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Jeep Rides, Starships and Coffee – Hells Half Acre Store

Hells Half Acre circa 1995 - h/t Grant Goberg

by Randy Tucker, County 10

The heavy wooden sign weathers a little bit more with each passing winter as it sways in the prevailing wind howling out of the Northwest. The green Wyoming Highway Department sign is faring better against the elements of western Natrona County, but the little community that both signs serve notice to have vanished.

The wooden sign still points to the fenced-in scenic overlook – h/t Randy Tucker

For nearly a century, the store, restaurant, and motel at Hell’s Half Acre was a tourist Mecca.

The once vibrant roadside attraction 42 miles west of Casper welcomed visitors, sight-seers, geologists, and even Hollywood movie crews over the years.

In territorial days, the strange geologic formation was known as the “Devil’s Kitchen.” It took literally an act of Congress and a mistaken name to create what we know as Hell’s Half Acre.

In March 1922, a bill introduced by Wyoming Senator Francis E. Warren set aside 300 acres of federally owned land, transferring ownership to Natrona County. The county commissioners at the time realized the impact this unique rock formation would have in increased tourist revenue and took control the following December.

A scenic view of Hell’s Half Acre in summertime – h/t Randy Tucker

“Devil’s Kitchen” became a public park, but the name didn’t follow the deed.

In one of the first postcards printed about the area, someone confused Devil’s Kitchen with another ragged piece of Natrona County property named Hell’s Half Acre by local cowboys. The name stuck, and locals began calling it Hells Half Acre.

One of the earliest postcards from Hell’s Half Acre – h/t Pinterest.com

Much like the argument that demanded the proposed name of present-day Washington State not be named Columbia to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia, but rather Washington Territory, the logic was cloudy at best.

The first Hell’s Half Acre was a section of alkali on the North shoreline of the Platte River southwest of Casper. This boggy, slick 15-acre patch of bentonite was hard to trail cattle across and cowboys had to drag cattle stuck in the muck to dry ground.

Adding to the mystery of the misnomer was the title “Half Acre.” The newly created public park was a half-section, meaning 320 acres, but “Hell’s Half Acre” sounded a lot better than “Hell’s Half Section” and the name spread.

There are at least two other “Hell’s Half Acre” sites in the US, one in Canon City, Colorado, and the other a name for the 1930s “Red Light” district in Ft. Worth, Texas, but neither one had the spectacular scenery that the one in Natrona County did.

Jeep tours, hamburgers, and mail, the complete deal at Hell’s Half Acre in 1947 – h/t Natrona County Museum

A store soon opened in a small log cabin on the site. In the 1920s and 30s, tourists could make the sometimes treacherous hike down trails into the bottom of Hell’s Half Acre with large rattlesnakes always a threat.

The US Post Office always had a big role in the success or failure of isolated, rural stores. If the store had a post office, it had a much greater chance of making it. A post office brought customers to pick up mail long before rural routes were commonplace and when they did, the people often stopped to shop.

After World War II, business expanded using surplus US Army jeeps, and a road was cut down the slope into the bottom of the area.

An early 1950s family about to take a jeep tour into Hell’s Half Acre – h/t Natrona County Museum

“It was busy in the summer,” John Hitt, who lived in nearby Powder River as a kid, said, “They sold trinkets, moccasins, and souvenirs. The tourists just ate that stuff up.”

The old cabin was torn down and a new store with a small motel opened.

“My dad and Swede Bracken built the gas station there,” Hitt said. “A Texaco Station.”

Hitt’s father John C. Hitt ran a Conoco Station in Powder River and Bracken operated a Texaco Station on the highway in the same little town.

Before it was US Highway 20/26 it was known as the Yellowstone Highway and was a pathway from the heavily populated east coast to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

The strangeness of the geologic formations with dark caverns, deep crevices, and strangely shaped towers that resembled medieval castles was a natural attraction for the tourists.

The original store at Hell’s Half Acre – h/t Natrona County Museum

In the 1940s to the 1960s, when the highways were not as well constructed or maintained as today, travelers stopped often, every 30 to 50 miles to take a break from the rutted road. Hell’s Half Acre was waiting with a store, restaurant, bar, picnic tables, and a small motel.

The store came first, with an addition for a bar and restaurant a few years later. The final addition, a small motel was built 75 yards east, and uphill from the original store.

A 1930s postcard from Hell’s Half Acre – h/t Pinterest.com

Unlike the stores closest to Hell’s Half Acre at Powder River, Arminto, Hiland, and Waltman, the railroad was never close enough to have an impact on business. The two main sources of income at the store came from tourists, oilfield workers, local ranchers, and cowboys.

The store eventually expanded and became a full mercantile center for locals to buy groceries, produce, and meat, but the best season remained the summer when caravans of cars drove families west to the parks, and then back home.

The restaurant served as a common meeting place for businessmen, hunters, and ranchers moving livestock to and from summer pastures. Many deals were struck over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie when people from Fremont and Natrona County met halfway to conduct business.

The old Wyoming Highway Department Sign at the entrance to Hell’s Half Acre – h/t Pinterest.com

A series of owners dreamed of cashing in on the tourist trade, but the one limiting factor they all faced was water.

There was no water at Hells Half Acre, it had to be brought in by truck, stored in a cistern and used sparingly.

This made expansion a challenge and a motel with multiple showers and demands for water was a nightmare to keep supplied. The water truck sometimes ran twice a day during peak usage.

In the early days, there were outhouses for men and women, but the unsanitary nature of an outhouse in the expanding American economy of the late 1940s through the 1980s demanded flushable toilets, showers, and sinks for the motel to be viable, and indoor plumbing was a requirement for the restaurant.

A July 11, 1940 postcard stamped at the Hell’s Half Acre Post Office – h/t Pinterest.com

Signs asking customers to please refrain from heavy water use slowed some of the demand, but it remained a challenge for as long as the store, restaurant, bar, and motel were open.

Hells Half Acre suffered the same ups and downs that Wyoming’s boom and bust economy forced on businesses in every town, city, and wide spot in the road across the vastness of the state.

When gasoline prices were high, and demand was strong during World War II and the booming 1960s, stores flourished, and Hells Half Acre was no exception.

It wasn’t an exception when business declined when drilling stopped due to low crude oil prices, tourists became fewer and fewer with inflation, and the ranches hired fewer men once the sheep and cattle were effectively fenced in with barbed wire.

Hell’s Half Acre in 2004 – h/t Pinterest.com

The improving highways, the competition from stores just down the road a few miles in Natrona, Waltman, and Powder River took their toll as well.

The incredible geologic formations were not enough to stave off the inevitable march of progress.

Hells Half Acre experienced a welcome respite in the summer of 1997 with the filming of segments of the science fiction film “Starship Troopers.”

The film was based on the work of writer Robert A. Heinlein published in 1959.

The action scenes representing the alien planet Klendathu, home of the giant insect enemies of the “Roughnecks” were shot using the spectacular backdrop of Hells Half Acre.

Extras from Casper and as far away as Shoshoni ate meals at the restaurant and brought groceries and other supplies from the store.

The film crew stayed on site for several weeks.

The following summers from 1998 to 2000 saw a big increase in tourism as fans of the film came to the area to see where the planet Klendathu scenes were shot.

The notoriety faded, and so did the Wyoming economy. US Highway 20/26 was improved again, and with an increase in speed limits to 70 mph, more people rolled right by Hell’s Half Acre than ever before.

A store no more – h/t M. J. Stanlen Photography

In 2005 the restaurant, motel, bar, and store were closed for good. They were demolished a few years later.

There is a movement in Casper to bring back the area as a tourist attraction, but no plans for a store, restaurant, or motel.

The Natrona County government may build a few restrooms, and bring back the picnic tables, but the heyday of the little community will likely never return.

The weathered sign at Hel’ls Half Acre in 2008 after it closed – h/t KTWO News

What was once a site for Native Americans to drive bison into the crevices and sheer drops of the area and the business that prospered on the whim of America’s fickle economy much later are gone, all that remains is the wind that whistles through the forlorn terrain.


This story originally appeared on County10.com. It is republished here with permission.

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