The other day, I learned a bit of Wyoming history I had never heard of before.
That doesn’t surprise me, even though I’ve spent a lot of time with history over the years, thanks to “Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia,” a book my parents gave me when I was about 9. I didn’t ask for it, so I’m not sure why I received it, since it arrived in the summer, too late to be a birthday present and too early to be for Christmas. Thinking back, I suspect my parents, knowing that I enjoyed reading, figured the best way to keep me from teasing my siblings during the summer vacation was to have plenty of books for me to read.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t have books to read. I had a shelf full, including my favorite, “The Wizard of Oz.” This new book quickly replaced it. It wasn’t about an imaginary girl and her encounters with witches, flying monkeys, a talking lion and other fantastic characters. Instead, it was about a real person whose fantastic achievements earned respect on both sides of the Atlantic. I was fascinated by Franklin’s experiments with electricity, titillated by his visits with a lady friend in Paris while she took her baths, and impressed by his lengthy list of inventions.
In the ensuing months, five similar books arrived, and I learned about the Wright Brothers, battles at Gettysburg and Little Big Horn, Wild Bill Hickok, and the clipper ships that moved trade faster in the days before steam-powered ships.
I still enjoy reading about great people and great events and I’m a sucker for books about Gettysburg and Little Big Horn or about the writing of our Constitution. But my interests are broader now. I’ve looked into stories about ancient engineering feats, religious warfare in Europe, and even books about diseases, like the black plague and the 1918 flu epidemic.
But history is not only about famous people and big events, and I’ve also learned to appreciate the history of ordinary people. Our way of life has been built, not only by heroes, but by those ordinary people living ordinary lives. These stories are interesting and sometimes important, but too often, nobody writes about them and they disappear from history.
That brings me back to what I learned about Wyoming recently. The town of Empire, Wyoming, began about the same time Powell did, but, unlike Powell, it disappeared within 20 years. Like Powell, it was a farming community, but it was unique among Wyoming towns because all its residents were African Americans.
Empire lay just this side of the Nebraska state line, about 10 miles north of Torrington. It was founded in 1908 by the families of four brothers named Speese and two brothers named Taylor. Later a third Taylor brother, Russell moved to Empire with a family of 10 children.
The Speese brothers’ parents were former slaves, and had homesteaded earlier in Nebraska and done well. The brothers sold the Nebraska lands and used the money to buy land in Wyoming. Irrigation wasn’t available to them, so they engaged in dry-land farming. The men were skilled farmers, though, and did well with their crops in the early years, even winning trophies at the Goshen County Fair.
The settlers were not uneducated. John Speese had a law degree, for example, and Robert Taylor was an ordained Presbyterian Minister with a Doctorate. Consequently, the townspeople wanted their children educated properly. Robert Taylor, the town’s leader used Wyoming law, which allowed segregated schools, to persuade the county school board to give the town control of its own school, which meant they could hire their own teacher instead of accepting one the county school board sent.
Racism may have been at its absolute worst during those years, and the residents of Empire experienced it. One of the Taylor brothers died while in the custody of the sheriff, leading Russell Taylor to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county. In court, two men from Colorado who were working in Torrington testified that they had watched the sheriff’s men beat and torture the victim while keeping him chained in a hotel room near the room occupied by the two witnesses. Despite their testimony, the case was thrown out.
Empire reached its highest point in 1911, when 49 people lived there, but the population fell to less than half that many by the 1920 census. The agriculture depression following World War I was one reason for the decline, as was a severe drought that hit Wyoming in 1919. Racism may also have played a role, because The Ku Klux Klan was riding high throughout the U.S., and Klan activity, including lynchings wasn’t unknown in Wyoming.
Whatever the reason, Empire ceased to exist in the late 1920s. All that’s left of it is the small cemetery near the site of the Presbyterian Church Russell Taylor founded just across the state line in Nebraska. It’s memory is so buried that my wife, who was raised and educated in the Torrington area and in the Presbyterian Church, never heard of Empire until now.
Fortunately, Wyoming has a State Historic Preservation Office. This summer, with the support of that office, an intern, Robert Galbreath, researched and wrote the story of Empire. His essay can be read at WyoHistory.org.
Countless stories make up our history, and many of them are quite interesting. I believe they also reveal our nation’s character. Ultimately, that’s the importance of history, whether it’s about the famous people, or the ordinary ones, people such as you and me.