Buffalo, Wyoming has the unique claim as the birthplace of the Wyoming State Flag and its designer, Verna Keays Keyes.
The Bighorn Mountains stand in the backdrop of this photo, Verna’s hometown of Buffalo nestled in its foothills. Verna grew up exploring, riding, and hiking near Clear Creek and the Bighorns. She fostered a love for the mountains while learning about Wyoming’s native flowers. She was a bright, talented and gregarious young woman, with many friends in the Buffalo and Sheridan areas.
Growing up in Wyoming, I have always had a fondness for Buffalo and the Bighorns. The Occidental Hotel and the old west downtown always captured my childhood imagination on a journey through the Bighorn Mountains. Tomorrow, I feel as though I will be seeing it all for the first time. This is the first time since I began researching Verna that I am making a visit to her hometown. I will find the downtown Post Office and Bank. Behind this Post Office is where Billy and Estella Keays built their home and raised their daughter, Verna. I hope to feel that same divine inspiration Verna felt there when she moved back home at the age of 23 and designed the Wyoming State flag, even though their home has since been moved and replaced with a bank. Then I will try to find where her home moved, apparently still in-tact. I will explore the streets, trying to figure out what is still Verna’s Buffalo and what has changed in the last hundred years.
Verna left Buffalo to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1916 and returning home. That summer, she advocated for art instruction to be included in the curriculum for Johnson and Campbell Counties while educating teachers from both counties in the principles of design during the Teacher’s Institute. She looked to enrich her hometown with the knowledge she gained while away. (Buffalo Bulletin no. 52 August 31, 1916, page 3)
That September, at the age of 23, Verna designed the Wyoming State Flag. She called the design divinely inspired, waking her from a deep sleep after weeks of her father’s nagging to enter the flag-design contest hosted by D.A.R. (Cheyenne State Leader no. 194 September 08, 1916, page 8)
Her design featured the white silhouette of a bison, facing out over the prairies where he once roamed free. As such, it was accepted by the Wyoming Legislature and signed into law on January 31, 1917, by Governor Kendrick (pg. 164). Yet, by December of 1918, the first flags gifted to the senator who introduced the bill and the Governor who signed it into law featured a white silhouette of a buffalo with its nose in the wind. (Rawlins Republican no. 51 December 19, 1918, page 1)
Omission is a funny thing. In part, because there can be many motivations assigned to it. The archives do not have the complete correspondence between Verna Keays Keyes and Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, the main force behind the contest and in manufacturing flags. Noticeably missing before December 1918 is the correspondence concerning the bison and its orientation.
Hebard, who wrote the technical description of the flag for the Wyoming Statute, preferred the “buffalo” hitched to the flag pole, its nose to the wind. Omitted from the statute is a description of the direction the bison faces, a convenient loophole for the person who essentially wrote the legislation. Hebard always referred to the white silhouette as a “buffalo” and so too does the Wyoming Statute.
The omissions from the archives seem glaring. What exchange took place between Verna and Hebard that resulted in changing her original design to suit Hebard’s preference for those first honorary flags? The exchange is absent from both women’s papers held at the American Heritage Center. Hebard included two letters from 1925 when the design solidified in her style, but the first request from 1917 or 1918 is gone. Verna did include an exchange from early 1919 with some friends, teasing about the nit-picking and design changing Grace Hebard, but her donation to the archives also came with a note chastising her younger self for being disrespectful.
While not overtly in the known records, Verna did push back on the design change in subtle ways. While being photographed, she usually held the flag with the bison facing as she intended. She also insisted on using the correct term, “bison.” One can almost read the tightness in a voice with each exchange correcting the last, “bison.” At one point Hebard requested Verna to send her a copy of the symbolism and Verna’s return description of the “American Bison” read, “the monarch of the Plains of Wyoming (incorrectly called “buffalo”).”
There was only one instance in the archives that I could find of Verna using the word Buffalo to describe the flag. In her notes for a speech delivered in 1951, in her hometown of Buffalo, WY, Verna fondly called the bison, “Our Buffalo.”
Tomorrow I will see her Buffalo and bring her story home.