“This is my 31st summer coming to the Tetons and I realize the more I know, the more there is to learn,” says Mary McKinney, GTLC Historian. She is endlessly fascinated by this unique place that carries so much history. “The flowers, animals, mountain names, trails, ranches…it’s like peeling an onion and getting to the core of things, one layer after another layer.”
As a child, McKinney was enthralled with stories of the past. She was particularly captivated with Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel on the Oregon Trail. The history of the Settler’s coming out west lured McKinney to seek a degree in history.
“My poor children thought they were raised crawling along the Oregon Trail,” McKinney laughs, as she recalls the numerous trips to the sites.
In 1979, McKinney began visiting the Tetons, as her daughters worked summers here. Initially the family was taking camping trips through National Parks in the west and by 1986 there were five McKinney’s working at the Lodge.
“It’s a beautiful place with a manageable size; you feel you can actually get to know it” states McKinney. “It simply seems like the most beautiful place on Earth to my family.” So beautiful, all four of her daughters were married in the Park.
McKinney began as GTLC historian by gradually learning about the settlers’ cabins at Colter Bay Village, the ranches where they originate, and some of the architectural history of Jackson Hole. She studied a bit about Jenny Lake Lodge, which was founded by a western cowboy and a romantic story. The Lodge was originally named Danny Ranch, after the cowboy’s love.
Sharing her wisdom with the public, McKinney leads history talks on three properties. The Jackson Lake Lodge tour focuses on history and artwork, from the eight wildlife paintings by Carl Rungius that hang in the second floor lobby to photographs of the early days of Jackson Hole. Jenny Lake Lodge highlights the diverse history of Jenny, the name change and how it nearly shut down at one point only to re-emerge with elegance. Colter Bay Village brings the 166 settlers’ cabins to life, with a rich history on these rustic homesteads that date as far back as the 1890’s.
A wealth of resources are available on the history of Jackson Hole including GTLC and Jackson Hole Historical Society archives, the University of Wyoming, and the Rockefeller archives in New York. While McKinney gathers information from these archives, she reveals that her best resource is simply talking to people. Guests will share their experiences and their parents’ experiences and a bit of otherwise unknown history is shared with the world. “When people are acknowledged for their stories, they feel a sense of ownership of a place and they want to come back again.”
McKinney embarks on the lengthy, annual drive from Georgia to Wyoming, as the Tetons draw her back year after year.
“At the end of a walk around the cabins, very frequently someone will say, ‘they all looked alike before and now none of them look alike. I’ll never make that mistake again.’ They see the individuality of the cabins,” says McKinney, as she expresses why she keeps returning to the Park each year. “When people appreciate this place it’s thrilling to me; when they realize it’s not just your ordinary hotel grouping, but a special place with special stories.”