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The Museum at the Bighorns will host an exhibit featuring sketches from a notable soldier-artist

"An Artist Goes to War: Through the Eyes of George Ostrom" museum exhibit title card
Museum at the Bighorns

The Museum at the Bighorns will be temporarily hosting “An Artist Goes to War: WWI Through the Eyes of George Ostrom,” a collection of sketches and artifacts from his time as an U.S. Army soldier in France.

“We are bringing in eight of his World War I era sketches that are housed at the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum in Casper,” said Jessica Salzman, Collections Manager with the Museum at the Bighorns. “We decided to focus on ones that depict battles that he was a part of, so we’re getting ones that show like the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and the Battle of Marne, the Argonne offensive, that depict battles that he saw firsthand.”

Born in Spencer, Iowa in 1888, Ostrom and his widowed mother relocated to Wyoming in 1913, settling about 20 miles east of Sheridan. He joined Sheridan’s National Guard Company D the same year and was activated for service on the Mexican border in 1916. The U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917 eventually saw Ostrom sent to France between July and November of 1918. It was during his time on the border and in France that he drew approximately 20 sketches of military life, including those of combat as well as ones behind the lines.

“I know the director and curator down at the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum and I have for quite a while,” Salzman said. “At one point, they were mentioning that they had these sketches from George Ostrom during his World War I days and that just kind of set off an idea of, we really wanted to bring these to the community to see. They were all for loaning them to us because it is a really shared and focused story. We all do want to be able to share the history and the stories of Wyoming's veterans.”

Ostrom is also known for his drawing of a “bucking broncho” as part of a contest to design an emblem for his unit. Salzman said this later became a piece of art that most Wyomingites see almost daily as the bucking horse on the state’s license plates, which have featured the image since 1936. He was also active in veterans' causes in the Sheridan area and had a post-military career that included hunting wolves, a common practice of that era. He later expressed regret in having done so and became more conservation oriented in later years.

“It's believed that the bucking horse for the state is Steamboat [while] others believe it's not,” Salzman explained. “George Ostrom always maintained, and a lot of other people believed as well that his design during World War I, even though it's slightly different in shape, was what really inspired the bucking horse to be the symbol of Wyoming. He would sign little sketches with George Ostrom, the originator of the bucking bronco and stuff like that. He was really proud of it.”

Then-Wyoming Secretary of State Lester Hunt played an important role in getting the image into the public sphere.

“He [Hunt] commissioned a bucking horse and rider from an artist named Allen True. Hunt copyrighted the image, and the design was slightly different that Ostrom’s, but quite a few Wyoming veterans recognized that as a symbol that they had used during the war, so they thought that Ostrom deserved to get the credit.”

Other artifacts that showcase his military and civilian life in and around Sheridan are also part of the exhibit.

“In addition to those eight, as sketches, we are bringing in George Ostrom bugle,” she added. “He was a bugler for his company when he was on the Mexican border because he'd always been musical. We have a picture of him and his marching band uniform when he was in high school. That's going to be part of the exhibit as well and then the last object is going to be a World War I era helmet from a soldier that has the regimental logo that Ostrom designed for the regiment painted on the helmet.”

Ostrom died in Sheridan in 1982.

The exhibit, which Salzman said doesn’t normally travel to outside museums from its home in Casper, will be available to the public from Aug. 2 through Dec. 17.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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