A Diamond in Coal Country
In 2019, County 17 is embarking on a new endeavor to spotlight those in our community who go above and beyond to make a difference; those shining stars, or diamonds in the rough that aren’t just surviving, but working to help themselves and others thrive in Campbell County.
Each month, we will bring you one of these stories. If you know someone who stands out in a crowd, feel free to send us their name and contact information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After more than 40 years in Gillette, Dan Barks joked that a lot of the community leaders today hadn’t even been born when he moved to town, pointing to Commissioners Rusty Bell and Mark Christensen and City Councilman Shay Lundvall.
A lot can change in that amount of time and when asked to recall the biggest change, Barks laughed.
“Certainly, the roads are better,” he said, recalling the obstacle course that was Lakeway Road from Highway 59 to 4J Road in the 1970s. “It literally was a gravel road.”
Barks moved to Gillette in January of 1976 to head up the Campbell County Parks and Rec Department, which then consisted of around six full-time employees.
He recalls that first department budget was around $350,000, but quickly grew to over $1 million within the first three years.
When Barks became director of Parks and Rec, the swimming pool at the first Rec Center location on Highway 59 was already in place. The department quickly got to work, adding on over time to meet the needs of Gillette in 1980, including a new track, basketball and racquetball courts, and many new programs.
Barks said that in the early days of the Rec Center, someone would mention an off-the-wall program and they would put an ad in the paper to gauge support and to find instructors. No matter the program, they were able at least find a few experts.
“And those programs flourished,” Barks said. “We could create any program we wanted, because somewhere in town, there was somebody who knew about it.”
People have always been drawn to Campbell County for the thriving, energy-driven economy, he noted, which leads to a very diverse group of people. In the early 80s, the community was made up of a lot of young, single people. As the department expanded, the softball fields at Bicentennial Park were built and rec league softball was all the rage.
“Softball in those days was different. I always say it was more like organized violence,” Barks said with a smile.
In addition to heading up the local rec league, Barks served as the state commissioner for, what was then, the U.S. Amateur Softball Association during the 80s, organizing statewide tournaments for those competitive players who wanted to go beyond rec league.
Don’t forget about Wright. At the same time Gillette was growing, Wright was making the leap from a mining man camp to a family-oriented community with the help of Atlantic Richfield, or ARCO. Together, the business and the County built the original Rec Center, and developed the community parks, tennis courts, and adult sports leagues. The development was planned in preparation for the influx of employees anticipated at Black Thunder.
After heading parks and rec for 15 years, Barks was ready for a change of pace and became the general manager of Cam-Plex, the crown-jewel of the community at the time.
“I grew into the job, if you will. It was far more political than I was used to,” recalled Barks, who managed the facility for 22 years, finally retiring in 2013.
In 1991, when Barks took the helm, Cam-Plex had already grown from 740 to 1,106 acres of land. The Heritage Center opened in 1989, and there was peri-mutual horse racing at Morningside Park.
“The concept at the time, was not Cam-Plex as it is,” explained Barks. “The concept grew after they had the land.”
Barks and the Cam-Plex marketing team were instrumental in bringing events to the community, such as the National High School Finals Rodeo and the Pyrotechnics International Guild.
There’s only a little pride in his voice as he talks about how Cam-Plex has grown over the years. But, Barks is still looking to the future. There is still a great deal of land that is undeveloped. He said that’s important to ensure there’s plenty of land for the decision makers 100 years from now since there’s no way to anticipate what their needs will be.
“My job was to manage facilities and programs, but we’ve always had pretty good elected officials,” Barks said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate here. With few exceptions, most of them have had the community’s good in their mind all the time they’ve served.”
Service is concept that seems to come naturally for Barks. Even since his retirement, he says he still has his fingers in the pie. He has served on the State Parks and Historical Resources Commission, just completed his term on the Gillette City Council at the end of 2018, and has recently been appointed to the State Fair Board.
Never sitting still, Barks spends his free time in the Bighorn Mountains, often solo hiking above treeline. His goal is to see every one of the several hundred lakes in the range. He said he’s already about 80 percent of the way there, making between 10 and 15 trips a year every season.
Most recently, Barks said he snow-shoed in from Bald Ridge and was able to look down on Lake Helen hidden under a layer of snow. With wonder in his voice, he asked, “Who gets to take that picture?”
Having explored the entire range from the north to the south, Barks says his favorite spot depends on the season. It’s the solitude that he enjoys. Never selfish, he always takes pictures along the way to share with friends and wife, Mary.