LUSK — This small eastern Wyoming town may not have ritzy restaurants, upscale shops or five-star lodging. What it does keep is a strong sense of community and obligation to take care of one another, particularly when the Christmas holiday rolls around.
When they do Christmas here, they do it together.
“We’re never going to be Cody or Jackson, and we realize that,” said Jackie Bredthauer, executive director of the Lusk Chamber of Commerce. “We just need to support each other.”
Each year, the Elks Lodge in Lusk collects and wraps presents for families in need and provides food. Although the town has a population of fewer than 1,500, the lodge typically gives out around 150 bags of presents and food boxes each year, Bredthauer said.
Sabrina Kruse now runs the Helpmate Crisis Center and Crime Victim Assistance Program in Lusk, a resource for domestic abuse victims. When Kruse first moved to town around Christmastime with her kids, she had little money to buy presents for them.
“It’s one of the best things to have around Christmastime,” Kruse said.
Almost all of the businesses in Lusk are locally owned. And at a time when almost any gift conceivable can be found online, small retailers in towns like Lusk in a pinch can find themselves behind the 8-ball when trying to compete.
“It’s a giving season, people try as much as they can to shop local,” Bredthauer said.
There are real implications when a business closes down in Lusk as it often means residents will have to drive more than a hour to Torrington or Casper to access the same services or products. Not only is that service lost, but so are the personal relationships that came with it from store owners.
People in Lusk move at a little bit of a slower pace than the rest of the world. They talk and spend time getting to know each other. In some ways, everyone is a neighbor.
“Anytime a business closes, that's tough, because you don’t want to see your neighbors leave,” Bredthauer said.
Twila Barnette and Carrie Bannan run Bloomers, a flower, decor and boutique shop in Lusk.
Bannan said they make up for competition from online megastores like Amazon and Walmart by providing customer service in a more detailed and personalized way than anyone could ever hope to get online.
If they learn someone hates purple flowers or lillies, the customer will never see them again in their arrangement. If someone wants Kit Kat bars in their bouquet, they’ll get Kit Kat bars.
“I feel like people kind of resist going online because it’s so much more personalized shopping here,” Bannan said. “People will support us because they know we support the community.”
Small Town Culture
Lusk is about as quintessential Americana as it gets. Perfect strangers will wave when they pass each other in their cars. People hold doors for each other as long as it takes.
The biggest Christmas event in Lusk each year is the Niobrara County Christmas Bazaar, held the first Saturday of December. This year’s Bazaar drew a strong turnout thanks to unseasonably warm weather. It featured a tree lighting, chili cookoff, parade and ugly sweater competition.
This week, local students also visited businesses downtown, giving out hot chocolate and goodie bags just because.
“You always look forward to seeing those little kids running around,” Bredthauer said.
The warmer-than-average winter temperatures this year have assisted Bobbie Stallman at Same As It Once Was antique and flower shop. Stallman receives a significant amount of her business from out-of-town travelers coming from places like Nebraska and South Dakota, who often only make their trips based on the weather.
At her business Tuesday, Stallman had some pre-wrapped gifts ready to give to the Elks Lodge.
“There’s not a lot of money floating around, but we give back,” she said,
Another major economic driver for the community is the Wyoming Women’s Center prison, which employs a significant portion of the community. At times, inmates from the prison help out in the community. In turn, Bloomers will deliver miniature Christmas tree arrangements to the prison to give a small piece of the holiday for the women there.
Inside an old Texaco gas station now occupied by Lickety Stitch Quilts, children get their photos taken with Santa during the Bazaar. The station was a well-known local landmark for many years, but Lickety Stitch owner Karen Wisseman thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to buy the space.
“We were interested in a new use of an old building,” she said.
Now, she uses the old convenience store space for quilting classes.
One of the most significant events in the town's history was the 2015 flood, which left more than 4 feet of standing water in some places.
Few business owners carried flood insurance and there was concern that the event would decimate the town, but hundreds of hours of work by people and organizations near and far helped clean up and rebuild.
That year was a true Lusk community Christmas.
“I felt like it was the great revival of spirit of a small town,” Wisseman said.
Wisseman suffered a serious setback from the thousands of yards of fabric that were damaged in the flood. The fabric was taken to a nearby park and rolled out to provide a momentary diversion for people working on the cleanup efforts.
As a result of a widely shared photo of the bright fabric laid out, the idea was born to make Lusk the home of the Wyoming Quilt Trail, an effort commemorating the efforts of people impacted by the flood.
Lickety Stitch helps the community paint colorful blocks that are hung on display throughout town, part of a larger effort to make the town more beautiful for residents and visitors. There now are more than 100 blocks in and around Lusk.
Like any town, Lusk has its fair share of ongoing challenges. The town’s population has slightly declined in recent years and has stayed mostly flat since 1990.
Vicki Boldon owns Hometown Country gift shop. She said many younger people find it difficult to buy their own businesses when moving to town. Although some people who grow up in Lusk move back after leaving, Boldon said there need to be programs to set up to help people invest in the community.
“There needs to be a better way to transfer that business,” she said.
‘Most Welcoming Place I’ve Ever Been’
Jamie Traw moved to Lusk with her boyfriend last year when they bought the Rawhide Motel. The Colorado transplants instantly fell in love with Lusk and what the small community offers.
“The community is the most welcoming place I’ve ever been,” she said. “Everyone is so kind and sweet.”
The two were busy putting down roots, playing darts and pool with new friends, when tragedy hit. Traw’s boyfriend died July 31 from unknown causes, possibly related to his sleep apnea.
With family in nearby Colorado and her emotions over the death of her boyfriend still raw, it would’ve been perfectly understandable for Traw to call it quits and sell the motel.
But she hasn’t left or stopped doing what brought her to town in the first place and has no intentions to do so.
“Because it’s so small, I have freedom,” she said.
Her new friends in Lusk have all rallied around her, regularly checking up on Traw to make sure she’s doing alright and still getting out. When she has to go out of town or attend to other business, Kruse helps her out by answering calls for the motel.
“I’m adjusting, that’s for sure, but it’s easy because people, they know,” Traw said. “They try to get me out all the time and do more things.”
Inside one of the smallest rooms of the motel, Traw has set up her own hair salon. It’s a throwback to what she did for a living in Colorado, but a service her new community sorely appreciates.
It may not be the most glamorous set up or the biggest, but what it lacks in glitz, the space more than makes up with its character, just like the town it’s located in.
“It’s just a little thing, but it works,” she said.
Traw admits this Christmas may have some challenging moments, but she isn’t concerned as she’ll have her children, grandchildren and her new Wyoming family in Lusk.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.