For more than a century, generations of high school students have maintained rivalries across the vast wide-open spaces of Wyoming.
And since 1921, people all over the Cowboy State have been asking the same thing: Why the heck is a camel the mascot for Campbell County High School in Gillette? The Cowboy State is famous for its grizzly bears, pronghorn and expansive historic bison herds, but no camels.
Maybe it’s just an inside secret for Gillette residents.
Nope, seems not many there — even those who grew up and graduated as Campbell County Camels — know the true origin of their nomadic desert mascot.
There are many stories about why the camel is the local Campbell County High School mascot.
One is that before the school had a mascot, people would just generically call them the “Campbells,” and that eventually was shortened to “Camels.”
Another is that construction workers found some camel bones when building the school.
Julie Rankin heard that one while she was attending CCHS.
“I heard that years ago, that it was because they found camel bones there, but I’m pretty sure that’s not why,” said Rankin, who also is a past president of the school’s Camels Booster Club.
Whatever the mascot’s origin, Ranking said she’s “absolutely proud to be the Camels.”
Even the Campbell County government isn’t sure just what the origin story is, but it does hypothesize some on its website, relating information from the Rockpile Museum in Gillette.
“We did some research on this a few years ago, and our best conclusion is that it is an alliteration of ‘Campbell County,’” the county’s website says.
It also refers to early 1920s newspaper stories that refer to the school being called the “Campbells” and once as the “Gillette Razors.”
The first local newspaper account that uses “camels” was the Oct. 20, 1921, issue of The Gillette News. It was about the school’s new football team playing its first game.
“The Gillette camels traveled over the sands of the east last Friday and met the Knights of Newcastle in combat,” the report began.
And with that, the real story of the camels begins to take shape.
For that football game, Campbell County was officially the Camels. That’s because by adding a football team, CCHS Superintendent Mark Richmond thought the school needed a mascot, and he chose the camel.
That’s the truth, said Byron Oedekoven of Gillette, who is Richmond’s grandson.
He said not only didn’t his grandfather not chose the camel out of thin air, it actually has some historical connection to the area. Turns out he was a natural history and archaeology scholar and had been on a dig in the region where fossils of a prehistoric camel were found.
“That’s because camels evolved in this region, based on his paleontology work at the University of Nebraska,” he said.
“From his written memoires, it says he was instrumental in getting the first football program in Gillette started,” Oedekoven told Cowboy State Daily.
Believing the school needed a mascot, he picked the camel, and the rest is CCHS history, Oedokoven said.
That first game was a 12-0 loss to Newcastle, and the team played Buffalo a couple times that season as well, he said.
“There’s a caption under a photo of the 1921-22 (football team) that first year,” he said. “It says they needed a mascot name, and that Mark Richmond recommended the school mascot be the camels.”
And while there are no wild camels around Wyoming today, it’s somehow cooler to know there were prehistoric camels roaming around millions of years ago, Oedokoven said.
“So you see, there actually is a reason,” he said, “and it fits nicely with Campbell County.”
Today, the CCHS Camel is personified as a tough-looking beast ready to trample any opponent, many times with smoke snorting from its nostrils.
Technically, it’s a dromedary camel — a one-humper. And the most famous iteration of the CCHS Camel is Humphrey, a steel sculpture that sits prominently in front of the high school in Gillette.
For decades, students have taken to painting Humphrey for various observances and occasions. Now it’s encouraged and organized, but it first started as a prank. Students would show up to school to see Humphrey had been tagged.
The day after Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen died in 2020, students showing up to school found Humphrey had been painted in the style of the 1980 rock band’s signature album cover — red with chaotic black and white stripes. A photo and Gillette News Record story about the tribute went viral.
Rankin said painting Humphrey is about school pride, not vandalism — even when it wasn’t encouraged by school administration.
“Of course I did,” she said when asked if she ever painted Humphrey. “Back when we were painting it, it was kind of done at night and you tried not to get caught. It’s just tradition.”
So many layers of paint had built up on Humphrey that when he was cleaned off a few years ago, the paint was inches thick.
No matter how CCHS became the Camels, one thing that galvanizes the Gillette community is their legacy high school.
“It’s all about school pride,” Oedekoven said.
Want to know what the heck something is in Wyoming? Ask Managing Editor Greg Johnson and he’ll try to find out. Send your “What the heck is …” questions to him, along with high-quality horizontal photos of whatever it is to Greg@CowboyStateDaily.com.