Wyoming is home to more than 100 museums.
But only one Wyoming museum showcases the skull of infamous outlaw Big Nose George Parrott, who once rode with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang.
The Parrott exhibit at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins includes a plaster cast of the outlaw’s skull. The bottom half of the real thing is in the museum’s archives. The top part was removed post-mortem by Dr. John Osborne and now resides in the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was once used in Osborne’s office as an ashtray. Parrott’s body was intact the day that angry locals hanged him on Rawlins’ Front Street. His crime? Murder of two lawmen, a hanging offense in 1891.
You can read about it in a display case next time you visit the Rawlins museum. You can’t miss the place. The museum moved from the county courthouse into an old LDS church on the corner of 9th St. and West Walnut in 1976. It’s located only a few blocks away from the old Wyoming Frontier Prison. You might remember the prison from a 2018 episode of “Ghost Adventures.” During the hour-long show, paranormal investigators explored the spooky prison, searching for lost souls. None being available, the crew discussed at length how Parrott was hanged in the prison gallows. “That didn’t happen,” said Dr. Steven Dinero, executive director of the Carbon County Museum, noting that the Frontier Prison didn’t open until 1901.
The story of Big Nose was one of the subjects we touched on during a hot June afternoon just before the summer equinox. This summer is special in many ways. The pandemic is easing. Everyone, it seems, is on Interstate-80, headed for Wyoming or at least making a quick stop en route to other destinations.
One four-legged traveler is a local mule deer relaxing in the shade behind the 3-foot-high green Sinclair dinosaur on the museum’s front lawn. If you look west, you can see a one-room schoolhouse and a lifelike reproduction of a sheep herders’ wagon built by inmates of the Wyoming State Penitentiary.
Dinero points out a real sheep wagon in the museum’s garage annex just across the room from an antique fire engine, western saddles and a classic buggy. A smorgasbord of items are displayed around the room, cooled slightly by a lonely oscillating fan.
Every museum tells a story. But which story? When Dinero arrived in 2018, he faced a big task: deciding what to keep on display and what to store. First, he replaced the worn-out carpet and installed new lighting. He spruced up the exhibits, some of which had fallen on hard times. The pandemic shutdown allowed staff and volunteers to reconfigure the displays and install new signage.
A grant from the Union Pacific Foundation gave the museum an opportunity to revamp the railroad section, which takes up almost an entire wall. It includes mementoes of the train industry, such as a steam whistle bell and a huge oil can designed to reach into the dark innards of steam-driven locomotives. Many items were contributed by board chair Ken Klouda. He donated a depot sign that he salvaged when the abandoned passenger depot became a community meeting space.
One display case holds stacks of UP playing cards used by travelers in the heyday of passenger rail. Next to that is a book, about the size of a deck of cards, entitled “Union Pacific.” It was released at the same time the “Union Pacific” movie debuted in 1939, directed by the king of the spectacle, Cecil B. DeMille. The movie trailer declares: “Hell on wheels, headed straight for glory!”
Rawlins was just one of the “Hell on Wheels” towns of the 1860s. The town of Benton, 11 miles east of Rawlins, grew up and died during the summer of ’68. It featured 25 saloons and five dance halls. The “Big Tent” housed a brothel and a physician who treated patrons for any disease contracted on the premises. Zane Grey tells Benton’s and Rawlins’ stories in his novel “The U.P. Trail.”
Benton, now a ghost town, is featured in the UP display.
Railroad stories are big in Wyoming. But who tells the stories, and how?
The facts are crucial to Dinero, who holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Policy Development from Rutgers University. He spent much of his professional life teaching in New Jersey and at Philadelphia’s Jefferson University. It’s only natural that he assumed his first job as a museum director in the metropolis of Rawlins, population about that of a typical Philadelphia neighborhood.
How did this urbanized East Coaster get to Wyoming?
“By car,” he laughs. “No, I’m an educator, through and through. But teaching became less fulfilling. The idea of leaving the East Coast and doing something different was very exciting.”
He’d been to the usual Wyoming tourist spots as a child. The itinerary didn’t include Rawlins.
“I took a chance on Rawlins and am so glad that I did,” he said. “I have an encore career, an encore life.”
Part of that encore life includes the usual piles of paperwork associated with a non-profit organization. He also staffs the entrance desk and coaxes visitors to enter their names and hometowns in the guestbook. On this Friday, he’s logged in visitors from Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Oregon. “About 50-60% of our visitors are from out of state and 3-5% are international travelers,” Dinero said.
Some summer visitors are taking a break from hiking the Continental Divide Trail that crosses through Rawlins. “You know who they are when they come in the door with these huge backpacks,” he said.
Visitation numbers are crucial when applying for grants, in which he’s had some success. The UP Foundation grant paid for the new displays and also allowed the museum to whip its web site into shape. His partner, Dolores Pfeuffer-Scherer, is director of marketing and educational outreach. She is tasked with updating the web site and social media.
The user-friendly web site revels in telling the museum’s stories. It chronicles the steps taken to redo the Union Pacific displays. One anecdote on the blog is titled “Behind the Scenes: Anatomy of a New Exhibit.” It shows one mannequin dressed as a ticket agent (complete with mustache) and another dressed as a member of a road crew.
Notes the blog: “From the viewpoint of curating exhibits, there’s good and bad in this photo. Obviously, the mannequins are dated. We can still display the uniforms, but there are other ways to do so without using what appears to be female forms disguised as men.”
Budgets are always an issue in museums. Corporate sponsors, individual patrons, and grants are key to its support. Earned income derives from visitor donations and sales at the museum shop. According to Dinero, the museum operates on a $250,000 budget, give or take, depending on grants.
Someone must organize the material and archives. That task falls to Museum Registrar Ashlee James. She hails from Indiana and notes that this is her first “big-girl post-college” job after earning a museum science master’s degree. When she arrived in January 2019, she set to work writing two grants to organize the archives. Her computer database now contains more than 30,000 object records. She is sorting through some 5,000 photos that the museum has collected in its 80 years.
Dinero aims to tell the county’s stories in more convincing ways. He also plans to tell new stories. He wants to expand the section that celebrates the county’s women trailblazers who were newspaper editors, authors and suffragists. The fact that 30%of the population is Hispanic prompted the staff to work on a “Latinos of Carbon County” exhibit. Dinero told the story of the county’s Jewish history in “Go West Young Mensch: The Rise and Decline of the Jewish Community of Carbon County, Wyoming.” It earned him a 2020 award from the Wyoming Historical Society in the Best Journal/Magazine Publication category.