Tom Rea: Discovering Poetry, Printing, and History

Tom Rea lives in Casper, Wyo., where he is editor and co-founder, with the Wyoming State Historical Society, of WyoHistory.org, a state-history website that is a project of the Wyoming State Historical Society. He worked for many years in the newspaper business. A new edition of his book Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001) will be available in fall 2021 in a special 20th anniversary edition, with a foreword by Carnegie Museum paleontologist Matt Lamanna and a new afterword by the author. Other books include Devi’s Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 2012) and The Hole in the Wall Ranch: A History (Pronghorn Press, 2010). For more on Tom and what WyoHistory.org is all about, click here to see a half-hour interview on Wyoming PBS.

Thank you Tom!!!

Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello. My name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, why? We learn about passion, purpose and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?

                 Today we are talking to Tom Rea, historian and writer of the West. He lives with his family in Casper, Wyoming. Tom Rea is editor and co-founder of wyohistory.org. Look it up and check it out if you love the West and Wyoming. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Rea (00:55):

Hi, thanks. Nice to be here.

Emy DiGrappa (00:57):

Yeah, it's great. It's great to talk to you and especially learning some things that I didn't know about you. But you grew up in Pennsylvania.

Tom Rea (01:06):

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That's correct. Which sees itself as a quite different place from Eastern Pennsylvania. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania.

Emy DiGrappa (01:14):

So what is the difference?

Tom Rea (01:16):

The difference is their histories, plus we know we always thought of ourselves as not Philadelphians, and, I mean, it's like Lander and Riverton or Cody and Powell only much more so, places that from a distance look like they're close together, not to be the same, but feel quite different from each other. Philadelphia was settled by Quakers; Pittsburgh was settled by Scotch-Irish mountaineers.

Emy DiGrappa (01:41):

Tell me about growing up and your family. And what was that like growing up in Pennsylvania?

Tom Rea (01:46):

We were a comfortable family, four children, of which I am the youngest. We were a block away from my grandparents in a nice neighborhood of big, tall leafy trees and big, tall brick houses, cobblestone street. In the east end, in Squirrel Hill of Pittsburgh, just a mile and a half from the Carnegie Museum and the University of Pittsburgh. You could walk to Forbes Field to see a baseball game where I grew up. My brother was the main baseball fan of the family. We leaned on him to take on that role. Yeah, it was nice.

Emy DiGrappa (02:20):

Yeah. I like hearing that. So what was your journey to Wyoming and why Wyoming?

Tom Rea (02:28):

Well, I graduated from college in 1972 and I think it was that spring we were at a family wedding. My father was one of eight children, so it's a big family that love to get together for weddings and funerals, and it still does.

                 I was there and one of my cousins who I'd been close with as a kid was there also. And my uncle, Bart Gray here in Wyoming, was a geologist, was planning to start building a cabin on Casper Mountain. He said, "Well, what are you guys doing? You guys want to come out and help me build the cabin?" We said, "Oh, yeah. Sure. That sounds great."

                 So we did, and I never really went back after that very much. I went back that following winter and came back out the next summer, and I've been in the West ever since. So that was 1973.

                 Then I met a girl here in Casper and we got married and had children. We're still here.

Emy DiGrappa (03:23):

So you marry a Wyoming girl,

Tom Rea (03:25):

I married a Wyoming girl named Barbie, Barbara Scott. We have three children. We got married here in Casper in the mid-1970s, and then we went to Missoula for three years where she finished her undergraduate degree, and I got a graduate degree.

                 Then we came back to Story, Wyoming in the 1980s when our children were small, and we had a printing press there. I worked for the Wyoming Arts Council as a sort of traveling-around writer, teaching writing around Wyoming in schools all over Wyoming.

                 At the same time we were running Dooryard Press and publishing poetry on a press in our garage, letter-pressed hand-set books of poetry. Many of them quite beautiful, if I do say so, since we had an excellent book designer, who was Bar.

                 We did that until 1987, when I got a chance to come down here to Casper again and get a job on the Casper Star-Tribune. So that was a nice, useful ... I'm really glad we made that change and came back here. Yep.

Emy DiGrappa (04:32):

What a journey. And thinking about a printing press, what is that like? I mean, I can't even think that a kid today, could even imagine what that is.

Tom Rea (04:45):

Yeah. It's a great old hunk of cast iron, weighs about a ton. Yeah, we learned to print at the Centrum Foundation. Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Washington, had a writers conference every summer. I had a friend from college who lived in that town and went to that conference one summer. They had a couple of presses there that they were making books on.

                 Then the following summer, which was I guess a year after we got married, we had an internship there at Copper Canyon and learned how to print letterpress books. So then after we finished up in Missoula, we acquired a press from a guy in Sinclair, Wyoming who had one in his basement.

                 We took it apart, or he took it apart, I think. We hauled it up his basement stairs, put it in my brother-in-law's trailer behind his Blazer and drove it up to Story, where we had just recently bought a very-thin walled, tiny, two-bedroom house that happened to have an attached two-car garage with a concrete floor. That's why we got the house. We put the press in there and made books, had babies. It was a nice time.

Emy DiGrappa (06:07):

Made books and babies. Wow. And now you're such a historian, especially about the West and Wyoming. What was that inspiration? Who inspired you to have this deep love for history?

Tom Rea (06:21):

Well, I suppose my dad. I had always liked history. I'd always liked thinking about the long-ago times ever since I was seven or eight years old and read a lot of books. I was always a bookworm when I was a kid and always seemed to me ..

                 And that's, really a lot of the history I learned about as a child and a teenager was from fiction, historical novels, because they told stories about people. So I kind of came into a lot of it.

                 I remember when I was eight or 10 years old, there were a whole series of books called the We Were There series. There would always be a boy and a girl, and they were at some historical event.

                 The one I remember is We Were There at the Battle of Gettysburg and We Were There at, I don't know, the Battle of Yorktown. I don't know what they all were, but I remember the Gettysburg one.

                 I just, I liked the stories to put you right there at real events. Because it always intrigued me to wonder, "What was it like back then? What were people like? What were they wearing? What were they doing? What were they thinking about? What decisions did they have to make?"

                 So that, yeah, I was always interested in that. Even though I went on to college and became an English major, I always loved history and still do.

Emy DiGrappa (07:49):

Yes. You really do because you have become such a state historian on all things Wyoming. I love the wyohistory.org website, and I just can't say enough good things about the work you've done on that.

                 What do you think kids today, do you think they're learning about history in school? Do you think they have a love for history? It almost feels like it's kind of gone by the wayside.

Tom Rea (08:18):

I think maybe a lot of it depends on whether they're lucky enough to run into a teacher who has enough time and who has a love for history. As a society, we keep asking schools to do more and more and more and more for us because we're so busy, and we have to be busy making a living.

                 It takes two incomes to run a family now. It didn't when I was a kid; took one, and that's a whole different pressure on everybody, on families and on the schools, so it's hard.

                 We keep asking schools to do more and more social services for us because they need to be done and the school's around the kids. So what that leaves time for is different in every school district, I think. And so if a teacher loves history, she'll find a way to get it into the curriculum. If it makes her nervous, she might put it off.

                 On the website we have some offerings for uses in classrooms, so we try to make material available and useful to kids too. But I don't know. I don't know how much is taken up. It's hard to tell, so ...

                 And the State has mandates for teaching Wyoming history in the fourth grade and teaching the State and US Constitutions in high school. So everybody has to do at least that much.

                 Then a few years ago without adding any money into the next, the legislature mandated that the State Department of Education revise its social studies standards to make sure that schools teach more about indigenous people, Native Americans, Indian tribes of the region.

                 So thanks to the Humanities Council, we did a lot of more content on that, and some of that is available and some of those lesson plans also. I hope people are using it, but I don't know.

Emy DiGrappa (10:11):

Well, I guess that's something we're going to have to really follow because it's so important, especially right now today with everything that's going on in the world. I can't even imagine what people are going to think when they look back on this time and this era that we're in, right?

Tom Rea (10:26):

Yeah. Yes. And the other thing that's changing so fast is how we move information around. Keeps changing and changing and changing all the time, and it was pretty static for a pretty long time.

                 You know, you wrote stuff on a piece of paper and you put it in the mail, and the person who got it three days later opened it up and read it. If it was important, stuck it somewhere in a desk or in a drawer or in a box, and then maybe that piece of that letter would be around in a hundred years.

                 That makes it really nice for scholars and historians. But when email only lasts 20 years before people start mostly texting, and then what's going to come after texting? I mean, it's just really hard to know how this information, it's going to last.

                 Sometimes I fear that people are going to know a lot less about what you and I are thinking about and talking about in our daily lives than are available in archives now in letters and diaries. So that's the real challenge these days for being an archivist, I would think, is how do we preserve what's going on now?

Emy DiGrappa (11:34):

Right, right. Tom, you're an English major?

Tom Rea (11:38):

I was an English major. Yes.

Emy DiGrappa (11:40):

When you were an English major, was it your vision for your life to be a book writer?

Tom Rea (11:45):

Yes, I suppose so. Yes. I always did like to write stuff down and ... Yeah. Yep.

Emy DiGrappa (11:53):

Well, tell me about your poetry. You bought this printing press so that you could publish poems? Is that right?

Tom Rea (12:01):

Yeah. Yep. When I was in college, one of my closest friends in college was a guy who's gone on to be a great fiction writer and movie writer and filmmaker. So he was always so far ahead of me that ...

                 I would try to write fiction and I could write, I could write scenes that you might recognize as happening in the real world, and people would sit around and talk, but they never got to the point, it seemed like. I never got anywhere.

                 So when I came to Casper, I took a poetry writing class from a man who later became Poet Laureate of Wyoming, Charles Levendosky here in Casper. He was offering a class at Casper College. I took that class and started writing poems, which I'd never done before. And I found, "Oh, this is fun. You can do one of these in a day. You don't have to spend a week or a month like you would on a short story."

                 So it was just something that I could complete, and something I hadn't started really in any serious way when I was a teenager. So in a way, I think I had a healthier, maybe more adult more let's-see-how-much-fun-this-can-be attitude toward it. And I really like doing it.

                 Then I went to this writer's conference in Port Townsend, and I heard the poet Richard Hugo from Montana read. I thought, "Oh, I want to study with this guy."

                 So Barb and I went to Missoula, and she finished her undergraduate degree there. And I entered the MFA writing program at the University of Montana of which Richard Hugo was the star. There were other poets there, and so we were all poets together there for a couple, three years. That's really what got me writing poetry.

                 At that time also, the small press movement was booming around the West especially but around the nation. So there were suddenly becoming a lot more ways for ports to publish, and people were buying poetry. So we started another small press, Dooryard Press, it was called, and we published 15 titles in eight years.

                 You can see not a lot. And about two-thirds of those or maybe half of those were handset letterpress editions. Yeah, so we published during that time one little skinny book of mine, but all the rest were by other people.

Emy DiGrappa (14:28):

Where can people find your work? That's so interesting that you write poetry. I was thinking of you as this very factual historian.

Tom Rea (14:38):

The books, they're thin. They're chapbooks, I guess. There's actually copies in libraries around Wyoming here and here in Casper, probably in Laramie, maybe in Jackson and other places. It was a called Man in a Rowboat that I wrote and a book called Smith and Other Poems. But there's none of those in print. You might be able to find them online from book dealers.

Emy DiGrappa (15:05):

Do you have them online on your website? Because I noticed you have a website, tomrea.net.

Tom Rea (15:11):

Yeah. That website hasn't changed much in many years, but yes. And that website has information on how to get the history books I've written. But no, the poetry books aren't really available unless you're lucky to find one somewhere. They're out of print.

Emy DiGrappa (15:26):

They're out of print. Okay. Tell us about wyohistory.org, because I've looked at the website a lot, and I'm really fascinated on, you wrote very in-depth on different historical topics around Wyoming. How did that come about? What happened and ... Because it's very successful now, I think.

Tom Rea (15:49):

Yeah. Yeah. We get a lot of readers, which is really, really rewarding. I like, and we get emails from around the world once in a while and often from around the nation. So that's really nice too. Yeah.

                 That started because I worked for the Casper Star-Tribune for 11 years. My last year there was 1980, '90, sorry, 1998. And after that, because I wanted to write some longer projects and write some books, so I did that.

                 Then after I had finished the second of those, no, the third of those books, I'd guess, I had a contract with the school district here in Casper to do a bunch of history writing for something called a Teaching American History grant.

                 They commissioned me to write a series of long-ish articles about events in Wyoming history. These articles, their topics were chosen in order to fit in with a three-disc DVD on Wyoming history that had been produced by Deb Hammons of Wyoming PBS kind of with the idea of it's being a look at Wyoming history for students.

                 So using those topics, I wrote about 20 articles, certain magazine-length articles about Wyoming history. Then the grant was over and they'd never really figured out what they wanted to do with all this content, so there was all this content.

                 I thought, "Well, this could ... " and I started looking around at what other states have done about their own history. Some of them have really good state history websites. And I thought, "Oh, well, we could take this content here, and I bet we could do the same thing in Wyoming."

                 So I had some friends who were connected with the Wyoming State Historical Society, and I pitched this idea to them of a state history website that would be a project of the State Historical Society. I told them I would find the money, and they said, "Okay, sounds good."

                 So thanks especially to some early support at a crucial time from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, we went into development for about a year. This was 2010. We found this designer named Steve Foster, who had just started up his own sort of web design business.

                 This was through some newspaper connections I had. He'd been a long time designer at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, which right about that time was disappearing from the planet. He'd been the sports designer at the Rocky, and he liked history.

                 If it weren't for him, this site wouldn't be much of anything. But the fact that it's, I think, still good-looking and well-designed, and has an enormous amount of material on it, and yet it's easy to find your way around. Maps, pictures, articles, oral histories, all kinds of stuff. And really the fact that it's a coherent, usable whole is really due to Steve.

                 So that became the core. Those articles became the core of the website. And since then, we've been commissioning articles from writers. We pay modest fees to writers. I like to pay writers if I'm going to be editing writers, because then you can actually, when you ask them to do something, they sort of feel obliged to do it. If they're doing it for free, it's kind of a different relationship, it seems to me. Less healthy.

                 So that came to me, I think, out of working for years in the newspaper business. I got used to being edited, I got used to editing, and that's the relationship we have here. So we do a lot of editing.

                 We like to get the stories to a position where they're fun to read and they're telling stories. They're not just "and then this happened, and then this happened." Try to avoid that, try to make it about people and the choices they make.

Emy DiGrappa (19:54):

That's a really good way to put it. What I think is interesting is when I've looked at the site, it's just made me think, "How do you find your stories? What makes you go in a certain direction?" Just how does information come to you? Or is it you looking out into the world and going, "I think we need to know about that, or we've never researched that, or we need a story about this or that"?

Tom Rea (20:21):

Yeah, it is. It is like that. It's me looking out at the world. It's also the world walking back in to our orbit, also, so sometimes we just get suggestions from readers that we haven't thought of. That's really great when that happens. I try to keep a lineup in the back of my head of stuff I hope we're eventually going to get to.

                 Sometimes there are outside organizations that need certain kinds of work done. Certainly, the Wyoming Humanities Council has been extremely good to us and also because they wanted material to go with Native American content.

                 So they commissioned a lot of that work from us that we were able to turn into articles on the site too, for that Treaties Matter kiosk that is in libraries and schools around the state. We did a lot of the research and writing for that. And then we turned it into articles on the Shoshone and Arapaho people with a lot of review from people on reservation. So that was a wonderful project.

                 I've been putting off for years trying to write or find a way to write about the tribes and thinking, "I got to find a way to do this that will just not be you got another white guy writing about Indians then." This whole project from you guys from the Humanities Council set up a format that made that possible, so we feel really lucky for that too.

Emy DiGrappa (21:47):

Yeah. I agree. And it is great to have these kind of opportunities to really tell the Native American story of the Arapaho and the Shoshone from their perspective. The stories that will come out of it will be so interesting, so I'm looking forward to that as well.

Tom Rea (22:02):

Yeah, yeah. Me too. Yeah, me too. And then another example of that is sometimes less often companies that are doing public, I guess you'd call them, infrastructure projects. The federal law says if your project is going to adversely affect any historical resource that is or might eventually be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, then you have to either not do what you're planning on doing or finding a way to mitigate for it. Which means to like do something else to sort of make up for it.

                 So tomorrow I'm going down to Medicine Bow to meet up with some people. Rocky Mountain Power has some new power lines that are going up to serve their wind farms down there in Carbon County. Those power lines cross the original route of the Lincoln Highway across Carbon County and across the state.

                 So they've commissioned a video about the Lincoln Highway and an article for us, which we've already published. A long article we published a month or two ago about the Lincoln Highway in Wyoming. Then I'm going to go down there and kind of just be the guy who stands around and looks important while they're shooting this video at sites along the abandoned stretches of the Lincoln Highway in Carbon County.

                 Looking forward to that. This is funding that comes from from Rocky Mountain Power to meet this obligation, so we're able to help them out on that and get a little money for it. So that's another kind of thing we do sometime.

Emy DiGrappa (23:43):

That's exciting, though.

Tom Rea (23:44):

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (23:45):

My last question for you is what do you find most intriguing about Wyoming?

Tom Rea (23:52):

Wyoming's sense of itself is still in its adolescence. I think it's because for most of the world, Wyoming is not a destination. It's always been on people's way to somewhere else.

                 Wyoming first became a territory in 1869 only because the Union Pacific Railroad needed there to be the nearby territorial government. Otherwise, it might never have happened. So it was that transportation incentive that really made us a territory and made us a place.

                 Long before then, Wyoming was on the way across what was the Oregon Trail, goes right through the middle of Wyoming, the main transcontinental migration corridor all through the 1840s and '50s and 60s. So it's heavily documented.

                 All those people, not all of them, but many of them wrote wonderful diaries and letters. So we have all this record of what was going on here among white people traveling through here during those times. But hardly any of them stayed here.

                 It wasn't until there was a railroad, and then there was a need to serve that railroad. And there were some government installations, Army forts to begin with, that actually very many white European Americans started actually settling here.

                 Even still, as a tourist destination, only in the last few years, maybe five years, has even the Wyoming Office of Tourism begun to realize that maybe they should encourage tourists to do more in Wyoming than just drive straight to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. But that there's all kinds of other cool stuff to see around here in the meantime.

                 Our wonderful mineral resources have been mined and drilled by large corporations that have their headquarters elsewhere, so all that wealth has left the state. And now that the world is turning away from fossil fuels slowly, we're left scratching our heads.

                 We don't even even have a politics yet that's mature enough to really face up to the likely consequences of this huge change in our economy that is already happening. We keep thinking, "Oh, well, something will turn up." I think that's what I mean by we're still like adolescents in how we look at our future.

                 We're not really ready to plan for the very clear difficulties that are facing us. I think it's because we've always depended on these outside forces to, in a way, make choices for us. Now it's time for us to make our own or else we're going to be in bad trouble.

                 So that's what I mean by that. That's what interests me about Wyoming.

Emy DiGrappa (26:57):

Well, I think that what you said is really speaks to where we are in our economy today in Wyoming. It is going to be interesting to see how we deal with it and how we go to the next place as a state.

Tom Rea (27:14):

Yeah, yeah. It sure is.

Emy DiGrappa (27:16):

Yeah. We're all waiting. We're all hoping. We're all ... We all have to do the work though. That's the thing, have to get out there and figure it out together.

Tom Rea (27:27):

Right.

Emy DiGrappa (27:27):

Well, it's been great talking to you, Tom.

Tom Rea (27:30):

Great. Thanks, Emy. It's been nice of you to call me up and ask me to do this. Yeah. Any time. This is fun.

Emy DiGrappa (27:38):

Yeah. I want you to tell people your website.

Tom Rea (27:40):

Okay. The website is wyohistory, all one word, wyohistory.org.

Emy DiGrappa (27:50):

So wyo is W-Y-O and then history.org.

Tom Rea (27:54):

That's right.

Emy DiGrappa (27:55):

Okay. I think people should take a look and really enjoy the work that you've done and the content that you've put there. It's been such a pleasure to learn more about your life and your journey. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Tom Rea (28:10):

Yep. Thank you.

Emy DiGrappa (28:24):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.