Behind the lines: Collateral discovery

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    You could call it ancillary research, possibly akin to collateral damage in a more hostile setting. It is why original research can sometimes be so engaging. As you dig through old piles of newspapers, or thumb through bound volumes of century-old publications, taking in the smell of old newsprint along with the crackling of book bindings that haven’t been touched for a lifetime, you occasionally find nuggets of information that you never intended to search for.

    That came for me earlier this week as I did the modern version of digging through old newspapers digitally via the website. It’s a fabulous collection of almost every newspaper that was once published in our fair state.


    I was looking for information on the ghost town of Birdseye, a way station on the road over the mountain from Shoshoni to Thermopolis before the highway through the Wind River Canyon was carved out in the early 1920s.

    There were dozens of accounts of accidents, storms, new store openings, salted gold mines, and even a few robberies printed in the Copper Mountain Miner, the Wind River Mountaineer, and the Shoshoni Capitol, along with other more distant publications.

    A May 4, 1922, edition of the Thermopolis Record was most compelling.

    Under the banner was this engaging statement, “Published at the Famous Big Horn Hot Springs – the Mecca of the Afflicted – and the County Seat of Hot Springs County.”


    Hot Springs County was only 11 years old at the time this edition went to print, carved out of Fremont, Big Horn, and Park Counties in February of 1911.

    Who could resist these headlines listed in columnar format, “Benedicts Trim Bachelor Stars,” subtitled “First Baseball Game of the Year Results in Triumph of Henpecks.” Yes, the married men of Thermopolis beat the bachelors 12-11 the previous Sunday afternoon.

    A lamb and a calf with “Many Legs to Spare” as the headline read, told the tale of an 8-legged lamb that didn’t survive birth but had a healthy twin and a five-legged calf that became the star of the county fair for years to come.


    On the subject of extra appendages, Mrs. Mary Golden was operating her new electric wringer washing machine when she caught her thumb in the rollers. Instead of hitting the release, she jerked back and ripped her thumb off. The account included all the gruesome details that modern newspapers omit with tendons flicking back and forth from the severed thumb caught in the washer.

    The first pheasants transplanted along the Big Horn River were reported as well, with a rooster and three hens released on a local farm.

    The most intriguing item to me, especially this time of year as the track season begins was the reporting of a dual track meet between Worland and Thermopolis, held at a makeshift 440-yard oval lined in the outfield of the Thermopolis baseball field.


    The Bobcats beat the Warriors 83 ½ to 32 ½ in the dual meet.

    Wedge Thompson was the star of the meet winning the 50-yard dash,100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, the high jump, the long jump, and the shot put. He also anchored the winning 4×220-yard relay.

    If that seems like a lot of events for one athlete, it is in our terms, but until 1974, even at the state meet entries were unlimited. It took Leonard Padilla of Medicine Bow in 1973, winning the Class B state championship almost single-handedly to create the modern rule that limits a competitor to just four total events.

    It wasn’t the number of events that Thompson entered that day or the dominance of Thermopolis in winning every event aside from the discus, but the times and distances themselves.

    We live in an era when athletes wear specialized shoes for each event, where all-weather, cushioned, rubberized surfaces with engineered curves and state-of-the-art starting blocks add speed and distances to events that were once conducted on grass, clay, dirt, or cinders.

    These boys ran on compacted dirt and dry grass, rolled into an approximate oval a quarter-of-a-mile long.

    The times in the sprints were impressive. Thompson won the 50-yard dash in 5 2/5ths, the 100 in 10 1/5, and the 220-yard dash in 25 flat.

    If fifths as a measurement of time seem strange, it wasn’t. Until the post-war era when stopwatches capable of measuring in 10ths of a second became common, the stopwatches used at track meets were the same ones still used at horse racing venues. There were three hands, a minute, a second, and a fifth of a second.

    I’ve tried these older stopwatches a few times and they have an enjoyable click, as the sweep for the fifths clicks around the dial.

    Thompson must have been tired when he won the 220-yard dash, since that time is comparable to most winning 8th-grade boys today. His 50 and 100 times are remarkable. He would win almost every track meet in Wyoming today with those times.

    Calibrated for the modern 100-meter sprint, his 10.2 would equal an 11.1 in the 100-meter race, respectable at any of Wyoming’s four divisions of track and field.

    Remember, he ran that fast without starting blocks, in shoes with inch-long spikes. His starting blocks were two holes dug into the track with a small gardening spade.

    The 120-yard-high hurdles, a race almost identical in length to the 110-meter-high hurdles, was won in 18 seconds, a time that would not place today. In defense of the hurdlers from that era, the ground was uneven, and the hurdles were not the balanced state-of-the-art composites we see today but just boards nailed at 39 inches high with questionable platforms to support them.

    They ran the 220-yard low hurdles too. The winning time was 27 1/5, comparable to the best 8th-grade boy’s time today in the 200-meter low hurdles. We ran the 180-yard low hurdles in the 1970s, with the arrival of the 330-yard intermediate hurdles in the late 70s and now the 300-meter intermediates.

    Using the western roll, and diving into 10 inches of sawdust mixed with dirt, Thompson won the high jump at 5-9. His long jump of 19-2.5 is a respectable distance considering jumping off a patch of white gypsum on a grass runway.

    The winning discus distance didn’t make 100 feet, 98-0 taking first and Thompson’s gold medal shot put only flew 36-9 with the 12-pound implement.

    The most interesting event was the pole vault, decided by a coin toss when the pole, owned by Thermopolis but shared with the Worland vaulters broke during warmups.  Thermopolis lost the toss giving Worland first and second.

    The state meet was the following week in Douglas, but only five boys were allowed to compete due to a limited budget. Some things never change in education.

    Wedge Thompson surely competed well for the Bobcats in Converse County.  


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