November 16, 2010
By Brodie Farquhar
Photos by Dewey Vanderhoff
Hyattville — It was 1866 when Samuel W. Hyatt moved to a scattered settlement at the confluence of Paint Rock Creek and Medicine Lodge Creek. But what he and other early settlers of what is now Hyattville didn’t know was that people had been living in that same area for the last 10,000 years.
For the ranchers and others who now make Hyattville home, it’s easy to see why.
Tucked away amid the red, rolling foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in north central Wyoming, Hyattville is only six miles from Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site, home to numerous petroglyphs and pictograms.
Over the years, Hyattville has had a doctor, newspaper, hotel, mercantile and grocery stores — even an opera house — that served a thriving ranching economy. Today, there’s a post office and two cafés, each with a bar. Groceries or gas are 17 miles or more away, in Basin, Worland and Ten Sleep.
The Hyattville Bar & Café and the Paintrock Inn offer the basics, including food and coffee for the breakfast crowd and beer for the hunters. The Paintrock Inn even has an eating challenge that few can beat — the Big Daddy — a 4.5-pound burger that requires a three-day lead time. The Big Daddy costs $20, and if you eat it in less than an hour, the $20 is cheerfully refunded and the winner gets a free dinner.
There are only six photos of winners on the wall, and only one could be described as slender. Maybe you’ll need a hollow leg.
In spite of its remoteness, Medicine Lodge attracts 30,000 visitors per year, drawn by the remarkable petroglyphs and pictographs at the site. Many visitors also stay at one of Medicine Lodge’s 30 camping sites, handy to fishing and hunting opportunities on nearby state and federal lands.
“We like it here,” said Julie Greer, the postmaster in charge of Hyattville’s 92 post office boxes – 72 of which are rented to in-town residents and surrounding ranchers.
She greets everyone by name and exchanges community news of the day – ranging from the latest hay crop or hunting success to updates on residents’ health. Greer’s husband, Bill, is healing after getting thrown from a horse, and is anxious to get back in the saddle, she said. Maybe too anxious, she shrugged, as if asking, What can you do with stubborn men?
At first glance, Hyattville appears impervious to change, from the town dogs lounging in streets to the ancient cottonwoods ablaze with Indian summer colors. Yet some old ranch families have sold out (notably to some retired Coca-Cola executives from Atlanta). Even the Mercer clan – descended from Asa Mercer, author of the Johnson County War chronicle, “Banditti of the Plains” – is dwindling in number.
“Some kids stay, others don’t,” said Eleanor Hamilton, a local rancher who sent her kids off to the University of Wyoming.
The ranch families who stay aren’t here for the money, she explained, but for the lifestyle. The ranching life can be hard, but there are rewards, like really knowing and counting on neighbors. Hamilton acknowledged that like any other place, the Hyattville community has its little spats.
“But when push comes to shove, we hang together,” she said.
“I don’t want anything else,” Hamilton said, adding that she’s grateful to live on Alkali Road for many years.
For those who’ve left the area, but are interested in their roots, Jim Davis, 77, is a key historical resource. A chief contributor to the local history book “Paintrock Tales and Bonanza Trails,” Davis gets phone calls or folks on his doorstep, eager to learn family histories.
“I just wish I had listened better when I was young,” Davis said. Still, Davis has a great deal of local history tucked between his ears, not to mention the files of Gus Allen, an early reporter for the Greybull Standard newspaper.
Davis tells one tale of B.F. Wickwire, an early rancher who in 1897 heard of fabulous money offered for horses in the Klondike gold fields of Canada. Wickwire figured he’d make a killing by delivering a herd of 380 horses to the prospectors.
He delivered one horse. Alive.
The Wickwire tale gets picked up by Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites & Trails, with an audio recording at the Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site. There you learn the rest of the story; Wickwire was absent for two years, and when he finally got home to the ranch that now surrounds the Medicine Lodge site, he discovered his wife had given him up for dead and sold the ranch.
Harry and Sadie Taylor acquired the Wickwire property, then sold the 12,100-acre ranch to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in 1972, to ensure adequate winter range for the extensive elk herd that summered in the Bighorn Mountains.
Just a few years earlier, in 1967, the Medicine Lodge site became famous for more than its Indian petroglyphs and pictographs.
It began with Orval Bunnell, Sadie Taylor’s stepson, the ranch manager and a local veterinarian. Bunnell decided to expand the ranch’s cattle pens in front of a cliff – an area that had long served as an open corral and winter feeding ground for cattle. Dirt was banked up against the cliff, and Bunnell figured that if he could shove it aside with the bulldozer, he could run the expanded cattle pens right up to the cliff face.
The day Bunnell fired up the bulldozer, the Taylor ranch had a visitor — Stu Conner, a rock art specialist from Billings. As the bulldozer bit into the dirt slope next to the cliff face, Conner noticed stone artifacts popping up out of the dirt. He collected some and sent them to the University of Wyoming. He attached a note suggesting the site could be worth further investigation.
From 1969 to 1975, George Frison, then the Wyoming State Archaeologist, began a series of digs below the rock art, and discovered the ground at the foot of the cliff face had been continuously occupied by humans for more than 10,000 years.
Frison was assisted by 50 students – sweaty, sunburned, mosquito-bitten and dirty from digging 20-foot-deep trenches and sifting everything through window screens.
Daily baths in the cold waters from Medicine Lodge Creek were interspersed with a weekly (and deeply appreciated) hot shower in town.
“It was hard work, but it was also fun,” said Julie Francis, a member of the 1973 dig team. Francis is now a nationally recognized prehistoric rock art expert who works with the Wyoming Department of Transportation. She is one of six PhDs and six MAs to emerge from the Medicine Lodge cadre of student diggers.
She finished that summer with thick calluses, well-developed biceps and a passion for field work — enough to earn advanced degrees in archaeology from Arizona State University, where she wrote a dissertation on Medicine Lodge and materials from the Bighorn Basin.
The abstraction of some images at Medicine Lodge can be puzzling to casual observer, but the rock art speaks volumes to Francis and her associates.
“The art can be complex,” she said. “But we can make a good case that much of the rock art is related to visionary experiences which were central to their religion.” Visions were sought via fasting and isolation, Francis said, and the rock art found at Medicine Lodge was both a means of seeking power and a way to express the power received in those visions.
Shield-bearing warriors, bears, elk, bighorn sheep, horses and faces with tears are visible in the rock art at Medicine Lodge.
Of course, there’s much more of archaeological and anthropological interest at Medicine Lodge. Stone artifacts, trade beads, pottery shards, flakes, bones, pollen and charcoal gave detailed clues about past residents, from the Paleo-Indians to the historic Crow Indians who camped at the foot of the Medicine Lodge cliff face.
Brooks Jordan, the site superintendent for Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site, had a busy summer and fall.
Jordan said he was surprised by the steady stream of visitors drawn to this oasis of water, cottonwoods and irrigated alfalfa amid the surrounding basin, canyons and mountains of the Bighorns and Cloud Peak Wilderness, just to the east.
With prior experience with the days-only Bear River State Park near Evanston, Jordan learned that an overnight campground means the site supervisor can be on call at any hour.
Most days, however, are spent bagging or picking up trash, cleaning the restrooms or talking to visitors about the site or nearby fishing and hunting. During the slow winter season, Jordan hopes to update Medicine Lodge’s web site and print materials.
The wild is never far away – like the day Jordan stepped outside his house and found fresh bear scat on his lawn. The bear was attracted by chokecherries along the creek.
“We’ve also found fresh kills that indicate there are mountain lions in the area,” he said.
Medicine Lodge Creek, which flows on the east side of the old Taylor ranch, is a timeless reminder of what has attracted humans to the little valley for 10,000 years.