BY TOM REED
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1999.
BOULDER, Wyo.--One of western Wyoming's most historic buildings recently got the construction equivalent of a full body make-over, as the result of a $65,000 donation in memory of John S. Avant Jr.
Avant was tragically killed in a car accident in 1990 at the age of 32. He took a NOLS Wind River wilderness course in 1985.
The donation was made by Avant's uncle, Jo Jennings of Lanette, Ga. Jennings has subsequently given generously to provide furnishings for the house as well. Jennings and his wife, Anne, have a long-standing connection to NOLS, since John Avant Jr. took his course.
The Steele house, one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Sublette County, sits on a high, dry bench above the East Fork River on the NOLS Three Peaks Ranch. In 1886, Ed P. Steele turned his eye to that bench as the site for his homestead and ranch. He built a cabin there and then two years later moved his young family into their new home, leaving Boulder, Colo., for Boulder, Wyo.
As Steele and his wife added children to the family, they added rooms to the house, tacking on additions in 1895 and again in 1907. They used materials that were handy . . . lodgepole timber from the Wind River Range, cement mixed on-site from lime mined on nearby White Butte, and tons of dirt for the sod roof. For a period of time, the house was the largest in the area and thus was a gathering point for shindigs of all sorts, with people coming from the nearby community of Boulder and neighboring ranches.
Though the Steele family would later sell the ranch that today is a vital cog in the NOLS wheel, the house remained. But 100 years of Wyoming winters can leave even granite looking a little frayed around the edges. Although the building had been named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, it was beginning to wilt. The plaster and lathe interior was falling off in big chunks, the roof was sagging like the Asian economy, and the antique electrical wiring made the whole structure nearly as flammable as a primed MSR stove.
Armed with the donation, some power tools and a whole lot of muscle, a score of NOLS "carpenters" descended upon the old building. In the spring of 1997, more than 20 people showed up to help start the deconstruction phase of the reconstruction. They removed old newspapers that doubled as insulation (old Ed was apparently quite a reader; some of the newspapers dated back to 1895 and were printed as far away as San Francisco, Chicago and New York City), 20-25 cubic yards of dirt, rotten timbers and even the mummified skeleton of a cat.
Led by Mike Bailey, ranch manager and lead construction guru, the rebuilding phase started shortly after the last shovel of dirt came off the roof. Today, the house has a metal roof, a new interior, new wiring, and a real foundation for the first time in its existence, to mention only a few of the renovations. Once the face-lift is complete, the Steele house will return to its former glory with six bedrooms, a living room, kitchen/dining area, one bathroom and small sitting room. It will serve as a modern living space of staff and alumni, while retaining its original exterior character.
Three Peaks Ranch is a crucial base of NOLS operations in Wyoming, providing support for wilderness horsepacking courses, horse instructor seminars, Leave No Trace horsepacking courses, alumni trips, horsepacking rerations for Wind River courses and evacuation support for the Rocky Mountain branch.
A plaque on the house provides a tribute to John S. Avant Jr. Avant was, reads the plaque: "an outstanding NOLS student who embodied all the character traits that NOLS stands for." The Avant family have set up a memorial scholaship at NOLS that awards two full scholarship every year.
Thanks to the generous donation in his memory, the house will be standing to hear the excitement in the voices of future NOLS students for many years to come.