Small town America

Casper Wyoming, a small town with a surprising past.

Part 5 of the series Small Town America

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Casper, Wyoming now-a-days.   That’s the Plate River in the foreground and Casper Mountain in the background.  It looks like your standard, small western town, but it has a very interesting history.

 I grew up in Casper, Wyoming, from age seven to age nineteen.  To me, Casper had always been this small, isolated, provincial, western town in a cowboy state known for its sheep and cattle and, I thought, a few oil wells.  It was the place where I grew up, had a paper route, where I went to high school, fell in love with my first girl friend and where I went to my first two years of college at a small-town, provincial junior college.    I had no idea that maybe Casper had a history other than this.

The thing about Casper that really caught my attention when I was reading about it the other day is that in 1922 the Midland Oil Refinery in Casper was the largest gas refinery in the entire world.  Wow, in little Casper, Wyoming, the place I always thought was the middle of nowhere.

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The Midwest Refinery in the 1920’s  in Casper, Wyoming.   Looking south with Casper Mountain in the background and the Platte River in the foreground.  And this is just a little bit of the huge refinery.

Casper was always a boom town.  When oil boomed, Casper boomed.  And, of course, visa versa.  The refinery pictured above still existed in the 1940’s and 1950’s when I was growing up in Casper.  At that point I think it was kind of scaled down from what you see above.  But it was still a big presence in Casper.  At 12:00 Saturday noon the refinery whistle still blew for a couple of minutes straight.  You could hear it everywhere in town.   I’m not sure if this was a celebration of the end of the work week or what.  But it was a Casper event that happened as long as I lived in Casper.

When I was in Junior High and for a couple of years of High School I had a paper route that bordered on the far, back edge of the refinery that you see above.  I remember many a day, trundling along with my stuffed newspaper bag, flipping papers at front porches, looking at the refinery across the street.  It seemed to go on for a miles and miles even then.  And this was just one of Casper’s refineries, The Standard Oil refinery.  There was also the Texaco refinery and the Mobile refinery.

Even I eventually got caught up in Casper’s refineries.  For my last year in high school and a year at Casper College I worked at the Mobile Refinery east of Casper.  In the summer time I worked on the bull gang, which was just basic pick and shovel labor.   And in the winter I worked as the mail boy and drove all over the refinery on a motor scooter delivering the in-plant mail from office to office.  In this job, I  got to know everyone at the refinery from the general manager to pipe fitters and electricians and petroleum chemists.  I often drafted the chemists into helping me with my college chemistry problems.   It was a great job.  At the time it paid $5.45 an hour, because the refinery was entirely unionized.  In my previous job I earned .75 cents an hour selling shoes at Montgomery ward.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  This was back in the days when belonging to a union really meant something.  All the ordinary guys that worked there were skilled working class guys that had wives, children, houses, a lot of pride and a good life.  I learned a lot from those guys, they were great working class guys who really changed the way I thought about life.  All of them were tough, savvy guys that I looked up to.

The first refinery in Casper, the Midwest refinery that you see in the picture above, later turned into the Standard Oil refinery, which in the mid 1920’s was owned by John D Rockefeller.   It was a pretty big deal in its time.

Oil was first discover in Wyoming in the late 1890’s.  And little Casper got caught up in the US oil boom.  At first oil and gasoline were no big deal, but with the invention of the internal combustion engine and the diesel engine early the 20th century, cars, ships, busses, airplanes, tractors, and trucks suddenly all needed oil and gas and diesel.  The price of oil skyrocketed and suddenly the Salt Creek oil strike just fifty miles north of Casper was a big deal.  And Casper boomed with the oil.   In 1910 the Casper population was 2,639, by 1920 it was 11,447 and by 1930 it was 16,619.  And with the boom came sudden prosperity and all the other stuff that comes with prosperity, everything from crime and corruption to rich oil barons to a somewhat prosperous working class.   Over the years, oil boomed and collapsed and boomed again and again.  And the Casper I grew up in was colored by it all, all pretty much unknown to me.

Below are a few more pictures off the Midland / Standard Refinery.

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A big fire at the Casper Midwest refinery.  Back in the 1020’s I think.

 

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Early Casper Refinery, 1912.

 

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The Standard Refinery in Casper, before my time in Casper.  You can hardly see Casper Mountain through all the haze.

 

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An early postcard of the Casper Midwest Refinery.  You can get some idea of the size of the place in this image.

 

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In the early days of the Casper refinery, oil was brought from the Salt Creek Oil Field 50 miles north of Casper by means of 100 and even 150 horse teams.  After 10 or 15 years of this, a pipe line was installed and the boom really began.  Casper Mountain in the background still looks exactly like it does here.  It’s about the only thing that didn’t change in Casper.

 

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An old picture of the Casper refinery

 

Standard refinery
A more recent picture of the Casper Refinery

 

Another interesting thing about Casper is that the oil and the refineries brought big money into town.  South of the downtown area in Casper there is still an area of big mansions built by the rich oil barons and their henchmen and the those who profited from all the money floating around.  The biggest mansion in town was built by a local plumber who cashed in on turning Casper from a unpaved cow town into a “modern” paved city.  The plumber got all the contracts to put water and sewer and natural gas pipes beneath the city streets which were being paved.  He got the contracts because he brought in a mechanized trencher, one of the first in the country, that made short work of the job.  And he quickly became one of the richest men in town.

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One of the large mansions in Casper

 

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This is the mansion built by the local plumber who got all the contracts for the sever, water and gas pipes that were laid when the Casper streets were paved.  I remember this place very well from my childhood.  At the time it was the biggest and fanciest place in town.  Those gold colored bricks were famous.

 

Another thing that big oil money brought into town was a set of big hotels in downtown Casper that were surely the most splendiferous things in the state.  The Henning and the Gladstone and the Townsend were still there when I was a kid.  I don’t remember if they were still used as hotels by the late fifties or sixties, but I think they were when I was a little kid in the late forties and early fifties.

And it appears that little Casper had its own version of the Jazz Age.  There was a Dance hall on Center Street that was in use during the twenties and thirties and maybe even up into the forties.  And the big hotels had top story, elegant dinning rooms with swing bands and windows that overlooked the town.   Neither I nor my parents ever made it into any of these places, but I remember looking up to the top stories of the big hotels and seeing the big plate glass windows.

The rich had their elegant restaurants and the working class oil riggers and roustabouts  and refinery workers had their hang-outs too.  The working class drank and danced and reveled in a part of the town that was called the Sandbar.  It was complete with whorehouses and gaudy saloons and the occasional murder.  All this was still in kind of half-swing (as opposed to full-swing) when I was in high school in Casper.  The original whore house was still there complete with red light outside the door and dark velvet curtains that us high school boys always tried to see through but never could.

The interesting part of it was that the whorehouse was directly behind the courthouse and police station.  It was no more than 50 or 100  feet away.  Obviously much of the legal establishment in Casper was being paid off  to keep it open and running.

Even when I was in College, at Casper college, there were still three or four whorehouses in the Sandbar.  Another of my summer college jobs was as orderly at Casper Memorial Hospital where one of my duties was to ride the ambulance and care for patients as they were brought to the emergency room.  All of this was with absolutely zero medical training; it was all pretty scary on-the-job training.   One of my strongest memories of this period was roaring down to the Sandbar at 5 am one summer morning, sirens and flashing lights and everything,  when one of the head madams in a Sandbar whorehouse had a heart attack.  I was quite impressed with how adult I had suddenly become.

Below are some pictures of early Casper.

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The Henning Hotel in Casper in 1922.  The twenties were boom time in Casper.

 

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The center of Casper during my time there.  It’s the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, I think.  This is the intersection of 2nd and Center streets looking North.  2nd street goes off to the right.  When I was in high school, 2nd street was the place you dragged up and down in your car all night on weekend nights, looking for girls you foolishly thought you might be able to pick up.  It never happened even one time, the best we ever did was the occasional wave and smile.   And those were pretty rare.   The Henning and Townsend and Gladstone Hotels are still in existence further down on Central street.  I spent a lot of time watching John Wayne and company in the Rialto theatre on the right.  After I started working at the Mobile Refinery during college I thought I was rich and so I  spent a lot of time in the Saddle Rock Cafe on the left.

 

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Here is a much older version of the picture above, looking in the opposite direction on Center street, south toward Casper Mountain.  Note the Dance Hall on the right.  This was supposedly a huge hit in the 1920’s when it was packed with Casperites dancing the jitterbug and the Charleston  to the twenties music of imported jazz bands and orchestras.  It appears that small town, provincial Casper had something of a jazz age all its own.

 

Casper 50s
Another view of Casper looking South on Center  Street.  Most of the big hotels seem to be still in business.  Note the glassed in top floor of the big hotel.  I think this is actually part of the Gladstone.  This looks like fifties or early sixties.  Someone who knows their car models better than I do could date this picture better.  Let me know, you old car buffs.

 

Casper 1960s
This is the cover of the second volume of a set of picture books on Casper published by the Casper Star Tribune.  This is a shot looking South along Center toward Casper Mountain.  The America Theatre on the left was another place I spent a lot of time as a kid.  Note the Pool Hall on the right side of the street, half way up the block; that’s where I learned to shoot 8-ball.  It was a dark, dingy bar in the basement with pool tables and card tables and lots of old shady looking characters with visors hanging around.  The guy who taught me how to play pool was some ancient pool shark, who after watching me try to shoot pool unsuccessfully for two weeks, finally could not stand my awfulness no longer and decided he had to give me a few lessons.  It was a pretty high point in my life actually.

 

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The first volume of the Casper book.  These look like quite good books but they are expensive, like $49.00. each.  I may have to break down and buy them I guess.  This picture is shot from the far north end of Central,  looking south.  Note the Dance Hall on the right.  This must have been 1920’s or 1930’s.  The Sandbar district is about a block to the right.

 

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This is almost the same view as above.  The Dance Hall is still there with a new sign.  This must have been the 1930’s or  1940’s.  And there is the America Theatre on the left with an old sign.   I had no idea that the America movie theatre was that old.

 

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The Fountain in one of the old Hotels in its hay-day.  This does not look like anything  ever seen in any other town in Wyoming at the time I am sure.  The rest of Wyoming was cows, sheep, cowboys and grubby, dark, smelly little bars.  I don’t think there is anything quite this splendiferous anywhere in Wyoming even today except in high end tourist places like Jackson Hole.  Actually I don’t think there are any fountains anywhere, anymore that look like this.  This is impressive.

 

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The old Rex theatre.  This was the third choice of movie places in Casper when I was a kid, behind the first place Rialto and the second place America.  The Rex is now long gone.  

 

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Dinning Room in the Henning Hotel in Casper.  I suspect this was the 1920’s

 

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Dinning room in one of the big hotels.  Note the bandstand with swing band and all.  This looks more like a swing band than a jazz band to me at least.  And maybe that’s a dance floor out in the middle.  Probably again in the 1920’s or 1930’s I would guess.   I doubt if there was anywhere else within 500 miles in the Rocky Mountain West at the time where you could have dinner and listen to a swing band and dance.   The only other place would have been Denver. Unbelievable for little provincial Casper where I grew up, but I think it was all probably still happening when I lived in Casper.  Does anyone have any details about this stuff?  I’d love to hear about it.  This was maybe some place called the Sky Room???  That sounds kind of familiar.

 

Below are some old pictures of my life in Casper when I was a kid and a couple of pictures from when I visited not too long ago.

Rialto Theatre, Sept 2016, Straightened
The Rialto Theatre in Sept 2016,  This is the corner of Center and 2nd, where several of the old pictures above were taken.  2nd street goes off to the right.  Center Street is heading north, toward the back of the picture on the left.  The Rialto has changed very little since the days my brother and  I used to take the bus to it from Poplar Street where we lived.   We paid a nickel to ride the bus and 10 cents for a movie ticket in those days.  The bus stopped right in front of the theatre.  That was in 1947.  On the day I took the picture above it was a very cold, rainy, windy day in Casper.  Normally there are a few more people around, at least I think there usually are.  I need to go back and take some more pictures in Casper one of these days.

 

America Threatre, Casper, Setp 2016
The old America Theatre.  The picture was shot looking north on center in Sept 2016.  You can see the America Theatre in some of the old pictures above.  It seems to date as far back as the 1920s or 1930s.

 

Fred in Casper
This is me in third grade in Casper.  Garfield School is behind me.

 

Our house and family, Casper 1949
My family in 1947, I’m the kid on the left.  We are at our home on Poplar Street.  Pretty much the last street in town at the time.

 

The Family, Casper front porch
Our family again, at our Poplar Street Home in Casper.  I’m the kid on the left.

 

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Our Poplar Street home in 2016.  My Mom and Dad moved out in about 1972.  Back in the fifth grade I tripped in the middle of a scoring touchdown run and knocked myself out cold on that concrete sidewalk.  Actually I don’t think I’ve been quite right since then.

 

Article by Fred Hanselmann, July 2017

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