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.

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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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