Medicine Bow is a really small town on the Lincoln Highway and the Oregon Trail, It’s history is as a bawdy town filled with bars, gunslingers and prostitutes. So much so that it inspired Owen Wister to write the novel, The Virginian, a story about western life, the Lincoln County Wars and the life of a ranch foreman he called The Virginian he placed it in Medicine Bow. I was able to gather much of Owen’s story from folks at the Medicine Bow museum. About 1884 Owen Wister suffered some sort of mental break resulting in vertigo, blinding headaches and hallucinations. His father had a friend in the “Wyoming Territory” and asked the friend if Owen could spend a summer on his ranch to recover, and all was arranged. Owen was met by the ranch foreman when he arrived on the train in Medicine Bow, and they proceeded north to the ranch somewhere near Jackson, Wyoming, a distance of maybe 200 miles. On the trip the foreman told Owen tales of the territory and the foreman’s adventures.
Owen kept a diary, and years later he wrote the novel about the foreman he called “The Virginian”. The story, although based on his experiences, was highly fictionalized. However his description of Wyoming was accurate, and book caught the imagination of easterners. It became a best selling book of the day with four printings in the first year. People were inspired to visit Medicine Bow, and in the early 1900’s the Virginian hotel was built to cash in on their interest. It is still there, and you can stay in any of its historically decorated rooms. Since then, the novel has been the basis of two movies and a 60’s-era TV series. The book is a great read.
The Museum is housed in the old train station by the Union Pacific mainline. I spent a couple of hours there looking at the collection and talking with the museum director. Later in his life Owen Wister built a cabin in northwest Wyoming where he and his family would travel from Philadelphia for the summers. When his wife died young and unexpected, Owen never went back. The cabin sat empty for nearly 50 years, and was about to be burned when the good folks of Medicine Bow put together a plan to move it. It now sits next to the museum, and is furnished as it would have been at the turn of the previous century.
The museum director told me a story about those days. It seems the mayor of Medicine Bow was told of a new business in town, “The Riding Academy”. He was at a loss why anyone in and around Medicine Bow would need riding lessons –people here grew up on horses. He doubted the business would be successful. Finally a cowboy told him, “Your Honor, it’s another brothel. It will be very successful!”
Just east of Medicine Bow on the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) is Como Bluff known as the “Dinosaur Graveyard”. In 1880 the fossil treasure was discovered and it became source of the highest quality fossil specimens now displayed in natural history museums throughout the world. Next to US-30 is the Fossil Cabin built entirely of bone fragments. It was built as a tourist attraction during The Virginian days, but was also abandoned. Como Bluff is the hill behind the cabin in the photo.
The cabin was gifted to the Medicine Bow Museum and they are working to have it moved adjacent to the Owen Wister cabin.
If you ever come this way, Medicine Bow is worth a stop.