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Teacher had a grand time during Jeffrey City boom

Jun 19, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

It sounds like the punch line to a joke: "I was sitting in a bar in New Orleans and the guy sitting next to me said ... "

But it wasn't a joke. It was how Chris Watne began her trek back to Wyoming -- eventually landing a teaching job in Jeffrey City at the height of the uranium boom there.

The Wisconsin native was working as a first-time teacher in rural McCrory, Ark., but she wasn't a stranger to Wyoming. She was a graduate of the University of Wyoming and had worked as a student teacher in Lander.

Former Fremont County School District 1 Superintendent Jack King was the man sitting next to Watne in that New Orleans establishment.

"Jack gave me his card," Watne said. "He said, 'If you're ever back in Wyoming, give me a call. I'll hire you.'"

That time came sooner than Watne expected. King contacted her during the following school year and asked if she would like to take a mid-year position teaching English at Lander Valley High School.

"I declined," Watne said. "I felt loyal to the students at McCrory and honored my contract."

McCrory, Ark., is a rural, agriculture community roughly 85 miles northeast of Little Rock. Watne said she was impressed by how much that community valued education.

Back to Wyoming

After three years in Arkansas, a change was needed, and Watne returned to Lander without a job in July 1975.

"I've got a deal for you," King told her after she relocated.

King offered Watne a teaching position at the rapidly growing Jeffrey City Junior/Senior High School. Watne's task would be to teach English to grades 7-12.

"I thought I'd just live in Lander and drive to Jeffrey City every day," Watne said with a laugh. "That idea didn't stay very long."

Jeffrey City, a company town owned by Western Nuclear Corp., was in the midst of one of Wyoming's greatest energy booms with uranium development drawing in hundreds of miners a month.

Watne arrived with Crowheart teacher Donna Roberts, and the two lived in duplexes built by Western Nuclear.

"We paid $75 a month plus electricity," Watne said. "It was quite a deal for two-bedroom apartments. It was nice except for the snow, wind and dirt blowing in."

Other teachers lived in mobile homes.

Watne's first contract was for $12,000 a year, a substantial increase from the $7,200 she earned in Arkansas.

Watne taught all six grades at Jeffrey City. Her eighth-grade class was the largest that first year, with 42 students crammed into a single classroom.

Watne said she noticed a difference in the attitudes of students and parents from her Arkansas teaching days. In McCrory, Ark., the students said "yes, ma'am" and were respectful, and their parents made them appreciate their education, she said.

Jeffrey City was different. Education had a lot of competition there.

"It was a whole new world for me," Watne said. "I'd never been around an industry that ran everything. The lowest-paid miner made double a teacher's salary. High school kids could drop out of school and make a lot of money in the mines."

Not all students were tied to the mining industry. Many went on to college and other careers.

"Some kids went on to work in management or on ranches," Watne said. "The culture of education not being important was hard for me. If a family had the day off, they pulled the kids and went to town."

Jeffrey City life

The town wasn't without diversions in the mid-1970s.

"We only had one television station, KTWO out of Casper on good days," Watne said. "But we had Driller's Delight with a bowling alley, Sage Lanes, and the Split Rock Café."

The young school teachers attracted attention in the mining town.

"As a single gal, I never bought a drink in the entire two years I taught at Jeffrey City," Watne said with a laugh. "The people that worked in the mines were a lot of fun."

What wasn't so fun was the isolation. Watne recalled a six-week stretch when the roads were closed every weekend, and the teachers were not able to leave town for the entire period.

"We bought groceries and shopped at Blumraders in Jeffrey City," Watne said. "It was like being on a farm. You go to town once a month and buy everything you needed."

Her last class of the day was seventh-grade English, and every day at about 2:45 p.m. her dog would walk over to the school and sit outside her window.

"Jimmy Allington would open the window, pick up my dog and put him in the classroom. The kids loved it," Watne said.

Roberts and school secretary Shannon McIntosh were her best friends on staff.

Jeffrey City had community dances in those days and one night a man walked up to Watne and said, "You taught my sister-in-law's sister, Alice, in McCrory."

The man was Robert Hylle, one of the mainstays at Jiffy Rental, who was working in Jeffrey City at the time.

"Proof that it is a small world," Watne said.

In 1977 Watne ended her career at Jeffrey City as the boom began to take full swing.

"They hired two teachers to replace me when I left," Watne said. "The kids were coming in so fast."

The experience was a great one for the young teacher from Wisconsin.

"I came to Jeffrey City a mess and left in pretty good shape," she said.

In 1977 she took a job at Riverton High School teaching English and finished her career there three decades later. As for JEffrey City, the boom went bust in the 1980s, and the school population plummeted. The finals graduating class form Jeffrey City high School has just two seniors, and the building has been shuttered for years.

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