KAYCEE — The Powder River flood destroyed or damaged 80 percent Kaycee’s businesses and one-third of its homes on Aug. 27, 2002.
The Rusty Spur tack shop on the southeast corner of Nolan and Second streets was decimated.
But, as the locals would say, you can always rebuild. You just can’t replace people.
On a recent sunny, windless Wednesday morning, old cottonwood trees still stood while landscapers continued to transform the former Rusty Spur lot into a charming park.
Once an eyesore, the land will soon become both a tourist destination and a place to gather and reflect for this resilient community of about 300, where the word town doesn’t sufficiently convey the locals’ expressed belief in family, friends and neighbors.
In setting roots.
Chris LeDoux wasn’t born or raised here. And in 2005 he died about 70 miles to the south at Wyoming Medical Center in Casper.
But Kaycee is where his heart was, and, because of Chris LeDoux Memorial Park, where his spirit will remain.
“We wanted [the park] here because this is Chris’ home. This is where he raised his kids,” said Pam Kinchen, co-director of the Chris LeDoux Memorial Foundation.
The park was designed by LeDoux’s widow, Peggy, and their five children. Its main attraction will be a 2,300-pound, 1 1/2 life-size bronze statue of the rodeo and country music star spurring Stormy Weather, the horse on which he won the 1976 National Finals Rodeo bareback riding title. A replica of Chris’ prized Guild guitar serves as the statue’s base.
The park officially opens at 3 p.m. Saturday with guest speakers, including Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and the unveiling of the statue, followed by a street dance with live music until 2 a.m.
“It’s probably gonna bring all the folks into town that never come to town,” said Ned LeDoux, who still plays drums in his father’s band, Western Underground, with guest singer Dustin Evans. “We might have 500 or 5,000 people.”
Kinchen says there will be charter buses carrying LeDoux fans from Clovis, Calif., and Branson, Mo. She also says the Cowboy Bar in Buffalo will be closed in order to encourage people to attend the ceremony and festivities in Kaycee. The bar even turned down two bachelorette parties.
“It’s going to be horribly emotional for a lot of people,” Kinchen said. “It’s going to be really hard because we’re all part of this community. It isn’t just what we remember about Chris and his family, but we remember the ones who were really close friends with him that have passed on, like my mother.
“It’s going to be a very emotional day for those of us who live here. But we’re so excited because this is probably going to be the prettiest park in the state of Wyoming when we get it all done. I’m sure of it.”
It’s in the details
D. Michael Thomas lives in Buffalo, a city about 45 miles north of Kaycee where LeDoux often went to buy feed and to golf.
Thomas was raised on ranches around western Wyoming and competed a short time for the University of Wyoming rodeo team.
He was running a feed store in Buffalo in the early ’80s when he and LeDoux became acquainted.
Given their shared interests, it’s easy to understand why the two quickly became friends.
Thomas dreamed of being a professional sculptor. And it would become widely known only after LeDoux’s death that among his many pleasures were painting and sculpting.
“Every time he’d show up, we’d get to talking about his songs and his rodeo days,” Thomas said. “But, bless his heart, the way he liked to do things was turn it all around to you and ask about you. ‘How’s your art coming? How’s this going for you?’ He was just a special man.”
A short time after LeDoux died and talk of a memorial park surfaced, Thomas politely told the LeDoux family that if anyone was going to memorialize Chris in a sculpture, it had to be him.
The family provided Thomas with stacks of photos with which to work. “To get Chris’ look right,” he said with a grin.
“Every horse that he rode, he gritted his teeth in the same way, in every picture that I saw,” Thomas said. “I had to get that grit on his face. And that was the first and foremost thing I was worried about.’”
Thomas nailed it.
“It’s right on,” Ned LeDoux said. “Just looking up at this thing just sends a chill down your spine. It’s like, ‘Whoa, there he is.’”
Thomas even fretted over getting LeDoux’s 1976 National Finals Rodeo contestant number (No. 79) just right.
“I don’t know why I spent so much time on his contestant number, because it’s flying in the air off his back. But I’ve got every detail in there,” he said before breaking into a chuckle. “No one’s gonna see it unless they’re in a low-flying plane or parachuting down.”
Interestingly, the most touching detail was the result of an afterthought.
“When I was completing everything, I said, ‘You know, I want to put something in there special for Peggy,’” Thomas said. “So on the guitar pick I put ‘Chris+Peggy.’
“Of course, when Peggy saw it, there was a few tears, and rightly so.”
A place to reflect
On the recent Wednesday morning, a two-man crew worked feverishly to complete the park in time for next weekend’s dedication.
Black iron fence forms the park’s boundaries. Inside, the mature cottonwoods blend with newly planted trees, a rock waterfall, rock benches, a flat-rock pathway, a desert-themed section and lush green sod.
Kinchen said people from all areas of the community donated rock for the building of the park, which was primarily funded through the annual Chris LeDoux Memorial Golf Tournament.
In the coming days, the landscapers will plant a rose garden.
Kaycee resident John Forbes was LeDoux’s rodeo travel partner. He says once you enter the park, you can’t help but reflect on LeDoux.
“I had a lot of rodeo days with him,” he said. “You just sit and think of that.”
Later, Forbes approached Ned, pointed a finger to the distance and said, “I’ll tell you what kind of guy your dad was. He’d be sitting on that [rock] bench, having a picnic.”
Wake of the flood
In a sense, the park symbolizes Kaycee’s remarkable recovery from the 2002 “hundred-year” flood.
Today, the main drag’s street and sidewalks shine with fresh concrete. New buildings have gone up, and some businesses have moved into refurbished storefronts.
Peggy’s father, Bud Rhoades, rebuilt his Rusty Spur – only this time on the southwest corner of Nolan and Second streets.
A short walk northwest of Chris LeDoux Memorial Park and due north of the tack shop is the venerable Hoofprints of the Past Museum. It remains a place for locals to discuss current topics or to share stories about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Dull Knife Battlefield and the Johnson County War with tourists.
On this particular Wednesday, several visitors exited Interstate 25 to see the museum’s exhibits. A couple of people asked for directions to the Hole in the Wall, and Hoofprints volunteer Stella Brock happily obliged.
“We have a lot of history in our town,” she said with a proud smile.
The museum’s building nearly became history itself when a foot of standing water wreaked havoc on its interior eight years ago. All of the vintage wood flooring had to be replaced but, fortunately, the artifacts were preserved and the foundation and walls held.
This past winter the community helped the volunteer staff clean and rearrange displays into themes. Hoofprints reopened Memorial Day weekend.
The museum’s new executive director and only paid employee is Kaycee native Laurel Foster, who returned from Colorado because this is the place she wants to raise her kids.
Thomas, the sculptor, observed Nolan Street’s brisk business on the weekday morning and marveled at what kind of traffic Chris LeDoux Memorial Park could bring.
“What a great thing for this community,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot. Right here was the flood, and it wiped out a couple of storefronts right here.
“But it made the way for this, and this is probably what it was supposed to be.”
Contact Managing Editor Ron Gullberg at (307) 266-0560 or firstname.lastname@example.org
LeDoux: ‘He was one of a kind’
Chris LeDoux, widely considered a Wyoming treasure, died of complications from liver cancer on March 9, 2005, at Wyoming Medical Center in Casper. He was 56.
He was born an Air Force brat in Biloxi, Miss., then lived in Austin, Texas, before spending his high school years in Cheyenne.
LeDoux won the bareback riding “trifecta” — the 1967 Wyoming State High School Rodeo Finals, the 1969 College National Finals Rodeo and the 1976 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association championships.
Throughout his professional rodeo career, LeDoux penned and sang songs about life on the road and in the arena, selling cassette tapes from the back of his pickup. He retired from the rodeo circuit in 1984 to focus on his music career.
LeDoux recorded 22 albums on his own before signing with Capitol Records in 1991 after Garth Brooks name-dropped him in the song “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).”
The tune about a down-on-his luck rodeo cowboy included the line: “The worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze/seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all.”
It gave Brooks instant credibility with the rodeo crowd and exposed LeDoux to a wider audience. LeDoux’s albums went on to sell more than 6 million copies.
LeDoux and Brooks teamed in 1992 for the Grammy-nominated “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy,” which was LeDoux’s only Top 10 single. He also performed duets with Toby Keith and Jon Bon Jovi.
The title of the Chris LeDoux Memorial Park bronze comes from Brooks’ posthumous tribute single, “Good Ride Cowboy.”
“The song Garth Brooks wrote of Chris, it says everything,” said D. Michael Thomas, the Chris LeDoux Memorial Park statue sculptor and one of LeDoux’s seemingly endless number of friends. “He was one of a kind.”
– Ron Gullberg
If you go…
Here’s the schedule of events for next weekend’s Chris LeDoux Memorial Park dedication:
All events in Kaycee
* 7 p.m. — bareback and saddle bronc riding, Harold Jarrard Park, free admission.
* 8 a.m. — street closure, art show opens.
* 10 a.m. — horse-drawn wagon rides from parking areas.
* 1-3 p.m. — free food, beer and videos (downtown).
* 3 p.m. — dedication begins.
* 4-6:30 p.m. — music by Western Underground (Chris LeDoux’s band with guest singer Dustin Evans).
* 7 p.m.-2 a.m. — music by Chancey Williams and the Younger Brothers Band.
Posted by Kaci Switzer