Why C. J. Box Loves Carbon County

July 18, 2016By

Why C.J. Box Loves Carbon County

What brought the bestselling author back, and why he’s working to make it better than ever

author cj box joe pickett series photoBefore selling millions of books and traveling the country on tour, C.J. Box was busy tracking down headlines in Carbon County, WY. When he was fresh out of college, the New York Times bestselling novelist—famous for his popular Joe Pickett series—worked for a newspaper in the town of Saratoga, near the North Platte River in Carbon County.

As a reporter, Box became fascinated with the area’s colorful characters, often a product of their surreal scenery. He spent his formative years in Carbon County before moving on and raising a family in Cheyenne. Still, he and his wife, Laurie, always hoped to return one day.

They’re here, and Box is using his influence as a nationally known author to give back to the community that sparked so many of his ideas. For a local museum, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Inspiring places and faces

carbon county museum local history museum wyoming rawlinsFor the past 40 years, a renovated church has housed the Carbon County Museum. Tucked back in a residential neighborhood in the county seat of Rawlins, the beloved museum is a local institution showcasing the region’s extraordinary history. Soon, with the help of passionate residents, visitors just passing through, and C.J. Box, the museum’s 30,000-piece collection will move to a much larger space: the historic Hugus-Ferguson Building in downtown Rawlins. It’s a move Box supports whole-heartedly and is excited about. He notes that writing is a wonderful form of preserving history, but the museum offers a more well-rounded, visual and engaging experience.

When asked about his favorite exhibit in the Carbon County Museum, Box doesn’t even pause to think. “Big Nose George Parrott,” he answers, referring to the infamous outlaw who was lynched in Rawlins in 1881. What happened after his death is so strange, you have to see it to believe it. “Carbon County was a pretty wild and woolly place back then,” says Box.

It’s Carbon County’s past personalities and its present characters who serve as a source of inspiration for the characters in Box’s Joe Pickett series. “There are a lot of quirky personalities here,” he laughs.

Preserving a special place

In addition to Big Nose George, tamer—but no less important—stories of Carbon County residents are told at Carbon County Museum. Visitors reflect on the lives of mountain men, trappers, railroad workers and Plains Indians; learn about famous residents, including the doctors who pioneered plastic surgery and the state of Wyoming’s first democratic governor; and immerse themselves in their own stories from the past. For example, visitors can learn Morse code and hear an actual 1913 phonograph played at the Thomas Edison exhibit

Moving on up

Box calls Carbon County a microcosm. He likens it to the entire state of Wyoming, which he finds fascinating from border to border, boiled down into one county. At 8,000 square miles, there is a lot of territory to cover in Carbon County. That’s why Carbon County Museum—especially when it is able to more than triple its square footage—is such a great place to start for an introduction to the area. In fact, taking a guided tour of the museum and learning about its plans to expand was one of the first things Box did when he moved back to Carbon County.

hugus-ferguson building hugus ferguson rawlins downtown wyoming cedar street historic renovationRelocating to the 30,000-square-foot Hugus-Ferguson Building won’t happen overnight. First, the museum is raising funds to pay for much-needed renovations. For $50, donors can get their names immortalized on the museum’s dedication wall (admission is free). Another way to give and get back is to shop—something C.J. Box is more than willing to help with. He praises the caliber of the museum’s exhibits, calling them modern, realistic and user-friendly, but is most impressed with its community outreach. That’s why he happily agreed to help the museum by providing an exclusive, autographed collection of his books to sell, and the revenue will go toward the renovations. The museum is the only place in the world selling these personally signed ”Box Sets”.

cj box books joe pickett series off the grid endangered blood trial free fall

A richer experience

“Most people have an interest, or at least a grasp, on Western history,” Box begins. “This museum is dedicated to preserving that cultural knowledge.”

There’s no better way to get a behind-the-scenes look at the area’s fascinating local history. Carbon County Museum is a place where travelers can become a part of history when they decide to help fund the museum’s historic move.

And it’s not just adults who can appreciate the legends and folklore of Carbon County’s lawless past. He looks forward to one day taking his grandchildren to the museum’s interactive Discovery Zone.

Box’s affinity for the area and the museum is something he hopes others get to experience. Whether he’s out fishing, overseeing the construction of his new barn or taking a tour of the museum, Box is at home in Carbon County.

Buy yourself or a loved one a special literary treat, and do some good at the same time, as each purchase helps to restore Carbon County Museum’s new home. Pick up your exclusive ”Box Set” of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett Series, which includes 15 individually signed paperbacks, or purchase signed individual titles at the museum. You can also donate directly to the foundation.

cj box autographed books off the grid joe pickett series

Rawlins’ Colorful Past

May 18, 2016By

Discover the Legend of

“Big Nose” George Parrott

History lives on at Carbon County Museum

big nose george

A local newspaper article proclaims the discovery of “Big Nose” George Parrott’s remains in 1950 in Rawlins.

“I found something!” shouted the construction worker excitedly. It was 1950. His crew came running over. Together, they peered into the hole in the ground of downtown Rawlins and stared at what appeared to be a very old whiskey barrel. “That’s it?” asked one worker disappointedly. “I thought you had found a dead body or something.”

They had.

Carbon County, 1878

The only known photograph of "Big Nose" George Parrott

The only known photograph of “Big Nose” George Parrott

Seventy-two years earlier, a gang of outlaws’ plan to derail a train got derailed, ironically. A foreman for the Union Pacific Railroad happened upon the booby-trapped rail in time to warn the oncoming train. George Parrott, nicknamed “Big Nose” for his most prominent feature, and the other six bandits had to act fast. Their plans to rob the train were thwarted and they knew lawmen would be hot on their boot heels.

Hiding out in the nearby Rattlesnake Canyon was a good idea—for all of two days. That’s how long it took Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and a Union Pacific Railroad police officer, Henry “Tip” Vincent, to trace the gang to this secluded gulch at the north side of Elk Mountain. Unfortunately for them, the gang saw them coming. By the time the bullet-ridden bodies of Widdowfield and Vincent were discovered, the dust had settled and the bandits were nowhere to be found.

Carbon, 1880

A sea of angry hands grabbed at George and tore him off the train. George, who had been on the lam for two years—was arrested in Montana and was en route to Rawlins to stand trail for the murders of Widdowfield and Vincent. But the vengeful residents were ready to lynch him themselves. Miraculously, he talked them out of it and made it to his prison cell in one piece.

Still, his fate was dismal. Sentenced to death, George made a desperate attempt to escape just days before his scheduled hanging. He managed to break free of his shackles, which he used to render Deputy Sheriff Robert Rankin unconscious. Unfortunately for George, Rankin’s wife was in the building and she heard the commotion. Pointing a pistol at him, she coaxed him back into his cell.

Later that night, with the help of a vigilante mob, a noose and gravity, George met his maker. Legend has it he didn’t go quietly.

“Shoot me, please someone, just shoot me!” he pleaded from his deadly pedestal.  

Port-mortem procedures

dr-osborne

Young Dr. Osborne on a hunting trip.

Dr. Osborne’s office was just like any other doctor’s office. Except it had a whiskey barrel in one corner. And it wasn’t full of whiskey.

It contained a saltwater solution—the kind of preservative you need to keep a human body from rotting. Dr. Osborne and his partner, Dr. Maghee, had George Parrott’s body in that barrel for more than a year. With help from their 15-year-old female apprentice, Lillian Heath, they conducted an ongoing autopsy of the deceased outlaw. The doctors’ findings weren’t unusual, but their actions were. They took souvenirs.

Dr. Osborne had a skin tanner fashion a pair of shoes, a medical bag and a coin purse out of George’s skin. Drs. Maghee and Osborne offered Lillian a trophy and she chose the skull cap—already removed as the doctors had wanted to examine George’s brain.

When they were finally finished with George, they disposed of his body. Rather than taking him to a cemetery, they opted to bury him—barrel and all—in their backyard in downtown Rawlins.  

An epilogue of achievements

Dr. Lillian Heath, Wyoming's first female physician

Dr. Lillian Heath, Wyoming’s first female physician

If there were ever a “Who’s Who of Wyoming”—the unconventional trio who worked on Big Nose George’s body would be included, but not only for their deeds in 1881. Dr. Osborne went on to become the third governor of Wyoming. Some said he even wore his “skin” shoes to his gubernatorial inaugural ball and even took them with him to Washington, D.C., where he served as Assistant Secretary of State under President Wilson.

Dr. Maghee started several progressive medical organizations in Wyoming, and with the help of Lillian Heath, pioneered plastic surgery in the West. Not to be outdone by her male mentors, Lillian went on to become Wyoming’s first accredited female physician.

Downtown Rawlins, 1950

“If the skull fits,” joked one of the officers—trying to interject some humor into the sinister situation. The skeleton the construction workers found in the whiskey barrel was missing the top half of its skull.

As fate would have it, Lillian Heath was still alive and living in Rawlins. Hearing about the body discovered downtown, her husband brought her prized 80-year-old skullcap down to help identify the body. It was a match. And just like that, “Big Nose” George Parrott was in the headlines once again.  

Today

bng exhibit

Carbon County Museum’s redesigned exhibits about “Big Nose” George Parrott and the frontier doctors of Carbon County are slated to open in Summer 2016.

There is no doubt about it. Carbon County has been home to some pretty colorful characters. So colorful, in fact, that some of them have made it onto reality TV. Many are long gone but fortunately their legends live on—carefully curated and artfully presented at Carbon County Museum. Within its walls, the museum contains fascinating exhibits ranging from hands-on kids’ activities in the Discovery Zone to The Wild West in Carbon County: “Big Nose” George Parrott (Dr. Osborne’s shoes are even on display), to Adaptations: Exploring Native American Ways and Union Pacific Railroad: Transforming Carbon County.

One can argue that preserving history is just as admirable as making history. As the museum prepares to move into a much larger facility in a restored historic building, patrons have a unique opportunity to help. For a gift of $50—which will go toward helping defray the costs of the museum’s $8 million renovation—donors can have their name, or the name of a loved one, displayed on a dedication wall in the new facility at the Hugus-Ferguson Building.

By putting your name on the wall, you’re ensuring that past names—even those as funny as “Big Nose” George—are not forgotten and their deeds (whether good or bad) continue to captivate and inspire future generations.

You can also aid the museum’s preservation of such unique history by purchasing an autographed copy of C.J. Box’s newest novel, Off the Grid, or his other popular titles that are also autographed, directly from the museum.

 

Discover More

May 1, 2016By

An Introduction to Carbon County Museum

A C.J. Box book signing leads to the discovery of Old West tales, quirks and curiosities

By Flash Parker

cj box books

I have an appointment with Wyoming royalty. Well, not an appointment, per se—the individual I’m meeting doesn’t even know who I am, actually. But I know him, and so do you. Most know author and Wyoming native C.J. Box. C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels have topped the New York Times bestsellers lists for years. Lucky for us Cowboy State folk, he’s signing copies of his books at the Rawlins Depot. For a writer like me, this is a chance to shake hands with one of the crowned princes of Wyoming.

Off the Grid cover webBut wouldn’t you know, there’s a line of people waiting for C.J.’s “John Hancock.” Almost everyone here has copies of Open SeasonBreaking Point, or Endangered tucked under their arm, so my wait could be a long one. Fortunately, Carbon County Museum is one of Wyoming’s great repositories of myth, legend and lore—and a tremendous place to explore. I left to wander, in hopes that when I returned the line to see C.J. would be reduced.

The museum’s backstory

Carbon County Museum’s history dates to 1940, when Hugh Fulton presented a petition to the county commissioners requesting museum space to store and present local icons’ artifacts. What began as a tiny storehouse of local relics and history in a small room in the county courthouse has grown to include the arcane (a replica of the lower part of “Big Nose” George Parrott’s skull, commissioned by the University of Wyoming) and the obscure (rare photos from Wyoming and the greater Old West). The collection also includes relics dating to pioneer trail days, items that speak to Wyoming’s rich ranching history and tremendous American Indian artifacts. There’s everything from sheepwagons to antique saddles, a firetruck dating to the 1920s, an Essex race car (in a garage every bit as classic as the car itself) and more. But despite the museum’s growth, moves and continued expansion, it retains an intimate, welcoming feel.

Exploring the museum

A modern, remarkable space today, the museum fuses the history of the American West with the stories of modern Wyoming in ways that allow visitors to engage with local culture. The Discovery Zone was redesigned in 2015, and its interactive exhibits have become a favorite of visiting kids and parents by encouraging learning through play. In a similar vein, the newest permanent exhibitionUnion Pacific Railroad: Transforming Carbon County, is a wonderful exploration of the railroad from the Overland Trail and the Lincoln Highway to the trials and tribulations of getting from A to B in the west.

I should be getting back in line for C.J., but I’m enamored with the exhibition spotlighting 19th century medicine in Rawlins, it calls to mind the struggles of living in Wyoming more than a hundred years ago. The 1880s brought lauded physicians from eastern America, like Dr. John Eugene Osborne, who came to Wyoming from Vermont and was elected Wyoming’s third governor in 1892. While a grand doctor he may have been, Dr. Osborne was known notoriously throughout the West for having the skin of “Big Nose” George Parrott tanned and transformed into a pair of shoes, which doesn’t sound altogether comfortable, though when I see them on exhibition in the museum I can tell they almost certainly made a bold fashion statement.

BNGweb

Speaking of notorious, “Big Nose” George Parrott is one of the most colorful outlaws from the pages of Wyoming’s history, and Carbon County Museum tells his story like no other. A failed train robber and a murderer of Wyoming lawmen, Parrott lived a life of crime, hiding out in appropriately named destinations like Rattlesnake Pass, near Elk Mountain. Parrott came to his end after being captured in Montana; he was lynched in Rawlins after attempting to escape custody. After confirming his death, Dr. Osborne made a plaster death mask of Parrott’s head, the gruesome aforementioned shoes and a whole range of other grisly items. Nothing is stranger than the truth in the Wild West.

Circling back

And back to Mr. Box. The book signing coincides with a special sale on autographed boxed sets and individual titles—I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Blue Heaven—as well as a fundraising event with an eye toward raising enough capital to make the Historic Hugus-Ferguson Building into a new, larger, more interactive home for its incredible collection. The Hugus-Ferguson Building will house a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled collections storage; a new, expanded interactive children’s play area; the Rans Baker Research Center; new exhibit spaces and more. For $50, I’m able to do my part to help renovate this building and have my name displayed on the wall, alongside far more prominent donors (I’m a writer, not a Rockefeller, remember?). By the time I make it to the front of the line and shake hands with C.J. Box, I’ve become part of the museum’s future, and I’ve spent time exploring its past. I know I’ll be back again for the High Plains Powwow, a grand celebration of American Indian culture filled with traditional music and dances, and it’ll give me a chance to see my mark (or my name) up on the wall.

By purchasing personally autographed copies of C.J. Box’s individual titles or Joe Pickett Series box set (15 paperbacks all signed by the man himself) directly from the museum, you can help the museum renovate their historic building and continue to preserve the history behind America’s Wild West.

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