Change is in Wyoming’s DNA

In this episode, we talk about change. BIG changes that happened in our homes and work during COVID

Chloe Flagg makes distinctions about life as a mom during Covid. “It's kind of funny to even talk about change before COVID. It's like the world kind of doesn't even exist before 2020, in a lot of ways because where we are right now is so radically different than where we were.”

Lucas Fralick sees Wyoming always in a flux of change. “So it sounds to me that Wyoming is almost made for change.”

Sam Lightner, our guest historian sheds light on change in Wyoming throughout history…“but I thought of change. I thought of the 1860s in Wyoming and how much change there was then compared to now. And you start with the COVID. All right. Well, think about cholera. Cholera was rampant in Wyoming streams, central Wyoming streams at this time because of the immigrant trail passing through. And you have nearly half a million people passing over one space and they're all getting rid of human waste and it was ruining the streams and you were killing thousands of people with that.”

The voices you will hear are from women across Wyoming – Jackson, Baggs and Shell. All Wyomingites who have three diverse perspectives on change and living change in our state, Melissa Cassutt, Linda Fleming and Mary Budd Flitner.

Remember to email me at emy@thinkwy.org to bring your voice, perspective, and stories. We want to share them everywhere. Wyoming Humanities is committed to stories!

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Emy (00:33):

Welcome to Winds of Change. I'm your host. Emy diGrappa. Winds of Change is centered on the people, places, history, and stories of Wyoming. We talk about identity, community, land and the winds of change and what it means to thrive in our state. How does someone identify with wide open spaces and big personalities in small towns? Listen to folks from across our state, share their connection to Wyoming and home. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities.
Hey everybody. I just want to welcome Chloe and Lucas. And today we have a guest, Sam Lightner Jr. Welcome everybody.

Chloe (01:21):

Hi Emy.

Sam Lightner (01:21):

Glad to be here.

Lucas (01:23):

Hey. Hello. Yep.

Emy (01:25):

In this episode, we're going to talk about change. Maybe not the big changes that are facing Wyoming, because there are many, but I actually wanted to just bring it down to a more personal level and the things that have changed for you in your life and in your community. And as I was thinking about this, I was thinking about COVID because really, that's how things have changed in a big way for many people in Wyoming and in all over the world, actually globally. So I'm just thinking about where I live and the big conversations that are going on in Teton County. And the big one is the lack of affordable housing. That's the big issue right now. And it's because we've had this big influx of people moving here because of COVID.
And people fleeing East Coast, West Coast coming to the west, not just that, it has really changed our visitation records in Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. And that has been a big concern for people because part of the character of Jackson is that you can go out and see the bison and the elk and you can see the wildlife and it's known as the Serengeti of the Rockies, this big migration that happens. For me, like in my change in my community is that people are experiencing a lot of distress because of housing because of people moving in and then people buy a house and then suddenly they're displaced and they don't have a place go, they don't have a place to live, but yet they work in Jackson. So this is just an ongoing conversation and that's just been a big issue for us in Teton County. How about, how about you Lucas? What do you think?

Lucas (03:12):

Well, housing specifically, because I tell you, let me tell you about housing and all the problems I've been having with housing. I mean we are talking about personal issues. No, I'm joking. Everything's fine. Broadly, I should say living in Gillette, change is pretty much a, I don't want to use the term overused word, but it's all the time. Living in a boom and bust community, the change happens every five, six years, sometimes even more frequently. And recently, increasingly more frequently.
We look at COVID and Gillette's response was unique. We did see some businesses go, but some new ones have since come back in, which is great. But I think one of the biggest things happening now, Gillette is going through another one of their major transition phases. And part of the reason why I'm so excited about this podcast, especially this episode, is we're going to be talking about some ways that Wyoming communities have embraced that change and used it effectively to survive basically. And that's one of the things I'm really hoping we can get out of this, for my own community. But yeah, housing's a big deal here too. Chloe, what about you?

Chloe (04:32):

Yeah. Change is really interesting to think about in Wyoming. I'm located in Laramie. And so we've called Laramie home for 10 years now. We're originally from Riverton, both my husband and I, and kind of the M.O. of Laramie has change. Every single fall we get a whole new town, it feels like. And that's one of the things we really like about living here. But the issues in Jackson, especially with the housing shortage, we don't experience that necessarily so much here in Laramie, but we are experiencing increased cost of living. And I do think COVID has just been the impetus for a lot of these kinds of more unfortunate changes, especially economic changes that we've experienced in Wyoming. It's kind of funny to even talk about change before COVID. It's like the world kind of doesn't even exist before 2020, in a lot of ways because where we are right now is so radically different than where we were.
I became a mom in November of 2019. So just a few months before the world shut down. And this is not the experience I would've expected to have as a mother, as a first time mother. We can't even really compare the world anymore, I don't think, from pre COVID to now. It's COVID to now. It's just things are changing so rapidly and have changed so rapidly. And for me personally, of course. Things changed a lot because of COVID. I had the opportunity to work from home, which I never thought I would do in my whole life. I think a lot of people had that same experience. And I did it with an infant and I realized that was the lifestyle I wanted to have. And like a lot of other people in the nation, but also in Wyoming, a lot of people coming to Wyoming have chosen jobs that allow them to work remotely, to work where they want to work.
I think you kind of alluded to some of that Emy, in your discussion of people coming from other parts of the nation into Jackson. I think we're seeing an influx because of that remote workability. My gosh, yeah, change. It's like that's everything right now. It feels like nothing is stasis anymore.

Emy (07:02):

Before I introduce Sam, I want you and Lucas to just say where you work from, because I think that's one of the big changes in Wyoming Humanities as an organization where you work from. And like you said we flipped a switch and the world started over kind of thing where we all are doing things differently. So where do you work? What's your job title and where do you work from?

Chloe (07:26):

This is Chloe, everyone. Hi. My job title with Wyoming Humanities is I'm the director of grants and programs. And I work out of my home office in Laramie. I've got a great room here, beautiful sunny and I'm always just seconds away from the coffee pot. So happy about that.

Lucas (07:47):

That's so cool. I'm Lucas, again, coming to you recorded from an old refurbished feed store in Gillette on a hobby farm that we do for fun, not for money. That's important, very important distinction. But yeah, I'm the program coordinator for Wyoming Humanities. It's a great job. I love the fact that I get to work in an old feed store. It's probably one of the selling points that I didn't realize would've happened until I got the job. Hey, I can work in the feed store and not sell feed. That was the big selling point, at least for me.

Emy (08:27):

So I think because all of our jobs are remote now and we do still have our home office in Laramie, but we have the opportunity to have staff members from other places in Wyoming. And that's been really exciting, actually. I think that has been the benefit if there are any benefits about COVID. I think people have said learning how to work remotely learning how to work from home has introduced a whole new way of the word go to work, go to my office.

Chloe (09:03):

And I think specifically for Wyoming Humanities, it's really expanded. It's expanded our scope to include much more of the state because we are the state we're all over. And I think that's really, really exciting. And I'm very excited for this new era of Wyoming Humanities.

Lucas (09:21):

Same here. New challenges, but new and better solutions. That's what that means. Good stuff.

Emy (09:28):

I like that Lucas. So I want to introduce Sam Lightner. He's our guest, he's our historian on this podcast today. And Sam was raised in Jackson, Jackson, Wyoming, and he describes himself as being fortunate enough to live in Southern Thailand, Banff, Alberta and Moab, Utah, but he has always called Wyoming home. And so welcome Sam.

Sam Lightner (09:56):

Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

Emy (09:58):

You just wrote a book called Wyoming: A History of the American West. And I love that in the first sentence in describing your book, you say Wyoming defines the American West. Talk a little bit about that.

Sam Lightner (10:14):

Well, unless you go with say tombstone or just a couple of things, virtually everything you think of for our mind's eye vision of the Old West, and now the modern west came out of Wyoming or is linked to Wyoming. Even things that didn't take place in Wyoming, like the Battle for the Little Bighorn. Well, it was planned, that campaign was planned out of Fort Laramie in Wyoming. And the combatants of both sides had been in Wyoming in the preceding days and so forth. So you think of the west, I think you think of things that are linked to Wyoming.
And you folks have been chatting about change and I think change always seems different, but I immediately thought of you were talking about COVID. By no means, am I trying to make light of COVID or something, but I thought of change. I thought of the 1860s in Wyoming and how much change there was then compared to now. And you start with the COVID. All right. Well, think about cholera. Cholera was rampant in Wyoming streams, central Wyoming streams at this time because of the immigrant trail passing through. And you have nearly half a million people passing over one space and they're all getting rid of human waste and it was ruining the streams and you were killing thousands of people with that.
You still had massive outbreaks of measles, outbreaks of other diseases, smallpox that were killing everybody, but were especially killing the indigenous people. And then you've got that going on. So, okay, pretty bad disease stuff. But then you throw in the fact, okay, the Civil War's taking place. That had an effect on the whole world, but certainly all parts of America, including Wyoming, even though no battles were fought in Wyoming. One of the ways that had an effect was the Homestead Acts. First of the Homestead Acts was passed. And Homestead Acts chopped up the wide open spaces of the west, basically began putting an into the nomadic way of life that had been around for thousands and thousands of years.
And then midway into the 1860s, you wound up with the Bozeman Trail being formed, which then led to Red Cloud's War. And we found out that the White Tribe was not invulnerable as a tribe lost Red Cloud's War to the indigenous people. And despite that, that nomadic life was still coming to an end. And then towards the end of the 1860s, the Wyoming territory was created from the Dakotas and various other places. And then we immediately passed suffrage and had our imprint on the world.
So when we talk about change, it's interesting because I think we all think, oh my gosh, COVID what a big change to our world. But then try and throw COVID in with a Civil War, Homestead Acts, the railroad passing through Bozeman Trail, lose Red Cloud's War, or win it depending on your perspective, but then lose the overall war, get made into a new territory. And all of a sudden, 50% more of the population gets to vote. Throw that all in at the same time. 1860s, I think was a much bigger time of change, even though we are definitely going through change right now.

Emy (14:06):

Thank you, Sam. Oh my gosh, that puts a lot in perspective. And it also makes me think of technology because the fact that we can know what's going on in the world and know what other people are doing in other parts of the country and how change, COVID for example, affected businesses and affected people working at home or people who were dying and people couldn't go see their elders in a facility where they were not allowed to enter. And emotionally, for children, not being able to go to school. So when you put it, change is big and always has been happening, but I think technology has changed that. What do you think?

Sam Lightner (14:56):

I think technology, the way things are now, looking at Lucas and Chloe here on the Zoom link, I can say that they're not quite as long in the tooth is you and I Emy. And the amount of change that's taken place in communication is absurd, in my lifetime. When I was a little kid in Jackson, you didn't even have to dial 733 at the start of your phone number. You could just hit the last four digits and it went, things were on party lines and you called a place. You didn't call a person, you called a place and asked for them. If you were calling one of your friends' houses, their mom answered and you said, "Is Mark there?" And then she would go get Mark. You needed to talk to somebody at the bar, you called the bar and asked the bartender.
Now, you call the person. Not only that, you, as we're doing right now, you uplink it with video. We'll see video tonight on the news at 5:30 in the evening of things that are taking place right now in Ukraine. And the amount of information, it's transferred so fast. And part of that timeframe I was talking about in the 1860s it took 14 days to get a message from Wyoming to Washington. Things took place at such a slower pace.
I don't even how to bracket, the change does take place that fast now. We are constantly changing. It's not that we're changing, we're changing much faster. And again, I come back to... I may be talking too much here. But again, I come back to look how fast COVID moved around. Look at that change. If we had been in the 1860s right now, probably COVID would just be getting to Wyoming from China. It would've taken that long. Instead, it took a month and a half, right? So yeah, change is going much faster now with all of our technology.

Lucas (16:58):

But also by the way, thank you for that comment on my youth. I appreciate it. I've been working on that the past several years. So it sounds to me that Wyoming is almost made for change. That just seems to be the picture that I'm seeing here. And I've been thinking about this a lot, especially recently, but that just seems to be Wyoming's whole thing. So I didn't know if you could, I know you've given us some examples, but you could enlighten us in some direction about how the people of Wyoming have embraced change, if there's any examples of that? Even if the ones that you brought up, if there's anything to add, if that makes sense.

Sam Lightner (17:38):

Well, I think the people of Wyoming have for the last 150 years have very much embraced change. There wasn't a lot of change in the previous say 5,000 years before that. The biggest change would've been horses. That was a dramatic change. And with horses also came disease that wiped out up to 90% of the population. Horses would've been accepted. The other parts of that change would not have been wanted. But in the last 150 years, when we have a more concrete written down view of that change, Wyoming's definitely been about changing. One of the very first meeting of Wyoming people, discussing what they were going to be like, well, they're going to change the way the world votes. We had massive change in the early 20th century of, well, yeah, there's all this arid land around here, but we're going to change the geography and the geology. We're going to put lakes where they haven't been. We're going to put rivers where they haven't been.
That took place then, that Wyoming embraced the change of you know what, we've cut down these forests too fast. We're going to have to do something to slow down the cutting of forests and had the first national forest in Wyoming, had the first national park. The idea that you would set land aside to do nothing with it, you just look at it, you walk around in it, that's a radical change. For a so-called conservative state, we've had an awful lot of change take place within our borders. At the same time, we are a pretty conservative state and a lot of people don't want to see change now. There's a lot of reluctance to switch out of fossil fuel business that has kept the state fairly wealthy for years.
And if someone says, "Well, we'd like a new road going to this place," there's a huge effort to stop new development in that sense. So yeah, we have changed, but we also try and block change. And as far as room for change, when you start thinking of things, about how different the world could be, how Wyoming could be different, compare the average spot, throw a dart at a board and hit Wyoming and go to that spot and then compare it to Manhattan. And the dramatic level of change you would have to have to make that into a Manhattan, there's an enormous amount of change available to us. I'm not at all endorsing that. I'll come out and block that too. But you can see, when you're a rural area in a world that has places like a Manhattan or a Hong Kong, you can have a lot of change come to you.

Chloe (20:27):

I love that you brought up or touched on Sam that... Well, I love two things about what just happened. I love that Lucas brought up the fact that change is in Wyoming's DNA, like from the beginning. It was never in stasis. It was never going to be in stasis. But also this, and I don't think it's new, maybe new in comparison to 1860, but this reluctance to change. I think Wyoming needs to be careful. I think we're losing a lot of good people, a lot of young people because of that reluctance to change. And it makes me think and pause and I think a lot about why we are here as my family, my young family, why we're here and why we choose to be here and why we want to stay here. And it's because we see so much potential in Wyoming and we love this place and we don't want it to be Manhattan. Right, Sam?

Sam Lightner (21:28):

Right.

Chloe (21:28):

My goodness, we do not want that. That's why we love this place. But yeah, change flows and it hits resistance at times. I think how we handle that resistance collectively, says a lot about who we are as a people of Wyoming.

Emy (21:49):

So this is a good time to say, thank you. And thank you to Sam for joining us on this podcast. And the next three narratives that we're going to hear are from Melissa Cassutt, she lives in Jackson, Linda Fleming, she's a native of Baggs, and Mary Flitner, a long time rancher from Shell. And these three women talk about persistence and change and community and how they're all intertwined together in each unique story that they give to us.
And Melissa is a journalist and a newcomer, and she thrives on community involvement, but yet she talks about how change is challenging for Teton County. And Linda Fleming, I love her quote, "I want to say and I think the community has changed some. In some ways it's not changed. You have lived changed, but you really haven't lived change when you live in that very same community." I thought that was a really interesting quote from her. And then Mary Flitner says, "In my own community, in the Bighorn Basin, we've gradually, I feel, slipped away from ranching toward recreation and subdividing and other land uses, which don't derive the same satisfactions and the same demands that ranching and agricultural production does."
So I hope you enjoy listening to these stories. And again, thank you, Sam. And we look forward to having you on our podcast again. And I just want to remind everyone who's out there listening to please email me, Emy@thinkwy.org and let me know that you have a story that you want to share. Have a great day.

Chloe (23:37):

Thank you.

Lucas (23:38):

Thank you.

Sam Lightner (23:39):

Thanks for having me.

Melissa Cassutt (23:45):

I came to Jackson in 2015 for a job. So I got a job offer from the Jackson Hole News&Guide and I was looking to get back into journalism. I had taken a bit of a detour for a couple years, was doing something completely different, but I really missed journalism and I was really curious about writing for a small paper and living in a small town. I had never lived in a small town, I grew up in the suburbs. I moved to Jackson and I started working at the paper and I feel like I got this crash course on what Jackson Hole cares about, what its challenges are. My job was to cover the government and to cover healthcare. So I was at the commissioner meetings and following development plans, following discussions about affordable housing. Everything that was big on the docket for this community.
I was getting just a real rundown, which was a great way to get to know Jackson. It was certainly overwhelming initially, I'll say. But it was also an amazing opportunity to meet a ton of people who are really invested in Jackson's future. And I think that's what tied me in right away. Of course, the beauty of the place is amazing. Obviously, you see the Tetons and they're, they're gorgeous. It's hard not to fall immediately in love with what this place looks like. But the community and how passionate they are about what the future of this place holds and how to preserve at least parts of its past really stood out to me in what drew me to wanting to be more deeply invested into this place and really put down roots. Obviously, change is hard anywhere you are. Jackson is really having a hard, I think, kind of come to Jesus moment with what it's going to be.
For a long time, I've heard the discussion of we're a community first. And I love the sentiment. And in many ways the community is really fighting for that. But there are other outside pressures and some that not even just in Jackson, but around the state, we have to listen to, to be able to retain our youth, to be able to be attractive to the industries that will support our economy and support our state, we do have to be open to that kind of change. And there are so many amazing things happening around the state and those communities are facing the same sort of growing pains that Jackson is, just in a different way. And that gave me a lot of hope, not just for our state, but for Jackson as well since that's my home community. That's where I see more of these arguments on the ground.
I think the more you do start to explore the rest of the state, the more you recognize how small and connected it is, that point is driven home every time I go back to the Wyoming Women's Antelope Hunt. When I was there the first time, that was my first hunting experience. I got to join in 2019, it was amazing. And every time I go back, I get to reconnect with women all across the state who are doing such amazing things. And it just makes Wyoming, which is very vast. And I mean, you drive across it, you see nothing, which I love, that's the beauty of it to me. But you realize there's these pockets of people in these small communities, all around the state, doing such amazing, important things. And it really just brings a big state down to a really small community. And that's one of the reasons I love this state so much.

Linda Fleming (27:27):

Well, probably some of my favorite Wyoming stories reached back, oh, generations ago. My grandmother came in the early 1900s from Missouri and she and her sisters and some siblings, it is told us anyway, that they walked across from Missouri behind a wagon, kicking canned milk cans. And they came to what is the Little Snake River valley. But my grandfather on my father's side was born on the Little Snake River and one of the earliest European children born here in about 1876, I believe '73. So I have deep roots into the Little Snake River valley. And my stories often encompass the sense of community and that community that had developed from those early 1900s to the 2000s, to the present time. And I think the community has changed some. In some ways it's not changed. Wyoming is still, and certainly in the Little Snake River valley is quite remote and depends very much upon this sense of community for survival.
And that survival has its ups and its downs. And I think it's really important that we and we pass on to the next generation, those stories, the sense of why we are here, why we stayed and why we would wish that more would stay in Wyoming and make their living here. I grew up on the Little Snake River and attended school. I was the first grandchild of the grandparents I'm talking about and my other set of grandparents that completed a college education. And it was a big deal. My grandmother, as I mentioned, came across from Missouri to the Little Snake River and all the children's clothes were packed into a big trunk.
And there were probably five or six of the children. There were older ones that didn't come, where all packed their clothes in this trunk. And when I graduated from the University of Wyoming, they had, my grandmother and some aunts had the trunk decorated and padded inside as a hope chest for me. And on the back of the trunk, it does mention that I am the first grandchild or the first of the generations of that family to have graduated from college. And I hope my story makes them proud because we build upon each other. And as a saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of others.
So what makes a community and why I stay in Wyoming is those opportunities to participate in many community betterments, to be part of the education. A little story, but it's one that I think maybe teachers all over find, but I go to our little local grocery store and maybe half of the people call me Mrs. Fleming. And they'll say, "Mrs. Fleming this" or "Mrs. Fleming that." And they're adults. They have children of their own. And I retired from teaching about 20 years ago. So that sense of belonging of being a part of the community is strong.
It's difficult for us to manage change. It's difficult to manage change in my home community. I think as a whole, we're very conservative and not wanting to manage change. We want it to be the same and we are reluctant. You have lived change, but you really haven't lived changed when you live in that very same community. But I guess we're able to cope with not changing a lot. And one of the wonderful gifts of living in Wyoming is the public lands and easy access to them. And in my community, you can be 30 minutes from seeing elk and mountains and 30 minutes from being in a desert, wild horses. And it's all on public land that you can tromp around as much as you want. And that's one of the things for living in Wyoming. No permission, ask, just do it.

Mary Flitner (32:17):

So I've lived in Wyoming, all my life, 79 years at this moment. And my dedication to the culture and landscapes that I've known is pretty obvious, I think. I can start with an old quote, "They ain't making more land." That's true enough. I've heard it said that other countries and other cultures talk about wine and food in an established, conversational pattern like we talk about weather. Land and weather are what makes us tick. And here in Wyoming, those things are hand in hand with our communities and our challenges, our hopes, our persistence, our wishes. And after all my own identity and my cultural connection in Wyoming is land based. My great-grandfather came into Wyoming and established a ranch house, a ranch in the late 1800s. I grew up in a little ranch town, Big Piney. Most of the sustainability of that community came from livestock and ranching, a grocery store, a hardware store, a mechanic, a welder. As I remember, a church and a couple of bars, keeping a good school system had a high priority.
In my own community in the Big Horn Basin, we've gradually, I feel, slipped away from ranching toward recreation and subdividing and other land uses, which don't derive the same satisfactions and the same demands that ranching and agricultural production does. When you use land for ranching and agriculture, you get really familiar with the strengths and how fragile land really is. And I'm not sure that our present land uses are that way. We've seen people don't have the same dependence on the land that we do and have had for all these 50 years. Livestock and ranching is no different than anything else in Wyoming. And you better make hay when the sun shines, as the old saying goes, you better be filling up your bank account when times are good and hanging onto that money because you know you're going to use it further down the road.
It has become increasingly complicated because of Wyoming's emphasis on recreational use and recreational use of the public lands, and in fact, even the private lands. Because in some ways, the last few years, that's been a recreational use and campgrounds stuff like that's been a more steadier, more dependable income maybe than livestock prices.
I think part of what comes between the lines is that to really love the land, you've got to get some dirt on your boots. I feel like you have to use it and protect it and nurture it and enjoy it and live in it instead of on it, or you won't really have the satisfaction that I have had.

Emy (35:41):

Thank you for listening. I'm executive producer, Emy diGrappa. Winds of Change is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, our co-hosts and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.