Planning is underway for Wyoming’s celebration of America’s 250th birthday. While the birthday isn’t until July 4, 2026, planning takes years, and events and projects will happen well before the milestone. I serve on Governor Gordon’s Semiquincentennial Task Force; the Task Force and various committees have been meeting since last December. For inspiration, we looked at how Wyoming celebrated America’s Bicentennial.
In 1976, the Wyoming Bicentennial Commission, organized by Governor Ed Herschler, provided a $1,200 grant to a 12-year-old-boy named Manus Hand of Laramie. With the grant, young Manus visited every place named Wyoming in the United States and Canada, presenting each with a certificate of honorary citizenship. Young Hand went to Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and a dozen other states and Canadian provinces. He was featured on the Today Show, and Walter Cronkite mispronounced his name on the CBS Evening News. Our friends at the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center hold 10 boxes on Manus’ notes, maps, essays, interviews, and keys to cities named Wyoming. This collection is on my archiving bucket list.
I love archives, and I love historic government records. Recently, I’ve been completely immersed in the “1976 Wyoming Bicentennial Commission Final Report.” The Bicentennial Commission (1973-1976) promoted innovative projects and programs across the state to celebrate the nation’s milestone birthday and to reflect on democracy, history, and community. In all, the Commission supported—through federally funded grants—632 projects and 511 events across the state, whose population at the time was 390,000. Some of the projects in the Commission’s final report have been forgotten, some are recognizable, and all showed the spirit of Wyoming.
The smallest grant, $20, was given to the town of Dayton to purchase cassette tapes for oral histories. In all, 13 grants were given to Dayton. With the funding, Dayton purchased banners, catalogued tombstone inscriptions, cleaned up the cemetery, and commemorated the first woman mayor, Mrs. Susan Wissler. The Dayton library created a display of state history books. The Dayton Bicentennial Committee hosted essay contests and commemorative barbeques. Flag poles were installed, and bell towers were restored.
Though Dayton is small, even smaller was Lost Springs (1976 population of seven). Across Wyoming, 52 communities were designated as “Bicentennial Communities,” and Lost Springs was the smallest—in fact, the smallest Bicentennial Community in the nation. Lost Springs received a $250 grant to make improvements to its town hall. Lost Springs also hosted a Bicentennial celebration that drew 2,000 people. An hour-long BBC-TV documentary about the Lost Springs event aired across the United Kingdom. England’s defeat was Lost Springs’ festival. Besides celebrations, the Bicentennial did well in preserving Wyoming’s history and built environment. Projects included purchasing the Independence Rock site as well as South Pass. The Sheridan Bicentennial Commission was able to pay off the mortgage on the Trail End Mansion, the historic home of cattleman, governor, and U.S. Senator John B. Kendrick. One-room schoolhouses across the state were restored, along with cabooses, Jim Baker’s cabin at Savery, as well as the historic two-story outhouse at Encampment. Jerimiah Johnson was re-buried in Cody with Robert Redford serving as an honorary pallbearer. Train depots in places like Riverton and Torrington were rehabilitated. Across the state, Wyoming had a unique opportunity to invest in our rich history.
Besides history, the arts in Wyoming were beneficiaries of the Bicentennial Commission. An opera about the lynching of Cattle Kate was commissioned, as was a portrait of the first librarian in Laramie County. Lovell hosted a puppet theater and a senior citizens theater. Marbleton put on a production of the musical 1776. Art and photography exhibits were held in every corner of the state. Sculptor Russin was commissioned to sculpt a mountain man and a welcoming Native American, which are now installed near the State of Wyoming Visitor Center south of Cheyenne. There were celebrations of the richness of our communities. Laramie County School District #1 received a grant for El Ballet de los Barrios. The Eastern Shoshone hosted a rodeo and the Northern Arapaho a powwow. Oral histories were collected, historic documents published, trails marked, and lectures given. Parks were created and towns beautified. It’s hard to imagine a single person in Wyoming who wasn’t touched by a Wyoming Bicentennial program.
Although 12-year-old Manus Hand was a Wyoming ambassador to Wyoming’s across North America, there really is only one Wyoming. And its connection to the United States is a unique as the ways it celebrated the Bicentennial nearly fifty years ago.