The plan was outlandish — a new state, carved from the sections of three existing states.
Pieces of Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana, together, would meld to form Absaroka, the 49th of the United States.
In 1939, a group of dreamers drew up their plans for the new state in the “capital” of Sheridan. The group, led by Sheridan’s A.R. Swickard, the self-proclaimed “governor” of the new state, drew borders for a 49th state that encompassed the region’s needs and identity: independent, self-resolved, frustrated with federal intrusion, separate from the identity of the states from which they were drawn.
The proposed state would have encompassed parts of 24 counties from northern Wyoming, western South Dakota and southeastern Montana. The entirety of northern Wyoming, from Yellowstone and Teton parks across along its southern border to Thermopolis, Kaycee and Newcastle, would have been part of Absaroka. Those areas would have joined the of the Black Hills area and surrounding counties of South Dakota, including Rapid City, and a chunk of ranch and coal lands, mostly along the Powder River basin and along the east side of the Bighorn Mountains, from southeastern Montana.
The new state had a good start — a “governor,” license plates, even a beauty queen. But the practical implications of seceding 60,000-plus square miles of land into a new state far outweighed the idea, and Absaroka remained in the brain rather than on the map. However, the idea had served its purpose, mostly as a message to state and federal legislatures that went something like, “Pay attention to us!”
While the state of Absaroka never got much past the theoretical stage, now, almost 75 years removed from the Absaroka proposal, I thought it might be fun to look at what Absaroka’s creation would have meant for the high school sports programs in the new state, as well as what it would have meant for Wyoming’s remaining schools.
In all, 58 current high schools — 27 from Wyoming, 24 from South Dakota and seven from Montana — would have been part of Absaroka. By county, those schools would have been (with current enrollments in parentheses; schools without football in italics):
Teton: Jackson (654)
Fremont: Dubois (58)
Park: Cody (690), Powell (480), Meeteetse (33)
Big Horn: Rocky Mountain (117), Lovell (214), Greybull (167), Burlington (80), Riverside (97)
Washakie: Worland (378), Ten Sleep (39)
Hot Springs: Thermopolis (201)
Sheridan: Sheridan (922), Tongue River (145), Big Horn (140), Normative Services (60), Arvada-Clearmont (33)
Johnson: Buffalo (345), Kaycee (51)
Campbell: Gillette (2,216), Wright (178)
Crook: Hulett (64), Moorcroft (163), Sundance (113)
Weston: Upton (85), Newcastle (248)
Carter: Carter County (Ekalaka) (38)
Powder River: Powder River County (Broadus) (112)
Rosebud: Colstrip (194), Lame Deer (125)
Big Horn: Northern Cheyenne (Busby) (80), Hardin (438), Lodge Grass (103)
South Dakota (South Dakota calculates enrollments on three-grade projections; numbers here reflect a calculated four-year enrollment)
Harding: Harding County (Buffalo) (67)
Perkins: Bison (49), Lemmon (107)
Butte: Belle Fourche (397), Newell (117)
Meade: Faith (88), Sturgis (701)
Pennington: Wall (87), New Underwood (96), Rapid City Christian (57), Hill City (151), Douglas (Box Elder) (696), Rapid City Central (2,056), Rapid City Stevens (1,645), St. Thomas More (Rapid City) (260)
Shannon: Little Wound (Kyle) (316), Pine Ridge (541), Red Cloud (Oglala) (209)
Fall River: Oelrichs (56), Hot Springs (269), Edgemont (43)
Custer: Custer (256)
Lawrence: Lead-Deadwood (251), Spearfish (599)
If we break down the Absaroka schools to classify them, some natural classifications emerge — eight schools with more than 600 enrollment, 12 schools between 225 and 600, 16 schools between 110 and 225, and the remaining 22 schools (20 football schools) with fewer than 110. The enrollment classification divisions are strikingly similar to those that already exist in all three states.
And if we put those schools into conferences, those conferences might look a little something like this:
Class 4A East: Rapid City Central, Rapid City Stevens, Sturgis, Douglas (Box Elder).
Class 4A West: Gillette, Sheridan, Cody, Jackson.
Class 3A East: St. Thomas More (Rapid City), Lead-Deadwood, Belle Fourche, Little Wound (Kyle), Spearfish, Pine Ridge.
Class 3A West: Powell, Hardin, Worland, Buffalo, Newcastle, Custer.
Class 2A Northeast: Newell, Moorcroft, Sundance, Powder River County (Broadus).
Class 2A Southeast: Red Cloud (Oglala), Hot Springs, Hill City, Wright.
Class 2A Central: Tongue River, Big Horn, Colstrip, Lame Deer.
Class 2A West: Lovell, Thermopolis, Greybull, Rocky Mountain.
Class 1A Northeast: Faith, Harding County (Buffalo), Carter County (Ekalaka), Bison, Lemmon.
Class 1A Southeast: New Underwood, Wall, Rapid City Christian, Edgemont, Hulett, Oelrichs.
Class 1A Central: Upton, Northern Cheyenne, NSI, Kaycee, Lodge Grass, Arvada-Clearmont.
Class 1A West: Riverside, Burlington, Dubois, Ten Sleep, Meeteetse.
The conferences tend to split along the South Dakota-Wyoming border and the border along the Bighorn Mountain range, but nevertheless some interesting intermingling occurs. The theoretical Class 3A West and Class 2A Northeast draw schools from all three states; of the 12 proposed conferences, seven mix schools from at least two states.
This state would have been beset by many of the problems in the other three states today; a relatively low number of large schools and large distances between all schools would have given rise to disputes that would probably be quite similar to ones that Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota have had throughout the past 75 years.
And, of course, the loss of 27 high schools to Absaroka would have been problematic to the 44 current schools still in Wyoming. The remaining schools and their current classifications — now strongly tied to the Union Pacific rail line and what is now I-80, would be something like this today:
Class 4A: Natrona, Cheyenne East, Kelly Walsh, Rock Springs, Cheyenne Central, Laramie, Cheyenne South, Evanston, Riverton, Green River.
Class 3A East: Douglas, Rawlins, Torrington, Wheatland, Glenrock.
Class 3A West: Star Valley, Lander, Pinedale, Mountain View, Lyman.
Class 2A East: Burns, Southeast, Lusk, Pine Bluffs, Saratoga.
Class 2A West: Big Piney, Kemmerer, Wind River, Wyoming Indian, Shoshoni.
Class 1A East: Lingle, Guernsey, Midwest, Rock River, Glendo, Chugwater.
Class 1A West: Snake River, Hanna, St. Stephens, Cokeville, Farson, Encampment. (Ft. Washakie and Arapaho Charter haven’t had varsity teams for several seasons.)
With so few schools, it’s interesting to consider that Wyoming may have not split to four classes. Instead, Wyoming may have gone the way of North Dakota and stuck with two classes — big schools and small schools — with four conferences each. If that were the case, maybe Casper would have actually gone to three high schools a couple years ago (or, most likely, three decades ago). … Nevertheless, as it is now:
Class A: Northeast: Natrona, Kelly Walsh, Douglas, Glenrock, Wheatland. Southeast: Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, Cheyenne South, Laramie, Torrington. Central: Lander, Riverton, Green River, Rock Springs, Rawlins. West: Star Valley, Evanston, Mountain View, Lyman, Pinedale.
Class B: Northeast: Midwest, Lusk, Glendo, Guernsey, Lingle. Southeast: Burns, Pine Bluffs, Southeast, Chugwater, Rock River. Southwest: Hanna, Encampment, Snake River, Saratoga, Kemmerer, Cokeville. Northwest: Big Piney, Farson, Wind River, Wyoming Indian, Shoshoni, St. Stephens.
Three other implications to consider:
* In Absaroka, Gillette — halfway between the “capital” of Sheridan and the state’s biggest city, Rapid City — becomes the default site for state tournaments. The “Gillette Events Center,” a facility capable of handling indoor football championships as well as basketball state tournaments, opens in the late 1980s and is the showcase jewel of Absaroka high school sports.
* In Wyoming, Casper is deemed “too far north” for state tournaments and state basketball and wrestling stay in Laramie. In retaliation, the Natrona County schools petition to join the Absaroka High School Activities Association — the AHSAA — but the appeal is denied thanks to a strong Gillette lobbying effort.
* Casper’s consolation prize, though, is the annual Wyoming-Absaroka Shrine Bowl football game and the Wyoming-Absaroka all-star basketball series, which draw huge crowds annually because they’re held on the same weekend in the same city. Fans can watch both and players, if chosen, can participate in both. Gillette tries to bid for the games but is defeated thanks to a strong Casper lobbying effort.
Absaroka was never more than the plan of few overenthusiastic Sheridan County residents in the late 1930s. Even so, it’s fun to think “what if…” and consider just how different our sports scene would be — both in Absaroka and Wyoming — if this outlandish plan had been less outlandish and more plan.