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The Leader

The Historic Noble Hotel:
Where Rails End and Trails Begin

By Ethan Meers
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2002, Vol. 18, No. 1

  The Noble
  Harold Del Monte, the hotel's second owner, adorned the lobby and rooms with furniture by renowned Western artists Paul Hindman and J. K. Ralston.
Thus in its first decade of existence the Noble’s success rested entirely on its ability to capitalize on Easterners’ desires to experience the natural wonder of the West in conjunction with their interest in luxury accommodations. But as the country grew the marketability of the west expanded beyond the land itself. With the actual frontier period fading from recent memory to history texts, it became possible to market the west not merely as a place but as an entire frontier experience thick with the images already popularized by dime novels and early movies.
When Barber died in 1929, Harold Del Monte, who had then been working in the Lander State Bank headquartered in the hotel’s lobby, bought the building. Del Monte recognized the opportunity to market the hotel as more than luxury accommodations that provided access to Yellowstone. An avid historian, Del Monte set out to re-create the Noble.

When he bought the hotel Del Monte commissioned Paul Hindman to use magnolia wood to build beds, writing desks and chests of drawers on which Montana artist J. K. Ralston was commissioned to paint the scenes of Del Monte’s chosen themes.

In the 1930s the Noble itself became part of history: Butch Cassidy is rumored to have slept there when he came back from Bolivia as William T. Phillips.

Del Monte’s renovation project was not finished until the 1940s. He wanted the rooms “to give a brief but true synopsis of some of the exciting events of our Early West, as they influenced the history of the town of Lander, Wyoming, and the surrounding Wind River Mountain country.” All of Del Monte’s “exciting” stories were told through images on the Noble’s furniture. The series of images, grouped by theme into ten separate rooms, included the Sacagawea and Lewis and Clarke story, images of early mountain men and fur trappers, paintings of stagecoaches and the Pony Express, and images of cattle herds and cowboys, as well as many other depictions of adventure.

Del Monte also worked to transform the Noble’s dining room into a reflection of the adventurous tales of the frontier. In the 1940s, the dining room was arrayed with Indian crafts including a complete Tipi erected by the door. A series of paintings on the walls of the Noble’s dining room captured the history of Chief Washakie, chief of the local Shoshone Indian tribe. Along with the split cowhide covered furniture, grand fire place and stained glass skylight, the Noble also housed an extensive arrowhead collection and an aquarium with several species of native Wyoming trout.

In 1945 Nancy Mansell O’Neill wrote, “outside the Noble Hotel looks like an ordinary small town hotel. As you step inside you are immediately in the spacious living room of a motion picture mountain lodge… Adorning the walls are heads of big game killed in that country: elk, deer, antelope, moose, and mountain sheep. Behind the desk you may see Princess June, great, great granddaughter of Sacagawea. She is night manager of the hotel.”

Del Monte’s Noble was not only marketing a re-creation of the frontier, it was offering its visitors direct exposure to the landscape that was so integral to frontier life. In a 1947 pamphlet, the Noble invited the world “To See the West as Few Have Seen It” with an advertisement of fishing and hunting trips into the Wind River Mountains.

As times changed, the Noble’s frontier re-creation became less marketable. In 1968, Del Monte sold the Noble. It’s not clear whe-ther the hotel was undone by new and easier access to Yellowstone, or new trends in Wyoming tourism, but by some means the hotel faltered. What is clear is that in its new incarnation, the Noble would continue to rely on Wyoming’s wilderness as its source of revenue.

At that time NOLS was only three years old and operating out of Sinks Canyon just outside of Lander. In 1975 the school moved its headquarters into what was then an abandoned Noble Hotel. At the time NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt was 60 and had done everything from a first ascent of the Grand Teton in the 1920s to leading the first American Expedition to K2 and serving in the 10th Mountain Division during the Second World War. In the words of Life Magazine in 1969, “Petzoldt keeps saying he is no missionary, but somehow he transmits an evangelistic message: you are more and better and stronger than you ever thought you could be. You didn’t think you could rappel your way down that cliff, or sleep comfortably outside in a blizzard, or swing by a rope across a furious river, but guess what: you can.”

In his initial message to the world, Petzoldt set a tone that continues to drive the NOLS experience. While the school is undoubtedly far different today than it was in 1969, the fundamental notion of interaction with the wilderness remains a basic tenant of a NOLS education.

As a Rocky Mountain Semester student, I would come to view the Noble as much a place of returnings as a place of goings. In between sections the building’s lobby is a place to talk to family and friends via phone calls and letters — just as it was for early travelers on their way to and from Yellowstone.

After working my first course as an instructor this summer, I will never forget the image of students sitting in front of the fireplace sharing stories and photographs just as I had done years before. But as anyone who has spent time at the Noble will recognize, the image is only a snapshot. The next day the students are gone either on their way into the field or back home. One semester student who stayed in the Noble for three weeks with emersion foot described watching courses come in and out like the tide, a constant stream of ebb and flow.

Like the seashore, the Noble continues its ebb and flow through history. From suburban student homes to the first night in the field, from a whitewater section to an in town wilderness first aid course, from an end of course banquet to a plane flight home, the Noble today continues its tradition as the place where the world ends and the wilderness begins.

Ethan Meers, a senior at Princeton University, is a graduate of an Adventure course in 1994, a Fall Semester in the Rockies in 1998 and an Instructor course in 2001. This article is excerpted from a paper on the Noble Hotel Ethan published towards his degree in history.

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