Black Hills


From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This page: Upton, "Best Town on Earth" The Red Onion Saloon.

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Table of Contents
About This Site

Sign, Upton, Wyoming, undated.

The slogan "Best Town on Earth" was adopted with the founding of the town by promoters such as Frank E. Burdick, Sr. (1859-1947). Burdick arrived in Upton about 1903. A sign proclaiming the slogan has been at the outskirts of the town since the very early years of the 1900's. Over the years, as illustrated by the following photos, the sign has slowly improved. At first, the sign was located along side the railroad tracks. When the train paused to take on water, to disbark or embark an occasional passenger, could look out and see where they were. No longer do passengers on the trains peer out the windows of Train 41 westbound or train 42, eastbound. Passenger service was discontinued on August 24, 1969. But as indicated below, the signs have perservered and improved over the years.

Welcoming Sign, Upton, Wyoming, undated.

Over the years, the signs have come in for criticism from persons not from the area or who, perhaps, did not understand it. The sign has been mentioned by several authors including Jackson, Wyoming, lawyer Gerry Spence and British author A. G. Macdonnell. Those who have written of the sign, seemingly exhibit a degree of condenscendation and perhaps regard the sign as as presumptuous. Spence observed the sign from a railway car without apparently visiting the town and wrote, "'Best Town on Earth', with its dry summer winds blowing the land dead and brown. I didn't believe the sign." Of Murder and Madness, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1995. Indeed, Spence noted the sign in three separate books, "Murder and Madness," "The Making of a Country Lawyer," and "Gunning for Justice." He might be forgiven, his impression of Upton might have been influenced by an unfortunate experience. He was a small boy travelling coach. His mother made a bed for him on the seat. Somewhere to the east of Upton, he fell asleep. He awakened when he had an accident. His mother covered the seat with newspapers. He fell back asleep. In the morning when he awoke, he was stuck to the newspapers."Making of a Country Lawyer" p. 35.

British author A. G. Macdonnell, A Visit to America", MacMillan Company, New York, 1935, was less kind (actually he was downright crude and rude). The least crude thing he wrote of Upton was that it was a "Don Quixotic of a place." Of course, in the 1930's when Macdonnell passed by in the train, the town was less than impressive. The writers for the Works Progress Administration described half of the town as clinging to the pine-clad foothills while the other half of Upton ranges "out on a wind-swept, sage brush flat. Tar-paper shacks, brick stores, log, frame and brick dwellings are intermingled. The main sreet begins at the railroad and climbs the pine-cover knoll into the residential district." Wyoming: A guide to its history, highways, and people. At the time, the main street had fourteen buildings, four of which were saloons.

But those who critized the town's motto missed its point. The sign is not about the physical characteristics of the town. The sign is about the people of the community who take pride in their willingness to work for the betterment of the town and each other. It also indicates that the residents do not take themselves to seriously. As observed in 1920 by the editor of the Gazette:

The real, fundamental truth about the matter is that we ourselves take the slogan as a golly good joke, a wonderful pience of egotism that is so great and supberb in itself that any effort toward making good is unneccssary. And too, there is discret wisdom in recognizing our limitations and refusing to take ourselves too seriously. To be the best town on earth is something of any undertaking in itself and even if attained, there stil remains the burden of proving our claim to some few billion persons in some few million other towns that are on the same earth that Upton is; and those few billion people might possibly entertain the same theory regarding their respective towns that the people of Upton hod with regard to theirs.

As may be seen in the next photo, at some point the sign even became electrically illuminated for the benefit of night railroad passengers.

Welcoming Sign, Upton, Wyoming, undated.

Since the above photo was taken, the sign has been replaced by a more elaborate sign with the same message.

Welcoming Sign, Upton, Wyoming.

And indeed additionally, the motto now graces on the town's watertank where it cannot be missed.

Principle buildings, Upton, Wyoming, 1909.
Clockwise from upper left: Cottage Hotel on Railroad Ave. operated by A. G. Thomas, Bank of Upton, the Ogden Mercantile Company operated by W. B. Ogden and Amy B. Ogden, and the Livery Barn.

Upton, Wyoming, undated

Upton, 19 miles southeast of Moorcroft, like many Wyoming towns, was settled with the opening of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad extension from Newcastle on August 5, 1890. Before the coming of the railroad there was a small settlement known as "Iron Town." Iron Town, itself took its name from Iron Creek which lies just to the west of present day Upton. Reputedly, the creek was named by C. P. "Dub" Meek, Commodore Perry Meek (1851-1943), as a result of its reddish color from ferrous oxide.

C. P. Meek originally came to the Black Hills with its original settlement in 1876 as a bullwhacker on ox trains taking supplies from Cheyenne to Deadwood. Previously, he ran freight from Cheyenne to Ft. Fetterman. On one occasion in May 1876, between the Inyan Kara Creek and the Cheyenne River, the ox train was attacked by Indians and was saved only by a passing troop of cavalry. Meek then tried his hand at stock growing at Centennial Prairie, Dakota Territory, before coming to the Upton area. Upon Wyoming's attaining of statehood, Meek was elected to the State Legislature in 1912 and to the State Senate in 1919.

Pine Street, Upton, Wyoming, approx. 1920.

The two-story building facing the viewer is the Upton Hotel. The one-story building immediately to its left is a saloon believed to be the "Red Onion." Across the Street is the Equity Co-Op, a cooperatively owned general mercantile. In addition to the Ogden Mercantile and the Co-Op, a principle mercantile was the Pioneer Mercantile Company owned by Thomas Stirling and Leman Knight "Lee" Davis. The store was sold in 1937 to Mrs. W. O. Braley and Earl Braley. W. O. Braley had served as postmaster.

Customers lined up for picture taking, The Red Onion, approx. 1915.

By 1907, the town had a barber shop, pool hall, grocery, livery, a drug store, hotel newspaper, Methodist church and the Red Onion Saloon. In 1909 the town was incorporated.

Interior, Red Onion, approx. 1914. Note the spittoons on the floor.

Standing at the left end of the bar next to the cigar display case is Charles Stewart, a co-owner with Walter Paulson behind the bar. To the right of Paulson is John Busby, Upton Town Marshal. The person to his right is unidentified. Next is William Houston "Hike" Minter, Jr., the son of Town Councilman W. H. Minter. On the end is J. H. Davis. In October 1914, Hike Minter was found dead. His family believed from rope marks on his neck that he had been murdered. (for discussion see next page). J. H. Davis was on the coronor's jury that found without a post mortum that Hike died of natural causes.

The Red Onion, located on Pine Street, was, as above noted, owned by Walter K. "Jarbo" Poulson (1880-1964). Poulson served as mayor from 1930 to 1936. The name "Red Onion," however, is not original to Upton. In the late 19th Century, "Red Onion" was a common name for saloons, particularly establishments which catered to railway men. Thus, the term "Red Onion" acquired a secondary meaning as hotel, bar, saloon, or other facility used by railway men. Upton was, of course, a railroad town. The most famous of the Red Onion Saloons were ones in Silver City, New Mexico Territory; Salt Lake City, and Skagway. The latter, in addition to quenching the thirst of miners during the Alaska Gold Rush catered to other needs on the second floor. Many, such as Skagway's and the one in Salt Lake City had dubious reputations. "Red Onions" were indeed so common, that a popular rag of the era was the Red Onion Rag

, here as done by Horse Creek Cowboy.

Upton, Wyoming, approx. 1928.

There may be some question as to why a saloon would be named the Red Onion. The best explanation is that the term "red onion" was used to described any establishment that was painted red. Numerous saloons across the west were painted red giving rise to many saloons named the "Red Front" as well as the "Red Onion." Infamous Caldwell, Kansas, as its height has both a "Red Front" and a "Red Light" saloon. And why were establishments painted red? It may be speculated that they were so painted for the same reason as barns, "Venetian Red" was the cheapest paint available. It came in kegs. When the writer was in high school, he discovered in his grandfather's barn a keg of red powder. It was the venetian red, still sitting in the barn from the 1920's. Other interesting relics were found such as wooden spoked automobile wheels. In his 1913, Paint Making and Color Grinding Charles L. Uebele noted:

It is astonishing what nostrums have been sold under that name in the Far West, especially in red and brown. But we will omit a description of these and leave it to the reader's imagination, what this dope must have been when we state that such goods were sold to jobbing houses at from 30 to 35 cents per gallon in one-gallon tins at a time when linseed oil was 60 to 65 cents per gallon.

The Red Onion advertised that it used "two stamp" booze. Two stamp whiskey was aged in its orginal kegs by the distiller or in a bonded warehouse. Government stamps were placed on the keg when the whiskey was first barrelled. After it was stored "straight" for the requisite time, another stamp placed on the barrel for the whiskey that had evaporated. It meant that the whiskey was straight aged and had not been "rectified" by a distributor. The name "Red Onion" lives on in Upton in the name of the local museum.

Sign for Red Onion Museum, 2013. Photo by Geoff Dobson.

At the time of the photo, the museum was behind the City Hall on the northwest corner of Pine and U.S. 16. It has since relocated to 729 Birch Street.

Stockyards, Upton, undated.

When the railroad reached Iron Town it became the typical "end of tracks" settlement. With a supply of pine to the north, a tie camp provided railroad ties for the railroad. With open range to the south, the town became a convenient shipping point for livestock. A siding with sheep pens and shearing sheds was esablished. As a result of becoming a major shipping point for sheep, the name of Iron Town was changed to Merino. However, Another town in Colorado bore the same name and thus the town was again renamed after George S. Upton, a surveyor for the railroad. There is, however, some uncertainty as to the naming of the town after George Upon, some sources contend that it was named for A. Z. Upon.

Next page: Upton Continued.