JEFFREY CITY, Wyo. — On a lazy Sunday afternoon in this forgotten high-plains outpost, Byron Seeley decides to kick up a little dust. It’s his 44th birthday, after all. He’s not getting any younger, and certainly no better looking.
The pottery artist sips from a jug of Lord Calvert whiskey, chasing the taste with slugs of Busch beer. Suddenly, he and a fellow merry prankster clamber on to the roof of his studio and begin throwing kitchen chairs out into the scrub brush, past the shattered hulks of already tossed TVs.
Who knows what they’ll do next? Later, just for laughs, they might wander out onto lonely Highway 287, don their monkey and alien masks again and rattle the nerves of passing motorists. They get the urge on slow days just like this one.
“We’ll be sitting around talking about the universe when we spot headlights at dusk,” Seeley says.
That’s when they run down to the road for some mock fisticuffs. Or somebody will shuffle along with an old-folk’s walker or run atop a huge rolling wooden wheel kept just for this purpose. “We do people a favor,” says Seeley, known as the Mad Potter. “Out here, they might otherwise fall asleep.”
But why the masks?
Seeley pauses. “Why do anything?” he says.
Seeley is among three dozen hard-core residents of a misnomer. Because Jeffrey City is certainly no city, not anymore.
Forty years ago, the place was a uranium-mining boom town (population 5,000) with three bars, two banks, a bowling alley, movie theater, roller-skating rink, three gas stations and an Olympic-size swimming pool at the then new high school.
Then the market for uranium tanked in 1980; the Lost Creek and Pathfinder mines folded, and the city faded away. People fled like beetles from under an overturned rock. Jeffrey City became a ghost town. Now a new uranium mine is fueling talk of a Jeffrey City comeback.
But guess what? Few of the iconoclasts still living out here are doing somersaults. Fact is, folks like their little ghost town just like it is. Most want the world to keep passing them by, even if you drive 60 miles for a carton of milk.
“I like my towns peaceful,” says Dusty Hiatt, who with his wife, Isebel, runs the Split Rock Bar and Cafe. There’s a hole in an elbow of his shirt as he sips from a cup reading “If you don’t like my attitude, stop talking to me.”
“People here are reclusive,” he says. “It’s the nature of a small town.”
A visitor speaks to a bar patron, who looks away as if hearing a distant voice. Then he walks out, past a row of greasy old cowboy hats hanging on the wall and the life-size color cutout of John Wayne. “Charlie don’t talk to strangers,” Hiatt deadpans.
Jesse Manley, 43, recalls when the place she calls Jeff City really was a city. Her rancher father raised five girls outside town, and she rode here on horseback: “It was an exciting place, before it passed away.”
Seeley was among those who later arrived as new pioneers. He bought an old gas station seven years ago for $5,000 and relocated his pottery shop and out-there sense of humor. The sign reads “Monk King Bird Pottery.”
Of course, there’s a story behind it: An old Texan once offered to craft him a wooden sign and asked what kind of birds he liked. Seeley was partial to mockingbirds. But the old man couldn’t spell and replaced the “c” with an “n.” Seeley kept the name.
Seeley actually wouldn’t mind seeing a few more potential customers around town, but the potter’s a realist. “It gets lonely here in the winter,” he says, waiting for his mother to drive 60 miles to deliver his birthday present — a carton of Marlboro cigarettes. “More folks might come back, but I won’t hold my breath. Anyway, it’s fun the way it is.”
Across the road at St. Brendan Mission Church, there are so few worshipers the congregation meets just once a month. Stacie Citron grew up here and attended Jeffrey City High when the school boasted 600 students. Now her son Colton is one of just two on campus. He’s a kindergartner; the other’s in fourth grade.
Each day, bus driver Phillip Moody travels 20 miles each way to pick them up, maneuvering a landscape so isolated it might be called the Big Empty. “You gotta watch for them antelope,” he says. “You never know which way those things are going to bolt.”
Colton’s grandfather, 74-year-old rancher Jack Corbett, shakes his head over any comeback for the town. “More people bring more problems,” he says. “We once had a certain element; tramp miners who worked a few shifts and then borrowed money to leave town. Who wants them back?”
Nearby, L.C. Bookout repairs a ramshackle building that was once a dance hall called the Driller’s Delight. Behind him, dangling from an abandoned phone booth, is a crumpled directory from 1989.
“We’re frozen in time,” says Bookout, a ponytailed artist who speaks in a Tennessee accent. “I haven’t met any ghosts yet. But in the winter when the wind stops howling, you hear the squeaky signs and wild cats squawking from the old miners’ barracks — then it sure feels like a ghost town.”