New History of Wyoming

Chapter 18:  The 1960s: Economic Change, Severance Tax, Vietnam War and the "Black 14"

This essay focuses on at least four of the “organizing concepts”—“federal/state relations” (“Washington”); “boom-and-bust” and colonialism (“Wall Street”); diversity; and “Wyoming in the World.” Issues of “wilderness” and “self-image” arise as well.

As the 1960s began, minerals, tourism and agriculture remained central to Wyoming’s economy. Uranium, first mined in the previous decade, still provided substantial employment at Shirley Basin (north of  Medicine Bow), Jeffrey City, Pumpkin Buttes (south of Gillette), and the Gas Hills (east of Riverton). Not only was uranium mined at these locations, but several companies constructed “uranium mills”—essentially processing plants—where the uranium was refined down to “yellow cake” before being shipped to out-of-state processing centers for further reduction for manufacture of nuclear fuel or weapons.  (Read the John Egan essay in Readings in Wyoming History). 

During the decade, Yellowstone National Park continued to experience record visitation. The National Park Service, during the 1950s, developed a planning document known as “Mission ‘66” in which the Service set 1966 as the year by which substantial improvements would be made in park facilities, primarily for the convenience of park visitors.  Federal funding priorities had to accommodate military spending for the Vietnam War, so the ideal goals were not met by the target date, even though some modernization of facilities was completed.  

The trend toward consolidation of ranches and farms into larger and larger units continued into the 1960s.  Ranches and farms increasingly were purchased by large corporations or individuals with multiple holdings who did not live on the newly-acquired properties. Family ranching operations, common in Wyoming prior to World War II, diminished in number and proportion to the overall cattle production in the state. 

Politically, Wyoming entered the 1960s with a Democratic governor (J. J. “Joe” Hickey, elected over incumbent Milward Simpson in 1958) and two Democrats in the U. S. Senate. Senior Senator was Joseph C. O’Mahoney who had begun service during the New Deal, building seniority in the Senate until his upset defeat at the hands of Frank Barrett in the 1952 general election. Gale McGee, former UW history professor, was the other U. S. Senator.

The state’s lone member of the U. S. House of Representatives was Republican Keith Thomson, a Newcastle native and World War II veteran.  National Democrats celebrated the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency. A young man, Democrats generally assumed that even after he served out his second term, he would remain a political force to the end of the century and, perhaps, beyond.   

Wyoming, Republicans similarly delighted in the 1960 election of Thomson to O’Mahoney’s seat when the senior senator retired at the end of his term. Just one month and one day after the general election, Thomson was enjoying a pack trip near his South Fork ranch in Park County when he was suddenly stricken with a heart attack. The 41-year-old senator-elect died before he could obtain treatment. In such cases, the law provides that the governor would have the power to choose the replacement who would serve for the two years until the next general election. Democrat Joe Hickey resigned as governor, allowing for his Democratic Secretary of State Jack Gage to become acting governor. Gage’s first act was to appoint Hickey to the vacancy in the U. S. Senate. The move incensed Wyoming Republicans and set the stage, not only for Hickey’s loss in 1962 to Milward Simpson who he had defeated for governor in 1958, but Thomson’s widow Thyra Thomson to the first of a record six terms as Secretary of State. Republican Cliff Hansen was elected governor, moving to the U. S. Senate to replace the ailing Milward Simpson in 1966.  Meanwhile, in the U. S. House of Representatives, veteran Rep. William Henry Harrison lost a primary race to John Wold, Casper geologist, who served one term in Congress only to lose to Democrat Teno Roncalio.  

With Democrat McGee in the Senate and Roncalio in the U. S. House, Republican Hansen in the other Senate seat and Republican Stan Hathaway as governor, the two parties would have been competitively close for the rest of the decade. The party affiliations, however, did not account for the looming national issue of the late 1960s—the Vietnam War.  McGee, the former professor of American foreign policy, staunchly defended the “domino policy” on Vietnam while World War II combat veteran Teno Roncalio, who had earned the Silver Star on D-Day at Normandy, early on opposed American involvement in the war. Yet, despite the antagonisms, the divided party continued to send Roncalio and McGee back to Congress, Roncalio from 1965-67, and from 1971-79, and McGee to reelection in 1970. (The senior senator had won reelection handily in 1964, the year that Wyoming gave its three electoral votes to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election). 

Wyomingites generally were split over the Vietnam War. As the decade came to a close, American military involvement in Vietnam continued to escalate until, by the end in 1974, more than 50,000 American servicemen had died in Southeast Asia.  By the time the war brought about the eventual downfall of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, more than 5,700 Wyomingites had served in combat in Vietnam and 137 of them were killed there. 

By the early 1960s, the coal industry remained moribund. The Union Pacific Railroad and other lines through Wyoming converted their locomotives from coal-burning to diesel in the immediate post-World War II years.  A market for coal as a locomotive fuel disappeared. Most Wyoming mines had relied entirely on that market.  A small amount of coal was mined for small power plants, the most important near the WyoDak mine east of Gillette. For the many unemployed miners, some then working in other industries if they were able to stay in Wyoming, the future for coal seemed bleak. 

Locally-owned oil refineries continued to contribute to the economies of Cody, Newcastle, Sinclair, and Thermopolis. Two aging refineries at Casper—Texaco and Amoco—continued to operate during the 1960s, but oil production in Wyoming fields began to level off. (Figures indicate that 1970 marked the peak production period for petroleum in the U. S. as well as in Wyoming. After that, it gradually declined). Many oil fields, too, were aging by the 1960s with production coming through secondary recovery methods.  Multinational companies continue to expand ownership in Wyoming oil fields, refineries, and pipelines during the decade. 

Labor unions, powerful in some parts of the state since 1900, not only lost membership in the 1960s, but lost a critical legislative fight to maintain the “union shop.”  Southern Wyoming, along the Union Pacific line, always had been “union country” with miners’ unions like the United Mine Workers and railroad unions (also known as “brotherhoods”) enjoying large memberships. With increasing mechanization in the mines and on the railroads, the numbers of employees in these industries continued to decline over the decade. With fewer workers to organize, unions no longer had the same political clout they had enjoyed in the interwar years.  

A significant blow to organized labor came in 1963 when the Wyoming legislature passed (and Governor Cliff Hansen signed) the so-called “Right-to-Work” law. Essentially, the law weakened unions by outlawing the union shop.  Proponents of the bill viewed it as an “individual choice” issue, but unions correctly recognized its corrosive impact on union organizing and power to negotiate with management.  The declining numbers of union members in Wyoming demonstrated increasing employment in industries in which workers rarely organized such as tourism and in the “oil patch.”  

Over all, the Wyoming economy was in a period of malaise during the 1960s.  Out-migration of young people continued. Few were able to find career-enhancing jobs in the state. Enrollment grew rapidly at the University of Wyoming, but the cause was a function of the “baby-boom” generation coming to college age.  Few people were moving to Wyoming.  Population growth statewide stayed virtually flat with deaths barely being offset by natural increase or in-migration.  This was to change dramatically in the following decade. 

Even though the mineral industry was hardly robust, it seemed to be far more profitable than other sectors in the state. At the same time, school districts and counties continued to depend on property taxes for their support. The state sales tax was the central component for state government funds. Minor increases in the sales tax still provided the state with barely sufficient means to operate.             

A Casper lawyer (who had been one of four founders of the Casper Daily Star newspaper—later merged with the older Casper Tribune-Herald to become the Casper Star-Tribune) decided to run for governor in 1966 on the Democratic ticket. Ernest Wilkerson, the Lusk-born heir to the Wyoming Automotive stores around the state, campaigned almost exclusively on the proposition that Wyoming needed a severance tax on minerals. Minerals, he argued, were not renewable. Once they are gone, they can not be replaced. Consequently, should not Wyoming prepare for the day when minerals are all gone by charging a “severance” tax—a tax on “severing” the minerals from the ground?   

Wilkerson’s campaign slogan, “Wyoming’s Wealth for Wyoming’s People” caught the attention of the mineral companies. Company payments temporarily boosted the state’s economy (at least in the form of ads in newspapers and on radio) as the companies campaigned against Wilkerson.  His opponent, Stan Hathaway, a lawyer from agricultural Goshen County and former state Republican chairman, announced he was against the severance tax.  Lobbyists for oil companies distributed car bumper stickers to employees and industry friends stating: “Wyoming’s Oil is Our Bread and Butter.” The implied message was that if a severance tax were to be instituted, big mineral companies would “move elsewhere” and, thus, Wyomingites were in danger of losing jobs. 

Wilkerson failed to convince the majority.  When voters went to the polls in November 1966, Hathaway was elected and the mineral company lobbyists seemed to breathe sighs of relief. In their minds, threat of a severance tax disappeared with Wilkerson’s defeat.  

Soon after he took office as governor, however, Hathaway was told that the state treasury was down to some $85!  As he told the story years later, he was forced to come up with a revenue source. (Read Sam Western's book, Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River).  In 1969, after building a coalition with Democrats and Republican legislators mostly from non-mineral-producing counties, Hathaway was able to pass a modest severance tax.  It was the first in the state’s nearly 80-year history. (Unsuccessful efforts were made during the Constitutional Convention in 1889, in a general election for a constitutional amendment in 1924, and for severance tax legislation in the early 1950s).  

Severance tax revenues were designed to spread the tax burden more equitably among Wyoming industries.  Strictly speaking, the severance tax is not a tax on the mineral industry. They pass on the costs in the form of slightly higher charges for the minerals they produce, paid for by buyers of the refined product.  In essence, it is an “export” tax paid by public utility users in other states who buy electricity from companies that use Wyoming-mined coal to fire their power plants.   

Hathaway’s timing proved to be fateful. Shortly after the severance tax was instituted, the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s, caused mineral prices increase dramatically. At the same time, demands for Wyoming’s rich mineral resources brought about an influx of (mostly out-of-state-owned) mineral companies.  The huge increases in mining employment brought severe impact to many Wyoming communities.   

Hathaway did not intend for mineral severance tax to be entirely spent on current government needs. He helped create the “Permanent Mineral Trust Fund” from which interest continues to be derived while the principal “stays in the bank” gaining in value.  The monies provided by the interest coming from the trust fund are designed to cushion the state from the inevitable busts that natural resource-based economies periodically experience.  As it was designed, the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund will continue to provide money for state government, even after the minerals are gone or no longer mined in the state.  

In other areas, Hathaway broke with earlier Republican tradition. Instead of trying to contain the growth of state government during his two terms as governor, he added more state agencies.  He established the Department of Planning and Economic Development (to encourage industry to locate or relocate to Wyoming), and the Department of Environmental Quality that would provide state regulation over potential pollutions sources that would otherwise be regulated by the newly created Environmental Protection Agency, set up in the federal government during Richard Nixon’s presidency.  Hathaway also consolidated state government purchasing, budgeting, personnel and building maintenance under a new agency called the Department of Administration and Fiscal Control (DAFC).  Despite parsimonious legislatures, state government was larger in 1970 than it had been going into the 1960s decade.   

Problems of racial discrimination continued in Wyoming in the 1960s, just as elsewhere in the nation. The Wyoming legislature had passed the Public Accommodations Act in Wyoming in 1957 (Read the Moore-Ibach article in Readings) and Congress passed federal civil rights laws. Nonetheless, problems continued in many Wyoming towns, not only for African-Americans but for Mexican-Americans and Native Americans.  In the 1960s, Wyoming remained one of the least racially diverse states in the Union. 

At the beginning of the decade, the Mississippi-born president of the University of Wyoming, Dr. George “Duke” Humphrey continued to promote the university’s commitments to “big-time” intercollegiate athletics. He hired a visionary athletic director, Glenn “Red” Jacoby, who then hired a succession of ambitious, mostly young, coaches.  Among them were Bowden Wyatt (1947-52, leaving to become football coach at Tennessee), Phil Dickens (1953-56, going on to Indiana) and Bob Devaney (1957-61, who went on to greater prominence as football coach and athletic director at the University of Nebraska). In the 1960s, a substantial proportion of the African-American students at UW were participants in various sports programs, many on scholarship.  Yet, in other aspects, African American students often felt the university did little to promote diversity.

Consequently, 14 African-American football players on the nationally-ranked UW football team held a meeting with Coach Lloyd Eaton in October, 1969, to notify him they planned to protest policies of the LDS (Mormon) Church by wearing black arm bands during the game. Eaton responded by kicking them off the team. The so-called "Black 14" incident pitted athletics against civil rights, bringing significant negative publicity to the University and the state.  (Read the Bullock article in Readings in Wyoming History as well as the Barrett "first-person" account of the incident, also in Readings).

Earlier in the decade, Wyomingites of all races participated in efforts to end segregation around the country, particularly in the South.  One such individual was a white minister originally from Casper named James Reeb.  In 1965, Reeb accompanied civil rights marchers to Selma, Alabama, where they intended to bring national attention to segregation against African Americans. A white supremacist in Selma murdered Reeb, making him one of many martyrs to civil rights during the decade.  Later, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal law putting legal teeth into the laws requiring that no one be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, he mentioned Reeb’s death as an example of the sacrifice made to make “all people free.”