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American Heritage Center Archives
Where you can see Hopalong Cassidy's costume and saddle. Where you can hold Barbara Stanwyck's Oscar statuette.
This is a place like no other in the world. And it's on Willett Drive in Laramie on the campus of the University of Wyoming.
"When I give tours, I'm often asked, ‘Why is this stuff here? How did this get here? Is there a tie to Wyoming?' And, oftentimes, there isn't," says Rick Ewig, associate director of the American Heritage Center (AHC), one of the largest non-governmental archives in the United States with some 75,000 cubic feet of history stored away in its basement vault. "That's because we're a national institution that just happens to be based in Wyoming.
"What I always tell people is, ‘You never know what you're going to find in the next box," adds Ewig, a smile flashing across his bearded face. "And then when they open the boxes, they are amazed. Truly amazed."
A major archival institution whose primary mission is to collect and preserve the history of Wyoming and the American West -- Owen Wister and Jack Schaefer, who authored two of the most iconic Western novels, "The Virginian" and "Shane," respectively, have their papers here -- the AHC features the political collections of Alan Simpson, Milward Simpson, Francis E. Warren and Nellie Tayloe Ross, all of whom have played important roles in the evolution of Wyoming.
But the AHC's influence stretches beyond the Cowboy State's borders. The center boasts internationally-known collections in journalism, transportation, the mining and petroleum industries, environment and natural resources and popular culture.
And all of it -- books, manuscripts, photos, videos and more -- is accessible to scholars and novices alike as part of the AHC's scholarly outreach. Even children use the AHC's collections as part of the repository's annual administration of Wyoming History Day, the state affiliate of National History Day, the premier education enrichment program for U.S. elementary and secondary school students.
"We're immensely accessible here compared to other archives. At some archives, you might have to have a Ph.D. to be accepted into their reading room or need a couple letters of reference. But we are open to everyone who wants to come through our doors or who contacts us to ask questions," says Ginny Kilander, the AHC's reference manager. "We take pride in our accessibility. The public is welcome and our collections are always accessible."
The collections of Lee, the world-famous comic creator who conceived Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, rank among the AHC's most popular. There are 118 boxes of working drafts, articles, fan mail, photos and video preserved in Row 1 of the basement archive.
The works of Lee especially help attract younger patrons. "They don't know Jack Benny. They don't know Barbara Stanwyck," Ewig says. "But they know Spider-Man and Stan Lee."
The center's superhero collection also includes the papers of William Dozier, the executive producer and narrator of the Batman television series from the late 1960s, a show that Ewig described as a "huge national phenomenon" in his childhood years.
The collection includes correspondence between Dozier and Adam West, who portrayed Bruce Wayne and Batman, in a show that brought to life the comic-book battles between The Caped Crusader and Joker, Riddler, Mr. Freeze and other villains.
In addition to superheroes, the AHC is home to other remarkable items from the entertainment industry, including scripts and research notes for The Addams Family and Gilligan's Island, drafts of Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy and the original scores of Carl W. Stalling, who created the Looney Tunes theme song.
The papers of Michael Maltese, the animator who helped develop Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam and Pepe Le Pew for Warner Brothers, are also stored here. So are scripts and video slides from The Dick Van Dyke Show and musical scores from The Twilight Zone.
What's in the next box? The only way to find out is to open it.
"We learn something from the collections every week," Kilander says. "You can work here for many, many years and still not know all the collections and all the gems that are hidden in all the boxes. It's fun every week."