Shearing barn housed political ralliesWritten by Jennifer Womack
“We are hard core Republicans and were involved in party work,” recalls Della, who along with her husband Vern owns the historic shearing barn at Walcott Junction along Interstate 80 between Rawlins and Elk Mountain. The Vivions would like to see the barn, laced with both agricultural and Wyoming history, relocated to the Territorial Prison at Laramie and preserved as a living history.
“As the years progressed the shearing shed was one of few places large enough to host a major rally for the county,” says Della. “We had to go in and clean like crazy for a week or two ahead of time. It would be a county-wide event.” It wasn’t all about hearing politicians speak from the platforms that doubled as wool sorting tables, but a festival of sorts with music, dining and dancing.
Della says, “The old platform where they sorted the wool, we’d put the band up there. People brought food and beverages and we had wonderful, wonderful times.” While the nearly 100-year-old barn no longer houses sheep shearings or political rallies, it’s largely maintained its structural integrity. A combination of lanolin and the wear of dance shoes can be seen on the floor today.
“I was not from a ranching family,” says Della, noting that her initial arrival in the very wind Walcott community was a bit of a shock. “I was born and reared in Sheridan and Vern and I met at the University of Wyoming.” Both Della and Vern, a third generation rancher, were journalism majors. Vern was attending school on a basketball scholarship and was known for his photography talent.
When the young couple graduated from the university it was off to Los Angeles, Calif.,where Vern intended to earn his master’s degree in photography and advertising. “We stayed about two months,” says Della, noting that it didn’t take Vern long to decide he didn’t like L.A. “We moved back to the ranch in 1948,” she says, noting they’ve been there ever since.
Vern and Della, who raised their three daughters in the Rawlins area, were the third generation to operate the ranch. “This was always a range operation,” says Della. “Vern’s parents and his grandparents before them had always lived in Rawlins. You moved sheep camps and took supplies out. It was not centered on living on the ranch.”
Della says the ranch women of her day weren’t as involved in the day-to-day ranch work as today’s women and spent more time feeding the crews. “We were not part of the docking crews or the branding crews, but fed the crews,” she recalls.
In the summertime the family packed up their belongings and moved to the Snowy Range Mountains where a portion of their sheep spent the summer. Vern’s brother, Bob, accompanied another portion of the sheep to the Rabbit Ears area above Steamboat, Colo.
Serving as their six-week summer home was a cabin Vern’s grandfather purchased from the Cosgriff’s when the railroad came through the Fort Steele area. Still in the family today, Della says the cabin was taken apart, placed on the back of an old truck, shipped to the mountains and reassembled. When in Fort Steele near present day I-80 the cabin served as the local post office.
“It was the most special part of the year,” says Della. “We had no conveniences,” she says, chuckling about the uphill hike to the outhouse. “The wood pile was on another hill and we got our drinking water from the creek. It was a marvelous life experience. Our kids grew up loving it and it’s one of our fondest memories.” Della says she loved cooking on the old cookstove in the cabin.
Living on a ranch in the Saratoga area for a time, Della operated three art galleries. “My first one was in Rawlins,” she says. “I had one in the Saratoga Inn and one downtown in what was the old theater in Saratoga. We had involvement in Saratoga for several years.”
Della says as their three daughters found work in other disciplines portions of the ranch were sold. She and Vern transitioned from sheep to cattle. Seven years ago they leased out the grazing on the remainder of the ranch. Their oldest daughter Valeri lives in Denver, Colo. and their middle daughter Kristy is in Casper. Their youngest daughter Mary lives in Phoenix, Ariz. They have nine grandchildren.
Vern served as president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, served a term in the legislature and was president of the American Sheep Industry Association. During that same timeframe Della served as chairman of the Wool Growers Auxiliary. “We made a lot of wonderful friends during our years with the WWGA,” says Della.
As the first woman mayor of Rawlins, Della says she spent a great deal of her tenure in the position working on downtown revitalization. “We did a lot to turn downtown Rawlins around during that era,” she says. Always a preservationist, she says efforts to preserve the Walcott shearing barn are a natural progression in a long-held passion.
“I loved the interaction,” says Della of ranch life, “the brandings and the dockings.” While her initial visit to the Walcott area was a shock in contrast to her Sheridan upbringing, she laughs, “I learned to just love it.”
Her favorite, and one she always returns to when reminiscing of days gone by, is the shearing barn.
“Built in 1916,” she says, “the shearing shed was here when I first came in 1948. The place was fascinating to me with all of the activity and the whir of machines and the intensity with which they all worked. It created a synergy that just wrapped around the place.” More than 100,000 sheep from ranches including the Palms, Rochelles, Petersons and Vivions made their way through the barn each year for their annual clipping. “On Sundays,” says Della, “everyone in Carbon County loved to come to the shearing shed for dinner.”
Walking through the barn mid-September 2008 Della points out the Malcolm Wallop, Alan Simpson and Jim Geringer bumper stickers plastered on the walls. More than bumper stickers, for Della they’re a reminder of a community pulling together to support their candidates of choice.