‘We live in a history book’

Alex Hargrave/Lingle Guide Sandra Hansen of Western History Center holds items recovered from Fort Bernard, a trading post that was located approximately eight miles from Fort Laramie. Western History Center is located off Highway 26 between Lingle and Fort Laramie.

Western History Center holds story of Southeastern Wyoming

LINGLE – If you take a second to blink while driving on Highway 26 between Lingle and Fort Laramie, you may miss the Western History Center.

The log cabin with a green roof hides behind an array of bushes and trees, but its existence is marked by a sign bearing its name that appears to be held by a mammoth. Once inside, visitors are surrounded by the rich history of Goshen County and the surrounding area courtesy of owners Geri and George Zeimens.

The Western History Center is part of the larger nonprofit organization, Western Plains Historic Preservation Association Inc. The center is now 22 years old – almost the same amount of time the Zeimens have been married, Geri said.

Geri said the Western History Center was born out of necessity. George worked as an archeologist before moving to the area to be a rancher. Consequently, he instead ended up helping residents get their sites excavated, and owners of the property wanted to donate items found to the organization so the public could see them.

“We didn’t really have a place at that time,” Geri said. “There was a storage unit, and George and I were paying for it. We decided this is dumb, we should put it in a building and have an office area.”

From there, Geri said they rented the building on Main Street in Lingle where Whimsy Antiques is now located. After receiving a “substantial donation,” the Western History Center moved into the building it’s in today. 

The space is now home to artifacts uncovered by George and his team during archeological digs, along with other pieces of local history donated by individuals with collections of gemstones, fossils and more.

Their goal is preservation, Geri said. As sites are eroding, George wants to be able to record history.

With Fort Laramie National Historic Site a short drive away, the area was a “hub of activity” in the days of the Oregon Trail, a critical unit in Wyoming history taught in elementary schools, according to George.

“This is a rich, rich area both prehistorically and historically,” George said. “Being on the North Platte River with access to all the tools the Indians had. Historically, this was the trail center. This was a hub of activity for the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Texas Cattle Trail and the Cheyenne Deadwood Trail.”

Visitors include both locals and tourists, the Zeimens said. George has met visitors from places as far away as Germany who have an interest in western history. One couple belonged to a club in Germany dedicated to Wyoming western history with more than 2,000 members, he said.

Though their visitors are eager, they are often few and far between, Geri said. She estimated that almost 80% of Goshen County residents have never been to the center.

“There’s only a certain number of people that have that kind of interest,” Geri said.

Educators tend to bring in their students, and George said he sometimes works with graduate students researching the history that lives in the Western History Center. But, ultimately, visitors and tourism are being lost to more populated areas, according to the Zeimens.

“The state of Wyoming is missing out on our area,” Geri said. “This is where it all happened. The Indian War started here, Grattan Massacre, there are just many things that happened here, and consequently they plant the trail museum somewhere else, and this is where it happened. That becomes somewhat frustrating.”

Signage and promotion are missing from Goshen County, according to Sandra Hansen, who works at the Western History Center five days per week.

“One thing that bothers me is we’ve got all of these attractions and all of this history here, but when you come into Goshen County from Cheyenne, Nebraska or Casper, there’s not a sign anywhere coming into the county that says “stop by Homesteaders Museum, stop by Western History Center, visit Fort Laramie. We’ve got historic places all over the county that could be promoted to attract people.”

Hansen said she encountered a visitor who stops in Torrington once per year who did not know about Fort Laramie National Historic Site until an employee at a motel suggested it. For Hansen, solutions to this problem can be simple, just asking local businesses to promote these attractions can go a long way.

“She said from now on we’re going to plan our vacation so we have more time to go to Fort Laramie every time we go through here,” Hansen said.

Geri said she was in conversation with the Wyoming Department of Transportation about signage, specifically a commemoration near Lingle to mark significant events that occurred nearby, but the novel coronavirus pandemic brought that project to a standstill. COVID-19 also caused the center to close for two months, which hurt them financially as they did not receive donations that usually come with visitors.

Western History Center reopened its doors in June, so visitors can now come in Tuesday through Saturday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Admission is free. George is hosting an opportunity for those interested to tour an archaeology site in Sunrise on Aug. 15, and proceeds will benefit the Western History Center.

The Western History Center is an opportunity for curious people to explore their heritage, George said.

“I tell everybody, we live in a history book,” Hansen said.

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