By Jim Winnerman Special to the Post-Dispatch
The words “Cheyenne, Wyoming” likely conjure up images of cowboys and cattle. While the town is synonymous with the wild Western frontier, it’s also a town brimming with public art that honors its Western legacy and heritage.
Most obvious to first-time visitors are 36 8-foot-tall cowboy boots (watch out for the giant spurs) sprinkled around the town, each painted with an original theme by local artists. All are part of “These Boots are Made for Talking” campaign sponsored by local merchants to tell the story of Cheyenne in a uniquely “cowboy appropriate” manner.
For example, the boot titled “Wyoming Women 1st to Vote” depicts how in 1869, and when still a territory, it was the first place in the world women to guarantee this fundamental right of citizenship.
Elsewhere more than 50 bronze statues and murals on the sides of buildings dot the city commemorating stories of the region, historical figures, explorers, settlers, Native Americans, animals and scenes from everyday life on the frontier. Harvey Deselms, a local businessman and originator of the idea for the statues, says, “Our city and the state of Wyoming share a special place in the history of the American West, and this is a way to leave a legacy through art.”
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On display outside the Old West Museum the bronze statue “No Turning Back” by sculptor Veryl Goodnight is a life-size image of a woman turned to look behind her while her hand rests on the wheel of a covered wagon. The last phrase from a poem on the base of the statue reads: “Only one thing was certain along this wagon track, there was no turning back.”
Not all the themes are so esoteric. A bronze calf scratching its head with its hind leg is one of four sculptures with a cattle theme on each corner of a downtown intersection.
“Overall, well over $1 million has been spent on public art,” says Andi Jaspersen, experience and marketing manager at Visit Cheyenne (cheyenne.org).
Art in architecture is seen in two prominent Cheyenne buildings. The town train depot was constructed in 1887 by the Union Pacific Railroad when it wanted to give Cheyenne a statement building. To make the depot noteworthy, the railroad engaged prominent architect Henry Van Brunt who was nationally known for his institutional buildings.
Van Brunt designed the imposing Romanesque style depot with a tall central tower and a façade of brick arches radiating out on either side based on 11th and 12th century architecture of Western Europe. A center portico (now enclosed) served the wealthy cattle barons who were able to sit in their carriages while waiting for the train in inclement weather.
Facing the depot tower eight blocks away, the handsome 1886 Wyoming State Capitol reopened in 2019 after an extensive four-year, $300 million renovation. Highlights of a self-guided tour include massive stained-glass ceilings both in the chambers of the senate and house of representatives, the 146-foot-tall rotunda featuring a stained-glass window imported from England, and checkerboard, black and white marble floors with fossils evident in many of the black squares.
For interested in getting “up close and personal” with the bison that once numbered in the millions on the flat prairie surrounding Cheyenne, a trip to the 30,000-acre Terry Bison Ranch Resort just outside of town offers a fun experience. There, guests can take a ride in an open train car (handmade nonetheless) into the middle of the preserve where 3,500 wild bison roam, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds.
When the train stops in the middle of the herd, passengers can feed the beasts large cylindrical pellets of animal food by hand from the safely of the train. The experience of looking down into the face of a buffalo only a foot away with its black tongue moving from one side of its mouth to the other, and its eyes fixated on your hand is a bit unnerving.
“Be aware that anything that falls from the train belongs to the bison,” our guide, Chris, told us, adding that bison can gallop at 35 mph after only 10 steps.
Another noteworthy attraction is the free 14-acre Cheyenne Botanic Gardens featuring landscaped grounds and a 50-foot glass-enclosed conservatory with viewing balconies on three separate floors. Attached is the outdoor and interactive Paul Smith Children’s Village focused on teaching concepts of sustainability.
The historic 1905 Governor’s Mansion, home to 19 Wyoming state governors, is open for self-guided audio tours. In the parlor the framed portraits of all governors include Nellie Tayloe Ross. In 1924 she was the first elected woman governor in the United States.
“Wyoming is rightfully proud of our leadership in ‘female firsts,’” says Jaspersen. “In addition to being first to guarantee the power to vote in 1869 we can also boast about the first woman in the United States to be elected as a justice of the peace in 1870, the first female bailiff and the first all-female jury .”
“Our state seal features a woman in the center holding a banner with the words ‘Equal Rights’ front and center.”
The stories of these, and other important historical women in Wyoming history are all celebrated in the free Cowgirls of the West Museum and Emporium which is dedicated to preserving the history, legends and artifacts of pioneering American women on the frontier.
“The term ‘cowgirl’ originated from Will Rogers,” a volunteer at the museum said. “At the time girls were called ‘cowboy girls,’ but when Rogers saw a lady riding a bucking bronco he said she was a ‘cowgirl’ and a new word was born.”
Another surprisingly delightful museum unusually located on the campus of a large storage locker rental facility is the free Charlie Messenger Museum displaying Messenger’s extensive personal collection of wagons, stagecoaches, guns, quilts and frontier kitchens.
For a town of just over 60,000 people, there is an abundance of museums that do an exceptional job of presenting the history of the town, the state and the settlement of the west. Here are more:
• The Wyoming State Museum (free) displays dinosaur bones, a history of Wyoming’s geology and wildlife, Native American artifacts, pistols and rifles and art by Wyoming residents.
• The Cheyenne Depot Museum ($8) commemorates the importance of the railroad in Cheyenne’s history.
• The Old West Museum ($12) chronicles the legacy of the people who contributed to the 126-year-old Cheyenne rodeo held each July.
• The Nelson Museum of the West ($5) displays Native American artifacts, frontier outlaw memorabilia and an extensive collection of spurs, saddles and historical guns.
• Military Memorial Museum (free with admission to the Nelson Museum of the West) includes 19th century cavalry items and recent historical service pieces including several Medals of Honor.
• Cheyenne Frontier Days has taken place each July for 126 years. Held in a baseball-size stadium, it is billed as the World’s Largest Outdoor Rodeo and Western Celebration.
• Francis E. Warren Air Force Base just outside downtown maintains 150 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Despite being an Air Force base, the facility has only one dirt landing strip.
• Curt Gowdy State Park is 30 miles west of Cheyenne and features a landscape of impressive granite rock formations, aspen groves, meadows, streams and three stocked reservoirs.
where to stay
There are a plethora of name-brand hotels, but two accommodations are purely one-of-a-kind.
• The 1888 Nagle Warren Mansion Bed and Breakfast, also known as “The Duchess of Cheyenne,” has just reopened after a two-year $500,000, floor-to-ceiling renovation that restored what the home was like when it was first built as a residence. Manager Jas Barbe, who has operated properties throughout the United States and Europe, grew up in Defiance, and is a distant relative of Daniel Boone. From $185; naglewarrenmansion.com
• The Little America Hotel and Resort has rooms twice the size of any ordinary hotel and is surrounded by a nine-hole golf course. From $214; cheyenne.littleamerica.com
Where to eat with the locals
Two Doors Down • This downtown favorite features quick service, unique hamburgers and “endless fries.” The “Towering Inferno” contains a burger patty (meat is delivered fresh daily,) a chorizo patty of chopped garlic, smoked paprika and pork, chipotle mayo, American cheese, jalapenos, lettuce, tomato, sautéed onions, onion straws and hot sauce, all served on a pretzel bun. 2doorsdown.net
The Bunkhouse Bar and Grill • About 20 minutes out of town and inside what was once a bunkhouse for ranch workers, steaks are featured. However, the restaurant’s specialty sandwich, outlined in red on the menu, is Rocky Mountain Oysters served with American cheese and Texas toast. On Friday and Saturday evenings the Bunkhouse Band plays while locals get up from the family style tables to dance. bunkhousebar.com