Wyoming Museum Preserves Larger-Than-Life Oil Boom Years
August 10, 2017
A sign outside the Salt Creek Museum tells you the Salt Creek Oil Field was once the largest oil producer in the world. Another proclaims the first lighted football game in 1925.
Small towns and camps once dotted the field where workers lived and raised their families. Altogether, the communities once rivaled the current population of Casper. Midwest and Edgerton are all that remain, with residents who number in the hundreds.
The Salt Creek Museum remains, too, and tells the history of the community and its people from the time oil was discovered and first drilled in the 1880s through decades of booms and busts. The Midwest museum is all volunteer-run, these days by Everett DeWitt.
The museum will be open Friday through Sunday for Salt Creek Days, the annual Midwest celebration that includes a parade, community picnic, car show and golf tournament. The event brings several hundred visitors to the museum, DeWitt said, more than the rest of the year combined.
Signatures in the visitors' book this summer include guests from Casper, around Wyoming and as far away as the Netherlands.
About half the visitors have some link to the oil field; they worked there or want to know more about what it was like for older generations of their family, DeWitt said. Others come from all over to learn more about the history of central Wyoming. The museum depends on volunteers like DeWitt to continue telling those stories.
”It’s important for the younger people coming up to see how we got here," DeWitt said. "The work and the struggles and the trials and tribulations that went on in the past to make this what it is today and what it was at one time, to see how big of a deal this oil field was compared to how things are today. They can see what’s here today. That’s a tangible thing that they can walk up and touch and feel and see.”
Dewitt ran his hands over a World War I helmet sitting on top of a case. That’s the vision of founder Pauline Schultz, who started the museum in her garage. She wanted items you could examine and even handle to find out what life was like 100 years ago.
“Did you ever touch a 1918 military helmet?” DeWitt said. “I hadn’t, until I came here.”
Visitors can leaf through the diary of a young woman who lived at a camp in the 1920s and place their hands on a set of shovel-like tools called a banjo and spoon. Workers in the field dug deep holes for power poles with the banjo and scooped out the dirt with the spoon, DeWitt explained.
Few things are encased in glass. One is the football from what a plaque says was the first lighted football game in the country in 1925, between the Casper and Midwest football teams.
Wyoming history experts at wyohistory.org don't agree it was the first lighted night game, despite local lore. But it probably was the first night football game played in the West, and the first between high school teams, according to the website. Midwest Refining Company provided floodlights to give workers a rare chance to take in a game, and more than 1,000 people attended.
Midwest contained 17,000 people by 1927, and a 1928 count from the field's communities totaled 58,000, DeWitt said. Also working the fields were 10,000 horses, he added.
Throughout the museum are items from those people through the decades. The walls are covered in photos of gushing oil wells, horse teams hauling heavy loads, workers constructing pipelines and oil derricks snapped in two by a tornado.
One hallway displays baseball caps sporting industry logos. An electric oil derrick and pump model was made by resident who wanted the prized possession to go to the museum after his death.
One of the 10 rooms is packed with oil field tools, and another with school materials. The museum also contains photographs and publications that feature the social side of Salt Creek, including VFW, American Legion and Lions Club memorabilia.
DeWitt knew some of the items before they were in the museum. He pointed out a vintage barber’s chair where he’d had a haircut and a dentist chair where he’d had a tooth pulled. The dentist’s office once neighbored the barber in Edgerton.
Preserving the past
The building housing the museum is piece of town history itself. It was built in 1924 as nurses' quarters for an adjoining hospital, which is now the Midwest Town Hall.
Meager operations expenses are covered by the town, but FDL Energy, which bought the the Salt Creek Oil Field about two years ago, recently donated funds to pay a year's utility bills, DeWitt said. The donation helps the town save money, town clerk Bert Smith said.
The museum depends on volunteers to manage and give tours at the museum, Smith added. DeWitt was on the town council when he and his wife, Debra, were asked to take over as curators about a year and half ago. They jumped at the chance, he said.
DeWitt is an engineering tech for FDL, a retired firefighter and medic and also runs a hobby farm in his free time. He was born in Worland and moved to Midwest in 1980.
He’s familiar with the community’s history and enjoys learning more through research and visitors. Salt Creek Days brings out community members with the most history in their heads, which is a great chance for him to learn, he said.
Looking to the future
A new addition to the museum is a 1918 Chicago truck, which last was licensed in 1927 by Midwest Refining Company for the Salt Creek Oil Field. It’s on permanent loan from the Wyoming Trucking Association, and will appear in the Salt Creek Days parade.
The museum has nowhere to house the truck. DeWitt hopes to raise funds for a new museum building with space for the truck, a 1948 fire engine and a 1918 drilling rig. He expects it to take several years to secure funding, but he believes it can be done.
DeWitt hopes the museum will continue telling generations about the lives that shaped Wyoming and giving them a chance to see, hear and touch the history.
Source: Casper Star Tribune