Green River Star -

By Brie Blasi
Green River Historic Preservation Commission 

Echoes from the Bluffs: Museum celebrates 50 years

 

December 13, 2017



Founded in 1967, the Sweetwater County Historical Museum is celebrating its fiftieth birthday in 2017. To commemorate their golden jubilee, the museum has created a special exhibit highlighting its history, its role in the community, and the people who have made it a special place for community pride and preservation.

In the 1960s, Sweetwater County was bustling with an atmosphere of progressivism. The stately old courthouse that had been built in 1875 after the county seat was moved from South Pass City to Green River was proclaimed to be in a state of disrepair and county officials began planning for a new courthouse to be built on the same site as early as 1963. By 1966, the old adobe structure was demolished and construction began on a new building in an architectural style now known as Mid-century Modern.

Included in the plans for the new building was a generous section of the ground floor reserved for a new county museum. The building was dedicated on Aug. 13, 1967 by county commissioners D.S. “Snooks” Ferrero, W.H. “Dutch” Heikes, and John Yerkovich. Along with Ferrero and Heikes, George M. Stephens was county commissioner during the building’s construction and was also heavily influential in the formation of a museum.

George Stephens, after all, was president of the Sweetwater County Historical Society and had long been one of several community members who had been working toward creating a permanent museum for many years.

Both he and the Hutton family had been collecting objects of historical interest and periodically displaying them to the public for years.

The initial call for a museum came from the American Legion and as early as 1941, a group of citizens formed the Sweetwater County Historical Association—an early predecessor to the Sweetwater County Historical Society, which was officially incorporated as a branch of the Wyoming State Historical Society in the mid-1950s.

This group, with E.A. Elliott as its Chair and spokesperson, petitioned the county commissioners to build a museum on the grounds of the old courthouse. It truly was a county effort—people from all corners signed the petition, including McKinnon and the Eden Valley.

Their request was denied, but the commissioners suggested the city purchase and renovate the old U.P. Social Hall on Railroad Avenue for a museum. At the time, it seemed much too expensive, but by 1944 this is exactly what had taken place. The Green River town council named George Stephens to catalog and display any artifacts that came in to be displayed at the new town historical museum.

Later, many of these objects were on display at City Hall where Dave Luzmoor remembers being allowed to clean and care for a number of guns on display when his father became mayor in 1965. Many of these objects were collected by community members such as Harold Dodge and later comprised some of the very first donations to the Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

Many of the artifacts that both George Stephens and Bill Hutton had collected and displayed over the years were also donated at various times. Altogether, 133 people or families donated 1612 items in the museum’s first year. Today, the museum holds over 40,000 artifacts and a large archival collection including nearly 200,000 photographs and negatives.

The county museum’s first director, Henry Chadey, was responsible for setting the tone of the new museum and immediately he put out the call for pioneer families to bring in photos and anything else that would be important to preserving county history. Henry had been a school principal for several years before volunteering for the job of museum director. He and his wife, Helen, were very active in the Sweetwater County Historical Society along with friend and original museum board member, Ed Varley. Helen recalls that she and Henry, along with Ed and his wife RaeDell, often took their children with them when the Historical Society hosted treks to historic sites. For decades, Henry, Ed, and others led treks every summer, sometimes having as many as 300 people participate. Back then, they often partnered with Zanetti Bus Lines to get such large crowds transported. Helen Chadey recalled only one trek when people failed to show up. It was the day after Ed Cantrell infamously shot one of his deputies in 1978. Several people from outside the county called to say they would not be attending the trek because they thought Rock Springs had turned into the Wild West.

Many of the early supporters of the museum were also Historical Society members including Louise Spinner Graf, Bill and Eunice Hutton, Emil Gaensslen, Ethel Morris, and many others. Their family histories stretched back to the earliest days of Green River and Sweetwater County, so their donations were also invaluable to the museum and its mission of preserving history. Helen Chadey recalls that she and Henry also gave several items that had belonged to her family in Rock Springs.

What Helen most remembers about those early days of the museum was Henry working hard to get it up and running, attending a course in Wisconsin and often building furniture or whatever was needed by the museum himself with the help of few dedicated volunteers like Ed Varley.

Henry was soon able to enlist the help of a receptionist, Mae Wright. Lois Brandner later took on the role, serving the museum from 1985-2000. The all “wore many hats,” doing everything from giving tours and answering research requests to labeling artifacts. Henry established the museum’s reputation as a top-notch field trip location for local schoolchildren, leading dozens of tours of the museum and surrounding areas each year.

Not just active in local history, Henry also served in various organizations, including being president of the Wyoming State Historical Society. He remained dedicated to the museum for 22 years, retiring in 1989. About 130 people attended his retirement party, which included a feast of ethnic foods, several speeches, and the reading of a poem written in his honor.

Henry, who passed away in 2005, is well remembered by his friends, colleagues, and the many students in whom he instilled an enduring fascination with history.

Henry was succeeded by Ruth Lauritzen, who had been hired as assistant director in 1985. Ruth, a native of Logan, Utah, had just received her master’s degree in archival studies from the University of Denver and was hoping for a position in a small, close-knit community with an interesting history.

She thought Sweetwater County fit the bill so well, she stayed for the rest of her career, retiring in 2015 after 27 years at the museum. During Ruth’s tenure, she grew the professional staff of the museum to include a curator, an exhibits coordinator, and a bookkeeper/store manager. She and the museum’s first curator, Mark Nelson, also began an internship program that continues today. Dozens of students from WWCC, UW, and graduate museum studies programs have had formative experiences at the Sweetwater County Historical Museum and many have gone on to have impressive careers in museums, archives, nonprofits, and government organizations.

Through continued partnerships with the Sweetwater County Historical Society and the Sweetwater County Museum Foundation, the museum continued to offer treks and public lectures, along with producing several publications of local historical interest. Ruth enjoyed giving school tours and visiting both schools and assisted living facilities around the county.

After years of studying local history, Ruth could give a public presentation on just about any historical topic practically on the fly.

Ruth also oversaw the museum’s 2001 move into its new home, the renovated 1931 Green River Post Office building next door to the courthouse.

In 2012, Ruth brought on Brie Blasi, a Green River native with deep roots in Superior and Granger, as the museum’s curator to replace Mark Nelson when he retired. Although the museum had first digitized their records in the 1980s, Mark spent a large portion of his time at the museum updating and completing the museum’s database. Brie had received her master’s in public history and had been working in museums in New Mexico and Texas before answering the call to return home.

She became acting director when Ruth retired in 2015 and was named director in 2016. Brie again restructured the staff to include a full-time programs coordinator in the future so the museum can continue to grow its service and programming in the community.

Just in the last few years, the museum’s traditional third grade school tours have been re-imagined as an interactive history fair and the museum has begun offering kids classes in the summer.

The staff is currently hard at work trying to expand storage and redesigning the exhibits to create more room to have changing exhibits so more of the many artifacts the museum holds can be displayed. The museum will also be partnering with several local, state, and national organizations in the next few years to celebrate the city of Green River’s 150th anniversary in 2018 and the also the 150th anniversary of the John Wesley Powell expedition in 2019. The museum also depends on the many dedicated volunteer board members it has been fortunate to have serve over the last five decades.

In 50 years, the museum has had just three directors with the first two each staying over 20 years. Now, that’s dedication. It also goes to show just how fascinating the history of Sweetwater County can be.

 

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