Sheridan County rests along the eastern edge of the Bighorn Mountains, with communities based on ranching, western culture and the love of nature.
Capturing the tradition and preserving what life was like throughout the history of Sheridan County is no easy task. Yet those who lived in the area captured what they saw in their daily lives and shared it with the world, providing a snapshot.
During the turn of 20th century, most people outside of the American West had perceptions of western culture influenced by Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which traveled throughout America and Europe.
The acts in his carnival-style show came from all around the West, and to choose the acts, Cody hosted auditions on the porch of the Sheridan Inn located on Fifth and Broadway streets in Sheridan, where it still stands today.
Cody and his performances dazzled audiences, and the curiosity of what the West held drew in many.
Cody’s show offered a look at a way of life developed in the American West. With land offered and new natural resources to be utilized, the West promised more than just the wild adventure seen in Cody’s shows. It offered a chance to pioneer one’s own path.
As people traveled to Sheridan looking to experience the West for themselves, many stayed at the Sheridan Inn. Upon their stay at the Sheridan Inn, they might have met Catherine Arnold, known as Miss Kate.
Miss Kate started working at the Sheridan Inn in 1901 and remained an employee of the inn until its closure in 1965, said Michael Dykhorst, a local historian.
Miss Kate started as a seamstress at the inn and helped in other capacities. The inn was built in 1893, Miss Kate said in her memoir.
For the majority of the inn’s existence, Miss Kate greeted those checking in while on trips to visit area. Legend has it that Miss Kate, now a ghost, continues to greet Sheridan Inn visitors today.
Another person drawn to the West was Hans Kleiber, who was born in Germany in 1887 and grew up in Austria. Kleiber and his family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1900, local artist Sonja Caywood said. There his father found work in textile manufacturing.
Caywood, who is also a tour guide at the Hans Kleiber Studio Museum in Dayton, said Kleiber was unimpressed with life in Massachusetts.
“It was not the American frontier that he read about,” Caywood said. “He was kinda disappointed with it.”
Kleiber became an artist known for his watercolor paintings of the Bighorn Mountains, prints — especially of waterfowl — and poetry. Kleiber was self-taught, learning primarily from his friends, books or practicing on his own. He taught himself how to etch photos on copper and zinc plates, yielding a chance to sell more of his artwork.
Kleiber came to Sheridan County in 1906 to be a tie hack on the Tongue River tie flume, which fed lumber for railroad ties from the Bighorn Mountains to the Tongue River. The ties were used by the Burlington and Missouri railroad that went through Sheridan.
Kleiber became a U.S. Forest Service forest ranger after earning citizenship, living the rest of his life in Dayton. He oversaw the tie flume until the operation stopped in 1913. Caywood said Kleiber was a fire chief for the USFS, too.
Kleiber helped plot the roads and trails in the Bighorns, some of which are still used today. He shaped the way people experienced the mountains, laying the foundation for the modern USFS.
His extensive time in the Bighorns inspired his artwork and writings, capturing the world he saw as a member of the USFS. The access and availability granted to him as a ranger gave Kleiber the opportunity to capture the natural beauty of the mountains and their creatures, allowing him to be one of the first artists to share what that world looked like to those not in the area.
Sharing his work in exhibits on the East Coast helped drive interest to the Bighorn Mountains, drawing more people into Sheridan and surrounding areas.
While Kleiber was taking care of the Bighorns, capturing the natural beauty of the area, Elsa Spear Byron, a native of Big Horn, captured the lifestyle of those working on the ranches in the area.
Byron, born in 1896, grew up on a working ranch near Big Horn and received her first camera when she was 7. Byron’s first camera was a box camera that took glass negatives. She started taking photos of the area and of the people working on the ranch, Dykhorst said.
Byron’s father Willis M. Spear operated a dude ranch, giving people the chance not only to see western life but experience it. Spear guided packing trips through the Bighorns, said Judy Slack, a local historian.
It was during these backpacking trips that Byron and her sister took photos. The subjects included people from the East, those working on the mule trains and the natural landscape of the Bighorns.
Byron’s photos became well known after their use in advertisements. Some were used in pamphlets made to promote the dude ranch her father owned, others she sold to railroad companies to hang in windows, advertising trips to the West.
For the advertisements for the railroad companies, Byron enlarged her photos, making some 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
The printing machine was purchased from Eastman-Kodak, Dykhorst said. Byron received the machine in 1929, just a few weeks before the stock market crashed, Slack said.
The size of photos Byron produced were not as common during the time and very few people in the West had access to an enlarger; even fewer had one let alone having on in their own kitchen like Byron did. She had a hole cut out in her ceiling, letting in sunlight needed to properly expose the photograph. Because of the size, the chemical wash part of developing the photo was done in her bathtub.
Byron used her photographs to entice people from the East to come experience life in the West, sometimes giving them a firsthand experience.
These historic figures helped shape the west we know today. Buffalo Bill presented the West for an audience; Kleiber and Byron captured images of its culture and nature, documenting it for the world to see, and Miss Kate welcomed those who came to Sheridan County to see it all for themselves.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
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