By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Walt Longmire is a legend – a small-town sheriff with a reputation for going over and above the call of duty in Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Walt is fictitious, as is Absaroka County and the tiny town of Durant, Wyoming. But his creator, author Craig Johnson, has seen the beloved character influence thousands of people around the world through a popular Netflix show and ongoing book series that has often graced The New York Times’ bestseller list.
But Johnson’s stories do more than just entertain – donations, sponsorships and ticket sales from the annual “Longmire Days” event in Buffalo help people in need in Johnson County and beyond.
Last week, the Longmire Foundation board of directors chose three charities – two local, and one national – to be the beneficiaries of the money raised at this year’s event.
Each year, the popularity of Johnson’s Longmire brand is celebrated with “Longmire Days,” which brings fans of the television series and the books to Buffalo, inspiration for the town of Durant.
Jennifer McCormick, executive director for the Longmire Foundation, told Cowboy State Daily that the foundation gave $35,000 to local and national charities thanks to donations and ticket sales from this year’s Longmire Days.
“We like to work with charities that work with kids, animals and law enforcement,” McCormick said. “We’ve worked with Canines for Warriors in the past; we’ve worked with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. So, our charities are kind of vast.”
Past recipients of money include the St. Francis Animal Shelter in Buffalo. Laura Ulrich, vice president of the shelter’s board of directors, told Cowboy State Daily that donations from the foundation make a big difference.
“We do have contracts with the city of Buffalo here, and Johnson County, but the rates have not changed in over 10 years, so they’re not really keeping up with our current costs,” said Ulrich. “So, anytime that either the Longmire Foundation or anybody else donates money, it really just helps offset our day-to-day operating costs.”
‘Friends Feeding Friends’
A local charity that received $10,000 from the Longmire Foundation this year is Friends Feeding Friends, which provides food for needy kids in Johnson County.
McCormick said the amount will offset about one-fifth of the agency’s annual budget.
“They have one mission – they feed people,” said McCormick. “They set up food pantries in our local schools, and they run it all with volunteers.”
And director Sharon Miller told Cowboy State Daily that as grocery prices get higher, the agency’s mission becomes more important.
“Our school district here has about 1,200 students,” said Miller, “and 30% of those kids – which equals about 400 – are eligible for free or reduced lunch through the schools.”
In 2018, Miller said a counselor at one of Buffalo’s elementary schools surveyed students. The survey showed that 30% of the children experienced some hunger over weekends when they weren’t able to take advantage of meals provided at school.
But with donations from organizations like the Longmire Foundation, Friends Feeding Friends – which provides bags of food to students to take home over the weekends – is making a measurable difference.
“The same school counselor, in November of last year, conducted that hunger survey (again) with the children, and it had gone down from 30% to 12%,” said Miller. “Which we felt was just miraculous.”
‘Puppies Behind Bars’
For a national charity, the foundation chose “Puppies Behind Bars,” which will benefit from a $30,000 donation.
“Their program provides opportunities for incarcerated individuals by training them to train puppies for service programs,” McCormick said, adding that the donation from the Longmire Foundation will provide training for five puppies.
Among the programs the puppies are trained for are service dogs for veterans and first responders, comfort dogs for police departments and explosive detection canines.
“It benefits the trainers, because they have a skill when they leave the prison,” said McCormick. “And they’re less likely to be back in that prison.”
Buffalo Night Rodeo
The Longmire TV show and book series show off Wyoming’s modern Western heritage, although Walt seldom rides a horse.
But in Buffalo, horses and rodeo are part of the culture. That’s why the Buffalo Night Rodeo was chosen to receive $5,000 from the Longmire Foundation.
McCormick said the Buffalo Night Rodeo saw a need for a weekly summer rodeo in Buffalo and rose to meet the challenge.
“Local rodeo is so important to our local tourism,” she said. “And it’s just hugely important to Buffalo and Johnson County.”
Longmire Days Will Be Back
McCormick said that despite the Longmire television show having stopped filming six years ago, the draw of its characters and stories remains strong.
This year’s event, while smaller than pre-pandemic attendance, still drew thousands of people to Buffalo in August – and most had never attended a Longmire Days event before.
“Fully 70% of the people who came this year were first-timers,” McCormick said.
And for Johnson, being able to give money away for good causes is one of the main reasons behind Longmire Days. He told Cowboy State Daily in August that even during the pandemic, the foundation was able to help worthy organizations.
“I’m kind of proud of the fact that the amount of money that we’ve given away to charity has grown practically every year,” said Johnson. “It’s to the point now where we’re giving away close to $50,000 a year, which is really kind of wonderful.”
And although they didn’t hit that mark this year, Johnson said being able to help others is a driving force behind keeping Longmire Days an annual event for years to come.
“Charities really are the lifeblood, and the whole purpose and reason behind Longmire Days,” he said.