Charlie Belden Chronicled State’s History in Photography

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Charlie Belden Chronicled State’s History in Photography

The first time I heard of Charlie Belden was during a visit to Omaha where my old friend Lee Myers lives a nice retired life with his wife Barbara.

Lee is a former publisher of the Cody Enterprise and is a native of Lovell. He lives near a wonderful enclave in downtown Omaha called the Old Market. It is full of old warehouses that have been converted to upscale restaurants, bars and neat apartments.

He took me to a restaurant called the Twisted Fork and asked me to notice all the wonderful cowboy photos on the walls. They were amazing.

These images were all professional, incredibly sharp and showed old time Wyoming on the old prairies.

Except they were not that old. They are genuine cowboy shots that were taken in the 1920s and 1930s by an enterprising guy named Charlie Belden.

Charlie’s wife’s family owned the Pitchfork Ranch west of Meeteetse and was a spectacular photographer.

I got reacquainted with Belden’s photos during production of our latest Wyoming-themed coffee table book, Wyoming at 125. His photos are stored at the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody and the American Heritage Center in Laramie. Plus there is a museum devoted to him and his photos in Meeteetse.

The man was a genius when it came to photo composition. And the quality of his black and white pictures was superb. We chose to use modern computers to sharpen and colorize these 1930s-vintage photos and his turned out amazingly well in the book.

One of the least known stories in Wyoming is an event promoted by Belden, which involved sending Pronghorn Antelope fawns to Germany around 1936.

Prior to World War II, Adolph Hitler and his deputies wanted to create a massive wildlife display in Germany and were importing animals from around the world to create herds of exotic animals in Germany.

Belden was a friend of Germany back in those days and his Pitchfork Ranch was well known for the tame Pronghorn that roamed the place. There are even photos of him feeding fawns with a milk bottle.

One of the most unique photos of this era shows Belden and a friend loading Wyoming Pronghorn fawns on to the German dirigible Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ. This is the same place where the Hindenburg exploded and burned a few years later. A newsreel announcer watching that explosion exclaimed the famous line: “Oh, the humanity!” as the doomed airship crashed to the ground.

Cheyenne Author C. J. Box has published a novella that includes a reference to this true event.

My favorite Belden photo shows an old cowboy astride his horse at the front gate of the ranch. He is looking up over his shoulder at a Beechcraft Staggerwing biplane circling the ranch and getting ready to land.

The image implies the old watching the new.

Author Sam Western of Sheridan also used this image for the cover of his prescient book published a few years ago called Pushed off the Mountain, Sold down the River.

Belden knew the famous pilot Amelia Earhart and assisted her in the location and then starting to build the building her cabin above the historic ghost town of Kirwin, at the end of the Wood River Road above Meeteetse.

Construction on that cabin ceased with Earhart’s disappearance while attempting an around the world flight in 1937.

Belden loved Wyoming, the cowboy life, photography and flying. His photo collection shows off these aspects of his life.

His biography reads the following: “Belden had a great advantage over the photographers of today. He lived with his subject matter and thoroughly understood every detail of it. He was a master of composition, light, and angles and this showed in each of his photographs. His technical abilities, combined with an unequaled knowledge of the cowboy and sheepman, allowed Belden to capture the true life and times of the Pitchfork Ranch from 1914 to 1940.”

Belden was once quoted as describing his photography as: “If a picture does not tell a story, it is not worth taking.” He reportedly lived and worked on the Pitchfork and, in 1922, became a co-manager but was not very good at it. He left the ranch about 1940 when the ranch was having financial problems.

On Feb. 1, 1966, Belden, reportedly suffering from cancer, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in St. Petersburg, FL, a sad ending to a unique cowboy photographer.

It is truly sad that Belden did not live long enough to see how much folks of his adopted Wyoming appreciated his efforts to highlight the state through his wonderful photography.

Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written six books, which are available at fine stores. His latest is Wyoming at 125. His books are also available at wyomingwonders.com.

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