Part 5 of the series Small Town America
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Article by Fred Hanselmann, July 2017