As it is my habit to travel to whatever new areas are in the general vicinity of a particular destination whenever it is remotely convenient to do so, the opportunity to add another state to my tally by traveling two hours each way from Steamboat Springs to Laramie, Wyoming during one of the few free afternoons I had was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Of course, once I had decided upon the most likely spot in which to expand my realm of familiarity, it remained to determine where to visit. At first I had thought to visit a historical mansion, and then the art museum at the University of Wyoming, both of which would have been classy places to visit, but as it happens neither of those places was open this day of the week, and so in hitting upon the most worthwhile historical place to visit that would be accessible, I found myself planning a trip to the Territorial Prison, which served most of the 20th century as an experimental farm for the University of Wyoming before being restored to historical glory and opened to the general public by some very friendly curators and staff.
So it was that after services this afternoon I found myself with plans to arrive back in Steamboat Springs at or before 7PM in order to have a timely dinner and with four hours of driving required to travel Laramie and back and see the restored prison there. As I am a man with some familiarity with prisons, although thankfully not yet as an inmate of any kind , I suppose it was an interesting choice, particularly given that I went with two people I have been staying with at the feast this year. After spending a bit of time to eat some lunch and change from our church clothes into something more comfortable, and so that I could grab my directions, the three of us went off on a journey to Wyoming, passing over remote and arid but often lovely country. As is to be expected, there were all kinds of odd signs and sights, which I often find being at least a somewhat observant person who enjoys exploring strange and unfamiliar places, within the patterns of my interests in being sociable and enjoying historical sites. After stopping to ask for directions, as the online directions I had obtained were not accurate, we arrived at a set of lovely buildings and began to explore.
There was a lot to find of interest at this particular historical prison, even though it only served as a prison for slightly more than a quarter century and had less than 1500 total inmates pass through it at all, the most famous of which was Butch Cassidy, who had an entire room of equivocal artifacts and commentary describing his background, his criminal history, the way in which he skillfully used class envy and the serious grievances of ordinary local folk against exploitative elites as a way of carving out space for his criminal activity. Each guest into the prison is given a card with a particular prisoner on it, many of which had their stories and booking photos on exhibit along the walls of the prison. The stories of the prisoners were of interest, given their backgrounds and fates. One young man had been an accomplished bank robber, but his time in prison seems to have turned him around and he later became a well-regarded local businessman in Laramie, with a loving family and personal and professional honor. There was a story of a man imprisoned in his early thirties whose successful career as a taxidermist was derailed by a passionate affair with a teenager half his age, who had gotten pregnant as a result of their relationship, which he attempted to abort himself, with the result that he ended up spending six years in jail for rape when his true sins appear to have been along different lines. There were stories of women imprisoned for larceny in order to support their morphine habits, having become addicted through the prescriptions of doctors and through peddlers of various quack medicines. There was a feminist who served as the first female chaplain of any prison in the United States, and a strange tendency for crimes of theft to be punished far more seriously than crimes resulting in death. To give one example, the young man in the card I received had his age listed as 21 but could not have been older than about fourteen, was imprisoned for three years for forging a check for $36.45 or so, while people were convicted of manslaughter or second-degree murder and only served about six years, with the possibility of time off for good behavior. It struck me as fundamentally illegitimate for property to be valued as so much higher than life, even if I place a fair amount of value on both.
After visiting the prison, which was quite gorgeous, our party toured some of the buildings around the prison. It is worthwhile to mention, though, that the prison grounds included a small house for the warden, his family, and some guards outside, a wooden stockade around the prison, a variety of intriguing and well-restored rooms on the inside, including some cell blocks that are accessible to the general public, the kitchen, booking room, dining hall, and a work house, where various wardens tried various prison industries without lasting success to earn extra money besides their monthly wage of $50 by engaging in various types of prison labor, none of which were able to combine the qualities of being economically lucrative to prison management as well as preventing opportunities for prisoners to escape. Included in the grounds as well was a horse barn, a sheep barn, and a judging pavilion during the time the prison served as an experimental farm, a fake frontier time from a period when the site of the prison was mulled as a possible location of an amusement park, and a church, schoolhouse, and cabin from frontier Wyoming areas relocated to Laramie as part of a larger historical project not unlike Central Florida’s Cracker Country. In addition to this there was a boxcar house which the youngest member of our party stated, accurately, that the house looked nothing like a boxcar. Once we finished the tour, which took about two hours, we browsed the gift shop and I bought a book on prison architecture to add to my random and obscure library, and we drove back to Steamboat Springs, arriving back at our condo a little before 7PM, right on schedule. It was fun to visit a prison, particularly a beautiful one which mixed wood construction with brick and plaster, and which reminded at least one of our party of various prisons in movies, but I am glad I did not have to stay long. It would probably interfere markedly with my writing, and my personal and professional ambitions, after all.
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