LARAMIE, Wyo. — A caravan of 14 motorcyclists on their way to Sturgis, S.D., pulled into the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site one recent morning.
Mike Villella of North Providence, R.I., was part of the group on a cross-country tour. They decided to check out the historic site after hearing a positive review from a friend.
“A couple of fellas come over here a couple days ago, and they said it was very interesting, so we stopped,” he said.
Their motorcycles might have raised the noise level in the parking lot, but the group soon disappeared into the crowds touring the warden’s house, prison building and broom factory. Even though it was a Wednesday morning, the grounds were filled with visitors learning about the one-time home of Butch Cassidy and its later history as a University of Wyoming research farm.
“The first year I came, three years ago, on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, we’d get 25-50 people a day,” site superintendent Deborah Amend said. “Now we’re getting on average 200-250 people a day. It’s crazy.”
Increased daily numbers have contributed to higher overall numbers as well.
“For the month of June this year, we are 2,000 more (visitors) than last year,” Amend tells the Laramie Boomerang (http://bit.ly/MfW0lD).
Extended hours — the prison is open from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily from April 28-Oct. 31 — are one reason more people are finding time to stop, Amend said.
The prison now offers guided tours on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
Amend also credited increased advertising as a factor, including a beefed-up website and Facebook presence.
“We’ve started advertising in national magazines like True West. That seems to have really pushed this,” she added.
Marketing analysis shows that many visitors find their way through the doors thanks to word-of-mouth advertising, which reflects a positive visitor experience, Amend said.
“We’ve taken away the theme park (feel), and by moving it into the historical element, we’re getting a lot more pull off the highway. And then once they’re here, we’re giving them a good show,” she said.
Mike and Donna Jones from Ardmore, Okla., stayed in Laramie last week while visiting Wyoming to check out Cheyenne Frontier Days.
The historical nature of the prison enticed them to stay in Laramie for the morning.
“I like Old West history,” Donna Jones said.
Exhibits at the historic site include the prison building, warden’s house, broom factory, box car house, church, homestead site and “Science on the Range,” which looks at the site’s history as the UW Experiment Station from 1903-1989.
The exhibit opened earlier this year in the Horse Barn Exhibit Hall.
Amend said an exhibit analyzing how geography and contemporary events shaped Butch Cassidy’s career is in the works.
The prison is also exploring how to use its full 200 acres of land, including a stretch of the Laramie River. A nature trail educating visitors about the riparian, wetland and upland prairie ecosystems is one possibility.
“We’re really moving these exhibits and the action with this historic site to a different level, where the visitor doesn’t just come in — they’re immersed in the experience,” Amend said.