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THE NATION : Hometown U.S.A.: Lost Springs, Wyo.

Population quadruples -- to 4

A town's official tally of 1, a census error, has been righted at last.

May 15, 2011|David Kelly

Battling wind and blowing snow, Leda Price ducked into the post office here for a bit of warmth and a bit of news.

Postmaster Rona Bruegger emerged from her cubby hole.

"The Department of Transportation was out this morning," she said. "They changed the sign."

Price's face lighted up. After a 10-year battle with the federal government, Lost Springs was finally found and, what's more, it had quadrupled in size.

The big green highway sign, which changed April 29, made it official: LOST SPRINGS POP 4.

For years it proclaimed LOST SPRINGS POP 1, making the burg a national curiosity with spreads in National Geographic and Life magazine, while annoying locals who declared the tally bogus.

"When they did the census in 2000 they counted me and that was it," Price said. "How do you screw up a population this small?"

Art Stringham, owner of the Lost Springs Store, which houses the post office, chimed in. "They only counted one side of the street," he observed.

Price was not amused and has been demanding a recount ever since. "We haven't had a population of 1 since the Great Depression," she said.

Grandmother, mayor and buffalo hunter, Price has ruled this resilient speck on Wyoming's vast eastern plains for more than 30 years. Her home and headquarters is the Lost Bar, a bank-turned-saloon brimming with curios like a mounted squirrel with a raised middle "finger" beside a century-old cash register Price won't shut for fear of never getting it reopened.

"I've been mayor a long time," she said, sitting in the empty bar. "I once tied with Art's dad. We went to Douglas; they wrote our names on paper and drew one from an ashtray. He won."

It was a fluke, and she's been winning ever since. Her pet cause has been getting everyone properly accounted for.

Census Bureau spokesman Douglas Wayland said he wasn't aware of the problem. "We will make as many as six attempts to get an accurate count, and my guess is we made every attempt in this case," he said, noting that anyone unhappy with a count can mount a formal challenge.

Price never made such a challenge, but said that whenever she called "they just passed the buck."

So when the 2010 census came along, she was ready.

"We made sure everything was filled out and hoped to heck they got it right," she said.

This time they did.

But life here won't change much. The extra money they'll get from the state is expected to be under $100 a year.

"It's about accuracy," Price said. "I also feel a responsibility to keep Lost Springs alive, and I know Art feels the same."

The pair are preparing for the Lost Springs centennial celebration starting this month. There will be dances, dinners and auctions, and the Wyoming Cattlewomen's Assn.-- the Cowbelles -- will hold a chicken roping competition. Price expects a big turnout. "People are really drawn to small towns," she said.

Even in Wyoming, with barely half a million people, Lost Springs is small. It sits at a dramatic intersection of high plains and sky.

A recent spring day brought sun, rain, sleet and snow. Pronghorn antelope, dainty as ballerinas, sheltered from the relentless wind in hollows.

Founded in 1911, the town once boasted 280 people, but when the coal mines closed, most moved on, leaving behind only a town hall, store, post office and weathered bar.

Stringham came in 1969 when his parents left Casper to buy the Lost Springs store. They stocked it with all sorts of things a passing tourist might buy, including fossilized dinosaur dung and whiskey decanters shaped like New Hampshire.

"I have lived around big cities, but I'm basically a loner," said Stringham, 54. "I love it here and plan to die here."

His brother, Alfred, and his brother's girlfriend, Paula Johnson, showed up years later and are the third and fourth residents.

Price grew up in Madison, Wis., with dreams of moving West and marrying a cowboy. She wound up in Douglas, about 30 miles away, and married Vincent Price, a bookkeeper who at least dressed like a cowboy.

They moved here in 1972 and reopened the Lost Bar. Price, a certified nursing assistant, began cooking for hunters and shooting the occasional buffalo. Her husband has since died, but Price, who declined to give her age, continues to thrive.

She prays that when she and the others are gone someone else will carry the torch for Lost Springs.

"I just hope someone comes along and falls in love with the place the way we did," she said.

--

Kelly writes for The Times.

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