News Update

Civil War Discourse

Annual program teaches sixth-graders about hardship, courage, deprivation — and that memorable hard tack

Gillette News-Record Article by Kathy Brown

April 17, 2014

It’s a rite of passage in Gillette. For at least the past nine years, the Campbell County Rockpile Museum has hosted its Civil War Days for about 700 sixth-graders in Gillette’s public, private, virtual and home schools. Evidently, it’s memorable. Brad Halloran, 16, and RaeAnn Isaacs, 15, sophomores at Campbell County High School, were volunteering Wednesday for the same program at Cam-plex that they’d seen four years ago. “I remember the hard tack, black coffee and the surgeon,” Isaacs said. Halloran agreed.

That’s still what sixth-graders experience in the annual history day that usually comes as they study the Civil War. The students meet and ask questions of actors portraying Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman. There’s a presentation on the life of infantrymen. The only difference is the popular surgeon, who operated for years on willing sixth-grade students in a demonstration, is no longer able to do his re-enactment. His place this year was filled by Halloran, Isaacs, volunteers and Penny Schroder of the museum in an interactive signal corps segment.

Schroder, who organizes the program each year, found herself having a speaking role as she explained the codes, signal flags and spying that were used in the Civil War. Then she sent students off to make their own signal flags, devise their own messages, and send those messages in groups of four, two of whom they had to keep their messages from because they served for the other army. “If you can tell your left from your right, it works well,” Schroder said, adding that knowing those directions while speaking gave her some pause at first. “I thought it would be fun to do something they like, rather than just sit and listen,” she said. She and volunteers had to make 1,400 cipher disks and 1,400 flags for the day’s activities.

Also new for students this year was a program on children and wars given by Donald Balyeat of Sturgis, S.D. He has presented similar programs in South Dakota and hopes to expand that beyond his state’s borders, he said. He’s a member of the Civil War Trust, which has saved 38,000 acres of battlefields over the years for historical purposes. His hobby is the Civil War, where he had two great-grandfathers fight on opposite sides. “I’m half Yankee and half Reb,” he joked while sixth-graders tried out some of the Civil War relics he brought, including bullets, an 1860 rifle (no longer operable), a bayonet (from the battle of Shiloh), a wooden canteen, utensils (from Chickamungua, Tenn.), grape shot (30 of the solid 1-inch diameter balls at a time were shot out of cannons during battles), a drinking cup (from Knoxville, Tenn.) and a bugle. Several sixth-grade boys tried to toot the bugle, and a few strained notes could be heard above the crowd from time to time. All were authentic civil war items.

“This is just a hobby,” Balyeat said. “I’ve always been into American history, and I’ve always been into wars.” That passion brought him to Gillette, where he spoke about some of the most neglected stories of the civil war: the roles women and children played. “This was a young person’s war,” he said, noting that about 300,000 children ages 10-12 played roles like powder monkeys or drummer boys, or just helping comfort the wounded after battles. He showed them what the soldiers and drummer boys carried with them daily — marching 10 miles in 100-degree temperatures. It included bars of soap and razors, spoons and forks. The pair he brought included bone handles and likely were used by an officer, he said. “Up until 1874, you had to bring your own or use your hands,” he said. Among the meals were salt pork and other items provided by sacks full of raw material, like flour or grains. “There was no McDonald’s,” Balyeat said.

The soldiers in the wars were the same age as those he was speaking to. “The enemy always tried to shoot the drummer boys,” he said, noting that doing so would interfere with a troop’s communication and movements. “They had to learn how to play different music, because different songs all moved the army,” he said. He told his audience about the youngest Medal of Honor recipient, a drummer boy who was age 11 when he enlisted in the Union Army with his father in the 3rd Vermont Infantry. In June 1862, overpowered by Confederate forces, his unit retreated down the Virginia peninsula under orders from Gen. George McClellan. Along the way, men discarded their equipment to hasten their pace. But Willie Johnston clung to his drum throughout the march and later was asked to play for his entire division on July 4. President Lincoln recommended him for the Medal of Honor, which he received in September 1863 at age 13. “Young men in your age group were right in the middle of fighting,” Balyeat said, pointing to the photograph.

That included powder monkeys, who had to carry powder kegs for cannons on ships. The kegs were kept below deck between the deck and hull, and the young men could fit into that narrow area, Balyeat said. “The enemy would try to shoot the powder monkeys. If they did so, it would have blown the whole ship up,” Balyeat explained. The stories of youth and women in the Civil War have been ignored, he said. Most people know about Clara Barton, a nurse who went on to start the Red Cross and served in the Civil War. But there are many more stories that go untold, he said.

“One of the saddest things in American battle history is they don’t do a good job of talking about women,” he added, showing photographs of three small farm girls who had to work on the farm with their fathers away. Girls that age often helped comfort men on the battlefield who were wounded. “What always got to me is the girls would sit and hold the hand of a man who was dying, so they thought it was their daughter or mom. They were giving men comfort before they died,” Balyeat said. He said 850,000 people died in the Civil War. The top cause of death wasn’t bullets — it was amputation and disease. About 800 women even disguised themselves as men so they could be on the battlefield. “They wanted to go to war,” he said. “If they were discovered, they were pulled away.” The memory might not remain as long as a taste of hard tack and coffee. But it is unforgettable for those who now study the war that divided the United States.

Civil War Day

Mr. Donald Balyeat of Sturgis, S.D. showing off his Civil War
collection to Campbell County sixth grade students.
(Rockpile Museum Photograph)

Saddle Up, Get Your Groove On at Two Museum Exhibits

Gillette News-Record Article by Kathy Brown

March 30, 2014

Campbell County’s Rockpile Museum will offer something of a two-for-one deal in exhibits this week. The museum’s “Swing Back to the ’70s” exhibit of nearly 393 items donated by 25 unique lenders and local residents, includes toys, sports memorabilia, items from local businesses, Vietnam War memorabilia and fashions of that era. It opens Thursday. At the same time, a revamped permanent saddle exhibit, featuring local saddle makers, will open.

Among the items on display in the 1970s exhibit is a wooden purse sold through the Queen B store in Gillette that features the store fronts of local businesses, including Stockmen’s Bank, Thunder Basin Inn and the Goings Hotel. There’s also original Star Wars Pez dispensers, photographs, eight-track tape players, University of Wyoming uniforms from that time, Twin Spruce and Camel sports uniforms, LP record albums or vinyl, and lots of photographs. The city of Gillette contributed photos of the community in the 1970s and Wendy Legerski with the museum is planning a wall design of those albums from the 1970s.

If getting a feel for this northern Wyoming community in the 1970s during the era of flower power and bell bottoms isn’t enough to draw you into the museum’s doors, then there’s the saddle exhibit. The saddle exhibit will include a 1990 centennial saddle made by Campbell County Commissioner and rancher Matt Avery. The saddle commemorates Wyoming’s centennial and has never been on a horse. It has been displayed at the Denver stock show, the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Frontier Days in Cheyenne and the museum in Sundance.

Avery also has donated a box used to hold leather stamping tools to go in the display of an old saddle shop and also contributed to a display showing different stages of leather stamping in the Sheridan style. That distinct style of leather carving, named after the northern Wyoming town and sports rival of Gillette, features floral designs. He’s made about 40 saddles with his late father and with his wife, Diane, owns D&M Saddlery. But now, he mostly crafts them for his family because he’s so busy. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I’m self-taught,” Avery said. “I started leather work in 4-H, like coasters or key fobs, but I never cared much for the little stuff.”

Gillette’s own saddle makers — most from the mid 1800s to early 1900s — spent their winters crafting functional works of art. “A lot of old cowboys, when it got to winter time, they’d hole up in a town and build saddles,” Avery said. “But it’s getting less and less. It’s hard to find young people who are interested because it’s not computerized.”

Legerski, who also helped revamp the permanent exhibit at the museum, said it includes a work bench featuring 100-year-old tools. The tools in saddle making haven’t changed in that time, and many leather workers prefer the old tools because they’re so well built, she added. There’s also a stitching horse from the 1900s used by King Saddlery through the 1950s, and a sequence of videotapes that show how saddles are made. The exhibit of more than 20 saddles also includes a new McClellan saddle used in the military in the 1800s, something relevant to the history of this area.

Leatherworking Tools

Daniel Brenner Photograph

A Bit of Gillette History is Found at an Antique Store in Nebraska

News-Record Article by Sarah Elms
September 28, 2013

Campbell County carpenter and general contractor Mickey Glenn saw the poster when he stopped at an antique shop on his way to a family reunion in Nebraska three months ago. He had to have it. In bold, black type it read, “First out-of-state-game, basketball. Chadron Hi Girls versus C.C.H.S. Girls.” At the bottom, it advertised a Sheridan versus Gillette boys game the next day. The whole Chadron team had signed the back.

Glenn, 55, grew up on a farm just south of Chadron, Neb., and moved to Gillette when he was 21. He couldn’t believe the chances of finding an intact poster advertising a high school basketball game between his two hometowns. “With it being Gillette and Chadron, that was unique,” Glenn said. “It takes quite a bit to get me to pull some money out of my pocket, so it had to grab me.” He could tell the poster was old by the typeface and language used. He guessed it dated back to the 1940s, but wasn’t sure.

After hanging on to the find for a couple of months, Glenn decided to call on some experts. He took the poster to the Campbell County Rockpile Museum, and Wendy Legerski started to narrow down possible years the game could have fallen on. She thought she could track the names of the players back to school rosters, but it turned out the players’ signatures all were nicknames. “It was cool, but it made it a little harder to track down the date by their identities,” Legerski said. The date on the poster was key — Friday, Feb. 18. Legerski knew she’d have to go hunting through microfilm if she was going to find the year, so she enlisted the help of Campbell County Public Library reference librarian Lalia Jagers. Within three or four days, they found records of the game at Gillette High School. It was Feb. 18, 1927, much older than Glenn or Legerski thought. “Back in 1927, it would have been a heck of a trip getting from Chadron to Gillette. That wouldn’t be easy,” Glenn said. “Those would have been some old cars and they would have traveled on dirt roads all the way.”

While the find has special significance for Glenn, it is an important piece of Campbell County history, too. Because of Gillette’s affinity for sports, he said, the poster is pretty special. “I have no idea if anyone would be alive that played on that team,” Glenn said. “I bet it’s the only one left.” For now, the poster is on display at Glenn’s home. He’s not interested in selling it, he just likes looking at it. One day, he said, he may give it to the museum so it can reach a broader audience. For now, Glenn is enjoying his own slice of history.

first out of state game

Museum Cottonwood Tree Removed

Gillette News-Record Article by the News Record Staff
July 17, 2013

The cottonwood tree that was removed Monday and Tuesday from the Campbell County Rockpile Museum likely was between 43 and 48 years old. That is a surprise to Roy Holdeman, the Campbell County Parks Arborist, who removed the tree estimated at 65 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. The tree was decaying and threatening to split, so Holdeman chose to bring it down rather than have someone hurt if it came down on its own.

He thought the tree was about 60 years old. But by counting the rings in the trunk - some of which was difficult to do because of decay - he concluded it was not more than 48 years old. What he did discover, he added, is that he needed a bigger chain saw. The one in his department that he used is usually big enough to bring down trees. But this tree was different. "I needed a bigger chain saw," he said. "We were sawing longer chunks for the Children's (Developmental) Center. We used a rope, a pry bar and I had to cut from three different directions." The Children's Center plans to use the portions of trunk and large branches to create native play structures in the playground, once work on its extension is complete.

After removing the tree, there is much more sun and a clear view of the historic rock pile for which the museum is named. Holdeman said he will plant a new tree in the museum's lawn this fall, likely sometime in October.

cottonwood tree

Eric Ginnard Photograph

Women in Coal

Gillette News-Record Article by Kathy Brown
July 6, 2013

Women coal miners are a breed all their own. On Tuesday evening, the Campbell County Rockpile Museum will open an exhibit shedding some light on the work these women do and their accomplishments in a male-dominated industry. One of those coal miners featured in the photographic exhibit puts it succinctly. “It’s about time,” said Rhonda Brewer of Gillette. Another of the exhibit’s subjects, Jennifer Lint of Belle Ayr mine, agreed. “It’s about time something is done about recognizing the women,” she said. “There’s a lot of them.”

Robert Henning, museum registrar who put the exhibit together, estimates that 20 percent of the production crews at the mines are made up of women. “I think it’s a unique position for a woman,” he said. That’s why he’s pursued this project. Women were among the first round of employees hired at the mines in the 1970s through the early 1980s, he pointed out. “A lot of women were hired. There were not enough men to do the job. That’s something unique to this area or even in open pit mining.” Henning said the museum doesn’t have a lot of information about the mines. And “as more and more of those who were hired in the first round become retired, it’s time. It’s so important. We need to keep this history.”

The photographs of Annalise Shingler, a teacher and photographer in the Denver area, will help him do just that. The display highlights some of the women miners that have made a life of digging coal. Some of the women are trailblazers that have worked for 30 years or more in mining, while others are just starting their careers. Others are from families with multiple generations working in the coal mines.

The exhibit will open with a reception and a talk by Gillette native Jessica Smith Rolston, an anthropologist who is an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Mines. “She is, as far as I can tell, the expert on women in mining in the West,” Henning said. “She even drove truck in the mines.” The photographs, Rolston and even some of the women who played a role in Rolston’s research for a soon-to-be published book, “Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West,” will come together Tuesday night. It’s a story that needs to be told, even as it continues to unfold in Campbell County.

“There’s more and more women and a lot of young women,” Lint said. She began at Belle Ayr more than 10 years ago driving trucks, like most women. She now runs heavy equipment. She was attracted to the job because it was good, solid and would help her pay bills and help raise her four children. Her father and sister also worked at Alpha Coal mines and encouraged her to apply. She’s worked with some of the same people her entire career and said she’s been lucky in that. “I take pride in my work and work hard.” So being included in an exhibit on women coal miners is a neat experience, she added.

Brewer said women bucking tradition by working in coal mines hasn’t been a topic explored much, although the interest in feminism has helped. “Women are becoming more independent and self reliant,” she said. “With the economy, more and more women are working.” That’s part of her own story. After receiving a degree in cosmetology and operating her own salon for many years, she began working at the mines for the financial stability and the additional days off it provided. But it’s not been easy, she added. “It will make you and break you. You have to be thick skinned. You have to be really tough. "Knowing that, she said, “you have to admire some of the women and what they’ve put up with.” Lint put it this way in a narrative Henning has prepared with her photograph: “You have to learn not to take things personally and stand your ground.”

The work of Shingler will be spotlighted in the exhibit. Henning said he first saw Shingler’s photographs around 2009-10. He wanted to include her work in an exhibit. “I kept after her and finally, a year ago, I got in touch with her,” Henning said. She agreed and his project began. That work now is coming to fruition. Over the past six months, he’s had to contact each of the subjects in her photographs, the coal mines and others to get their approval for the exhibit. He’s prepared narratives to go with each photograph. “Historians, traditionally, haven’t covered as much of the minorities,” Henning said. “In the last half century, many more women have become blue-collar workers.” And their role in mining — especially in the West — rubs against tradition.

- The exhibit: “Women Coal Miners of the Powder River Basin,” a free photographic exhibit at the Campbell County Rockpile Museum. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The exhibit will remain through Oct. 31.

- The presentation: At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jessica Smith Rolston will talk about her research and soon-to-be published book, “Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West.” It, too, is free at the Campbell County Rockpile Museum.

Woman Coal Miner

Annalise Shingler Photograph


The Campbell County Rockpile Museum was honored to be the recipient of the 2012 REACH award for Destination/Attraction of the Year. REACH (Rare and Exceptional Achievement for Customer Service and Hospitality) awards recognize business and individuals for their contributions to the travel and tourism industry and are presented by the Wyoming Office of Tourism.

2012 REACH Award
Wyoming Office of Tourism Photograph

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If you would like to help preserve Campbell County’s historic treasures, please consider becoming a member of the Rockpile Museum Association or giving a charitable donation. Information on how to do this can be found on our membership page.