“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Terrence Mann, portrayed by James Earl Jones in the motion picture “Field of Dreams”
By RON GULLBERG
Wyoming Business Council Communications Director
Joel Peterson remembers 1970, when the tiny agricultural-based, north-central Wyoming town of Cowley was, in his word, dying. He remembers 1985, when Cowley lost its high school – its identity – and students were bused 8.9 miles to Byron. He remembers 1995, when the population (350) was less than half what it is today. Peterson, now Cowley’s mayor, certainly remembers the year the community shuttered its baseball programs. The exact year isn’t important. In Peterson’s mind, summer lasts forever alongside his younger brother Ray and is filled with the idyllic sounds of baseball bats cracking, slides into second base and fly balls smack-landing into leather gloves.
“Ray and I grew up playing baseball,” Joel says wistfully.
Ray, now a state senator, remembers the thrill of playing Little League night games under World War II-era incandescent lights. Then his memories turn dark. Ray had just graduated from the Little League ranks when baseball came to a sudden stop in Cowley. He never received the opportunity to participate at the Babe Ruth level and later joined nearby Lovell’s American Legion team.
Eventually, Lovell lost baseball too. As did the University of Wyoming.
Ray added up the losses over the years and could no longer stand by idly. As a leader of Cowley’s community development visioning and planning efforts the past decade-plus, he made the resurrection of baseball and a new ballpark/community recreation complex an integral part of the mix.
“That’s why I’ve been a pusher for this little Legion program in our town of Cowley,” Ray says. “It’s the smallest program in the state, with a $20,000 budget. But if we’re talking about an opportunity for our Wyoming kids, it’s baseball. We’ve already had three players go to Division 2 schools on scholarships.”
America’s pastime isn’t a requirement of community vitality and economic development. In Wyoming’s economically struggling Big Horn Basin, though, Cowley’s new ballpark and the re-establishment of Little League, Babe Ruth and American Legion baseball programs pulling from many of the 17 incorporated towns are reminders of all that once was good, and it could be again.
“Ray has been on this baseball thing now, it seems like, forever,” Joel says. “It seems like he started this ‘field of dreams’ 15, 16 years ago and it is just starting to move. The Legion baseball team is starting to be self-sustaining. It’s taken a lot of effort. It’s persistence at something you like.”
Baseball as a metaphor for community development
On July 24 and 25, the Cowley Community Celebration will be like nothing in the town’s 115-year history.
In addition to the new ballpark dubbed “Ray’s Field of Dreams,” the community’s improved quality of life will be measured by downtown enhancements; restoration of the 79-year-old log gymnasium; new housing projects; the restored Cowley Administration Building and Museum; the restored former Big Horn Academy building, which now houses the Big Horn County School District 1 administrative offices; the Rocky Mountain High School/Middle School constructed in 2011 on property purchased by the town of Cowley, and a recreation complex adjacent to the baseball stadium, which includes the Cowley Splash Park in summers and a sledding hill in winters.
There will be tours of key community enhancement sites, an ice cream social, fireworks, a parade, lunch in the park and a rodeo.
Appropriately, a baseball game is scheduled for the night of July 24.
The Wyoming American Legion Baseball Class A State Tournament championship game will be held under lights installed this year, a requirement for hosting the eight-team, four-day event.
This is Cowley’s first shot at staging a Legion tournament. Equally exciting, the Cowley-based Lovell Mustangs, managed by Ray, qualified for the tournament for the first time by placing third on July 17 at the Legion A North District Tournament in Wheatland.
Ray says there is an underlying positive to the Mustangs, Babe Ruth and Little League programs pulling in players from so many communities: The small, once-divided incorporated towns in Big Horn County now work together when it comes to politics and state and county funding.
“When Big Horn County met with these incorporated towns a couple of years ago to decide how to divvy up the state’s County Consensus Block Grants, a mayor said his town needed funding for water treatment and the other mayors said, ‘That’s right, that’s important,’” Ray says. “The effect is far more reaching than just putting kids on the field and playing baseball.”
Small community with a vision
Wyoming Business Council Northwest Region Director Leah Bruscino supplemented the work of Cowley’s community development leaders this past decade by providing technical and planning assistance.
“I strongly believe good ideas are a dime a dozen,” Bruscino says. “But the difference is when you have a sparkplug, a person who can share their vision and get the community behind it. I think that’s exactly what Ray and his people have done. We talked a lot about the Business Council’s Community Enhancement program. Their secret weapon was Linda Harp, their grant writer.”
The town of Cowley applied for and received three grants from the Business Council from 2007 to 2014:
- A $300,000 Community Enhancement Grant in February 2007 went toward ornamental lighting, decorative benches and landscaping throughout a section of U.S. Highway 310 (Main Street) designed to improve the business district’s aesthetics, stimulate downtown development and encourage visitors to explore historic landmarks. The project coincided with a Wyoming Department of Transportation road reconstruction project. WYDOT also contributed $490,100 for complementary streetscaping enhancements. The local contribution to the project was $680,570.
- A $991,960 Community Facilities Grant in April 2012 went toward the renovation and restoration of the Cowley Log Gym Community Center. The 7,788 square-foot log gymnasium was constructed out of native lodge pole pine in 1936 but faced demolition prior to the grant funding. It is now used for a variety of community activities and as a fee-based community rec center. The local contribution to the project was $330,544.
- A $500,000 Community Enhancement Grant in June 2014 went toward completion of the Cowley Recreation Complex. Improvements included the installation of lights for night use of the baseball stadium and a splash park, play area, picnic space and sled hill. The baseball field can be converted into an ice rink in winter months and the sled hill will serve as natural seating for a tee-ball and soccer field. The town matched the grant with $271,000 cash and $387,000 in-kind. Additionally, $201,000 in private funds were leveraged. Ray says BNSF and the Daniels Fund contributed to the ballpark construction cost and the Wyoming State Forestry Division contributed trees.
“Some of the infrastructure couldn’t have been done without the Business Council’s help,” Joel says. “We’d still be working at it without the Business Council’s help, for sure. It might have taken 20 more years. But would we have gotten where we are today without the Business Council? No.”
Plans for future growth
The Peterson brothers joke that the next stage of Cowley’s development is the “Nice problem to have” phase.
Increased population requires increased housing starts but the town is land-locked in a sense because of its agricultural history. Joel says there are landowners who refuse to sell despite the fact many haven’t lived in the community for years or decades. The town recently created 48 lots on the north side by draining a portion of a canal.
“It’s going to be a community that young families continue to invest in. The housing starts there are family housing,” Bruscino says. “One of the things we always hear about in Wyoming is we’re an aging population and we always lose our youth. I think creating an affinity to the community for youth, if they go and get an education and spread their wings outside the community, they’re going to want to come back and raise their kids.”
Joel says more housing will be necessary as Cowley transitions beyond a bedroom community supplying workers for a limestone mining company in Montana; a lime kiln operation in Frannie, Wyoming; the Georgia Pacific gypsum plant in Lovell, Wyoming, and nearby bentonite plants among others.
The Peterson brothers are similar to many other Cowley business owners who operate beyond town limits out of necessity. Ray and Joel inherited their parents’ office supply store and expanded it to include Office Shops in Riverton, Casper, Green River, Sheridan and Cheyenne.
S&L Industrial is based in Cowley but sells traffic control equipment such as road construction barrels and guardrails regionally.
A couple of construction companies operate out of Cowley but do most of their business elsewhere.
“They grew up there. It’s generational,” Bruscino says. “You don’t rely on the local population for income. That’s the key to growing business in Cowley, Wyoming. Then as the town grows, it supports a grocery store, a nail salon, a retail store. It just grows.”
Some townsfolk worry about Cowley growing too large, too fast.
Joel isn’t concerned. He expects Cowley’s population to surpass 1,000 in the next five or six years and cap out at about 1,500 within 25 years. Those are perfect numbers to the town’s community development leaders.
“It’s interesting. We have found that the threshold for businesses to come into a community is 1,000,” Joel says. “We have 1,000, we’ll have a bank, we’ll have a grocery store. When those things start to happen, it’s a major change.“We’re on the cusp.”
IF YOU GO …
What: Cowley Community Celebration.
When: July 24-25.
Directions: Cowley is located along U.S. Highway 310 in north-central Wyoming, near the Montana border. It is 23 miles northeast of Powell and 38 miles northwest of Greybull.
Info: Call Cowley Town Clerk Lisa Woodis at 307-548-7700.
Friday, July 24
Upon Request: Tour of log gym and administration building, available all day.
5 p.m.: Wyoming American Legion Baseball Class A State Tournament championship game. (Third-place game starts at 1 p.m.)
6 p.m.: Ice cream social.
Dusk: Fireworks display.
Saturday, July 25
10 a.m.: Parade.
11 a.m.: Pioneer program.
Noon: Lunch in the park.
1 p.m.: Ribbon-cutting ceremony for Cowley Splash Park.
2 p.m.: Cowley Rodeo.
About the Wyoming Business Council. Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.