Preserving the pioneer legacy: Museum collects Wyoming’s early artifactsWritten by Christy Martinez
The first meetings of the Wyoming Pioneer Association began in 1884, when members had to be 21 years old and either a resident of or doing business in Wyoming Territory prior to July 1, 1884.
The association began to meet annually in Douglas during the first Wyoming State Fair in 1905, when the roster included cowboys, stockmen, freighters and soldiers.
“The Wyoming Pioneer Association started out primarily as ranchers coming into town for the fair,” says museum director Arlene Eckland-Ernst.
They eventually built the log cabin that stands next door to the museum, and they started contributing Wyoming artifacts from before statehood.
The Wyoming Pioneer Association was incorporated on Jan. 8, 1926, and it ran the museum with the State Fair Board until 1999, when the museum’s management was taken over by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. Today the Wyoming Pioneer Association acts as an advisory board to the museum and has statewide and national membership, while Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources manages the museum.
Of managing the museum’s collection of Wyoming’s past, Eckland-Ernst says they put different things out every year.
“It’s always expanding,” she says. “Back when they first built the building and the additions, in the 1970s, they took a lot of long term loans from people who are now gone and we still have use of them. However, now we take mainly donations.”
Eckland-Ernst says the Wyoming Pioneer Museum is different from other museums in that, although they do have things in storage, a lot of its collection is out and on display.
When researching new pieces or displays, Eckland-Ernst says the whole museum staff assists, and they run the museum free of charge and year-round.
Eckland-Ernst says one of the most interesting items they have is one of the transcontinental telegraph poles. They also have a large collection known as the Fran Johnson Native American Collection.
“She had collected Native American art and artifacts her entire life, and she died and left it all to us,” notes Eckland-Ernst. “There’s beadwork, baskets and pottery, and she left us a lot of money, too.”
Many of the tools that are donated need to be researched to figure out what they are, she says.
“One time we had a rope tightener for an old army bed that we didn’t know what it was, and there are still some items that we don’t know what they are,” she adds.
Eckland-Ernst says those who visit the museum most are tour groups, including some who travel to Wyoming to see Yellowstone in the winter and others who are heading to the Black Hills in the summer.
“We have many tourists coming through town who will stop. Years ago we had a triple diamond rating from AAA that brought a lot of people in, as well as word of mouth,” she says, adding that fourth-graders from the area also come every year, and turn their visit into an essay contest. “They find something in the museum that they like, and they write a story about it and they’re judged by Wyoming Pioneer Association members and they read their essays during fair.”
The Wyoming Pioneer Museum also oversees Fort Fetterman, which is just northwest of Douglas, and Eckland-Ernst says that, depending on what happens in the 2012 Wyoming Legislature, they may add another site – the Odd Fellows Lodge that was the site of a POW camp.
“We’ve met with the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee, and State Parks may take that over as a historic site,” she says of the site that has one building with Italian murals. “We have many items here that could be on display over there.”
Another change to the museum is the end of their annual art show during the Wyoming State Fair, which had been ongoing for 20 years. Eckland-Ernst says the proceeds were used to purchase art for the museum, but that prices were getting too high and the workload was increasing for their small staff.