Old West Wax Museum
The Old West was one of the first roadside attraction environments. Staged gun fights and Indian attacks predate space attractions, flume rides and dinosaur parks, even the interstate system. In the 21st Century, the Old West survives along the highway because of two sustainable competitive advantages, both of which are depicted in its successful destinations. Life was harder. And justice was more gruesome.
Which brings us to the paradox of the Old West Wax Museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Some of the very displays that might assure its continued success have been removed because of today's mores against things like violent state-sponsored retribution.
Thermopolis itself is an attractive little vacation town, blessed with water (some of it hot) and scenery. It caters to tourists with hot springs, a safari-themed restaurant, street statuary and A&W Root Beer figures. It also offers three decent-sized museums.
The Old West Wax Museum contains 20 dioramas that were once part of a private collection (hoo-boy, what a rumpus room that guy had). Most of the scenes are from the Northern Plains Old West -- the OK Corral and Dodge City are nowhere to be found. And some of the scenes are forgettable -- Father DeSmet's Indian dealings, for example -- but others resonate with the best of what the old days can teach us.
The Mormon Handcart Tragedy, for example. We were ignorant of this chapter in the Mormon story until this summer, first seeing a depiction at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Nebraska. (It turns out there is a Mormon Handcart Visitors' Center in Alcova, Wyoming, and a Mormon Handcart Park at The University of Iowa.)
Life was hard back then. Men pulled carts like burden beasts through the thick mud, exposed to the unrelenting elements and dying where they fell.
Another diorama features the tale of Cattle Kate, a former prostitute, who was the first woman hanged in Wyoming. She was not hanged for soliciting, though. When she was working, she demanded payment in the form of a calf. This led to a rash of cattle theft, but this didn't get her hung, either. She was strung up when she tried to go legit, and homestead her cattle to compete against the reigning barons. Justice was gruesome.
Next to another wax hanging, an educational display answers the question: "Did people really attend hangings?" "People on the frontier loved any excuse for a gathering..." it says, "weddings, funerals and hangings." Another calls scalping an "ancient custom," instead of a horrifying fact of life back in the day, and assures us that it was not meant to kill, but only to record a death. "A true scalp is only a piece of skin about the size of an adult palm."
In places, a boring display could have been helped tremendously by adding more nasty and brutish reality to the presentation. Mountain man Jim Bridger is depicted in a lackluster diorama. But the day before we visited, we were in Lemmon, South Dakota, where the full horror of Bridger's betrayal of Hugh Glass was described, which would have made for great wax fare.
Which brings us to the problem with the Old West Wax Museum. Someone has decided to bring the Museum's dioramas "up to date." But in doing so, it loses its one strong suit.
For example, in the Ghost Ranch display, its two human skeletons have been removed. The horse skeleton remaining looks out of place. It's only a matter of time before the dead Indian chief sprawled in front of Buffalo Bill is whisked away to a closet.
And the museum's final display -- the money shot -- has been rendered totally dull. It shows Big Nose George on the slab. Big Nose George was a murdering outlaw. After he was brought to justice and executed, his skullcap was turned into an ashtray, and a pair of shoes were made from his skin. The shoes can be seen at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. The ashtray is in storage at the Union Pacific Museum
All right, then. The coroner, Dr. Osbourne, is here in wax, hovering over the body, intent on becoming a cobbler. But a sheet has been pulled up over Big Nose George's head, and he is totally covered. This is it? The grand finale?
On a wall in the museum's lobby is an old B&W photo of the original display in all its grizzly "Justice is Gruesome" candor. Said the employee on duty, "People used to get excited about Big Nose George." But while postcards of the old ghost ranch can still be purchased, old postcards of BNG are not for sale.
The curators have added modern items to mitigate fallout from the Big Nose George disappointment. The basement gallery is called the International Teddy Bear Den, and houses more than 1,000 bears, the largest display in the Midwest. A wax Teddy Roosevelt is surrounded by the cute dolls, casting him as a slightly menacing furvert. There is also a room displaying quilts, including one depicting Operation Desert Storm. But teddy bears and quilts are no substitute for the depredations of the Old West, especially if you have to drive all the way to Thermopolis to see them.