A Special Place
By Gregory Nickerson, with Judy Slack
How it began
High in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains at the end of a 30-mile road stands a small log cabin by a rushing stream. There is nothing extraordinary about the building or the simple furnishings inside: a bed, a desk, and a stone fireplace. But for a few weeks in 1928, this humble cabin at the Spear-O-Wigwam ranch served as the writing workshop for Ernest Hemingway, one of the giants of American literature.
What was it about Spear-O-Wigwam and the Bighorns that attracted the 29-year-old Hemingway? Earlier in the summer he’d been a guest at the nearby Folly Ranch with a friend from Kansas City, and then spent time at the Sheridan Inn. Neither place afforded the privacy or the solitude he needed to work on the manuscript that was slowing taking shape in his mind. In the cabin at Spear-O-Wigwam he found the combination of cool mountain air and the quiet he needed to put his thoughts to paper.
Many of Hemingway’s writings feature fishing and the outdoors as central joys in his life. At Spear-O-Wigwam he could wake up in the morning, walk over to the council lodge and have a big breakfast of steak and four eggs. Those who shared the table with him said he reached for what he wanted without asking, and that he swore unapologetically. He then retreated to his cabin to concentrate on his writing until afternoon. After lunch he would venture out with his wife Pauline to fish for trout in the many mountain lakes, a pastime that afforded plenty of time for inspiration to surface.
Hemingway was able to complete the first draft of A Farewell to Arms in a few weeks at Spear-O-Wigwam. The semi-autobiographical novel was serialized in Scribner’s the following summer from May to October 1929, bringing Hemingway international acclaim as the Great Depression began. Even today, the book is recognized as an emblematic narrative of the World War I generation. To some extent, his fruitful stay at Spear-O-Wigwam likely contributed to his lasting affection for the state. He once said, “There are two places I love: Africa and Wyoming.”
Thousands of people have followed in Hemingway’s tracks to become guests at Spear-O-Wigwam ranch, adding to its long and rich history in the area. Willis Moses Spear established the Spear-O-Wigwam in 1923 as a “high camp” in the mountains to complement the guest ranch he also ran at the Spear Ranch near Big Horn. Generations of visitors and employees spent summers at Spear-O-Wigwam exploring the high country and enjoying many of the same things that attracted Hemingway.
While Spear-O-Wigwam’s association with Hemingway has brought acclaim over the years, the real story of the ranch is one of the entrepreneurial Spear family creatively packaging their surroundings into an authentic and marketable tourist business, one that evolved as successive owners adapted to meet the needs of the times.
As a guest ranch Spear-O-Wigwam had a strong recreational focus centered on outfitting, lodging, and meals. The enduring appeal of the ranch lay in the chance to find renewal in nature. But like any such operation, it also provided dudes with a practical education in skills relevant to exploring the mountains.
The ranch is located 29 miles southwest of Sheridan at an elevation of 8,300 feet, not far from the summit of the Big Horn range at 13,176 feet above sea level. The property consists of 17-acres situated about half a mile south of the Johnson County line, near where Cross Creek joins the east fork of Big Goose Creek at the head of Park Reservoir. The Cloud Peak Wilderness boundary is two miles south of the ranch. When Hemingway came here, cars could only drive one mile past the ranch to where the road ended. Beyond there only horses and hikers could travel the rocky trails.
From June to September each year, hundreds of guests made the trip from Sheridan up the Red Grade Road to this collection of cabins among the pines. They came from across the United States and around the globe, seeking solitude in what a ranch brochure called “a wild confusion of alpine grandeur.”
Within a morning’s ride, guests had access to Park Reservoir and Bighorn Reservoir, along with many trout streams and kettle ponds. They could ride hundreds of miles of horse trails, passing though spruce and lodgepole forests, alternating with meadows of wildflowers. At night they retired to rustic cabins along a stream, falling asleep to the sound of rushing water. Pack trips set out from the ranch to explore the glaciated region of the high country, where guests fished in alpine lakes and climbed peaks made of some of the oldest granite in the world.
Using the ranch’s string of 50 horses, guests regularly rode the 18 miles to Highland Park, but closer landmarks included Park Reservoir, Bighorn Reservoir, Cross Creek, Adelaide Lake, Martin Reservoir, Devil’s Lake, Cliff Lake, Lake Geneva, and Lake Solitude. Hearty travelers took the 62-mile Solitude Loop, which made a 5-day trip circling around Cloud Peak by way of Geneva Pass and Florence Pass to Highland Park. The ranch also led trips to Black Canyon and Bighorn Canyon on the extreme northern end of the Bighorns, with campsites near Big Bull Elk Creek.
Willis and his wife Virginia Belle (Benton) Spear founded Spear-O-Wigwam in an era when many ranchers in the region turned to the dude business to escape an agricultural bust. Between 1915 and 1924, the number of guest ranches in the area jumped from 10 to 24. The dude industry peaked the summer months before the stock market crash of 1929, when 31 guest ranches opened for business. Willis Spear and Virginia Spear both came to the area as children of farming families who settled on neighboring homesteads near the town of Big Horn in the early 1880s after the U.S. Army pushed out the Lakota.
Virginia’s father George Washington Benton was the first protestant preacher in Northern Wyoming. Willis Spear and his family came here by wagon train from the mining area near Phillipsburg, Montana after brief stops in Evanston, Wyoming and Idaho. Over the next four decades, Willis went from threshing grain on the Wrench Ranch to owning 400 cattle without debt, and eventually owning 50,000 cattle with his brother “Doc” Spear. They grazed their herds on nearly two-dozen ranches stretching from the Powder River to the Wolf Mountains on the Crow Reservation in Montana. Willis also had a ranching partnership with P.J. Morgan of Cleveland, Ohio and Mr. Faddis. With cattle king peers like Governor John B. Kendrick, he led a life focused on the natural resources of the region.
Despite his status, Willis Spear was exposed to significant risks as a cattle rancher. He was at the mercy of northern plains weather, and his financial picture fluctuated depending on drought or heavy winters, or plentiful rain. “The winter of 1921 and 1922 was about as severe as any we’ve ever had. We could not ship the cattle to Texas as there was a drouth there and no feed, so we shipped in hay here from both East and West and wintered them through with a big loss of about $20 per head expense.” -Willis Spear In 1923 the Spears established a tent camp near Park Reservoir. In 1924 they began constructing the ranch’s namesake wigwam or “council lodge” along with an assortment of cabins built of native logs killed by cold winters. Some of the cabins eventually were given names like Chipmunk, Porcupine, Jack’s, Bear’s Den, and of course, Hemingway. Several of them had the luxury of indoor plumbing with water piped in from a nearby spring.
Willis and Virginia had four children who inherited their sense of adventure and built on their legacy of cattle ranching and outfitting. In 1911, the Spears joined a large pack trip of 34 prominent Sheridan residents with 57 horses on an expedition to the summit of Cloud Peak. The party’s route through the high country went by Dome Lake, Lake Geneva, Lake Solitude, and Paint Rock Creek. Willis and Virginia Spear’s 15 year-old daughter Elsa came on the trip and kept an illustrated diary on the journey. Elsa went on to guide guests on 16 separate two-week trips into the high country in the 1920s and 1930s. She photographed many alpine scenes that she printed and sold as books and decorative lampshades. In her later years, Elsa Spear (Byron) provided stories about Hemingway at Spear-O-Wigwam to many reporters. She also served on the State Geographical Board that named many of the lakes in the high country. Several guests gave her name to Lake Elsa on the west side of Geneva Pass in the Paint Rock watershed. Spear Lake below Black Tooth Mountain also carries the name of the family.
After Willis Spear’s retirement, his daughter Jessamine Spear Johnson and her husband Will Johnson took over the management of Spear-O-Wigwam. Starting in 1931 they continued in the tradition of providing guests with the full experience of the region. Jessamine was a knowledgeable horsewoman who led expeditions into Bighorn Canyon where the family grazed sheep. She was also an accomplished photographer, like her sister Elsa and her mother Virginia. Jessamine received winter correspondence at her home base on the Rosebud X4 Ranch in Kirby, Montana. Guests from Spear-O often went to the X4 Ranch to see the roundups in the Rosebud Mountains. In 1943, Jessamine and Will Johnson retired from running Spear-O-Wigwam, moving to a home in Story, Wyoming where they lived out their lives. The end of the Spear ownership also ended the Wigwam’s guest offerings in the northern Bighorns and on the Crow Reservation.
Following WWII, Spear-O-Wigwam passed through a series of owners, including the Eiseley family, the Carroll family, the Carlson family, and Robert Duncan, before ending up in a partnership between Dr. Adams and Milt Sherman and a third owner in 1970. They considered converting the ranch into a private club. However, since the ranch operated on a Forest Service lease, private use was not allowed. Milt Sherman supervised renovations and the ranch reopened for guests.
“If you want wild night life, French cuisine, and elegant accommodations, don’t come to Spear-O-Wigwam. But if you want superb scenery, good fishing, horseback riding, good home cooked food, and comfortable accommodations then Spear-O-Wigwam is the place for you.” — 1970s brochure
The Adams-Sherman partnership then sold Spear-O-Wigwam to Jack and Doris Riehm in January 1, 1974 for about $150,000. They had previously visited Woods Lake Ranch outside Basalt, Colorado (near Aspen) before reading about Spear-O-Wigwam in Architectural Digest. They first visited the ranch in 1973. Mr. Riehm was a lawyer who had previously served as Dean of the law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He later moved to Bronxville, New York, a suburb 15 miles north of Manhattan. While living there he worked as vice-president of the Lipton Tea Company, served on several corporate boards and invested in venture capital, all while spending time each summer at Spear-O-Wigwam. The Riehm Family owned Spear-O-Wigwam from 1974 until its sale in 2011 to Northern Wyoming Community College District (including Sheridan College and Gillette College).
The Archie and Alice MacCarty family served as managers of the ranch for Adams and Sherman starting in 1971, and continued to manage the ranch after the Riehm’s purchase. Archie ran pack trips to his own camp at Beaver Lakes two miles below Kearny Reservoir. He also had a cabin in Penrose Park that he used for outfitting.
The Riehms built the recreation cabin shortly after buying the ranch. It replaced the tack room, which had collapsed under the weight of snow. After another heavy snow year in 1995, the Riehms built a cabin for use by their managers Barb and Jim Niner.
Around 2005, the Riehm’s daughter Sandy with her husband Joe Shepard of Tyler, Texas took over the resort’s business affairs. Dale Voigtlander, Salvador Madrigal, and Beth and Ken Jones later served as managers for the Riehms family until its sale in 2011 to Northern Wyoming Community College District. Jack Riehm passed away in Tucson on August 26, 2011, at age 91, just a few months after the sale of the ranch to Sheridan College.
In March 2020, Northern Wyoming Community College District sold Spear-O-Wigwam to a group with local ties: Kevin, Steve and Todd Sessions; Carl and Curt Symons. The partnership of brothers is committed to returning Spear-O to its guest ranch roots.
The Building Blocks
Willis Spear designed the architecture of Spear-O-Wigwam to epitomize his western blend of rugged cowboy style and Indian culture. While the ranch had several examples of the standard log cabin construction, its first building was the “wigwam,” an eight-sided lodge 40 feet in diameter. The Spears built the original wigwam in 1924 as a “council lodge,” complete with a big fire built in the central fire pit each night. Guests dined around the open hearth, eating Spear beef while watching smoke rise through an opening at the peak of the building. In 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression, the Spears added the shaft and spearhead to the lodge using plans drawn by New York architect H. Elarth. With this renovation, the lodge matched the shape of the Spear cattle brand. Everything from the name of the ranch, to the style of its buildings, to the activities offered and the serving of meals represented Spear’s synthesis of ranching and Indian life.
Willis Spear and his family enjoyed entertaining guests and exploring the mountains. Since 1890, Willis had regularly taken family trips to stock the mountain lakes with trout, which they transported in milk cans loaded on the back of a horse. In addition to being a born explorer and entrepreneur, Willis was a musician, a storyteller, and a state senator. He regaled guests around the central fire in the Wigwam with his banjo playing and stories about Bald Mountain City in the northern Bighorns, where a team of 40 oxen and 200 men dragged in machinery to work the aptly-named Fortunatus Mine. He also told of a canyon in that part of the range where cattlemen drove 2,000 sheep over the brink in an effort to drive their competitors off the range.
Guests regarded senator Spear as a true “old-timer” with the credibility to talk about cattle ranching as well as the dramatic events of the Sioux War that occurred in the area. Under his management wranglers took visitors to abandoned mines above Spear-O-Wigwam, such as the “Dad Burrows” mine where tin cans and abandoned equipment left traces of the brief and unsuccessful period of prospecting that occurred in this part of the Bighorns in the early 1900s. They also passed abandoned trapper cabins where men had spent winters in solitude, checking their trap lines on snowshoes. Bootleggers also operated in this area of the mountains, probably far out of sight from the ranch guests! All these sites added to the mystique of the mountains.
The original guests paid rates of $35/week at the ranch in Big Horn, or $40/week with horse and equipment, and $50/week for mountain trips based out of Spear O Wigwam. A generous estimate of the ranch’s income, based on 35 guests a week, would total about $1400 a week in the 1920s, or about $18,000 in today’s dollars. A full season would last ten weeks, and full occupancy for the season would bring in about $14,000 or $180,000 today. The Burlington Railroad marketed Spear-O-Wigwam along with dozens of other guest ranches in its 1929 Pamphlet “Dude Ranches of the Bighorns.” Willis Spear traveled with his family to Chicago to make photographic presentations that enticed guests to spend their summer in the Bighorns.
In its heyday, the Spear family marketed Spear-O-Wigwam and their vast cattle operation as one vast domain, where guests could experience the full natural richness of the Bighorn Mountain region. Guests could enjoy a landscaped country estate at the Spear Ranch in Big Horn, or take in the rugged outdoor life of trail riding, fishing and mountaineering offered by Spear-O-Wigwam. Alternatively, they could travel north to the Crow Reservation to visit battlefields, view traditional Crow dancing and camp life, and participate in the cattle roundups held on the various Spear Ranches in the Wolf Mountains and the Rosebud Mountains. In mid-September, 1928 Willis Spear drove Ernest and Pauline Hemingway out to see one of these roundups just as the writer was finishing his novel.
Guests hoped all this strenuous activity would rejuvenate the spirit, strengthen the body and enliven the mind. The vigorous lifestyle fit the prescription that Teddy Roosevelt and many others had offered as a remedy for the “soft” life in the cities of the east. As the country’s cities industrialized, the Spears tapped into the enduring natural appeal of mountains and the romance of cowboy culture. They combined this with the allure of Indians “untouched by the white man’s civilization and governed by their ancient tribal customs and councils.” With attractions like the Medicine Wheel, rodeos, and the open range cowboys rounding up cattle and roping in the old style, the Spears made a strong claim for showing their customers the authentic cowboys, Indians, and scenery that epitomized the Wild West. As one Spear-O-Wigwam pamphlet stated, “Here may be seen the last vanishing glimpse of the West as it was ‘once upon a time.’”