SUBLETTE COUNTY – To get to the original ranch homestead of Albert and May McAlister Sommers from Pinedale, take a drive down East Green River Road and don’t stop until you get to the year 1907.
That’s what the Sommers Homestead Living History Museum is all about – taking visitors on a trip back in time to when homesteaders are just figuring out the Green River country and Albert Sommers files on the land. The next year he is back, asking an immigrant neighbor for help building a house of Wyoming logs. It will be the home for Albert and May McAlister Sommers from 1908 on, and it’s still standing today.
On Sunday, as the living history museum held its annual open house, the Sommers homestead was the venue for Sublette County to honor four area residents named in 2016 to the Wyoming Cowboy Hall of Fame: Ira and Edna McWilliams, Robert “Bert” Harvey and Norm Richie.
But it was clear that the homestead itself was a show-stealer for people curious about how western Wyoming came to be. At least on this little square of Wyoming soil, it had a lot to do with two Kansas schoolteachers.
“My grandfather’s name was Albert Sommers, but he was known as Prof,’ for ‘professor,’ because he taught school. He taught high school English in Opal in 1900,” said Jonita Sommers, a granddaughter of those original homesteaders. “My grandmother’s name was May McAlister Sommers, and she did always sign it ‘May McAlister.’ She was kind of a feminist before her time.”
The two had a lot but they didn’t know it, and they only met after Albert Sommers quit teaching school and went to ranching.
“They were both out here teaching and they were both from Kansas, from only about 25 miles apart, and they’d never met each other. And there was a dance at the Viola Schoolhouse, which is on LaBarge Creek,” Jonita Sommers said. “My grandfather and Joe Ewer were running horses on Big Sandy, and they heard about the dance at the Viola Schoolhouse. My grandmother was living on Fontenelle Creek, and Nellie Yates, who had brought her out here, was teaching down there. So of course they met them at the dance. And my grandfather said, ‘I’ll take the big one and you take the little one.’”
It’s how family history is made: Albert Sommers ended up marrying May McAlister and Joe Ewer ended up marrying Nellie Yates.
There are other family stories about how the house came to be. It was at the time when “tie hacks” – specialized lumberjacks mainly from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria – were cutting railroad ties high up the Green River and floating them down to Green River City to supply the Union Pacific. Sommers and some of his neighbors recognized a good idea when they saw one.
“John Morison, who was a neighbor, built the house. They floated the logs down the river like the tie hacks and took the logs out of the river down about where the bridge is and built the house down there. He was from Norway and they were really known for their woodwork.”
That left Albert Sommers to deal with a house-moving project; but there were neighbors who could do it, and even a cook who came along for the ride.
“He hired Harry Atwood from Big Piney, who had a team of six horses abreast. They pulled the house on logs, and when a log rolled out the back they’d bring it to the front. They pulled it all the way up to where it is now, and it took them six days. And Mrs. Nott stayed in the house and cooked for everybody on the stove while they pulled it.”
The two Kansas schoolteachers quickly went to studying how Wyoming’s high western country would not be like farming Kansas; even if the growing season lasts 48 days, as the experts say, those days are seldom consecutive.
“You have to have irrigation to make a crop grow here, and you only get one crop of hay because you have too short a growing season for anything else. You’re lucky to have 20 days without frost,” Jonita Sommers said. “You just grow native hay and get one crop and put it up. It’s all flood-irrigated.
“They worked very hard. They did lots of grubbing brush, plowing the fields, putting the grass in, digging the ditches. My dad, when he was 7, ran a Fresno – it’s like a backhoe today, only pulled by horses. It’s got a big bucket and it scoops the dirt up. It’s got a Johnson bar that dumps it, and my dad was so little that he couldn’t do that. So the hired man would go first with his team and Fresno, would dump his, would wait for my dad to drive the team up, and then he would dump my dad’s Fresno.”
But Albert “Bud” Sommers remembered it always afterward; how he helped build up the country as a 7-year-old boy.
“He drove a team all day long, around and around and around, while they built the ditch with a Fresno.”
That’s the kind of history in this centennial ranch that Jonita Sommers and her brother, Wyoming District 20 Rep. Albert Sommers – named for his father and grandfather – tried to preserve in a project that started in 2010.
“Albert and I put a conservation easement on the ranch, and so with some of that money, we restored the buildings, and then we gave the buildings to the Sublette County Historical Society.”
The society has an easement on nearly an acre of ground on which the buildings sit, Jonita said, and operates the Sommers Homestead Living History Museum with the help of volunteers.
The museum’s first open house was in 2011. The next year the museum started keeping regular hours for visitors on Fridays and Saturdays. It now hosts school groups as well in the spring and fall. This year, trustee Dawn Ballou of the Sublette County Historical Society, a regular volunteer at the museum, estimated that visitors might total 1,500 to 2,000 for the season.
The living history museum remains popular with visitors, attracting new audiences as word gets out.
“We’re a new old historic site. This is our seventh year open to the public,” Ballou said. “The schools really like it, too, because it gives the kids a chance to touch, see and do.”