Picture courtesy: Guido Van Tassel, Belgium
By: Jim Newsom
Van Rensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell did not want a town named in his honor--particularly the small depot village a few miles from what would become the Wyoming and Nebraska border.
And because of that, the elderly Dutchman--who was among the biggest landowners in the Rocky Mountain region, and a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt--never forgave officials of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad who named the tiny place after him.
Van Tassell had acquired the land surrounding his namesake village by marrying one of his five wives and treated the community like an illegitimate child. He ignored the town and its residents and even insulted it by shipping in supplies for his Van Tassell Ranch from Cheyenne instead of the nearby Van Tassel depot.
In 1877, he purchased the Jay Em Ranch from its owner, Jim Moore. Statehood was still 13 years away and the area was part of the Wyoming Territory. Van Rensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell believed that the "end justifies the means," and therefore saw nothing wrong with marrying for profit. After Jim Moore died in 1880, Van Tassell married Moore's widow and gained control of even more land to create his empire.
In 1886, four years before statehood and in a period of rapid settlement of the American West, the railroad reached Wyoming and opened the territory to the migrating homesteaders. It was now possible to travel by steam locomotive from the major cities of the East, and homesteaders would board trains from cities of lost promises for the bone-jarring trek to the newly available homesteads in the budding state of Wyoming.
When the railroad crossed the border into the Wyoming Territory in 1886, officials were quick to recognize that the depot just over the territorial border would soon burgeon into an important community.
It was therefore necessary that the stop-off be given a name, and since Van Rensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell owned everything in site, the railroad people thought it was only proper to name the station in his honor.
Van Tassell, however, was not impressed. According to Rose and Lester Lewis of Van Tassell and Phil Roberts, former Wyoming State Senior Historian, the last thing Van Tassell wanted after he had married the widow Moore for profit was to have the location of his malefaction named after him. It was more likely that he wished his namesake would vanish and blow away like dust in the ceaseless Wyoming wind. But it did not happen that way, and the newly-named depot community of Van Tassell set roots that would hold the town together for the next century.
In 1903, the question of whether "the farmer and the cow man can be friends, "was put to a test. In that year, the first batch of homesteaders arrived in the sparsely populated Van Tassell region, an area dominated by cattlemen. Civilization had reached the high plains and the days of free-roaming cattle wandering across unfenced prairies were quickly ending. And Van Tassell, a town just over the line into the 20th Century, was reaping the pleasures of the modern age.
In April 1916, the community was incorporated and attained what in those days amounted to municipal status. By 1919, the town could boast of a new hotel, a bank, furniture store and billiard parlor--and citizens no longer had to travel the long stretch to Lusk or Harrison, Nebraska to find the finer things in life.
The residents of Van Tassell did not let the progress, fun and excitement of the Roarin' 20s pass them by. In 1920 and 1921, the town could point with pride to its two hardware stores, lumber yard, bank, two churches, weekly newspaper, blacksmith shop, electric light plant, three cafes, hotel and city jail.
And it was during the week of October 15, 1924, that Van Tassell joined Chicago and a host of other cities which had been shot up in the middle of the night by "criminal elements." The criminal element in Van Tassell was not a gangster, however, but a transient from Oklahoma who The Lusk Harold reported was seeking to "enjoy his libations in a quiet town."
"The fellow who started to shoot up Van Tassell last week and who is now languishing in the Lusk Bastille is from Oklahoma and claimed that he got three bottles of booze in Harrison, and alighted from the train at Van Tassell so that he might enjoy his libations in a quiet town," the newspaper reported. "He stole a revolver at the pool hall, bought some shells at the hardware store and commenced to target practice."
"After terrorizing the town for a short time and killing a few dogs, he hit the trail for Lusk and was pursued by a posse hastily deputized to capture him 'dead or alive.' He was soon overtaken and ordered to surrender, but this he refused to do, so the posse opened fire, and after 17 shots had been wasted, he finally was 'winged' by being hit in the leg. He was taken to Lusk by the sheriff, brought before Judge Root, and given 15 days in jail, to which were added the costs, making his term about 30 days."
The depot and creamery town of Van Tassell, which had a peak population of about 200, also contributed its share to the health, wealth and progress of the decade and the years to follow. In April 1922, O.I. Stenger was the first person in Niobrara county to install a "radio phone receiving set."
The Van Tassell Cooperative Creamery produced 68, 972 pounds of butter in the first nine months.
The Buckaroo Bar added to the glamour of the community by serving gallons of beer and spirits across what was claimed to be the longest bar in Wyoming. And the "two-year accredited" Van Tassell High School, which had a graduating class of five people in 1936, provided the beginning of the education and development of Dr. John Pendray, a Van Tassell resident who was later to achieve a national reputation for pioneering rocketry and space research.
But as much as the progress and development of the 20th Century improved the lives of the community of Van Tassell, the parade of progress brought on by the development and widespread use of the automobile, radio and telephone would also spell its demise.
When the Model T coughed and sputtered up the horse and wagon trails from Lusk and Harrison, radiophone crystal sets pulled in scratchy broadcasts from KDKA in Philadelphia and wall-mounted telephones provided instant communication with the outside world, the close-knit community began to unravel.
The community, which was once the hub of activity in the newly-settled region was now a part of the world beyond the Nebraska stateline or the Niobrara River. Van Tassell citizens could now seek health, wealth and happiness from people and places down the road, through the wire and over the air.
The isolation which had bonded the community together was gone and many residents were quick to join those on the highway to bigger and brighter places and lives.
Now, as a traveler speeds over the buttes and down the hill from the Nebraska State line, on the way to Cheyenne, Casper or Yellowstone, the town of Van Tassell will catch the traveler's eye as a collection of abandoned houses and buildings cast like dice on the rough edges of the Coffee Siding Buttes. The traveler might also be amused at the green and white state highway department sign announcing: VAN TASSELL--population 10. And the first impression is that Van Tassell is just another worn out and abandoned prairie ghost town. But looks are deceiving.
The 10 citizens who now compose the population have roots as deep and as fast as the fenceposts set by their homesteading ancestors. The town is an incorporated Wyoming municipality, has received revenue sharing funds with which to build and maintain a fire station, and is not about to abide by Van Rensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell's wishes that it dry up and blow away. In 1986, the town celebrated its centennial and had then survived the man by nearly sixty years.
When the 70 year-old R.S. Van Tassell was guiding his friend Teddy Roosevelt on a "hell bent for leather" horseback expedition from Laramie to Cheyenne in 1908, he set such a pace that the dirty and weary 50 year-old President remarked, "Van, you old rascal, I believe you are trying to show me up!" Now, the community has survived and "shown up" its reluctant name giver. Van Rensselaer Schuyler Van Tassell is long gone but his name lives on in the town he tried to forget.
This article appeared in the November 1987 edition of the "Wyoming Rural Electric News" - firstname.lastname@example.org and is reprinted here with permission.
Jim Newsom is the Sheridan correspondent for the Casper Star Tribune and has also worked for the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, The Lusk Herald, and The Chadron Record. This is his first article to be printed in WREN.
Thanks goes to Diane (Van Tassel) Lepore and Truman & Bessie Van Tassel for contributing to this page.