“Macey’s has nothing on us.” The Powder River Store

    The small town served as a milestone on the trek west from Casper to Shoshoni for over a century. On many late nights, the welcoming lights of Powder River on the western horizon broke up the vigilance of watching for deer and antelope along US Highway 20/26.

    The A. C. Hitt Store in the 1920s – h/t Abraham Hitt

    If you’re traveling from Shoshoni, it’s just a big curve, followed by a deep dip into a canyon from Hells Half Acre until you reach the windy summit of the town.

    The Powder River Store, along with the historic Tumble Inn restaurant served tourists for decades, but more importantly for the little agricultural and oil field community, it served the needs of local farmers, ranchers, and workers.

    Marvel Hitt in front of her store at Powder River in the 1930s – h/t A.C. Hitt

    John T. Hitt, now of Mesquite, Nevada, grew up at the store owned by his parents John C. and Pauline Hitt. He was a 1972 graduate of Natrona County High School but attended school at the one-room schoolhouse at Powder River.

    “I was born in Casper. We had a house in Casper until 1961 when mom got a job teaching at Casper College,” Hitt said. “It was 26 miles from Casper to Powder River. The roads weren’t the best back in those days, it became easier to stay in town at Mom’s apartment.”

    The Powder River Store today – h/t Randy Tucker

    The Hitt family were early pioneers to the wide open desert between Shoshoni and Casper. John’s grandparents Abraham and Marvel Hitt purchased land north of Powder River first, then expanded their ranching operation.

    On March 1, 1923, the elder John C. Hitt was born at the hospital in Shoshoni. (John T. and John C. have different middle names so they were never addressed as junior or senior)

    Abraham.Hitt in the 1920s – h/t Marvel Hitt

    The Hitts had two other children in addition to John, a daughter Jessie, and another son, James.

    The school the Hitt children attended was near the site of the present K-5 Powder River Elementary school north of the highway, behind the post office.

    “We went to school in a one-room schoolhouse,” Hitt said. “They moved the schoolhouse and built a new school but found out it was built on horse pasture owned by my family.”

    When the discovery was made, the Natrona County School District had to make adjustments, either to demolish the new school or purchase the land.

    “You need to sell us some land, we accidentally built this school on your property,” Hitt said of the Natrona County School Superintendent to his grandfather.

    Abraham Hitt complied and sold a section to the district.

    A young John C. Hitt with his dog after a 1931 snowstorm at Powder River – h/t Abraham Hitt

    The connections with people in the roughly 100-mile stretch of some of the most isolated landscape in America was strong in the early 20th century.

    J.B. Oakie, the man famous for sheep, land, investment, and bringing stores to the frontier had businesses in Arminto, Lost Cabin, Lysite, and Moneta.

    “Grandpa worked for J.B. Oakie,” Hitt said. “Grandpa was waiting for a job opening for the store to open up at Arminto. When J.B. Oakie died things just fell apart.”

    A post card with a message about J.B. Oakie – h/t Abraham Hitt

    Abraham Hitt worked for an older man named Ralston at the Powder River Store.

    The store was originally a company store, owned by a small coal mining operation in Powder River. There were exposed coal seams just a few miles from Powder River that were surface mined and then hauled to Casper on horse and wagon before the railroad arrived.

    The type of cowhands and sheepmen that frequented Powder River in the early 1920s – h/t Natrona County Museum

    Ralston purchased the store from the coal company when they shut down production and the era of a privately owned store at Powder River began.

    “He did really well supplying ranchers,” Hitt said. “Grandpa went to work for Ralston, then bought him out of all the properties. He even ended up with the railroad depot, but a new line came through and closed it.”

    Abraham Hitt purchased the store from Ralston and changed the name to A.C. Hitt General Merchandise in the early 1920s.

    Growing up in Powder River in the 1950s and ’60s was an experience in wild excitement and long periods of boredom.

    AC Hitt’s sheep feeding on a hillside near Powder River with hay laid out to spell WYO – h/t Abraham Hitt

    “It was an interesting area to grow up out there,” Hitt said. “Some of the sheep outfits were huge in the 1960s. We leased our ranch to sheepmen. We still own 8 lots in beautiful downtown Powder River. Grandpa died in 1951, I was born in 1954. My dad was working with my grandfather, starting in 1949.

    Grandpa got more into the ranching business, he was still the store owner and operator, and my dad was starting to take it over.”

    The winter of 1949 saw another use for the store as dozens of stranded motorists found shelter inside as the worst blizzard of the 20th century raged across the state. It closed the roads for a couple of days and people stayed in the store until snowplows reopened the highway.

    Baby John C. Hitt with children behind the store in 1924 – h/t Abraham Hitt

    One of Hitt’s earliest jobs wasn’t at the store, but nearby at a wool house, his father owned.

    “We had a wool house at Powder River,” Hitt said. “My dad ran a truck around picking up wool bags to store in the house. I got a penny a piece for stenciling wool bags, sometimes I stenciled them upside down, and oh, the whining. My dad told me to be more careful stenciling in the rancher’s names, they like to see their names.”

    A.C. Hitt drove a team of horses gathering wool sacks to store at his wool house in Powder River – h/t Abraham Hitt

    In 1967, Harold Mackey from Casper bought the store.

    “Dad used to have a saying, If we don’t have it you don’t need it,” Hitt said. “He told customers Macey’s has nothing on us. We sold everything from clothing to tin cups, to toothpaste.”

    The abandoned coal mine was a lucrative venture for the elder Hitt.

    “I used to sack up coal in a gunny sack to sell to sheepherders, it burned a lot better than wood in those wagons,” Hitt said.

    The store had Conoco gas pumps and expanded with bulk delivery service.

    Powder River 1922 – h/t Abraham Hitt

    “Conoco, “The Hottest Brand Going” (in reference to 1960s TV commercials,)” Hitt said. “We had a Conoco Bulk Plant and hauled gas to ranches in those 500-gallon gravity tanks.”

    As part of their agricultural supply business, they sold grain in 50 and 100-pound sacks, salt blocks, cow cake, and lick tubs.

    “My dad used to think about setting up a restaurant. Hiland sold sandwiches and brought in tourists that way, but we never did,” Hitt said.

    They sold white gas, a fuel used in pump-up camp stoves that were popular to use in sheep wagons for heat and light.

    The remnants of a sheep wagon burned by a white gas stove malfunction – h/t Abraham Hitt

    The elder Hitt was a creative entrepreneur, noting the needs of potential customers and working to supply them.

    “Railroad work crews would pull into Powder River on the siding. We took in dried peppers because of the Mexican workers on the work train, reworking the tracks,” Hitt said. “The crews would spend about a month, it was good business for us.”

    The wool shed behind the A.C. Hitt General Merchandise Store – h/t Abraham Hitt

    John C. Hit began selling fencing supplies as the concept of shared open range gave way to private ownership.

    “Dad started selling fencing, driving down to Pueblo, Colorado to pick up supplies,” Hitt said. “The bigger ranchers were going away from sheep herding to pasturing sheep. They didn’t use sheep herders any longer except for when they had herds on the mountains.”

    The elder Hitt realized he was working against himself and told his son John one day, “I’m kind of fencing myself out of business.”

    The Company Store in 1922 before A.C. Hitt purchased it – h/t Abraham Hitt

    Progress made operating a store while raising a young family a bigger challenge.

    “The roads got better, and it was easier to go back and forth from Casper, so business began to shrink,” Hitt said.

    One day the elder Hitt decided to finish his college degree, make a mid-life career change, and go into education.

    “I have a degree, you have a degree, Dad said to Mom. He went to Bairoil, and worked in the school system until he died,” Hitt said. “Mom had a good job at Casper College. Dad went back to UW for one year and a summer to get a teaching degree.”

    When it came time to student teach the University of Wyoming Education College tried to assign John to Sheridan, but he refused. They explained that they didn’t want student teachers to work in the district where they grew up.

    John C Hitt – h/t Hitt Family

    The elder Hitt had an answer that UW couldn’t refuse. “I’m 44 years old, I have a family living in Casper, I’m not student teaching in Sheridan.”

    John C. Hitt eventually moved to the principal position at Bairoil, and then superintendent, before moving back to Casper where he taught from 1969 until 1982 when he passed away.

    “I always thought Powder River was the sticks, but if you went to junior high or high school and your grades were pretty good you could stay in Casper,” Hitt said. “If your grades weren’t good you had to ride back and forth to Powder River. It was an incentive to have good grades.”

    City limit sign for Powder River approaching from the east – h/t Randy Tucker

    Traveling was just a way of life in rural Natrona County and remains so today.

    “Everybody was doing business with everyone else,” Hitt said. “If you were shady, you didn’t get any business.”

    The milk, butter, and cheese sold at the store came from the Riverton Creamery.

    “A Casper truck driver named Roylance would run a semi-truck between Casper and Riverton stopping at all the stores to deliver milk, butter, and cheese,” Hitt said.

    The Hitt family sold the store in 1967, and the successive owners kept it in operation until approximately 2010.

    One enterprising owner marketed the less-than-appreciated wildlife of the area, the prairie rattlesnake prominently in the store.

    A popular item at the Powder River Store – h/t

    Taxidermist mounts of rattlesnakes coiled and about to strike offered a niche market that sold well with many tourists.

    He expanded the business, paying local people good prices for live rattlesnakes. Young men from as far away as Kaycee and Shoshoni brought in live rattlesnakes they’d caught and were paid by the inch for these venomous serpents.

    Many factors led to the demise of the store. The gas tanks were removed, leaving Waltman and Hiland as the only areas between Casper and Shoshoni for fuel. The creation of the rest stop near Waltman eliminated the walk-in traffic of travelers using the store’s restroom and then buying a few items.

    The Powder River Store had one strike against it that none of the other stores along the old Yellowstone Highway had to face.

    The Tumble Inn, next door to the Powder River Store for decades – h/t Randy Tucker

    In the late 90s the Tumble Inn, famous for its neon marquee of an overweight cowboy waving above a sign that read “Sizzling Steaks” became a strip club.

    The highway was lined with pickup trucks on Friday and Saturday Nights, but they weren’t the type of customers that the store needed to thrive.

    The store closed in approximately 2011 but is currently for sale.

    “When you’re 13, 14, or 15 Powder River was rough, especially in the wintertime,” Hitt said.

    All that remains is the weathering storefront surrounded by a fence with a for sale sign out front, but it was once the heart of a lively community.

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