by Jean Henry Mead
Research is usually the most enjoyable aspect of writing but, as any historical writer knows, you can get so carried away with reading that you don't get around to writing. Rarely is research an ordeal unless you take on a project that’s beyond what you had envisioned. If you’re young and intrigued with your subject, you might even spend three years at a microfilm machine to research a centennial history, which is what I did during the mid-1980s while researching Casper Country: Wyoming’s Heartland. The first newspaper printed in the newly-established Natrona County was published in 1889, and I read 97 years’ worth of microfilmed newspapers. Needless to say, it caused some vision problems.
But what an experience it was. Because I'm a former news reporter, I found most early news reporting humorous, and the newspaper changed owners nearly as often as it changed its type. The paper's third owner, who was Casper's postmaster, disappeared on a trip to Yellowstone Park, and in 1897, a bona fide newsman, Alfred Mokler, took over and published the newspaper for the next 17 years. Unfortunately, some of his reporting was later found to be more fiction than fact, so my second edition had to be rewritten.
I like to include humor in all my books, especially historical nonfiction, which can be as boring as technical jargon. And Wyoming's history provides plenty of humor. For example, Casper and its neighboring town of Bessemer Bend were once vying for the new county seat. When election returns were tallied in 1890, Bessemer’s votes totaled 677 or nearly six times that of its population. Casper’s votes totaled 304. The voters included women who had been enfranchised in 1869 to ensure enough voters for Wyoming to become a territory. Polling judges were aware that Casper’s votes also out-numbered its residents--although not by Bessemer's wide margin. So they awarded the county seat to Casper. Bessemer then virtually disappeared from the map.
Another humorous, although barbaric, incident happened one Fourth of July when Casper merchants hid behind barriers and shelled each other's stores with rockets from opposite sides the street. When unsuspecting residents happened by, they were chased down alleys and targeted with fireworks. It's all there on microfilm.
When the railroad town was first built, general store employees slept within a feed sack barricade to protect them from stray bullets fired from nearby saloons, so central Wyoming was a wild and dangerous place. Ripe pickings for a latter day journalist.
The area is also rich in emigrant history, Indian wars, the Hole in the Wall outlaw hideout, sheep and cattle wars, gold and oil discoveries, the "Cattle Kate" hanging, Pony Express, first intercontinental telegraph line and railroad, Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, Johnson County War and countless other fascinating events, so containing them all in one book was a monumental task. And rounding up over 200 photographs was even more difficult, especially after my husband was transferred to Washington state before I had completed the project.
Once the book was published by Pruett of Boulder, Colorado, I had a nice coffee table book of which I’ll always be proud, and probably best known for, no matter how many books I write. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime venture that I would never repeat again.
I wrote my first historical novel, Escape, from leftover microfilm research, and will probably unearth my notes again one day to write another historical generously sprinkled with humor.