#Lookback: Tom Knight, “The Mid-century Giant”

    Mayor, aviator, philanthropist, showman – Tom Knight was all these and more. His is a true rags to riches story, and all the more heartwarming because Knight never let the money make a miser out of him. To the end of his days, he remained a man who didn’t mind comping kids a few cents if they were short on a movie ticket at one of his theaters, a preferer of overalls to suit jackets, and a respected mind whose opinion was sought after by anyone in Riverton who had an important idea.

    It was at the Acme Theater where Knight began his career in Riverton. An electrician, the Kansan arrived in Wyoming in June of 1924 at the age of 19. Coming in from Denver, he had been hired by Belle Mote, the Acme’s first owner. As he helped with theater operations and as a projectionist, Mote soon understood Knight’s potential, quickly promoting him to manager.

    Around 20 years later, in 1945, Mote was ready to retire from running her beloved theater and wanted to sell. By that time, Knight had made enough money to buy the establishment. He did and took over all operations on January 1, 1946. Evidently, he had acquired a love for the movie business in the two decades he had worked under Mote and wanted his shot at the helm.

    Like Mote, who had tirelessly worked to improve the Acme Theater and keep it up to the standards of the theaters in the biggest cities, Knight continually went above and beyond. He went out of his way to promote the theater as often and as extravagantly as possible. For example, when an Al Capone movie was in town, Knight rented an “armored car with bullet proof glass” to park outside the theater to draw crowds.

    But Knight was more than a showman. The same year he bought the theater, he made his first mercy flight, having become a licensed pilot in 1944. He acquired a Stinson Flying Station Wagon soon after this first emergency airlift for the purpose of conducting more, if needed. Recognizing that Riverton’s medical facilities were not up to snuff (this was before the Riverton Memorial Hospital was built in 1953), he outfitted his new plane with medical equipment and volunteered to fly those in need to big city hospitals.

    In this way, Knight saved the lives of a large number of people, including many children in the late 1940s as the polio epidemic swept across the United States. For this reason, his Acme Mercy Ship, as it was named, was even outfitted with an iron lung. Knight’s mercy flights continued even after the hospital was built, all the way to 1960. Not a single person was ever charged for these airlifts by Knight. He was eventually appointed to the Civil Aeronautics Commission by the governor, serving for over 15 years. He continued on in the Commission through both Democrat and Republican administrations, and went on to become the chairman.

    This wasn’t the only official post that Knight held. The showman and aviator was elected mayor of Riverton in 1948, serving until 1950.

    1950 was another big year in the life of Knight. That year, he expanded his theater holdings from one to three. Taking advantage of the drive-in boom that was sweeping the nation, the mayor opened the Knight Drive In. Only a few months later, he established another indoor theater in Riverton, the Gem Theater.

    Based on the amount of work he put in to operating and upgrading his theaters, it’s clear this was Knight’s true passion. By 1958, the Acme needed a facelift, Knight figured. Sparing no expense, Knight remodeled the Acme, affixing the bright, vertical sign that still hangs above its entrance today, as well as bringing in a Dairy Queen next to the theater so that moviegoers could enjoy an ice cream during the show.

    More than this, he also made several upgrades to his Drive In. It had only been opened for about five years when Knight decided he needed to install a newer, larger screen. Always remembering to think of the children, he also installed a playground, carousel, and mini-train for kids to play on while waiting for the movie.

    Knight, a busy man who by this time had a hand in several other business and community endeavors in Riverton, could have left his three cinemas in the hands of capable managers. That did not seem to have been his wish though, as he could often be found at one of his theaters. At the Acme, he’d be seen manning the ticket booth. At the Drive In, he would sometimes pilot the small train for the children. His wife, Winifred, could also be found there, selling concessions which she often baked herself.

    After finishing up his work at the Acme one day in 1970, Knight was stricken with a heart attack. Having suffered from heart ailments for years, he died at the age of 65. A “mid-century giant” was how the Riverton Ranger summed up the life of Tom Knight. When describing his impact on the lives of the people of Riverton, especially when it comes to those that he saved in his Acme Mercy Ship and their loved ones, “giant” somehow seems like an understatement.

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    August 26, TBA at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: A Closer Look at the Night Sky” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    August 26, 9-2pm at the Riverton Museum, “J.B. Okie Manor Adventure Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series; This trek has been rescheduled for September 23rd.

    August 29, 9-2pm at the Dubois Museum, “Lake Louise Nature Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    August 30, 7pm at the Dubois Museum, “Music at the Museum: Packin’ The Mail

    December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  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 Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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