GEM shows off new Lora Nichols exhibit

Despite visitor downturn, Encampment museum reveals display of turn-of-the century photographer


Mike Armstrong

The Lora Webb Nichols exhibit is new to the Grand Encampment Museum.

by Mike Armstrong

"Its wonderful," Carbon County historian Nancy Anderson exclaimed about the new Lora Webb Nichols exhibit at the Grand Encampment Museum (GEM). "It is very informative and beautifully done."

Anderson currently lives in Nichols' house and has been presenting GEM with artifacts of the Valley's famous photographer over the years.

"It captures her essence," Anderson said. "There is even a blue wall. She loved blue."

Tim Nicklas, GEM museum director, is the force behind the exhibit.

"I think it came out pretty well," Nicklas said. "She deserves this scale of exhibit. If I could have, I would have taken some kind of room over."

According to the GEM, the Lora Webb Nichols collection includes photographs, diaries and other artifacts from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950's. Nichols was born in 1883 and passed away in 1962 She is credited for documenting Encampment while she lived there through her diary and her photographs. She started at 16 when presented with a camera and, later that year, a developing kit.

GEM credits the Kodak camera to be Nichols' tool of freedom. She took pictures of the claims and mines, tram stations, the huge copper smelter and tie camps that were prevalent at the time around Encampment. Her many portraits of women, children and babies were in addition to those of miners, ranchers, business folk and saloon keepers.

According to GEM, Nichols' work began with her first photograph of "Mama in the door". As a professional photographer who had her own shop, her collection of photographs grew immense over the years. Additionally she kept a diary that chronicled her life during her time in Encampment.

Besides GEM having a collection of Nichols photographs, the University of Wyoming has a collection of her work.

Besides the photography, on display is her washing machine from 1958, her writing desk and cameras that might have been hers but are definitely from her store.

Nicklas said he keeps getting books she owned.

"We have hundreds of her books," Nicklas said.

A recent addition to the exhibit is a fine crystal perfume bottle from the 1850's owned by Nichols that Anderson donated.

Nicklas said it has taken three months to get it ready for public viewing and several months more were put in pre-planning.

"There are some more things we are going to add to it," Nicklas said. "It needs to have more narration because just having stuff out doesn't tell the story and we need more samples of her photography."

Besides the Nichols exhibit, there have been a few display changes. Teddy, the stuffed dog that had sat on a wagon in the livery for years, has been put behind glass.

"We had the problem of people petting him, which was a concern for two reasons," Nicklas said. "One they are damaging the artifact and second we were poisoning our visitor, because back when they processed for taxidermy, one of the chemicals used was arsenic."

Nicklas is glad to be able to show off the new exhibit during a time that isn't easy for places that depend on visitors to sustain operations.

"Our opening we had C.J. Box do a signing which was great," Nicklas said. "But our numbers were down for something like that because we had no one from Colorado because it was still shut down."

Nicklas said the museum has had to cut hours and workers to cope with the restrictions that have been brought on by COVID-19.

"Our tours are shorter and we keep them regulated to a smaller amount of buildings," Nicklas said. "We have to look at the space we are in and how many people can fit in and allow for social distance."

Social distancing isn't the only problem facing the museum when having visitors.

"We have a lot of artifacts that are lying around and that is a big thing," Nicklas explained. "Someone touches something and we have to disinfect and you can't disinfect artifacts. It is why we are here, to preserve items."

Nicklas said the restrictions for COVID-19 that came in March hit GEM hard.

"They happened just as people are looking at traveling," Nicklas said. "It took April and May away and May is when we when we have our uptick. Plus, it was impossible to advertise this year because we didn't know when we could be open."

Nicklas said donations have been off from large contributors to add to the pressure of running the museum this year. He doesn't know when the situation will resolve itself.

"We didn't get many of our big donors this year," Nicklas said. "We are down $15,000. What do I do to make up that loss? This is what all museums are going through. Nobody is alone in this."

He said it was tough times and GEM was making the adjustments it needed to.

"In June we have the shortened hours of 10-4 on Tuesday to Saturday, much shorter than usual, and eliminating some buildings people can go into," Nicklas said. "It means we have to limit the employees we have, which limits how many tours we can give."

At the end of June, GEM will reevaluate its current restrictions.

"I am trying to be hopeful, but we are just going to ride this through and see what happens," Nicklas concluded. "I am taking it week by week, but I honestly don't know where things will be in July or August."

He is happy that for the visitors that do come, the Nichols exhibit is ready to be seen.

Mike Armstrong

A perfume bottle from 1850's was owned by Lora Nichols.


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