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Broom factory at Wyo. prison opening to visitors

Broom factory at Wyo. prison opening to visitors

The days were long, the work repetitive and the conditions rough. But for prisoners, the opportunity to work in the Wyoming Territorial Prison's broom factory was probably better than passing time in a cell.
Now the operators of the historic site want visitors to get a taste of old-fashioned prison labor. The state recently completed a two-year restoration of the wooden building, which sits next to the stone prison that housed Butch Cassidy.
Officials are building a hands-on exhibit inside the building, where visitors can make brooms using replicas of the original tools the prisoners toiled over. They hope to debut the exhibit when the park opens for its summer season.
"This was a very functional building so we wanted to have that feel in here," site curator Teresa Sherwood said as she pointed out pieces of original equipment and recently purchased bales of broom corn.
Site superintendent Tom Lindmier said the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources spent $1.1 million on the project.
The prison held convicts from across the Wyoming territory from 1872 until 1903. After it closed, the University of Wyoming used the 190-acre grounds as a stock farm, with the broom factory as a sheep barn, until 1989.
Without photos of the original factory's interior, historians relied on inventories of prison equipment taken in 1891 and 1897, as well as records and photos of other broom factories to get an idea of how the Laramie Broom Company operated, Sherwood said.
She said the factory was run by a lessee, who bid for a state contract to operate the prison's industries. Revenues went toward operating the factory and helping to cover other prison expenses, but the inmates were not paid.
Restoring the building proved to be a challenge because additional barn space tacked on during the livestock years had to be carefully removed without knocking over the original structure, Lindmier said. The project's directors wrestled with keeping the building's original materials and structure while following modern safety and access codes.
The exhibit will display pieces of the wood and metal broom-making tools believed to be part of the original factory. The tools were dropped off more than 20 years ago at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site near Evanston, about 280 miles west of here, by a man who said his father bought them at a prison auction in Rawlins at an unknown time, Lindmier said.
"I just love the idea that this is the real piece _ a prisoner worked on it every day," Sherwood said.
Records indicate the broom factory churned out up to 720 brooms per day in 1900, she said. They were shipped by boxcar to stores as far as away as San Francisco. Original labels discovered on site show that the brooms were labeled for specific retailers, such as the Wheatland Cash Store.
"It doesn't say the Laramie Broom Company or anything about prison so there wouldn't be any guilt in the consumer's mind about supporting prison labor," Sherwood said. "(The prisoners) weren't being paid, so their brooms would be much cheaper than a family business."
The Territorial Prison's new exhibit will also highlight other industries that took place inside the stockade walls. Among them are taxidermy, cigar-making, furniture-making, leather goods, farming and baking.
"As an individual entered the prison, one of the things they were screened for was their talent: `What can you do?'" Sherwood said.
Starting next summer, visitors will get to try their hand at a little prison industry. And then, thankfully, continue on with their tour.


Updated : 2021-10-24 09:12 GMT+08:00