#Lookback: Missouri Geology Camp Branson Field Laboratory

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

The oldest continually operated field geology camp in the U.S is located just south of the boundary of Sinks Canyon State Park.  Dr. Edwin Branson was the newly appointed professor of geology at Missouri State University in 1911.  He believed hands-on experience was the key to learning geology, so he began organizing summer field camps.  In 1904, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Branson had dug for amphibian fossils in the red beds of the Triassic Popo Agie formations around Lander, and he remembered the wealth of exposed geology in Fremont County.

Rocks were exposed in the area from Precambrian to Pleistocene.  There were abundant examples of metamorphic, volcanic, igneous rocks, marine limestones, and other sedimentary rocks and fossils from fish, to amphibians, to dinosaurs, to mammoths. There is also evidence of glaciation with moraines and glacial erratics littering the valleys and wide river banks cut when the glaciers melted.  Tectonic faults are also easily observed.  The area is a storehouse of uranium, gold, iron, coal and oil deposits.  Fremont County also has pleasant summer temperatures and sparse vegetation making it the perfect classroom for a summer geology field camp.

In 1911, ten budding geologists arrived in Lander by train along with their tents, bed rolls and pickaxes. The first field camps were located about where Sawmill campground is located at the mouth of Sinks Canyon.  The locals judged them to be just rockhounds from the East, but this was the start of the Missouri Field Geology Camp.   By 1929, Branson and the University of Missouri had arranged for an educational property lease from the Forest Service. The property was known as Camp Lander. During the early 1930s small cabins, offices and dormitories were built.  During the Depression, money from the Works Projects Administration (WPA) was used to add water and sewage facilities.  In the 1930s and 40s more dormitories, laboratories, a reading room and a dining hall were added. Electricity arrived in the 1940s.  Many of the cabins were built by students to help defray the cost of tuition, room and board.  The camp can now accommodate up to 55 students. 

When Branson retired in 1948 the Camp Lander was renamed the Branson Field Laboratory in his honor. 

The two first White women atop Wind River Peak were associated with the Missouri Geology camp; Cynthis Wilkes and Mabel Branson, Edwin Branson’s wife made history when they summited Wind River Peak.   

The geology students coming in the summer was a big deal in Lander during the Depression.  Lander only had about 1500 people in 1929. The young women of Lander eagerly awaited the arrival of young college men for the summer. 

As part of the 4th of July celebrations in the 1950s, Lander’s American Legion hosted a Rock Crushers Ball in honor of the faculty and students of the University of Missouri field camp.  Admission to the ball for students of the field camp was one corn cob.  Other couples had to pay $1.50 if they were in western dress and $2.00 if they were in non-western dress. The money raised was used to pay for other 4th of July festivities.  

The mountains and rocks and river valleys of Fremont County made an excellent laboratory for generations of young geologists who honed their skills at the Branson Field Laboratory.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

July 9, 11-2pm “Dubois Museum Day” 

July 12, 9-3pm “Annual Mystery Sheep Trap Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Discovery Speakers Series

July 13, 7-9pm “Music at the Museum: Jan Marrou” at the Dubois Museum Nanna’s Bowling Alley and Bakery

July 13 & 14, 9-5pm “American Solar Car Challenge” at the Pioneer Museum

Thru October 2022, 9-5pm Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Hurrah for The Cowboy: Men of the Open Range” Art Exhibition

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

Photo: one of the instructors cabins at the University of Missouri Field Station in Sinks Canyon, circa 1940

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