Numbers on Bumpers: Wyoming's First License Plates

By Phil Roberts

Originally published as a "Buffalo Bones" column, circulated statewide in 1982 by the Wyoming State Archives, Museums and Historical Department, now the Division of Cultural Resources, State Parks and Cultural Resources Department

Every year questions are asked about the bucking horse insignia on Wyoming's license plates. Claims from several sources seem to confuse the history of just where the emblem originated.

License plates were not issued in the first decade of automobile use in Wyoming. In fact, according to file materials in the Wyoming State Archives, Division of Cultural Resources, State Department of Parks and Cultural Resources, the first plates were issued in 1913 from the Secretary of State's office.

The 1913 law read: "Such number plate shall be an enameled plate or placard on the upper left hand corner of which there shall be a facsimile of the seal of the state, underneath which there shall be the abbreviation 'Wyo'.... Said number plate shall be of a distinctive different color or shade for each year, to be designated and selected by the Secretary of State."

Previously, numbers had been issued to individuals but it had been their responsibility to fashion them into "plate" for their vehicles.

The 1913 plates, red figures on a white background, had a state seal made of German silver. Two years later, the seal was embossed on the metal and in 1916, the plate was enameled.

For the first five years of their issuance, license plates did not note the year. In 1918, it became the standard feature.

Another important change occurred in 1930 when each county as given the responsibility for license plate issuance. Numbers were assigned to each county, not on the basis of their populations at the time, but according to the assessed valuation of property within their borders. These designations are retained without change to this day with Natrona County designated "1" and Sublette County designated "23."

The first announcement of a pending change in the 1936 license plates was made by a Wyoming State Tribune article on July 15, 1935: "A boldly embossed picture of a cowboy doing a good job of riding a wildly-bucking bronco will adorn Wyoming's automobile license plates of next year. Secretary of State Lester C. Hunt today approved a design for the next edition of the plates, taking his choice from two that were submitted. The picture of the rider and horse were drawn by Allen T. True of Denver, brother of James B. True, Wyoming State Highway engineer."

True had been the artist for the murals in the House and Senate chambers in the Wyoming State Capitol so Hunt called him and offered $75 for a drawing appropriate for the plates.

The controversy has continued about the identity of the horse and the cowboy on the plates. It was asserted that the rider was "Stub" Farlow of Lander, but Hunt, then a U. S. Senator wrote to Lola Homsher, then director of the State Archives and Historical Department: "Many stories have appeared in the press from time to time--their origin I do not know--saying that the bucking horse license plate was a certain horse and the rider was Mr. Farlow. Such is not the case, but I did have 'Stub' Farlow in mind when designing the plate." Nor was the horse the famous bucking horse, Steamboat, according to Hunt's letter to Homsher.

The origin of the design is still a matter of debate. Did it originate with the Wyoming National Guard in France during World War I? Did it first appear on an airplane that flew against the Germans in that war? Or was the idea "entirely original" with Hunt who wrote that "not other person had ever mentioned such a plate in my presence"?

Whatever its origin, the symbol of the Old West, Wyoming's bucking horse license plate, retains the same popular appeal it had when it was first issued 70 years ago.