Museum event focuses on Wyoming state flag

By Amanda Manchester, Herald Reporter
Posted 6/19/24

EVANSTON — Historian Kylie McCormick, from Casper, delivered a presentation of “The Wyoming State Flag and the Women Who Made It Fly” to a full crowd during the Uinta County …

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Museum event focuses on Wyoming state flag


EVANSTON — Historian Kylie McCormick, from Casper, delivered a presentation of “The Wyoming State Flag and the Women Who Made It Fly” to a full crowd during the Uinta County Museum’s Brown Bag Thursday series on June 6, at the Beeman-Cashin Building.

“I love Evanston, what a beautiful little town,” said McCormick, before recognizing the anniversary of D-Day and holding a moment of silence for veterans.

McCormick then introduced the primary figure in the creation and adoption of the Wyoming state flag in 1917, Dr. Grace Hebard. “She was a powerful woman with a lot of respect throughout the state, and she used a lot of influence to make things happen,” McCormick said of Hebard.

Hebard, who wore many hats, was a writer, historian, suffragette, scholar, economist and most notably a University of Wyoming (UW) educator and librarian who also served on the school’s board of trustees. Hebard developed and implemented UW’s traveling library, which provided educational texts to rural communities. She would later establish the Oregon Trail Commission, which was dedicated to rediscovering and commemorating the lost tracks and forgotten cemeteries of the trail.

By late 1916, while America was nearing entry into World War I, Hebard’s primary motivation in pursuing an official state flag was born out of a deep sense of patriotism, according to McCormick. “The primary reason was the immediate danger of being drawn into the war. The symbolism of the American flag was very important to Hebard,” who was also an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

After several failed attempts over nearly two decades to introduce an official state flag, Hebard pitched the idea for a design contest. The winner would be awarded $20.

Contest voting took place during a DAR state meeting held in Sheridan that October. “Verna won the day,” McCormick said, introducing the pivotal role of Buffalo native and recent Art Institute of Chicago graduate Verna Keays Keyes. Her rendering of the Wyoming state seal encompassed within a white silhouetted bison, set against a dark blue backdrop with borders of white and red handily won the contest out of a varied reporting of 26-37 submissions. Newspaper outlets reported a lower number of submissions, while “Hebbard was a politician and likely embellished the number of participants,” McCormick explained.

Once the design was selected, Hebard began lobbying legislators to have the acceptance of the flag formally and legally recognized, which was fulfilled by Governor John Kendrick on January 31, 1917. The first time the image appeared in mass-distributed print was in a National Geographic Magazine in October 1917.

When the United States entered WWI in April 1917, production of the flag stalled due to Hebard conserving funding for war efforts, eventually leading to raising several millions of dollars for Liberty Bonds.

Major Edward Marsh Turner M.D. began printing palm-sized state flags to ensure that members of the Wyoming National Guard could carry one to France. The flags were deemed a “fragile piece of home given to soldiers before heading to the horrors of war,” McCormick explained. “It was a proper emblem for Wyoming soldier boys to take to the battlefield.”

When Hebard presented a flag to then Governor Robert Carey, she credited Keays Keyes for the design. When Carey accepted the flag, he said “the flag was a credit to Dr. Hebard, especially since the honor of the inspiration for its origin belonged to her.”

In 1926, the women worked together to begin selling flags to schools throughout the state. Keays Keyes would spend later years telling the story of the flag’s creation to Wyoming school children to impart “the importance of citizenship and duties.”

Controversy ensued when Hebard and Keays Keyes couldn’t agree on the direction in which the bison should face. Hebard was adamant that the bison face toward the flag pole, while Keays Keyes felt that creatively, the bison should face outwardly, to imbue a sense of surveying the freedom of the plains. Despite Hebard’s version besting the argument, the women would spend the next several years bickering about the detail. Their private correspondence was riddled with passive aggressive overtures, even debating between the term “bison” versus “buffalo.” “You can see how these two women would clash — Verna had to bite her tongue,” McCormick explained, due to Hebard’s esteemed status.

A contentious and spirited Keays Keyes would defiantly have her preferred version of the flag independently produced through a company in Chicago which she then personally sold and distributed for a time. First-ever woman Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross was allegedly gifted one such flag. However, after attempting to supply her version to a Natrona County school, the superintendent specifically requested Hebard’s version because “he didn’t want the bison’s nose [pointing] to the dirt, or walking off, wandering off the flag,” McCormick said.

Retrospect throughout the years would eventually soften Keays Keyes’ heart toward Hebard, turning her frustration into admiration. In 1947 while expressing appreciation for the woman who brought her flag to fruition, she wrote, “I was very disrespectful. Now I would not do such a thing.” Despite their tension, she never left Hebard out of the narrative, calling it the story of “our buffalo.”

Keays Keyes ended production of her right-facing bison flags in 1926, and ceased flag-related retail during the Great Depression of the 1930s until she resumed in 1945.

An ailing Hebard, recognizing her time was running out, wrote to Keays Keyes in 1936, “Those were wonderful days, were they not, Verna, when we were working so hard to get a flag and I little thought we could get anything so lasting and satisfactory. For this I am very grateful indeed and give myself the pleasure of again thanking you for it.” Hebard passed away that fall.

Keays Keyes’ design conveyed that she felt the bison was “monarch of the Plains, while the state seal is the heart of Wyoming,” according to McCormick. Furthermore, the blue symbolizes loyalty; the white, the purity of the Plains. The red border indicated the “red men,” as described by Keays Keyes, an outdated and offensive slang descriptor which has since been amended by the state. “The Indian Wars were close, and palpable,” McCormick said. Red is also used to represent those “who knew and loved this country,” the “red soils of Wyoming,” and “the color of blood and sacrifice of Native Americans and pioneers,” McCormick continued.

Keays Keyes, who passed away in 1982, would spend the rest of her life celebrated at rodeos and parades for her contributions to state posterity. The DAR honored her as well. She requested and was granted the gifting of two of her preferably-designed flags manufactured in 1927, which were issued to her with the caveat that they were for her personal private use only. Keays Keyes, ever the rabble rouser, illegally donated each flag for public display; one at a memorial in her hometown of Buffalo, and the other to the Natrona County Library. “She placed them at two places she loved in Wyoming,” McCormick said. At risk of confiscation by the state and displayed at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, State Senator Jim Anderson amended the senate file (SF) 11 in 2022, allowing Keays Keyes’ flags to remain where she donated them.

“Verna would play with symbolism over the course of her life,” McCormick said. “The buffalo sticking its nose into the wind exemplifies stubborn Wyomingites facing our problems head on,” McCormick said before prompting attendees to consider “What does the flag mean to you?”