The longer the name, the smaller the school is a trend, at least in Wyoming, it’s a trend. Take a look at Class 1-A schools and you’ll find Eden-Farson, Guernsey-Sunrise, Lingle-Ft. Laramie, Arvada-Clearmont, and my personal favorite, Hanna Elk Mountain Medicine Bow, often abbreviated to just HEM with few people knowing the complicated agreements, angry meetings, and ultimate compromises that led to the creation of these tiny little K-12 institutions.
Two of my favorite routes in Wyoming take you by many, perhaps most of the victims of consolidation that have destroyed once vibrant small towns across the state.
The old Texas Trail Conference was full of now-defunct schools and follows US 85 North from Cheyenne to Newcastle.
Once conferences had unique names that quickly identified the schools playing there. The Absaroka, Five Rivers, Southwest, and even farther back, the Big Horn Basin Conference were all unique, far more fun to think about than the mundane system the Wyoming High School Activities Association now utilizes. The 3-A West, the 2-A Southwest, the 1-A Northeast, what do they even mean? What they mean is an arbitrary identifier for competition among schools whose members constantly move up, down, and side to side in affiliation.
Shoshoni is a prime example of this. One year the Wranglers are in the 2-A Southwest, the next couple in the 2-A Northwest and occasionally they’ve dropped to the 1-A Northwest, it can be perplexing, but not as perplexing as figuring out where Riverton, Cody, Star Valley, Jackson Hole, and Green River are playing this season.
The Wolverines are 3-A in some sports like wrestling, swimming, and football, and then 4-A in basketball, track, and volleyball. You have to pay close attention just to know which conference you’re in as one season ends and another begins. It sometimes leads to a little jealousy between programs when one gets to compete against Powell, Lander, and Thermopolis, and another team has to lock horns with Natrona County, Cheyenne Central, and Thunder Basin.
But back to the road, where boarded-up buildings, crumbling billboards, and weed patches where homes once stood dot the landscape where schools once stood.
Burns, Pine Bluffs, Southeast Goshen, Torrington, and Lusk remain as independent school districts between the capital city and “Nuke City” as Newcastle residents often call their town. In between, you’ll find the largely deserted communities of Albin, LaGrange, Carpenter, Veteran, Huntley, Manville, Hartville, and Ft. Laramie. They all were once vital links for local farmers and ranchers with banks, restaurants, movie theaters, motels and farm implement businesses, now they’re all gone, victims of the diaspora of the Great Plains.
One of my favorite stories of consolidation comes from LaGrange. The mighty Longhorns had a declining enrollment as generations of kids moved away from the farm after World War II. The ranches and dryland wheat farms remained with aging couples managing the operation. LaGrange was in the Goshen County School District along with Torrington.
After years of debate, the school board finally decided to board up the LaGrange school and send the kids to Southeast Goshen or Torrington. What the board didn’t count on was the actions of a couple of wealthy ranchers who had several grandchildren at LaGrange.
When the decision was announced, these two ranchers drove into Torrington and transferred all their assets to banks in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Businessmen on the school board took quick notice and called an emergency meeting to reexamine the closing of LaGrange. They reopened the school for a few more years until those rancher’s grandkids graduated. Of course, the assets moved back from the Scottsbluff bank to Torrington in the process.
We haven’t seen anything as dramatic in Fremont County, but many of us remember when the Pavillion Panthers and the Morton Broncs were separate schools. As a freshman and sophomore at Wind River in the early 1970s, we wore Pavillion Panther jerseys at football practice and Morton Broncs t-shirts for PE and basketball practice since the Wind River gear was all brand new and was just to be used for games.
Traveling north from Thermopolis, Gebo, Manderson, Byron, Basin, Cowley, Deaver, and Frannie were all once independent schools. It was the Deaver-Frannie Trojans that were one of the first consolidated teams in the lead, playing as the Demons before they were absorbed by Cowley. Cowley and Byron eventually consolidated as well, creating the modern Rocky Mountain Grizzlies. I guess it’s all part of the process.
If you head west from Lovell you can see what the elimination of a school does to a community. Byron was larger than Cowley just a few years ago, but Cowley, home of the Grizzlies, is growing with new businesses and families arriving and Byron is slowly fading away. That’s always the case when a school closes.
Hanna isn’t exactly a Mecca for business, but it has stores, and amenities you can’t find any longer in Medicine Bow or Elk Mountain. Medicine Bow had the unique dilemma of a newly constructed school that never had children since the Carbon County School District they were in closed the building, sending the kids west to Hanna. They’ve had a few businesses interested in the building, but overall it’s a monument to despair on the high plains.
On US 85 my memories as I drive by Hawk Springs or see the exit to Yoder and Southeast Goshen the school that absorbed the Huntley Cardinals, Veteran Eagles, the LaGrange Longhorns, and the Hawk Springs Hawks are all as a coach in the 1980s.
It’s different in the Big Horn Basin, where I coached for three decades, but played for a very brief three-year career. I remember the alkali divots on the Manderson-Hyattville field, the sound of the pumping unit popping off during games at Byron, and the lousy lights at Basin shattering during a game played in an early October rainstorm.
These visceral images are only memories my teammates and I carry, along with older players who walked the same path, playing in the same communities. Ifs much more painful for those whose alma matter is no more.
The kids I had in Shoshoni lament the loss of the old Shoshoni K-12 building while realizing the new facility is vastly superior. The difference is that it’s a great school, but it’s not their school.