Dubois’ Delightful Toxic Waste Site

The health care facilities are merely useful. This will be magic.

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PetesPond_WillowForegroundAs spring brings life to the valley, an enchanting new creation is unfolding beside the highway, just east of the rodeo grounds. What makes the place seem even more magical is that it used to be a toxic waste site.

It’s difficult to imagine what might have been toxic about the sawmill that gave life to this community, until it closed in 1988. But an EPA document describing the “brownfields” cleanup project says the site was contaminated with petroleum byproducts including benzene and diesel fuels.

PetesPond_RiverwalkTen years after the mill closed, a local family bought the site and donated it to the Nature Conservancy, stipulating that it should be used for the “health and enjoyment of the citizens of the greater Dubois community and its future generations.” After the town gained numerous grants, the cleanup began five years ago.

The medical clinic, fitness center, and assisted living facility on the site clearly qualify in the health category, but as mere buildings they would not inspire the words “enchanting” and “magical.” As the dog and I enjoy the eastern end of the river walk, I’ve seen something emerging that will clearly deserve that description.

PetesPond_BenchViewThe good folks of Dubois Anglers and Wildlife Group (DAWGS) are busy completing Pete’s Pond, the dream of Pete Petera, a former director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department who retired to Dubois. I knew the bright-eyed gentleman all too briefly before he passed away, too early to see the project begin.

Pete wanted a place where children could enjoy fishing safely. The need for this becomes clear as I follow this part of the river walk in late May, watching the surging water breach its banks and crash past, frothing and muddy.

PetesPond_RiverFlowDAWGS long ago made the river accessible for handicapped anglers along this riverwalk. Now, on the landward side of the walk, they’re busy with backhoes creating not just a pond, but a whole new park. There’s a small stream at the inlet, and islands in the center of the pond.

What astonishes me is the sylvan aspect of the scene, where a few years ago this was hard-packed tan dirt overgrown with weeds and sage, the kind of desolate landscape so many people think of when they hear the word “Wyoming.”

PetesPond_ReflectionsIt’s a pleasure to think that this is what future travelers will see first as they pass into Dubois headed toward Yellowstone and Jackson. After that long desert drive from Rawlins or Casper, they will be enticed as they reach Dubois to stop and enjoy birds and gently lapping water, lined by trees and bordering the river.

It doesn’t yet look as green as it will, because it’s only early spring here, and the work is still under way. But I can already hear the laughter of the children.

Somewhere over there under the water is a ball that the dog lost in the weeds last summer. He’s certainly forgotten about it.  I’m very pleased to make the sacrifice.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Time Warps in the Old West Times Square

Dates and timelines offer up curious parallels.

BanksWarmValley_croppedLocal historian Steve Banks gave another riveting talk a few weeks ago, this one about the history of traffic across this valley. Since then, I’ve been caught up in a sort of time travel.

I used to have the feeling that this Old West was much younger than the Back East I left behind. It must be part of the pioneer spirit you still feel out here, a sense of freshness and opportunity that reaches back from today’s new arrivals to the first intrepid white explorers.

Lately, I’ve been checking dates and making timelines. They parallel each other and resonate in very odd ways.

These four walls account for part of my confusion about time. They’re  made of huge logs felled nearby and chinked warmly together, much as the original settlers made their cabins. Our new house looks historic, but it is only decades old — far younger than the Victorian brownstone we left behind, which was built in 1880.

BrooklynHouseThe brownstone is 4 stories tall, has 4 bedrooms, and originally had a dining room and a receiving room for guests waiting to be admitted to the living room. It was remarkably modern for having central heating, fired by a coal furnace at the bottom.

In or around the same year it was built, Oran M. (“Old Man”) Clark, the first settler in this Wyoming valley, built his the first log cabin here — a windowless, one-room structure near the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River. It too had “central heating,” People recalled that he often left the door open in winter so that he could run a huge log right across the middle of the room into the fireplace on the opposite wall. He would shift the log forward as it burned.

Clark didn’t file a homestead claim when he built the cabin, but he did claim to own the valley. Legend has it that in 1883, he raised his shotgun and ran off a party that included President Chester A. Arthur. He reportedly said that he had to give permission for anyone to enter the valley, and they didn’t have it. Wise men, they went to Yellowstone by another way.

For some reason he did, however, welcome John Burlingham and his son, who had come to Dubois to guide some dudes from Back East on a fishing trip. In fact, he coaxed the two men to return with their families, which they did in 1889.

For the first winter, the entire party stayed in Clark’s small, windowless log cabin. The following year they completed their own cabin, a few miles down the river. It was also windowless, with a dirt floor and a camp stove served by a pipe through the roof. A year later, Mahalia Burlingham gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Her husband John became the sought-after fiddler for dances across the entire region. He often left Mahalia alone with the children for months on end.

MabelsHill_1017According to Steve Banks, the first white man to visit the valley was probably a Kentuckian named John Dougherty. A fur trapper and trader, he fled south in 1810 from what is now Montana to escape an attack by Blackfoot Indians, crossing Shoshone Pass close to Ramshorn Peak and continuing down the Dunoir Valley to the Wind River. (This picture shows that valley.) A bullet from the attack remained in his side for the rest of his life.

Steve says that location, at the confluence of the Dunoir Creek and the Wind River about 12 miles west of the current town of Dubois, was like the Times Square of the Old West. The Valley of the Dunoir had been the north-south artery toward the crossroads of a  trade and migration route used by native Americans for time unknown. (The area has been part of the migration route for ancestors of the Shoshone for thousands of years.)

Early fur traders and explorers — men such as John Colter, John Hoback, and Jedediah Smith — passed this way, often guided by the natives.

WilsonPriceHuntIn 1811, a year after John Dougherty came down the Dunoir Valley with a bullet in his side, Wilson Price Hunt came through with a party of 68 people and 200 horses. Hunt was a co-owner of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, headed toward Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in the northwest, hoping to establish fur trade with Russia and China.

Steve pointed out that Hunt’s party and their horses would have filled two Greyhound buses and 6 semi trucks. It was probably the largest single group of people ever to visit this valley. No settlement existed here at the time, except for a small Shoshone village.

The party had run out of food by the time they reached the base of the Dunoir. The natives, ill-prepared to feed them, advised Hunt to continue southward, crossing the Wind River, and over the mountains toward the Green River, where there were plenty of bison. The hunting detour cost them two weeks of progress; they should have headed west, upriver, where a friendly fort was only a few days away.

Frontiersman and explorer Jedediah Smith came this way about a decade later, in the winter of 1823-24. He brought with him a fur trapper named Daniel Potts, whose family owned Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Potts was the first man to record a description of the geysers in what is now Yellowstone.

RiverHe also described our valley. “From thence across the 2d range of mountains to Wind River Valley …” he wrote in a letter on July 16, 1826. “Wind River is a beautiful transparent stream, with hard gravel bottom about 70 or 80 yards wide, rising in the main range of Rocky Mountains … The valleys near the head of this river and its tributary streams are tolerably timbered with cotton wood, willow, &c. The grass and herbage are good and plenty, of all the varieties common to this country. In this valley the snow rarely falls more than three to four inches deep and never remains more than three or four days, although it is surrounded by stupendous mountains.”

The West was younger, yes, but not by as much as I thought. As Dougherty was fleeing down the Dunoir and Hunt’s party was pleading for food with Shoshones in a mountain village a year later, my former home town of Brooklyn was just a small settlement across a wide river from Manhattan.

It didn’t incorporate as a village until 1817, only about seven years before Potts crossed this valley and saw the geysers. In 1898, Brooklyn was swallowed up in the creation of the great city of New York.

OMClark_graveTwelve years after that, “Old Man” Clark froze to death, alone in his cabin, during a winter storm. His grave sits atop a small hill, marked by an obelisk and surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

He had left money to buy ample whiskey for a wake. It took many tries for the mourners, who had stoked themselves well with his whiskey in front of his fireplace, to succeed  in sliding his coffin up that slope over the icy ground.

But they did. Here is his grave.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Of Dubois, New York, and Hollywood

One up-side of remoteness: The high cost of production.

IMG_0140Back when I first lived in New York City, it really used to trouble me that there was so much violence in films set in my home town. But as time went by, I stopped caring about that.

In decades of living there, I never personally witnessed gun play or other violence (setting aside 9/11, of course). The French Connection was released way back in 1971, the same year I fell in love with my husband and his home town. Starting then, I grew accustomed to ignoring the bad rap about violence and crime that frightens so many tourists about New York. So what? I know better.

These days, I really enjoy watching films set in New York. It’s fun to recognize the intersection the cops are running through or the exact spot where the lovers are kissing. I enjoy trying to figure out whether the housing project on the screen is in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side. For absolutely nothing, I can get a free trip back to the city.

A few days ago, trolling around Netflix, I gave a little gasp. “There’s Wind River,” I said, seeing the icon for a film I always wanted to watch but never ran across in a cinema. (Well, I don’t “run across” films in a cinema any more. I have to travel an hour and a half to visit one. With Netflix, YouTube, and TCM, why bother?)

100_0141 (1)

I vaguely recalled someone telling me not to bother with that film. But there I sat in front of the TV. Why not?

It was off to an interesting start, with a woman’s voice reciting a poem as what seems to be a Native American woman runs across the snow. But the fact that the film is set in our beautiful valley in the dead of winter, always with whistling winds and deep snow, should have tipped me off: This was not going to end well.

The scenes are a snowmobilers’ dream, because our protagonists in law enforcement get to sled everywhere at high speed, passing spectacular stands of evergreens. They remind me of the footage our winter visitors like to put on YouTube after their trips to Togwotee Pass.

But the plot entirely robs the landscape of its beauty. A story of brutality against women by ignorant drunken men (not drunken Native Americans, I hasten to add), it ends in a shootout with high-powered weapons. The cinematographer revels in the contrast of the bloodbath against the pure white snow.

100_0724“So much for the image of our valley,” said my husband as the film ended.

This isn’t actually our valley, because the film was set down-county in the reservation. But the river that runs through our town has the same name, and if you Google “Wind River” today the top results, of course, link to pages about the film.

As to our town of Dubois, my son (who still lives in New York) commented in a recent visit that the village looks like a movie set. True West magazine endorses that view, having given Dubois its 2018 award for the best architecturally preserved Western town.

HonorGuardBut the only film ever set in Dubois wasn’t a “Western,” and it wasn’t actually filmed here. I’m gratified to say that Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon, was the deeply affecting true story of the return of a fallen Iraq soldier to Dubois and his burial in our local cemetery.

This image is not from the film. It’s an actual honor guard at the actual Dubois cemetery, on Veterans Day. Even though locals including Chance Phelps’ family worked hard to bring production here, the Western scenes were filmed in Montana.

The business incentives in Wyoming weren’t as good as elsewhere. But also, the costs of bringing the production to this remote area were too high to be practical.

This used to trouble me, but as time goes by, I have changed my view. Dubois was extraordinarily fortunate that the one film to feature it gave an accurately positive image of its character–even though the images didn’t actually show our town or our landscape. But it may be a blessing that it is a challenge to bring film producers here.

There are many reasons to value our remoteness in this valley. That it discourages the media that might send the wrong message about us is one of them.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Lights Down. Leota’s Gone from Dubois.

She left the ranch and became a phenomenon.

Back in the city, a neighbor’s death was the loss of one thread in a rich tapestry. There were so many others weaving in and out.

Rainbow_croppedHere, it’s more like the fading of bands in the rainbow, a loss of our brilliance. In recent weeks, our light has dimmed with the sudden absence of several townsfolk — a beloved young man lost too soon to cancer, an elderly businessman important to the town’s growth, and now Leota Didier.

With her passing, I think we’ve lost the bright vermilion stripe. Alas.

Leota had a special place in my heart, because she gave us our first glimpse of Dubois when we stayed at the Lazy L&B dude ranch 30 years ago. She and her husband Bernard, a retired Presbyterian minister, had bought the ranch 20 years earlier. That was on a side trip during a vacation in Denver, when she had thought they were headed to California.

“My husband was a funny man,” Leota told me once. “He got urges.”

LazyLB “He heard there were marvelous buys on dilapidated ranches in Wyoming,” she recalled. Having formerly run church camps, Bernard got an idea. “Before the week was over,” she went on, “we owned a ranch.”

By the time we got there, Lazy L&B was far from dilapidated, but it was folksy and friendly. Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, she knew well how to handle animals, and I guess as a minister’s wife she had also learned how to deal with people

When we returned to Dubois decades later, I was pleased to find that she was still here. I invited her to tea, and then came to know her better.

In the meantime, Bernard had succumbed to Alzheimer’s and passed away. Leota had left the ranch, moved to town, and become a phenomenon.

CuttingParty2015The “L” in Lazy L&B, Leota was hardly lazy. Among many other blessings, she helped to move the historic Dennison Lodge to the center of town, where it became an events venue (and pity the person who left a mess in that kitchen!).

She installed large bronze statues by local artists in the town square, and was heavily involved in helping to create the new assisted living center at Warm Valley Lodge, where she spent her last days.

I saw her most often when I would help out at the weekly square dance selling soft drinks. She would always sit at the door and stamp hands as people paid their fee and came in. I have great photos of my young children at the square dance decades ago, and I’m sure she must have been at the door back then.

LeotaEven last summer, after she had moved to Warm Valley, she would never miss this duty as long as someone would pick her up and take her home after.

Tall and patrician, she dressed with elegance, even as she grew stooped and slow. Always slim skirts and fitted jackets in the muted colors of the West, and always that signature hat.

I bought the sassy red hat below in the thrift-shop auction one year, thinking it must have been a donation from her. That was her style: Classy and bold.

She told me she had not donated that hat. Who knows; at that time her memory was fading. I can’t pull it off with her style, so I seldom wear it. But in any case I think of her whenever I see it.

Hats_cropped

“How are you?” I asked, the last time I saw her, only weeks ago, at church.

“About as well as could be expected,” she replied, with a gentle echo of her former husky laugh. Typical Leota: Ironic, straightforward, candid.

Her devoted wrangler, Max, posted on Facebook about her death, inspiring a flood of responses.

“Leota was a true original,” someone wrote. “She was a Pioneer and a woman of substance. She had a great heart and an energy and a drive that was legendary.”

“She did so much for so many people and the town of Dubois,” replied someone else, “and most of the time nobody knew.”

Another post said that nobody could fill her shoes.

“Or hats,” I replied. Max gave that a “like.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Dubois Old Town and the Spirit of the West

Charm is a state of mind.

CemeteryView4_TrueWestThis is Dubois. It has a new distinction this year, being recognized by True West magazine as the town with the best-preserved Western architecture.

I don’t think the award was meant to designate the oldest residential part of town. But I think it deserves recognition.

Like many new settlers from far away, I don’t actually live in Dubois, although I usually say I do. So many of us who move here choose a house that is new-built, with a view, miles outside the town limits. We don’t often venture into the original housing section.

IMG_0745The main road bypasses the old part of town, which is also the low-rent district. For years, I never went over that way, except to go to the library.  Unless you know someone who lives there or you have children at the school (which is also in that direction), there’s little reason to visit the original village.

I began doing so lately. At first glance it appears unkempt and unattractive. But the longer I spend there, the more I have come to appreciate it.

IMG_0726“Can you help us get someone on the Town Council who will do something to clean up the town?” a friend asked me a few weeks ago.  I asked her to explain what she meant by “clean up.” One thing she mentioned was the trailers.

True, there are lots of old house trailers and double-wides in the old town. Mayor Blakeman told me that you’re no longer allowed to set up a new house trailer in Dubois. The ones in the old part of town are “grandfathered in.” Today, she said, to erect a dwelling you have to put up something made of “sticks.”

IMG_0725By and large, the properties with trailers are well-kept (in a dusty, not-much-will-grow-here way).

Many of the double-wides aspire to resemble suburban tract houses. Put on blinders and narrow the focus, in some spots, and you can envision yourself in a subdivision. But you’d have to ignore the fact that many of the streets are unpaved.

Notice how the mountains loom over the old village, as they do everywhere in Dubois. Here also, it’s quite possible to have a view.

IMG_0744Lots of the houses are small, old, insubstantial, and have a thrown-together appearance. Many have large stacks of firewood in the yard. It’s the only source of heat for many people, because out here in the wilderness electricity is expensive and there aren’t many jobs that pay well.

Some homes also have several vehicles in the yard besides the pickup. A camper, say, and a horse trailer. This is not especially attractive, but it doesn’t mean we are trashy. It means that we like to get out into the woods, and many of us do love horses.

IMG_0734A herd of deer also seems to regard the old village as home. They cross the streets with the proprietary air of homeowners out on a stroll, and sometimes lounge on porches in the sun. They like to graze in the empty lots.

Mayor Blakeman says there are still empty lots because people hold onto property in the old town as an investment, waiting for it to appreciate. She adds that some of the empty lots have begun to sell. Among the double-wides and bungalows, you also see some charming new log homes.

It’s fascinating to see the new interpretations that some people have made of their house trailers as they added on for more space. Is that what this is, in the image below? I especially like it, however it began.

IMG_0753_editedSome folks might like to spruce up the old part of town so that it looks more like a “historic district.” But as I walk these streets, I’ve come to think that the architecture of old town, if you can call it that, truly preserves the spirit of the Old West in the sense that True West magazine intended.

It’s a place founded by people without much money who intensely wanted to be here, and set up housekeeping in the best way they could, with what they had. There hasn’t been much by way of town planning and regulation, because this too is the spirit of the old West.

IMG_0739If it speaks of anything, the old town speaks of individualism — and that is truly who we are.

The other day I enjoyed a movie set in a hill town in Sicily, a part of Italy that we visited a few years ago. I saw the facades of peeling stucco on a town square, glowing in that special light you get in Italy, and I grew wistful for those ancient surroundings.

Would we still seek out those old villages, I wondered, if Disney World went in and repaired the stucco and paved the cobbled streets?

Then I thought of the old part of Dubois, which we could also cherish for its very imperfections.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

The Dubois Jackalope: A Unique Genetic Variant?

Adding to controversy about a remarkable hybrid

As a former science writer with a special interest in genetics, I hardly expected to find something of professional interest in my tiny, remote home town of Dubois, Wyoming. My hearfelt thanks to the Riverton friend who sent me a document someone left on the photocopy machine in her workplace. This gives me a rare and unexpected opportunity to revive my old skills.

I have traced the document to Steven J. McAllister, a biology professor at Central Wyoming College. It contains a description of the genetic characteristics of “the rarely seen and little studied Dubois Jackalope.” I was aware that the elusive jackalope is sighted throughout the state of Wyoming, but not that there is a specific Dubois variant—let alone that it has been the subject of scientific study.

JackalopeThe Dubois Jackalope is beloved of tourists, who like to take selfies on a statue of the creature, which has stood for years outside a small private museum dedicated to the animal. In fact, my own husband recalls passing through on vacation as a child and begging his parents to stop and let him ride the jackalope.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says they told him. “That’s just a tourist trap.”

Not so! Described as a hybrid between an antelope and a jackrabbit, the creature had an illustrious history long before biologists began to document its genetic characteristics. Accounts by cowboys describe a fearless and ferocious “warrior rabbit” that fought with its horns and could imitate the songs they sang around the campfire.

Kathy Weiser writes in Legends of America  that the “antlered species of rabbit” are  “brownish in color, weight between three and five pounds, and move with lighting speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.”

HornedHareAccording to Weiser, our esteemed local explorer John Colter, who passed through here en route to what is now Yellowstone Park, was the first to report sightings of the antlered rabbit in North America. But it has a much longer history in Europe. The Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel included the image at right in his book Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra) [Terrestrial Quadrupeds and Reptiles], published around 1575.

I have discovered information about jackalope genetics in three college tests, which we can assume refer to reports that the students have read in preparation for the tests. Unfortunately,  none of these quizzes offer journal citations to the relevant publications.

However, they do provide a fascinating glimpse of this esoteric field.

As always in science, there is considerable controversy about the genetic qualities of the jackalope – especially with regard to coat color, as I will describe later.

Inheritance of other jackalope characteristics seems to follow the simplest rules of Mendelian genetics: Each parent possesses two genetic factors (known as “alleles”) for a property, of which one is passed on to offspring. Inheriting one from each parent, the young have two copies of each allele. “Dominant” alleles always win out over “recessive” alleles; the only way to inherit a “recessive” characteristic is by getting a recessive allele from both parents.

A document from the Missouri University of Science and Technology describes this phenomenon in mating experiments between long-horned and short-horned variants of the jackalope. The inheritance patterns suggest that the gene for long horns is dominant. Therefore long horns will be far more common among jackalopes than short horns. (This makes sense, as long horns would help them to be fierce fighters.)

Jackalope_croppedThe Wyoming report also describes a quality that follows this pattern: ear length. The Dubois jackalope has long-eared and short-eared variants, it says, with short ears being recessive (and therefore much less common). For whatever it’s worth, both jackalopes represented in the museum in Dubois appear to have long ears.

Controversy has arisen about the inheritance of coat color. A test question from the American School of Warsaw says that the fur color of jackalopes is inherited through “incomplete dominance,” in which an animal that inherits one dominant and one recessive allele winds up with a color that is a mix of the two. In this case, it says, the alleles are for red or white, but the heterozygote (which inherits both) turns out pink.

Another document about jackalope genetics, this one from North Central College in Napierville IL, concurs that coat color is inherited through incomplete dominance, but describes the colors differently. Jackalopes can inherit alleles for either brown or white, it says, and animals with one brown and one white allele have gray fur.

Descriptions of color are always subjective; one wonders whether these two reports describe different subtypes or just use different words for the same thing. Of course “red” and “brown” can sometimes be conflated (note that Weiser described the color as “brownish”.)

However, it is difficult to see how gray and pink can be confused as the same color. Most likely, heterozygous jackalopes in Poland are indeed pink and those in Illinois are actually gray. These kinds of geographic variations are common in nature, as Charles Darwin himself recognized.

Jackalop_sketchThe Dubois test, not available online, describes a different system for inheritance of coat color: Orange as recessive and gray as dominant. Is “orange” equivalent to the “pink” of Warsaw jackalopes? Or is the evidence behind the Dubois report in error?

Do the “orange” jackalopes in Dubois actually represent incomplete dominance, not recessive inheritance? Or is it just that, like so much else in Dubois, the Dubois jackalope is unique? One hopes the scientists involved can reconcile these issues.

In the interests of completeness, I must report that alternative theories for the origins of the jackalope have been reported elsewhere. These arguments hold that horns arising on the head of ordinary jackrabbits are the result of a disease (appropriately called “jackalopism”) caused by a papilloma virus, which induces tissue to harden on the top of a rabbit’s head.

In his book A Planet of Viruses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), my fellow science journalist Carl Zimmer described experiments in the 1930s that validated this theory. A scientist ground up the horns of a creature with this condition, dissolved them and filtered the solution so viruses could get through. He applied the liquid to the heads of other rabbits which, sure enough, grew horns.

Are there genetic factors that determine susceptibility to this virus? How do they relate to ear length and, more importantly, coat color? I will end with the conclusion common to so many scientific reports: Further research is necessary.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

The Remarkable History of Camp Dubois

Almost as free as hawks. But still, very far from home …

POW6The snows are building in the mountains again, and the “snowbirds” with homes in Arizona are gone.

And about this time of year, more than 70 years ago, an extraordinary group of summer visitors would have been leaving Camp Dubois. It must have been an unusually melancholy return to civilization for them, traveling to the much larger base camp at Scottsbluff and leaving behind the “most beautiful time” in a place “cut off from the outside world” where, like the hawks, one man wrote, “we could lift ourselves away from the everyday life of the prisoner.”

Its name might bring to mind a summer camp for girls, but Camp Dubois was a temporary home for up to 150 German prisoners of war and U.S. military personnel. Located at about 9000 feet in elevation, far back in the woods roughly 9 miles from town as the crow flies, it was established at the request of Wyoming Tie and Timber, whose free-living American employees lived in villages in the mountains all winter, felling trees to create railroad ties. Camp Dubois was open for 14 months in the milder seasons from 1944 to 1946, helping to fill a wartime labor shortage.

POW5The POW camp was dismantled and bulldozed after the war, although fascinating traces remain hidden in the woods up near Union Pass. Thanks to the extensive records and photos of camp commander Lieutenant Harold Harlamert, to military records, and to the prisoners’ own letters, poems, diaries (and even a Skype interview of a former inmate last April) amassed by local historian Cheryl O’Brien, Camp Dubois may be one of the best-documented “branch” POW camps in the United States.

I was lucky enough to visit the site two summers ago, when I took these pictures. This article is based on a presentation Cheryl gave last August during the week before the solar eclipse.

Due to its isolation, the camp did not need to be heavily guarded. Some POWs at Camp Dubois volunteered to come, in order to escape from harassment by pro-Nazi POWs at the larger base camp. All the evidence suggests its residents were relatively content.

POW7Although they had to wash in the stream while the enlisted men who worked as guards got hot showers, the prisoners were well treated according to the strict guidelines of the Geneva Convention. Only one POW died during the camp’s existence: 19-year-old Max Stoll was killed when a gust of wind blew down a tree he was felling.

The POWs slept in wood-framed tents covered with white canvas, each of which had a wood-burning stove. They did much of the same work as the civilian tie hacks: cutting logs with two-man crosscut saws and axes, and stacking them to be taken to the river and floated down to Riverton.

They would have eaten well, especially when their food was provided by the civilian loggers. The prisoners trapped game in their spare time, and they wrote of bagging rabbits, grouse, and porcupine.

A stray dog that a POW found at one of the sawmills became the camp pet.  Their postcards home were sent postage-free through the US mail.

The life held a “special kind of romanticism,” as POW Rudolf Ritschel wrote, and they were excited to see real cowboys. But for all that, remoteness had its loneliness. And they were far from home.

POW8According to Knights of the Broadax, a book about the tie hacks, some men cried when the wife of the store manager at the civilian tie-hack village brought her infant son along on a visit. Kip MacMillan, the grandson of the President of Wyoming Tie & Timber Company, recalls being terrified when, as a young boy, he was told by his grandfather that he would be spending a night at the camp, unaccompanied. But when he got there he was treated like a long-lost member of the family. One POW even gave up his bed for Kip and slept on the floor.

After the war, the men were eventually freed, but it took months and sometimes years for Camp Dubois’ residents to return home. Cheryl knows of only one POW who revisited the camp. Fritz Hartung brought his family to Dubois in 1975, to show them where he once hiked and “swam with beavers”.

Starting two years ago, representatives of the US Forest Service began meeting with interested Dubois residents about how to preserve and provide interpretive information about the Camp Dubois site and make it accessible to visitors. Cheryl is currently working on a book about her research into Camp Dubois and the other 15 branch POW camps that once existed in Wyoming.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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