginian at the historic Occcidental Hotel.

Built in 1880 for the railroad that went to Sheridan instead, the Occidental attracted many of the same visitors as well as Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (who may have added to the bullet holes in the entryway and Saloon ceilings) and a host of hard-drinking sheriffs. The 18 rooms are named after some of them and the place reeks with wild west memories.

Someday we'd like to sip a few in that Saloon, lean back and listen to the stories of shootouts and high stakes poker games, during one of which ranchers, a father and son, won the hotel itself! Current owner David Stewart looked like he could tell a few.

Occidental owner David Stewart. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Fans of author Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire Mysteries series and the TV show based on them may recognize Buffalo as Durant in Absaroka County. There's even a Longmire election headquarters a few shops down from the hotel. Johnson follows Owen Wister whose The Virginian is largely based on tales and actions he witnessed during many stays at the Occidental.
A real store for a fictional sheriff. Photo by Judy Wells.

History and literature - a potent combination.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Exploring Sheridan, Wyoming

The Brinton Museum nestles in the foothills of Montana's Bighorn Mountains. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The city of Sheridan, population just 20,000, offers a wide variety of experiences. If you think the West uncultured, think again. The Brinton Museum houses one of the finest western art museums in the world. In addition to paintings, photography and sculpture, it includes an outstanding collection of exquisitely designed leather craft. 

A rare Blackfeet Grizzly Shirt. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The Chinese used the rammed earth technique to build the Great Wall of China and so did the trustees of the Brinton Museum when they enlarged the facility with the Forrest E. Mars Building (the candy company family are Brinton supporters). Like the wall, the building and its 19th-21st century Western art and Native American collection should be safe for several more millennia. 

Bradford Brinton and his older sister Helen may have been from Illinois but they fell in love with the west, she with Arizona, he with Montana and both with Western and Native American art and artists. Wealthy from  developing the family's farm equipment company, Brinton bought the historic Quarter Circle A Ranch. When he died, he left it to his sister, knowing she would never sell it.

The "Whoopie Cabin." Photo © by Judy Wells.
The house he enlarged and Helen used as a summer home is open to the public 
May through September via tours as is the Little Goose Creek Lodge, known to his friends as the "whoopie cabin." 

Jim Jackson shows a group how he creates his leather work. Photo © by Judy Wells.
One area  is being used as a studio for artists in residence like James F. Jackson, who grew up in his father's saddle shop and now displays and explains his craft to visitors. 

Downtown Sheridan. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Sheridan’s downtown looks as I expected the Old West: wide streets, from the days when horse-drawn wagons needed space to turn around, and many original brick buildings.

A walking tour took me past City Hall, a stone courthouse, a shoe store featuring hundreds of colorful cowboy boots, and a furniture store selling a bed with a hidden compartment for a rifle. 


Looks like a plain bed. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Of course we had to examine the boots and see that bed demonstrated.

But with a one-of-a-kind key... Photo © by Judy Wells.
So when we saw this sign in a print shop window...

... we had to go in and meet Henry. 

And yes, given the chance he will follow you home. 

Like many enlightened down towns, Sheridan's is enlivened with western themed sculpture and murals. 

Do like this growing trend.

The Good Girls, Judy and Debi.
Everyone ends up at the famous Mint Bar, a 1907 saloon redecorated in the 1940’s. The Mint’s vintage neon exterior sign attracts thirsty mouthed patrons from all walks of society. Walk in and sit down; you’ll find game mounts (stuffed animal heads and/or full bodies) and lots of old photos along the walls.

You can’t miss the set of horns measuring seven feet from tip to tip centered behind the bar. 

Photo © by Judy Wells.
 Nor can you miss the skin of a rattlesnake that was just a tad bit longer mounted above those horns. 

The beer is cold, too.

Judy's favorite stop. Photo © by Judy Wells.
One not-to-be-missed stop downtown is the famous King Saddlery, King Ropes. Never heard of it? Just ask a competition calf roper. His or her best ropes probably began life there.
Mike Wooton, rope technician. Photo © by Judy Wells.

 Their saddle may hail from there, too. 

Photos © by Judy Wells.
Its block-deep building contains everything for the Western aficionado, from boots and chaps to hat and hat band, horse tack and medications and every weight, color and texture of rope, left and right handed (!), from an inventory of more than 30,000. Home decor, too.

As if that weren't enough, Don King Museum with its collection of historic saddles, bridles, weaponry, wagons, carriages and artifacts is a must-see. I ask you, where else will you find an old saddle with flowers carved into the stirrup leathers and a naked woman etched into the fenders?

The historic Sheridan Inn. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The Sheridan Inn, part of the Historic Hotels of America, was the place where Buffalo Bill Cody held auditions for his traveling show. Its saloon maintains Buffalo Bill’s wooden bar given to him by Queen Victoria.  

One of two bars Queen Victoria had made for Bill Cody's hotels. Photo © by Judy Wells.
 Cody was a co-owner of the circa 1893 hotel, once considered the finest between Chicago and San Francisco, having talked the railroad into building it. Queen Victoria was so amused by his wild west show she had two front and back bars made for his hotels; the second is in the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming.

The copper and pearl chandelier in the Ladies' Parlor. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The current owner used to play on the front porch while his mother worked at the  hotel and has lovingly restored the historic edifice. The 22 rooms, named for Cody and the 21 people who were most important to him, have been tastefully updated and the public areas have been returned to their glory days. The pearl and copper chandelier in the Ladies' Parlor glistens and the registration desk in the Gentleman's Parlor looks much as it must have 100 years ago.

Stepping through the front doors is like entering a time capsule, albeit one with Wi-Fi.

Trail End. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Trail End is a historic home to visit with a remarkable Horatio Alger-ish tale. It was built by  John B. Kendricks, once a penniless Texas orphan who had made his way into the Wyoming Territory by the age of 21. He signed on as a trail rider on a cattle drive and at the age of 34 in 1891 married the boss's daughter. 

Over the next 18 years he amassed a cattle and land empire with 10 ranches across 210,000 acres in two states. Shortly after building Trail End, the only known example of Dutch revival architecture in Wyoming, Kendricks first was elected governor and then U. S. senator for the state.


The young crowd gathers inside and out at The Black Tooth Brewery. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Sheridan is not just a historic site. In keeping with the times, the Koltiska Distillery and Black Tooth Brewery add to today’s craft scene and a vibrant nightlife. 

It's a real Western town, too. Those aren't drugstore cowboys or all hat no horse cowgirls you see at King's. That's a lifetime of trail dust, horse and cow poop on or just wiped off their boots.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Eaton's Ranch Debi

My vision of Wyoming centered on cowboys, ranches and wide-open spaces. So, I was ready to jump into a saddle at Eatons Ranch, just 18 miles from Sheridan. Eatons didn’t disappoint.
The horses and barn at Eaton's Ranch in Wolf, Wyoming.

A rustic cabin, built in 1919, became home for my stay. The bathroom had, naturally, been renovated, but the rest of the space looked original with pine wood closets and doors. The bedroom offered two twin beds, plus I had a living room and, best of all, a porch with a rocking chair. I could hear the rush of water from the stream running behind the cabin.

The Applegate Cabin at Eaton's Ranch in Wolf, Wyoming
Bedroom in the Cabin
The porch and rocking chairs. 

Eaton’s handles all ages and abilities of riders and provides everything needed except a pair of blue jeans. They fit me with a saddle and loaned me a pair of boots. Even Florida girls own cowboy hats, so I'd packed mine. Its stampede strap becomes useful when the wind picks up.

Wranglers, the barn employees, asked about my ability, or lack thereof, and chose an appropriate steed. Since I had little prior experience, I was happy to ride a well-behaved quarter horse.

Getting fit for a saddle. 

The first group trail ride began after dinner. We started out on flat ground, surrounded by magnificent mountains.  About 20 minutes into the ride, the clouds burst open and we turned around and hurried back to the barn. Everyone got soaked, but it was a memorable adventure.

The Evening Ride started out at a slow pace. 

The following morning brought lovely sunshine and my group, led by a knowledgeable wrangler, headed to the hills. We crossed a small river on horseback, a first for me as an inexperienced rider. I felt like I was dropped into a scene of a western movie. Yippee!

Wading across the creek.

My horse, named Badger, behaved and worked hard carrying me up the steep hills. The views at Eatons look like those enticing Wyoming brochures: drop dead gorgeous wide-open cowboy country.

Riding into the hills of picturesque Wyoming. 

An outdoor barbecue became lunch on Eatons' grounds, just beyond the swimming pool.  Grilled burgers, hot dogs, potato salad and beans made an ideal noonday meal. 

Barbeque Lunch at Eaton's Ranch.

I skipped the opportunity to take an afternoon ride and instead investigated the fishing options. Staying on a dude ranch reminds me of going to Girl Scout camp. Guests choose from a variety of activities, and one hardly has a care in the world.

The day’s after dinner ride encountered no weather problems. My anxiety level disappeared, and I was getting somewhat used to the feel of a saddle.

The beautiful horses are well loved and cared for at Eaton's Ranch .

On my final morning, I enjoyed the best ride ever.  We ascended to the top of a peak overlooking the ranch. Some of the trails were very rocky and steep, but Badger knew what to do. I was absolutely “in the moment.” Our wrangler also led us off the trail and through deep grass and wildflowers. The air smelled clean, and the sun shone brightly. I, more a city slicker, felt like a real cowgirl from the West and, for the first time, comfortable in a saddle. Perhaps I was home on the range. 

Reaching the peak. 

Heading back down toward Eaton's Ranch. 

If you want to experience the west, a dude ranch is the place to go. 

Home on the Range.