History and Opinion
By Phil Roberts
1935: A Momentous Year in Wyoming History
by Phil Roberts
Posted 15 February 2015
(The following is an abstract of remarks made to the Laramie County chapter, Wyoming State Historical Society, Feb. 15, 2015, at the Laramie County Library, Cheyenne).
1935 was a momentous year in Wyoming history. People at the time could recognize that fact for a few events. But, for most of them, their significance only became apparent many years later.
First, it was in 1935 that two actions formalized our state's nicknames: "the cowboy state" and the "equality state."
The first of these was Secretary of State Lester Hunt's announcement in 1935 that he had hired artist Allen True to perfect a silhouette drawing of a horse and rider to be placed on the state's license plates. No other state at that time had anything beyond numbers on the license plates along with the names of the states. Wyoming would be the first. The bucking horse and rider went on the 1936 plates. It helped formalize Wyoming's nickname as the "cowboy state."
Also in 1935, the Wyoming legislature, for the first time, designated "Wyoming Day." Statehood Day was July 10--the day in 1890 when Wyoming became the 44th state. But Wyoming Day was designated for December 10. It marked the date in 1869 that Territorial Governor John Campbell signed the Suffrage Bill, making Wyoming the first government anywhere to extend the vote and equal rights to women. Those two powerful nicknames--the Cowboy State and the Equality State--can be said to have come out of 1935. This, despite that Buffalo Bill's Wild West had much of world already thinking of us as the cowboy state. The suffrage bill and Nellie Tayloe Ross' election as first woman governor anywhere, allowed us use of "equality," at least in 19th century gender terms.
Second, it was in 1935 that more infrastructure was added than at any time since the "hell-on-wheels" days of the transcontinental railroad. New schools, courthouses, city halls, post offices went up in towns all over Wyoming. At the University, federal funding was authorized for the Liberal Arts Building (now the Arts and Sciences building) and for the new Student Union Building. New airports were established, mostly in towns in the central and northern parts of Wyoming (the southern UP counties already having airports left over from the transcontinental airmail days). Existence of those structures are what remains important to us today, but for workers in mid-1930s Wyoming, the construction projects themselves were important for putting food on the table from the $30-$40 per month workers earned on federally-funded projects. All of the construction--and making most towns more auto accessible with graveled roads--put thousands of Wyomingites to work. Government-funded contracts for construction projects brought back private contractors who hired lots of workers and helped bring down the unemployment rate from 25 percent (1 in 4 workers) in 1932 to some 15 percent by the end of 1935--not great, but the trend going in the right direction.
These extensive federal government-paid investments in infrastructure would not have been possible without the New Deal--without the state accepting the federal government support. Gov. Leslie Miller, a Democrat, initially was skeptical about taking federal funds and adding programs to aid the Wyoming economy. Soon after he took office in 1933, he had said that Wyoming could "get out of the depression on our own." He changed his mind later that year when a study by the Griffenhagen company showed what it would take to reach Miller's goals. Eliminating two-thirds of the counties, consolidating all 399 school districts into one statewide school district, turning all city police, county sheriffs, game wardens into one big centralized state police force, eliminating a two-house legislature and making the legislature a nine-person body that could travel around the state in a station (thus, obviating any need for a state capitol building), and hiring a professional public administrator in the place of the governor. All of the ensuing austerity--shutting down courthouses, firing state and county employees, dismissing policemen and teachers were be done in the name of greater efficiency and stamping out unnecessary waste. Wyomingites didn't want to lose 23 counties, their local police, their community schools. In comparison, accepting federal government money looked like a better deal--and taking the federal monies changed attitudes that had been embedded in Wyoming politics since statehood. Maybe it wasn't so awful to ask the federal government for help in hard times. Weren't we federal taxpayers, too, and voters for two U. S. Senators, a Representative and electors for a U. S. President? Why shouldn't we expect the same level of help given to any other state?
Third, events in 1935 showed that expanded government spending--not cutting programs and chopping budgets--would bring improvements to the lives of many in the state. Maybe "prosperity" wouldn't be instant, but at least some of our people would suffer less from being poor, victims of low natural-resource prices or from the vagaries of drought and hard winters.
Paying working people who spent money in local stores, allowing storeowners to keep the doors open and clerks employed--these programs would repay their costs. New reclamation projects on the North Platte River brought construction jobs, but also the promise of water to irrigate previously un-productive land. Towns close to these projects also gained in the long term, from the boating and fishing recreation, but also from hydroelectric power. The REA (Rural Electrification Administration) was established by executive order of President Roosevelt in 1935. Rural areas of Wyoming went from 10 percent having electricity in 1930 to more than 80 percent in 1950.
Cities and counties, practically broke by trying to provide welfare to the unemployed and poor, got a break from the State taking a role--finally--in the welfare of regular citizens. The State Department of Public Welfare was established; so was the State Planning Board. Federal money came for WPA projects such as kindergarten, arts programs, the WPA guidebook and host of other programs, many to encourage informed tourism as much as provide work for local people. There was the usual whining about wasting federal monies (nothing was going to buy bombs and bullets in those years which many of these whiners--then and now--don't consider monies wasted. Many of the complaints came from those comfortable enough that their chief concern was reducing property taxes. The general public never doubted that the programs did some good--even though everyone knew that federal funds wouldn't be coming forever and, eventually, we'd have to take more responsibility for our fellow citizens.
Fourth, in 1935, there were choices made in Wyoming ithat had a long-term influence over Wyoming's society and culture.
The legislature came up with a way to spread the tax burden. Prior to 1935, property owners paid all of the taxes. This burden fell heavily on ranchers and farmers. Many of the ranchers and farmers in the legislature back in 1933 had argued for a state income tax. When town residents and others resisted taxation of their incomes, Gov. Miller proposed in 1935 that a sales tax be imposed instead. Initially called the "Temporary Emergency Sales Tax Act of 1935," Wyomingites seemed to agree with Miller that it was a better way to collect revenues for government services. Consequently, along came the "Emergency Sales Tax Act of 1937" and, finally, what we have today--"the Sales Tax Act of 1939." A severance tax on minerals, practical had it been adopted by Constitutional amendment proposed by Gov. William Ross in 1924 and rejected, no longer remained viable in 1935 with mineral prices falling to such low levels and mines and oil fields closing down.
But state government also made some other choices in 1935 that influenced our society and culture. Both Houses of the legislature overwhelmingly passed a law to establish gambling in Wyoming. It was full-casino gambling--no game of chance outlawed. The legislature celebrated the passage and adjourned the 1935 session, many assuming that they would see casinos popping up by summer. But Gov. Miller had other ideas. He waited until the session ended and then vetoed the law, issuing a strong statement against any type of gambling in Wyoming. The legislature could do nothing but watch from home--or from basement poker tables in the Wort Hotel or from slot machines or punch-cards in rooms behind newly-reopened Sand Bar liquor establishments.
Lots of other events happened in 1935. One way or another, many had an impact on the state over time.
1) declaration by a few residents and chambers of commerce in northern Wyoming that they wanted to join eastern Montana and western South Dakota to create the new state of Absaroka. The effect was to force greater state attention to infrastructure needs in Sheridan county and elsewhere in northern Wyoming.
2) Elrey Jeppesen started selling his air pilot's charts to pilots throughout the West. The United Airlines pilot and his wife had started the chart-making company in 1934 in his basement apartment in Cheyenne. (DIA's terminal is named for him).
3) the University of Wyoming, charging no tuition (consistent with the charge in Article 7, Sec. 16 of the State Constitution), did manage to keep student fees to $12.50 per semester or $25 per year. With National Youth Administration grants from the federal government to help keep worthy students in college, UW got the benefit of paid student "work-study" that helped it with maintenance and student living.
4) the State Liquor Commission was established and the rules under which it was started in 1935 continue almost unchanged to this day, including a liquor licensing scheme centered around city council and county commission allocations, and a state-controlled single-point-of-purchase of all hard liquor from the State Liquor warehouse.
5) Despite the failed legislative efforts to stop the unpopular "Tulsa-plus" gasoline price setting, oil customers and companies alike profited from "conservation" of oil and gas--field productions monitored by the State for the benefit of all producers. Oil, selling for $1.50 a barrel in 1920, had fallen to 19 cents a barrel in 1931. By 1935, the prices were inching up.
6) The jackalope, "invented" in a Douglas taxidermy shop the previous year, became known as an elusive Wyoming animal in 1935.
7) Rails from the failed North-South Railroad, linking Casper to Midwest in the early 1920s, were pulled up in 1935 and sold to the Japanese, yielding a tidy profit for the sellers and some questions a couple of years later as to what was the origin of some Japanese weaponry coming our way.
8) The method of execution was changed from the barbaric practice of self-hanging--using the "Julian gallows" inside the prison in Rawlins--to the more acceptable gas chamber.
9) The first airplane landed in Yellowstone National Park even though the Park lacked a landing strip. In the same vein, largely through federal subsidies for mail and passenger service, Cheyenne business leaders proudly pointed to hosting three airlines providing no fewer than 12 flights per day in all four directions from the Capital City.
Thus, all in all, 1935 was an important year in Wyoming history. People's immediate lives were made better; the infrastructure and economy improved.
Governors and legislators from the previous 15 or so years had made no effort to provide state assistance in relieving the adverse effects of the bad economy. In 1935, after initially following their leads, Gov. Miller opted to accept federal government support for Wyoming and our people. The results endure to this day.
Unfortunately, some present legislators appear to forget the lessons Miller and Wyomingites learned about how federal help does not equal subservience or admission of our weakness. And these legislators don't have the excuses their predecessors before 1935 had. These legislators have to know better--the New Deal programs demonstrated that spending money can be beneficial, not only in bettering (and extending) the lives of ordinary Wyomingites, but for the long-term improvement of the state.
Events from that year placed an enduring mark on the "cowboy state/equality state" and brought us into a whole new era. It is hard to argue that events in any other single year made as much of a difference as 1935 had on Wyoming. The lessons we learned then are still worth remembering.
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