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Wyoming’s Bars Contribute to State’s Cultural Legacy

June 23, 2015
people sitting at a bar
Patrons enjoy lively conversation at the Occidental Bar in Buffalo, among the bars visited in the book “Jukeboxes and Jackalopes: A Photographic Companion to Wyoming Bars and Backways."

When defining the essence of Wyoming culture during the past 125 years, don’t overlook the unique bars scattered throughout the state’s small towns.

That was the message conveyed by Julianne Couch and Ronald Hansen during the recent University of Wyoming conference celebrating 125 years of Wyoming statehood, “Our Place in the West … and Beyond: Wyoming at 125.”

Their discussion focused on their photo book, “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Photographic Companion to Wyoming Bars and Backways," published by the Wyoming State Historical Society. The book is the companion to Couch’s book, “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey.”

The photo book offers 108 pages of color images featuring 66 bars and the landscapes where they are located. Some of the bars are so small they may be the only business at a location named and noted on the map, but perhaps claiming only two residents.

Regardless of size or remoteness of location, these watering holes often serve as community centers and living rooms away from home for those folks who populate the neighboring ranches and energy industry camps. They offer a delightful environment for travelers who dare to leave the interstate in search of a unique experience.

“Conference speakers talked about the importance of history as a way to tell our stories, and there’s no better atmosphere to get people to tell their stories than in a bar, where they tell stories about their personal lives, and their parents, and their grandparents,” Couch says. “It serves the community well to have a place where people can gather and talk, and it just happens to be in a bar. I think it’s very important to have a place where people can feel comfortable doing that.”

Bar patrons were quite responsive when they learned Couch and Hansen were on a tour to write about Wyoming’s taverns.

“They’d pull out a map and say, ‘you gotta go here, and you have to go there,’ and some would tell us they’ve been to all of the bars, so there was a lot of positive feedback,” she says. “For the book, I tried to gather what was happening at the time of our visit, or maybe some of the contemporary issues happening in the community, and tell what it was like to hang out there and talk to the people.”

Some have suggested a sequel, or that the pair create a book about the bars in other states, but Couch says that’s not going to happen.

“It’s the love of Wyoming that motivated us to do this,” she says. “It wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.”

Couch is a freelance writer, editor and author. She taught full time in the UW Department of English from 1998-2011, and now teaches part time for UW online. Hansen is an artist, photographer and graphic designer. As a principal of Horse Creek Studio, he designed logos and promotional materials for a number of state agencies and commissions. They now live in Bellevue, Iowa.

More than 200 people attended the UW conference that featured programs presented by historians, writers, educators, researchers and others who discussed subjects and events that have shaped the Cowboy State. Speakers analyzed topics including art, women’s influences, homesteaders, crime, cultural geology, historic taverns, early bicycling and religion. The conference also covered tourism, UW and railroad history, the Heart Mountain Japanese-American relocation camp, agricultural history, Basque culture and an assortment of other subjects.

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