By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
In the shadow of the Bighorn Mountains in northeastern Wyoming lie two small towns, just a few miles apart.
Dayton and Ranchester, communities of similar size in Sheridan County, have a near-symbiotic relationship. They share a school district (Sheridan County School District #1), a Rotary Club, a Fire and Rescue agency, and church congregations.
But the eight-minute separation between the two communities also symbolizes the distinction between the towns, and the different reasons they came into being.
The End Of the Indian Wars
The region that would become northeast Wyoming was the site of a number of clashes between Native American tribes and United States soldiers after the Civil War. The Battle of Little Tongue River in 1865 and the Fetterman Fight in 1866 were the two bloodiest battles in the area, later topped by the historic battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, just north into Montana.
Just two years after the Little Bighorn, white settlers began establishing homesteads along the Tongue River, which gathers its waters from creeks that roll down the east side of the Bighorn Mountains.
The confluence of the Tongue River and the Little Tongue River created an optimal townsite in 1882, when homesteaders gathered at Henry Baker’s general store and named the town “Dayton,” after a young man who had moved to the area from Colorado.
Dayton’s Place in History
A stage stop on the Bozeman Trail route to Montana, by the early 1900s Dayton had two hotels, three general stores and four saloons, along with a flour mill, a bank, and a stucco factory.
The town of Dayton claims to have held the first rodeo in Wyoming in the early 1890s – although that fact is uncorroborated, the town definitely was booming by western standards.
The centerpiece of the community of Dayton is the Mercantile, still an operating business today, nearly 120 years after it was built.
It was shortly after the Mercantile opened that the town was incorporated, in 1906. Dayton’s first mayor, Neal Ketcham, served for six years – but his place in history was overshadowed by his successor, Susan Wissler.
Wissler served just three years, from 1912 to 1915, but has the distinction of being the first woman mayor in Wyoming, and the second in the entire United States (Kanab, Utah, holds that record, electing a female mayor and all-female town council in 1911).
She was a school teacher, a shopkeeper, and a tough businesswoman. She was elected not with just the votes of local women, but by a significant number of men from the area as well.
Ranchester’s Bloody Birth
Ranchester’s development followed closely behind Dayton, but was fueled by a different mode of transportation – the railroad.
With the arrival of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad in 1894, industrialist John McShane saw an opportunity, building a railroad tie mill in Ranchester. The timber for the ties would come from the Bighorn Mountains southwest of Dayton.
McShane oversaw construction of a 35-mile long log flume to float the lumber from the mountains to the mill. But this development came at a cost. At least seven men were killed during the construction of the flume – four died in a powder explosion, and three others perished in rock slides.
But those sacrifices were not in vain, as the railroad tie industry became the lifeblood of the town of Ranchester, which thrived through 1912.
But when the railroad canceled its contract with the timber company, the town was forced to carry on despite the economic downtown. Residents continued serving the railroad and local agriculture-based businesses.
Fastest-Growing Small Town
For communities with fewer than 2,000 people, Ranchester is now the fastest-growing town in Wyoming, according to Mayor Peter Clark.
“We’ve been growing about 2% a year for the last 10 years,” Clark told Cowboy State Daily. He attributed the growth to an influx of people looking to escape the big cities.
“We have more land and we’ve got cheaper building costs than the city of Sheridan,” he said. “And we have developers that are willing to work with the town.”
Clark, who moved to Ranchester in 1994, has seen the town nearly double in size in the last 28 years. But he said that the town can handle the growth.
“It was over-built back in the ‘80s, during the coal boom,” Clark said. “We had a community survey done in 1980 or ‘79, and it said our population in 1990 would be 1,700. We haven’t even reached that yet.”
He said the coal impact money available at that time allowed the town to build out their water treatment infrastructure based on those numbers.
“So we’re benefiting from that mistake,” Clark said.
Students transition from Tongue River Elementary and Tongue River Middle School in Ranchester to Tongue River High School in Dayton.
But Clark said the town is growing so quickly, even the new elementary school is becoming crowded.
“We have some younger families that have a lot of kids,” he said. “So when they built a new elementary school, which has been in operation about four or five years, it’s already to capacity.”
Clark said the old elementary school has been converted to a “learning center,” but is available should the district need to split off some grades to a separate building.
Clark said many of the new residents are retirees, or families who can work remotely due to the fiber optic network in place, allowing for high speed internet.
“Some people, I don’t know, they just show up here,” he said. “I think they put their finger on a map and decide this is probably the atmosphere they want to live in, politically, socially, economically.”
That political and social atmosphere is what drew Ted and Barbara Ross to the area in 2018.
Ted Ross is a retired Lt. Col. in the Air Force, and scouted several communities before settling on the Dayton-Ranchester area in 2018.
“I had been researching for about three years and Wyoming kept coming up at the top of the list,” Ross said. “Then we came over here for three days and I decided this was the area that I wanted to be in.”
“We are very aligned with the state of Wyoming and the mindset and the quality of life,” said Barbara, who has recently taken on the presidency of the Ranchester-Dayton Rotary Club. The club’s members come from both communities, and take on special projects to improve quality of life for its residents.
“Like hand in glove, this whole community works so well together,” Barbara Ross said.
She said the towns come together for celebrations and events, like the annual fishing derby or the weekly farmer’s market.
“I just think it’s wholesome Americana,” said Ross. “It’s charming the way it is – and will it maintain that charming wholesomeness if it expands? That’s the challenge.”
Lacking Some Services
While the town of Ranchester is able to meet the infrastructure needs of its growing population, it lacks some basic necessities, like a grocery store.
“We might qualify as a food desert,” Clark said, pointing to the lack of any local store that offers fresh produce. The Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Buckhorn Travel Plaza convenience store offer processed or frozen food options, but residents are forced to shop in nearby Sheridan for full-service stores.
But Ross said for such a small town, Ranchester has a number of businesses that improve quality of life for its residents.
“We have bars and we have restaurants and we have a coffeehouse and bakery,” she said. “We have a dentist, we have a veterinarian; a post office, a hotel and RV park.”
Ross added that Dayton has restaurants, a gas station and a swimming pool, shared by both towns.
“There’s a lot of things that we have for being in a small, rural area,” she said.
The Dayton Cow Pie Classic and the Ranchester Wife-Carrying Championship
Every small town has its celebrations, and the Dayton and Ranchester communities are no different. Dayton Days, this year held July 23-25, boasts a parade, pool party, pie-eating contest, shoe-kicking competition, and a local favorite, the Cowpie Classic golf tournament.
For Ranchester, its standout attraction is the annual Wife-Carrying Championship, held on the 4th of July.
The internationally-sanctioned event advances the local winners to the North American Wife Carrying Championship in Newry, Maine in October; and the winners there go on to Finland for the world championships.
“I think the second year we did it, the couple that won here was actually here for a family reunion, but they lived in Virginia,” Clark said. “So they went up there and got second in North America.”
Strong Connections, Despite Distance
Despite the proximity of the towns, their shared history and values, Clark said Dayton and Ranchester will never grow closer together physically. The Padlock Ranch owns property that separates the two communities.
“It’s one of the largest cow-calf operations in the country,” he said. “They control like 250,000 acres. And then there’s a big chunk of land between Ranchester and Dayton is actually owned by Pacific Power and Light.”
But Clark said the connection is strong between the two towns.
“We share the same river, same valley,” Clark said.
Ross added that the trick is to keep that sense of community togetherness in the face of continued growth.
“It’s that fine line of keeping it wholesome,” she said. “And you’re also sharing it with others who want the same thing.”