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‘Ma’ of MAW – Lander native Margaret Appleby, one of the founders of the Museum of the American West (MAW), is just one of the many committed people in Wind River Country who have helped create and grow the tourism economy. Happy 30th Birthday to the WRVC!
Ask an old timer what they recall about Wind River/Fremont County. They will tell you a fascinating tale of dirt streets dotted with Mom and Pop log cabin motels. They will also tell you that, in those days, tourism would mostly go into hibernation after Labor Day.
Fast forward a bit, and you’ll hear a lot about booms and busts due to oil, uranium, iron mining coal bed methane, and natural gas. But the one industry that wasn’t affected by the booms and busts, that kept growing steadily past the summer season, was tourism. And for the past 30 years, tourism in Fremont County has been supported by the efforts of the Wind River Visitors Council.
The Wind River Visitors Council (WRVC) was officially established on October 25, 1989 by a Joint Powers Agreement between the Fremont County Commissioners and the towns of Dubois, Hudson, Lander, Riverton and Shoshoni. Each year, the WRVC uses funds collected through lodging taxes – which are mostly paid by tourists – to promote tourism to the county. The first year that the WRVC existed, it had $68,412 to spend. Twenty-nine years (and a lodging tax increase from 2 to 4 percent) later, the WRVC put $734,690 to work to promote Wind River Country, which is Fremont County’s brand name.
What does that mean to people who live in Fremont County? Twenty years ago, in 1998, Fremont County direct travel spending from tourism was about $65 million dollars. Last year, visitor spent almost 137 million dollars into Fremont County’s economy.
Margaret Appleby, “Maggie” to her friends (which is most people), is a genuine Lander old timer who is still actively involved with her community.
“Oh, golly darn! I’ve been kinda in the tourist business most of my life!” she explains, adding that she grew up running around her uncle Pete Spriggs’ log cabin grocery store in the Horseshoe motel.
As a young adult, she became involved with the Pioneer Museum – one of the first museums in Wyoming — which for many years was the only museum in the county. In later years, Appleby became the driving force behind Lander’s Pioneer Days on the July 4th holiday and was one of the founders of Lander’s Museum of the American West.
“The Wind River Visitors Council folks have done an awesome, awesome job. They’ve helped with Lander Pioneer Days for 30 years,” Appleby said, “They’ve helped the museum write grants and get money. And [Pioneer Days] is a big draw – that and the rodeo brings a lot of people into town!”
More than museums thrive in Wind River Country
In addition to the three county history museums, there are 18 other museums and state historic sites for tourists and locals to visit. (See them all at https://windriver.org/experience/museums/)
For the past 16 years, Joe Ellis has been Site Superintendent at South Pass City, an historic gold mining town at 7,400 ft in the Wind River Mountains.
Ellis said that South Pass has seen a steady increase in visitation that averages out to about a 2 percent increase every year (which only runs from May 15 – Sept. 30). “I think what we offer here at South Pass and in most of Wyoming is an authentic experience that people find of value,” he explained
“Last year, the season that we just closed, we were just shy of 18,000 people. In just four months on the top of a mountain, that is pretty impressive!” he said.
“I can tell you that the Wind River Visitors Council is tremendously important to us,” Ellis said. “With our kind of limited budget, we don’t have the ability to do any kind of promotion. The external marketing they provide helps us tremendously.”
In Dubois, Tammy Lucas can be found most days at the Headwaters Arts and Conference Center. She and her husband, realist painter Tom Lucas, run the Lucas Gallery. Tammy is also on the board of Destination Dubois, and we asked her what the tourism view is like from her perspective.
“I think that the museums – the Dubois museum and the Bighorn Sheep Center – plus a lot of the dude ranches here – that really helps tourism. And the new war museum going in outside of Dubois (the National Museum of Military Vehicles south of town that will open next year) is going to be a great addition!”
Tourism’s impact beyond museums
In Riverton, Rowena Bland has served tourists and townsfolk breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 20 years. “We’re on the main drag, so we get our share of tourists,” Bland said. “I think that tourism helps tremendously. You have your local folks who come all the time, then you have your tourists who come through periodically. The local folks are your bread and butter, your tourists are the gravy.”
Bland notes that every summer, she needs to add additional staff to take care of the extra tourist traffic. And in the winter, she gets a lot of what she calls ‘repeat offenders’ from the hunting and snowmobiling crowd. “They find a place they like for breakfast, and come back for dinner,” she said, adding that “A lot of the snowmobilers come back year after year.”
Welcoming a different sort of tourist
Where the tourists are coming from has changed in the past few years. “We’ve always had a few [tourists from abroad],” Bland said, “but it seems like in the past few years it’s increased some.”
“Thirty years ago, our visitors were mostly US families, driving though,” Appleby agreed. “Today we get families from all over the world, that’s due to a lot of advertising through the WRVC. One night at our Native American dances – we had people from 16 countries there! There were folks from Australia, Japan, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands…it was something to see.”
Making plans for the next 30 years
The Wind River Visitors Council is run by a dedicated board of local volunteers. The chairman of the WRVC board, Ryan Preston, general manager of the Riverton Hampton Inn and Suites. “The work we’re doing now and the investments we’re making will fuel the growth of the tourism economy in Fremont County for the next 30 years,” Preston said. “For example, we’re right now working with Google on getting our tourism assets and local businesses onto the Google platforms for the whole county. This will have huge benefits, by boosting our visibility on Google searches and will pay off for a long time.”
About the Wind River Visitors Council
The Wind River Visitors Council’s mission is to stimulate tourism by increasing awareness of, and encouraging visitation to, the unique destinations, activities and events in Fremont County/Wind River Country, Wyoming. The Wind River Visitors Council (WRVC) is a Joint Powers Lodging Tax Board responsible for promoting the travel and tourism industry in Fremont County through expenditures of the lodging tax. WRVC Board members represent our communities and the county and are appointed by local city councils and the Fremont County Commissioners. Learn more at WindRiver.org.