A beacon on the plains – Hiland – “The Bright Spot”

    Few country stores have as complete a history as the “Bright Spot” at Hiland. The narrative of the store comes from Betty Evenson, the daughter of the Bright Spot’s founder Robert A. “Dad” Smith. Evenson spent almost her entire life at Hiland, chronicling the mundane, and the not so mundane events in the tale of small outlet of civilization on the vast Wyoming plains.

    Evenson published a book detailing the history of the Bright Spot in 1990, titled “50 Years at the Bright Spot.” She was an accomplished author of a very different genre as well. The unassuming housewife and storekeeper wrote a series of spicy romance novels that sometimes got her regular customers and delivery drivers in trouble when she used their names in her stories.

    Betty Evenson spent 50 years at Hiland – h/t Betty Evenson

    Evenson’s forward to her “50 Years at the Bright Spot” describes life throughout most of the 20th century in rural Wyoming perfectly.

    This is the story of the Bright Spot, a little roadside convenience stop on the edge of a highway bordered by the vast open plains of Wyoming.

    But it is much more than an account of the conception, building and growth, of a store, a filling station and a lunch counter.

    It is the story of a people who followed the early settlers with their own form of pioneering, of the rugged individualism and hard work that kept the west after it was won.

    It is the story of the folks who traveled along the road that led past the Bright Spot and the community surrounding it.

    It is the story of a man’s dream fulfilled, of his family, and of a young woman’s journey into maturity.

    It is the story of a way of life.  

    The family of Dad and Etta Smith – h/t Betty Evenson

    Betty was 12 years old when her father came up with the idea of a store in 1922. Robert Smith started as a sheep rancher in western Natrona County in the early 20th century. A blizzard in 1919 wiped out most of his flock, so he switched to dairy cattle.

    Why he owned a herd of 26 Holstein and Jersey cows remains a mystery, since he hated milking.

    Smith was an inventive man, inquisitive, and not afraid to step out of his comfort zone in pursuit of something new.

    He had just purchased a cream separator that fascinated young Betty. As generations of farmers and ranchers with a milk cow or two know, you pour the raw milk into the basin on top of the separator, start turning the handle, and as the machine accelerates a little bell rings. When the separator reaches working speed, the bell stops and it’s time to open the spigot to let the milk flow. The cream flows one way via centrifugal force and the skim milk the other.

    Dad Smith just a year after opening the Bright Spot – h/t Betty Evenson

    Betty was watching her father run the separator when Jim Gardner, an engineer with the Wyoming Highway Department walked into the milking barn.

    “I have some bad news for you,” Gardner said. “We’re surveying a highway and it’s going right through your milkhouse.”

    Robert was quiet for a moment then said, “You call that bad news? Sir, I think it’s great news. Now I can stop milking these damn cows.”

    With that, Robert Smith was out of the dairy business and into running a general store.

    That highway project became the Yellowstone Highway.

    Smith was a visionary. He told his family, and his eternally reluctant wife Etta that a store, with a home generator to produce electricity, would attract tourists on the way to and from Yellowstone.

    A 1920s vintage Milk Cooler like the one at the Bright Spot – h/t

    “We’ll be the only place between Casper and Shoshoni with electric lights,” Smith said. “I’ll call it the Bright Spot.”

    Smith owned an Oakland touring car, considered one of the finest cars in the world in the early 1920s, but even this well-made machine had problems with Wyoming’s often muddy, sometimes dusty washboard roads.

    The graded asphalt Yellowstone Highway did bring tens of thousands of tourists from eastern states in the early 1920s, swelling to millions of travelers by the post-war years of the late 1940s.

    Smith was ready with a well-stocked inventory of groceries, mechanical parts, belts, hoses, oil, and general merchandise. He had gas pumps, and best of all, a lunch counter.

    The Bright Spot had its official opening on July 4, 1923. Smith sponsored and umpired a baseball game between the town teams from Hiland and Waltman on that Independence Day.

    He gave free ice cream cones to anyone at the game, and a free dollar’s worth of merchandise to any player who hit a home run.

    Dad and Etta Smith in front of the glass bulb-style gas pumps – h/t Betty Evenson

    Etta thought he was insane. She complained that giving away ice cream would break the store.

    Her husband knew people and knew the power of word-of-mouth advertising. He told her they might lose 10 to 15 dollars that day, but the goodwill they generated would soon make it up.

    There was only one home run hit that day, and the batter took a dollar’s worth of gas as his prize.

    Ice cream was still a rarity, usually reserved for downtown businesses in big towns or cities. Smith had a kerosene-fueled generator that powered a freezer and refrigerator for the store. He kept ample supplies of up to eight different flavors of ice cream on hand. That was also a rarity since most places limited customers to chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry.

    Visionaries are often called crackpots, or crazy by their mentally limited peers, “Dad” Smith as he became known around the area relished the name he was often called behind his back, “That fool Dad Smith.”

    One of his foolish acts was the epitome of a visionary. Most of the area ranchers still used horses and wagons in the early 1920s. Dad knew the future was with the automobile, and that all these cars and trucks would need fuel.

    the different colored gas and diesel pumps at the Bright Spot indicate different suppliers over the years – h/t Randy Tucker

    Dad hired a man named Colerick to dig a huge hole in front of the store, a hole big enough to hold an 8,000-gallon fuel tank. There were no steam shovels or tractors available, Colerick dug the massive hole with horses and a fresno. A fresno is a big, two-handled slip that scoops up dirt as a team of horses pulls it.

    Colerick finished the hole, set the tank, and backfilled it. Dad began getting gasoline delivered from the nearby refinery in Casper. It was the first spot for fuel on the section of the Yellowstone Highway between Casper and Shoshoni and almost a century later, it was the last fueling spot to close between the two towns.

    The depression hit rural Wyoming as hard as it did the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, Texas, and Eastern Colorado. Dad knew his neighbors were hurting financially. The Bright Spot remained lucrative through the early days of the Great Depression. Dad bought in bulk whenever possible, and that included fuel. He could get fuel delivered in trucks from Casper, but the original railroad ran just a block north of the store, and the price per gallon on a full tanker car was much less than that for truck delivery.

    Dad built a pipeline from the rail siding, under the store, directly to his gas storage tank. Electricity was years away and the tank car had to be emptied with a hand pump. Dad paid five dollars to run the pump and unload the fuel.

    It was a godsend to struggling neighbors and Dad made sure a different man had the job each time a tanker arrived.

    Etta Smith working hard at the stove – h/t Betty Evenson

    Tales of the Bright Spot spread from coast to coast. Ever the entrepreneur, Dad featured not just gasoline, spare parts, and groceries, but a lunch counter that became the favorite for locals, route drivers from Casper to Shoshoni, Riverton, and Lander and back, and for tourists.

    He began purchasing the best hams he could find and marketed it as Sagebrush Ham. They boiled the hams initially in the family kitchen, but demand became so high that they put a two-burner kerosene stove in the generator house to boil the hams. After boiling, Dad carefully trimmed each ham, then cut slices for sandwiches by hand. Slicing ham is an art. If you cut it wrong the slices are stringy and tough, Dad was a gifted ham slicer.

    The ham sandwiches at the Bright Spot became legendary. Oilfield workers, travelers, families on vacation, and locals literally ate them as fast as the Smith girls could make them. Sliced bread wasn’t marketed until 1928 and it didn’t reach the Bright Spot until years later. Etta and the girls baked bread for sandwiches at first, with the aroma of freshly baked bread mixing with the smell of boiling ham from outside adding to the overall ambiance of the store. Business was so brisk that Dad began ordering whole loaves from a bakery in Casper.

    Dad took on a business partner in 1929, and Betty married him two years later. The highway department was improving the road near Hiland, and the workers came in for ham sandwiches almost every day.

    Maurice Evenson was a dashing figure when he first drove to the store in a convertible Ford Roadster, complete with a driving cap on his head.

    Betty Evenson cleaning the counter for more Sagebrush Ham sandwiches – h/t Betty Evenson

    Maurice was a mechanic, and while it wasn’t a whirlwind romance, the kind that Betty would later write about in her novels, the young couple grew fond of each other.

    Good mechanics are always difficult to find, and Dad realized just how good Maurice was. To Etta’s disapproval, he made the young man his partner, opening up a repair garage near the store. In 1931 Maurice and Betty were married, he was 10 years older than her, but it was a great marriage.

    In 1933, Dad had a pain in his side, and it steadily became worse. Etta made a call to Dr. McClellan in Casper and described his symptoms. Dr. McClellan suspected an appendicitis attack and said to take him to the Casper Hospital immediately. Etta said he was so sick she didn’t know if he would survive the trip.

    Dr. McClellan told her he would be there soon. He loaded his car with instruments and picked up a nurse for the trip.

    It was his appendix, on the verge of bursting. Dr. McClellan had the girls sanitize the kitchen and had a couple of men bring Dad to the kitchen table. By the lights powered by the generator he had installed, Dad’s appendix was removed on the family dining table.

    He improved immediately but died in the night two days later.

    1960s era Bright Spot – h/t Betty Evenson

    The loss of Robert “Dad” Smith was a heavy blow to his family. Etta didn’t share the dream of the Bright Spot on the same level that her departed husband had.

    The job of running the store, lunch counter, and filling station fell on the kids, and the family had another tragedy that year with the unexpected death of the oldest sister Helen.

    The loss of two family members changed Betty’s plans. She was an excellent student, graduating from Natrona County High School in 1928.

    Betty’s plans to tour the world, become an accomplished author, and gain fame and fortune were put on hold. She and Maurice were tied to the store for the next 37 years until he passed away in 1970.

    Betty ran the store, getting acquainted with route drivers and letting her mind run wild with ideas for characters in her romance novels.

    Betty Evenson speaking with a delivery driver as he fills with diesel at the Bright Spot – h/t Betty Evenson

    Truck drivers delivered groceries to all the stores on the Yellowstone Highway from Natrona, to Powder River, Hell’s Half Acre, Waltman, and Moneta as well as the Bright Spot. Bread went west from Casper, along with gasoline, and later diesel fuel. The roads improved and tanker trucks replaced the rail tanker cars.

    Milk, butter, and cheese came from the two creameries in Riverton going east.

    Dances at Moneta, Lysite, and the big town of Shoshoni were highlights for the young couple.

    Maurice supported Betty in her writing, building her a desk to work at behind the front counter of the store. She never had more than an hour of writing that didn’t end with a customer coming into the store.

    She became a fervent collector of the dozens of rejection slips she received from popular magazines.

    Etta didn’t approve of romance magazines, but Betty’s first break came with $40 from Personal Romance Magazine for a short story called “I Was a Piker.”

    Her work increased and her fame spread beyond central Wyoming.

    The Bright Spot in 2023 – h/t Randy Tucker

    One of her stories was about a Wyoming bus driver who had a wreck and ended up having an affair with the woman who drove into his bus. It appeared in Modern Romance. Red Skelton, a bus driver, who drove the route from Denver to Billings with stops each way in Hiland had a hard time explaining to his wife that the story was fictional and not about him.

    A romance writer living in isolated Hiland, Wyoming became a national story when it hit the Associated Press wire. One headline from the Miami Herald read, “Woman dispenses ham sandwiches, gas, and passion at roadside café.”

    The cast of “To Tell the Truth” h/t

    Betty appeared on the popular 1960s television show “To Tell the Truth” with Kitty Carlisle, Peggy Cass, Gene Rayburn, and Bill Cullen. The New York Times sent a reporter to Hiland and ran a multi-page story on her. She appeared as a guest on the Phil Donahue Show as well.

    The only negative incident in her entire 50-plus years at the Bright Spot came in 1974 when a masked man robbed her at gunpoint. Betty was 64 years old, and it was the impetus to get her to move to Casper.

    She passed away in 1997, but the Bright Spot kept going until just a couple of years ago.

    The gas pumps remain out front, the neon Bright Spot sign awaits a blast of electricity, and the lunch counter and store shelves remain ready if someone wants to take on the legacy of a landmark that lit up the night for almost a century on the lonely, windswept plains of Natrona County.

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