Van Tassell, Wyoming --Part 2
VanRensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell died in California at the age of 100. The town which bears his name lives on—now inhabited by 10 proud and determined persons.
VanRensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell did not want the town of Van Tassell named in his honor. The elderly Dutchman who was among the biggest landowners in the rocky Mountain region, and was a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, never forgave the officials of the Chicago and Northwestern railroad who named the tiny depot village nestled under the Coffee Siding a few hundred yards from what would become the Nebraska state line—Van Tassell.
Elder Van Tassell, who had acquired the land surrounding his namesake village by marrying one of five wives treated the community like and illegitimate child, and at best as a nuisance.
Van Tassell ignored the community and its merchants and residents, and even afforded the settlement the insult of shipping in supplies for his vast Van Tassell Ranch from Cheyenne instead of the closer Van Tassell depot.
VanRensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell died in California at the age of 100. The town which bears his name lives on—even though the population of the once bustling railroad depot settlement has decreased to ten proud and determined persons.
R.S. Van Tassell did not claim honor as a virtue. He was an apparent believer that “the ends justify the means,” and therefore saw nothing wrong with marrying for profit. In 1887 he purchased the Jay Em Ranch from its owner Jim Moore. Statehood was still 13 years away and the area was still part of the Wyoming Territory which had been created in 1868 under the malignant presidency of Ulysses. S. Grant. After Jim Moore died in 1880, Van Tassell married his widow and gained control of an empire that encompassed an extensive area.
In 1886, four years before statehood, and in a period of rapid, frantic settlement of the American West, the railroad reached Wyoming and the territory was no longer such an exotic and faraway place. It was now possible to travel by steam locomotive from the major cities of the east, and soon homesteaders would board trains from cities of lost promises in the east for the bone-jarring trek to the newly available homesteads in the budding state of Wyoming.
When the railroad crossed the border into Wyoming Territory in 1886, officials were quick to recognize the depot just over the territorial border would soon burgeon into a place of importance. It was therefore necessary that the stop-off be given a name for mapping and reference purposes. Since VanRensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell owned everything in sight around the depot, railroad officials believed it was only proper and honorable to name the station in honor of the major land owner in the area.
But R.S. Van Tassell felt otherwise. The last thing he wanted after he had married the widow Moore for love and profit was to have the location of his malefaction named after him.
It was his probable wish that his namesake vanish and blow away like fine particles of dust in the ceaseless Wyoming wind. But it did not happen that way, and the newly named depot community of Van Tassell set roots that would hold the town together for almost a century.
In 1909, the question of whether “the farmer and the cowman can be friends” was put to a test. In that year, the first batch of homesteaders arrived in the sparsely populated and cattle dominated Van Tassell region. Civilization had reached the high plains, and the days of free roaming cattle herded across endless, unfenced prairies were quickly ending. And Van Tassell, a town just over the line into the twentieth century, was reaping the pleasures and benefits of the modern age.
By 1913, the bustling railroad community was in the full swing of progress into the twentieth century. The community had come into its own as a commercial center, and in January of that year three railcar loads of grain were shipped from the Van Tassell station. In April 1916, the community was incorporated and attained what was then tantamount to municipality status. In 1917, Van Tassell happenings were front page news in the more urbane Lusk Herald, 20 miles and a long horseback ride to the west. And in 1919, a new hotel, complete with 16 rooms and a spacious lobby, was opened to serve railroad travelers, and the community could already boast of a bank, furniture store, and billiard parlor. Civilization now existed in the barren stretches between the far-flung towns of Lusk, Wyoming and Harrison, Nebraska.
Van Tassell was not a place where residents let the parade of progress, fun, and excitement of the roaring twenties pass them by. As the major cities to the east were celebrating this era of good feeling, rapid expansion, and “rags to riches” industriousness, with World’s Fairs, trade exhibits, and machine gun shootouts in the streets of Chicago, Van Tassell was also sharing the wealth, good cheer, and delightful danger of the age.
In 1920 and 1921, the town conducted well attended agricultural fairs where residents could exhibit recently harvested fruits and grains, sewing and needlework and arts and crafts projects. The town could now point with pride to its two hardware stores, three general stores, lumber yard, bank, two churches, weekly newspaper, creamery and butter factory, blacksmith shop, electric light plant, two garages, meat market, hotel, three cafes, warehouse depot, two drug stores, city hall, fire department, city jail, and a minister, doctor, dentist, barber, and policeman.
And it was during the week of October 15, 1924, that the town of Van Tassell joined the ranks with Chicago as having been shot up in the middle of the night by “criminal elements.” It was a transient from Oklahoma seeking to “enjoy his libations in a quiet town.” The following excerpt from The Lusk Herald describes this lurid incident:
"The fellow who started to shoot up Van Tassell last week and who is now languishing in the Lusk Bastille is from Oklahoma and claimed he got three bottles of “booze” in Harrison and alighted from the train at Van Tassell so that he might enjoy his libations in a quiet town. He stole a revolver at the pool hall, bought some shells at the hardware store and commenced target practice. After terrorizing the town for a short time and killing a few dogs, he hit the trail for Lusk and was pursued by a posse hastily deputized to capture him “dead or alive.” “He was soon overtaken and ordered to surrender, but this he refused to do, so the posse opened fire, and after 17 shots had been wasted, he was finally “winged” by being hit in the leg. He was taken to Lusk by the sheriff, brought before Judge Root, and given 15 days in jail, to which were added the costs, making his term about 30 days.”
The depot and creamery town of Van Tassell, which had a peak population of about 200, also contributed its share to the health, wealth, and progress of the decade and the years to follow. In April 1922, O.I. Stenger was the first person in the Niobrara County region to install a “radiophone receiving set.”
The Van Tassell Cooperative Creamery produced 68,972 pounds of butter in the first nine months of production.
The Buckaroo Bar added to the glamour of the community by serving gallons of beer and spirits across what was claimed to be the longest bar in the state of Wyoming. And the “two-year accredited” Van Tassell High School, which had a graduating class of five persons in 1936, provided the beginning for the education and development of Dr. John Pendray, a Van Tassell resident who was later to achieve a national reputation for pioneering rocketry and space research.
But as much as the progress and development of the twentieth century improved the lives of the community of Van Tassell, the parade of progress brought on by the development and widespread use of the automobile, radio, and telephone would also spell its demise.
When the Model T coughed and sputtered up the horse and wagon trails from Lusk and Harrison, radiophone crystal sets pulled in scratchy broadcasts from KDKA in Philadelphia, and wall-mounted telephones provided instant communication with the outside world, the close-knit community began to unravel.
The community, which was once the hub of activity in the newly settled region, was now a part of the world beyond the Coffee Siding or the Niobrara River. Van Tassell citizens could now seek health, wealth and happiness from people and places down the road, through the wire, and over the air. The isolation which had bonded the community together was gone, and many residents were quick to join the parade of progress down the highway to bigger and brighter places and lives.
Now, as a traveler speeds over the buttes and down the hill from the Nebraska state line, on the way to Cheyenne, Casper, or Yellowstone, the town of Van Tassell will catch a traveler’s eye as a collection of windswept and weathered abandoned houses and buildings cast like dice on the rough edges of the Coffee Siding Buttes. The traveler might also be amused at the green and white state highway department sign pronouncing VAN TASSELL--Population 10. And the first impression is that Van Tassell is just another worn out and abandoned prairie ghost town. But looks are deceiving.
The ten citizens who now compose this official Wyoming municipality have roots as deep and fast as the fence posts set by their homesteading ancestors. The town is an incorporated Wyoming municipality, has received revenue sharing funds to build and maintain a fire station, and is not about to abide by VanRensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell’s wishes to dry up and blow away. In 1896, the town will have survived a century and will have outlived its resentful namesake by nearly 60 years.
When the 70 year-old R.S. Van Tassell was guiding his friend Teddy Roosevelt on a “hell bent for leather” horseback expedition from Laramie to Cheyenne in 1908, he set such a pace that the dusty and weary 50 year-old President remarked, “Van, you old rascal, I believe you are trying to show me up!” Now the community has survived and “shown up” its reluctant namesake, VanRensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell is a long gone memory, but his name lives on in the town he tried to forget.
Images & Attachments
|Pendray, John (04/04/1872 - 02/13/1953)