SHERIDAN — When you hear the names Whitney, Kendrick or Eaton, you likely make immediate connections to a person, a place, a legacy, an historical reference or a combination of all those things.
When you hear Coffeen do you think of a street, or the family behind the name?
A recently formed foundation called CHIEF is hoping to use a large personal collection of historical items to re-educate the community on the vast historical impact the Coffeen family, especially Henry A. Coffeen, had on Sheridan County.
The Coffeen Historical Information Education Foundation was started by Patricia Coffeen shortly after her husband, a fourth generation descendent of Henry A. Coffeen, passed away.
“Before he passed we started getting an interest with what we were going to do with this stuff and he said, ‘It’s history, it’s time to dig this stuff out,’” Patricia Coffeen said on their family collection. “But it wasn’t until after he passed that I sought legal counsel because it was all on my shoulders but I’m no historian.”
The significance of the collection has begun to be uncovered as now Wyoming Room librarian at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library Judy and members of community historical societies take an interest in the items.
“Big Horn City Historical Society took an interest because his (Henry A. Coffeen) beginnings were in Big Horn. We had pictures that we didn’t even know the value of back then but the ladies did and that’s what spurred our interest to reveal it,” Patricia Coffeen said. “Judy would come right to our home and would scan and scan and scan.”
With the scanning and preservation help of Slack, little by little the collection began to be archived including photographs, sheet music, copies of speeches and much more.
“She had literally thousands of dollars worth of history in her house and didn’t know it,” said local historian and teacher Tyson Emborg on the collection. “If you get on eBay or go downtown to one of our stores, one Teepee magazine is worth a couple hundred dollars and she just had them sitting at her house.”
“CHIEF actually got its beginnings when I started realizing how much history was there,” Coffeen said. “My husband kind of knew it but he was very quiet and humble and didn’t want to throw the name around, but he knew that the history needed to be preserved. So then we took off with it.”
For 18 months straight, Slack visited the Coffeen household every Tuesday to scan more items into the digital archives and as more pieces of history were dug out, more connections to other local figures and important advancements for Sheridan County were revealed.
“His son, Herbert Coffeen, was a nationally famous photographer and a lot of the collection are his photos. Those are extremely valuable,” Emborg said. “So there’s more than just Henry within the collection. It’s quite significant.”
“But it all starts with Henry and goes from there,” Coffeen piped in.
Who was Henry A. Coffeen?
According to Emborg, Henry A. Coffeen started in Ohio before moving to Illinois where he ran for an Illinois house seat, but was defeated by Joseph Cannon.
He worked as a college professor and traveled giving lecture series on history, including a lecture in Buffalo that would eventually land him in Big Horn.
“For that time, at the turn of the century, for a community like Sheridan, where you don’t have a college and you didn’t have the Internet, it was quite an event to bring in a speaker to talk about ancient world history, stuff you had never heard about,” Emborg said.
While in town, a cousin living in Buffalo showed Coffeen around and he must have liked the area because in 1884 he decided to move to Big Horn and open a grocery store.
Coffeen’s daughter started dating Edward Gillette, who had recently surveyed the area now known as Gillette — and named after him — and he told Henry Coffeen that the railroad was going to be coming through Sheridan.
As a result, Coffeen moved his store to Sheridan, nail by nail and plank by plank, and reopened in the site that is now the WYO Theater.
During his time in Sheridan, Coffeen’s contributions are almost too numerous to attempt to track, from a national level down to putting Sheridan and the education of the community children in the forefront.
Truly a founding father of the town, he signed the petition to get Sheridan County done, he was on the constitutional convention for the state of Wyoming, he was one of the first mayors of Sheridan, he ran as the second member to the House of Representatives for the state in 1892.
His other contributions include helping the school district, bringing the first library to town by writing a letter to Andrew Carnegie seeking funds, working at a state level on behalf of women’s suffrage, developing the taxation of minerals that keeps Wyoming in the black when other states are in the red, starting the first Sheridan College in the second floor of his store and donating various pieces of land for projects throughout the community. He was also instrumental in bring Fort Phil Kearny to Sheridan and much more.
“If it’s anything from 1884 to 1912 that benefitted the community,” Emborg said, “Henry is going to have been in on it.”
At one point, in 1896, Coffeen was even considered for a slate by William Jennings Bryant to run for vice president of the United States, prompting the famous politician to visit Sheridan.
“He’s like a lot of the people in the community we experience who did a lot of phenomenal civically minded work throughout the community that has great benefit over time, but over time you forget that the area children go to school rather than work in the mines, or women have the right to vote and that you have drinking fountains in the school, and who gave us all of that,” Emborg said.
“Kendrick was a Democrat and Coffeen was a Democrat so a lot of what he started was shadowed and advanced by Kendrick when he took over, so you’re looking at Kendrick rather than looking at Coffeen but really Coffeen started it,” he added.
Moving forward with history
Trish Coffeen said the focus of CHIEF is to use the history materials for educational purposes.
“We were going to turn it all over to the community but we didn’t want trinkets and money making stuff made, we wanted to continue to honor the name,” she said. “The whole collection has now been scanned and the future of the foundation is ensuring proper use of materials.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the family or seeing the original documents is welcome to do so via the documents available at either the Wyoming Room or the Sheridan County Museum.
Emborg continues to dig through the history to make community connections, work on his ongoing historical research surrounding the cemetery and bring information back to his classrooms.
Books on Henry A. Coffeen have been written largely based on the documents in the collection, offering an in depth look at his political and overall influences.
Finally, the new elementary school formally known as simply Coffeen Elementary will soon be dedicated and opened to the community under its new name, Henry A. Coffeen Elementary School.
A special cornerstone in the school will feature an image of Coffeen from the family collection and displays created by the foundation will be permanent fixtures in the halls.
“Not only was Henry a founding father of Sheridan but maybe more importantly, especially for our venue, was his involvement in education and how critically important he valued education,” Sheridan County School District 2 Director of Elementary Education Scott Stults said about the name change. “So I think it’s extremely fitting ad very fortunate that we have the opportunity to honor him and his work, and keep that memory alive.”