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Keepers of the past

How a coalition of caretakers is keeping Wyoming's ghost towns alive

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JAY EM — They used to hold Saturday night dances on the top floor of the general store that grew so large the building started to sway.

A woman rode her horse dozens of miles from her ranch to play her violin for the partiers.

While Jay Em was never officially incorporated as a town, it had everything it needed to be one – a rock shop that produced fireplaces that still rest in Wyoming’s Capitol; three blacksmith shops that repaired wagon wheels and car chassis; a weekly newspaper; a bank that once was robbed and a gas station that once sold 6 gallons of gas for $2.04.

But better cars eventually took people to bigger towns. The population slowly dwindled.

When it all closed down for good in 1976, this eastern Wyoming town’s founder passed it onto his daughter, who passed it to her kids. Now the rock shop, gas station, general store and other buildings sit vacant, a mausoleum to the hundreds of lives that once occupied this crook of a valley off of U.S. Highway 85.

Two grandkids still clean the buildings. But at 80 and 78 years old, they’re hardly kids anymore. They drive over to Jay Em from their homes in Glendo and Wheatland to give tours to visitors in the summer. Donations are accepted.

They’re not sure who will take over once they’re gone, so the oldest daughter, Marjorie Sanborn, has decided not to think about it.

“He wanted to keep the town in the family so badly that I am just going to hang onto that wish of his as long as I can,” she said.

It’s hard to know how many places like Jay Em still exist in Wyoming. There isn’t an official inventory on ghost towns — or nearly ghost towns. In fact, the term itself is hard to define.

What is clear is the future of these places are left to a haphazard coalition of government agencies, casual volunteers and dedicated caretakers who stick out harsh winters and make long drives for their towns.

It’s worth it, they say, to preserve the remnants of Wyoming’s hardscrabble past, to make sure future generations know what it took to put down roots here.

***

Defining “ghost town” is difficult. Author Clint Thompson describes the term as “any established settlement that has been fully or significantly abandoned, of which at least some tangible remains exist” in his book, “Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West.” Other definitions don’t require structures. Some require that there be no residents at all.

In Wyoming, those places take a wide variety of shapes.

Not all towns are as lucky as Jay Em, which had people who stayed behind to care for it. Or Sunrise, a old mining town north of Wheatland that was bought by a Chugwater man who is slowly mending decades of disrepair.

Some places are technically still towns, with a few businesses and a population count listed on a highway sign. But these communities, like Jeffrey City, are such a shell of their former selves that the empty apartments and schools far outnumber the occupied. Nothing stops the tumbleweeds or wild animals from entering the old motels through broken windows and swinging doors.

Some ghost towns, like Gebo north of Thermopolis or Kirwin southwest of Meeteetse, are a gathering of empty structures left in the care of government agencies. Others are nothing more than a roadside marker noting that this spot on the seemingly endless prairie used to be a community, long since destroyed by the slow wither of wind and snow.

Explaining the sometimes thankless work is easy for dedicated caretakers like Sanborn in Jay Em: “To those of us that care about it, it is worth it.”

***

Unlike most towns that cropped up to support a coal mine, timber mill or railroad, Jay Em was created for homesteaders.

Lake Harris, a 21-year-old from Wisconsin, filed for land under the Homestead Act in 1912 in an empty stretch of prairie along Rawhide Creek.

He was one of the few people in the area who sold critical windmill parts, and success blossomed.

“They had a bustling business with their hardware and supplies,” said Sanborn, Lake’s granddaughter.

He started or eventually bought nearly everything in the town from the rock shops to the newspaper (run by his wife until her untimely death by flu in 1918).

At its largest, Jay Em hosted more than 200 residents, including 67 European refugees from World War II at one point.

Sanborn went to school for a time in the one-room building on the outskirts of the town.

But by 1972, business had dwindled and Harris and his partner decided to retire.

He left the buildings — his life’s work — to his daughter and her children to maintain.

A water tower standing guard over the town started to weather and the boards slowly rotted and collapsed. It seemed, for a time, that center of the historic town might become just another story in a book about Wyoming’s homesteaders.

***

In 2003, Joe Ellis moved from Casper and his job at the Nicolaysen Art Museum to the high desert at the base of the Wind River Range to become one of four permanent residents of South Pass City.

He never expected to become the superintendent of Wyoming’s best known ghost town, which is part of the state parks system. For hundreds of years, the site had served as a convenient point for travelers to pass through over the Continental Divide. Then, in the 1860s, soldiers in the area reported they had found gold. Thousands of hopefuls flooded the area, establishing South Pass City, Atlantic City and Hamilton City in their wake.

But the gold supply eventually waned. The towns’ populations followed suit. Once considered a possibility for the territorial capital of Wyoming, South Pass was nearly devoid of residents by the turn of the century.

Now, it’s left to the care of the state historic site’s four full-time employees and a coalition of volunteers. Fifteen years after his move, Ellis has developed an affinity for the approximately two dozen structures scattered about his cabin.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary place,” he said. “It’s high and harsh. The people who came here were tough people. They really worked to make a life here. Telling that story is really exciting.”

Other Wyoming ghost towns are also managed by state and federal agencies. A coalition of volunteers and governmental entities — including the Shoshone National Forest, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Abandoned Mine Lands Division of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality — worked to restore the buildings of Kirwin, a remote ghost town in the Absaroka Mountains southwest of Meeteetse.

Marit Bovee, an archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, helps to oversee the ghost town of Gebo, located about 14 miles north of Thermopolis. About 1,200 people lived in Gebo at its peak in 1929. But when the mines closed in the late ‘30s, the residents left the company town.

In 1971, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management bulldozed many of the structures, though a few escaped destruction, Bovee said. A water tower, a row of stone houses and parts of the town’s cemetery remain. Mining apparatuses and debris, like glass and pieces of metal, are still scattered around the site.

Bovee’s role is fairly hands off. She visits Gebo three or four times a year to check on the structures. Mostly, she makes sure the site remains safe for visitors and keeps an eye out for vandalism. It’s not a widespread problem, she said, but she’ll occasionally find a fresh mark on a tombstone, or trash in the water tower. A few years ago, it appeared that a group of people had a paintball game around the stone houses.

“There hasn’t been anything too severe,” she said. “(Gebo) is holding up to the elements very well.”

Ellis, in comparison, spends nearly every waking moment in his ghost town. He spends the summer guiding about 15,000 visitors through the town’s restored buildings and hosting educational programming.

But in the winter, when the tourists are gone and the town is silent and the 39 miles to Lander seem an odyssey, Ellis and the others turn to restoration. Work has focused on the Carissa Mine and Mill and the surrounding structures since the state added that to the historic site in 2003. Ideally, they’d like the mine equipment and apparatuses to look and function as they did in 1949.

Ellis enjoys the solitude of South Pass and the lessons it offers. The town, and others like it, show Wyoming’s roots.

“It shows us where we’ve been,” he said. “With a boom and bust town like South Pass City, it’s a pretty potent reminder for the boom and bust cities that are still riding that cycle.”

***

Jay Em’s roots show in the seven historic buildings still painted white with signs in the glass windows that say things like “BLACKSMITH SHOP 1929-1960s” and “GROCERY BUILT 1935.”

Sanborn, her sister, Hazel Mudgett, their siblings, children and grandchildren have spent decades working on the store, gas station and wood shop and other buildings.

Shelves in the general store hold items you would expect to see like steel wool pads and soap. Others, like bottles of onion or garlic juice are a little more unique to the time. The dark, wood floors are preserved as they were nearly a century ago, and copies of the Fort Laramie Sentinel and Jay Em News rest on a table for anyone interested.

A sign propped in the window of the general store offers Sanborn and her sister’s phone numbers for tours. A sign on the highway points travelers to “Historic Jay Em.”

Sanborn has dreams of grants that could help support the nonprofit the family created a few years ago to keep the town operating as a historic site. The town isn’t empty – 16 people currently live near the center – but the only services offered are a post office and nondenominational church.

Grants would allow them to fix the electricity and stop the leak in the rock shop that reminds Sanborn of Niagara Falls. But many grants require matching funds, which they’re trying to figure out.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” she said recently. “It’s something I try not to think too much about, because when I’m gone I won’t be able to do anything about it anyway.”

But while they can, she and her family will keep cleaning floors and dusting shelves, patching roofs and rebuilding walls and giving tours to anyone interested in hearing stories of Wyoming’s past.

Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Managing Editor

A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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