In Wyoming towns like Laramie, new styles in furniture, wallpaper and accessories came via railroad; city dwellers with the money to spend could have homes that looked a lot like those east of the Mississippi. But for ranches, hunting lodges and rural second homes in the west, a more rustic style gained favor in the late 1800s and has persisted.
Wealthy captains of industry preferred to furnish their second homes “in a manner more appropriate to the mountains and wilderness than to the city,” wrote Thomas Huge in the fall 2001 issue of Points West, the journal of the Buffalo Bill Historic Center (now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West).
This movement toward a more rustic look gained momentum when national and state parks began to be developed in the early 20th century. Places like the 1904 Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone showcased the new “western” look in furnishings, with minimally processed wood, Native American-inspired rugs and upholstery, and plenty of wrought iron for fixtures that looked like they came right off a blacksmith’s forge.
One Wyoming furniture designer and manufacturer, Thomas C. Molesworth (1890–1977), gained a nationwide reputation. He settled in Cody after starting out in Montana. His Shoshone Furniture Company operated between 1931 and 1961.
Molesworth’s sophisticated yet rustic-looking western adaptations of the popular Arts and Crafts style (sometimes called “Mission” style) gained a regional foothold for builders and clients in the west.
Molesworth didn’t just create a few furniture pieces. He created entire environments for hotels, guest ranches and private homes. His styles could incorporate bark, twigs, bone, leather, fur, antlers, horns and/or misshapen burls. These natural elements contrasted greatly with refined furniture of smooth veneered wood in other styles.
Original Molesworth pieces sell for sky-high prices; even reproductions now sell for astounding amounts. The pictured hutch is currently being offered for $27,000. Named “Remember the Alamo,” this piece, reminiscent of Molesworth, was designed and built by Marc Taggart and Company for one private client, a Texan, naturally. Now the Cody-based Taggard firm will make copies available to anyone
The fact is Molesworth furniture, and other western designs did not blend well with other pieces in the English and French and even “Early American” traditions. Once people bought a few pieces for a room now referred to as “Cowboy,” “Santa Fe,” “Ranch,” “Rustic,” “Lodge,” or the more popular “Western Style,” they were committed to using it everywhere.
Thomas Huge speculates that ranch hands were sometimes employed in down times building simple rustic furniture for working ranches. It is more likely true old-time ranch hands would have saddled up and rode on to a different employer if they were asked to do anything that didn’t have to do with mending fences, riding a horse or tending irrigation ditches and livestock outdoors.
However, a “homemade look” emerged for much contemporary furniture in the Western Style. While some manufacturers like Marc Taggart employ the fine handcrafted details of Molesworth originals, most choose unpretentious simple lines. These are produced by several different regional manufacturers and fit well into western life-styles and average pocketbooks.
One of these regional manufacturers is Mountain Woods Furniture of Laramie. Started by Tim Saltonstall in 1973, the company makes rustic furniture that is sold throughout the U.S. and Canada through Cabela’s catalog and many other retailers.
One local retailer is Snowy Mountain Furniture owned by Richard Arbour at 206 S. Third St. Established by Mountain Woods initially, this retail outlet is now totally separate, though they carry the Mountain Woods line.
From its plant about 15 miles west of Laramie on Highway 230, Mountain Woods makes furniture mostly from locally sourced wood. Owners from 2001-2010, Mike and Dee O’Connell, founded the Sustainable Furniture Council. In 2011, the company was sold to Daryl and Maureen Joy.
As with other rustic furniture makers, Mountain Woods mainly produces furniture made of wood as opposed to upholstered pieces. In the Molesworth tradition, however, it does make sofas, futons, rockers, and lounge chairs with loose cushions.
Mountain Woods also makes a few accessory pieces like mirrors and lamps to enhance the western lodge look in homes and commercial buildings. Sometimes using saplings that are naturally bent, called “snow load,” their furniture displays the irregularities typical of natural aspen and pine wood.
Molesworth would be delighted to see his furnishings still valued, and a whole industry developing around western styled items.
Editor’s note: This story is one of a series by members of the Albany County Museum Coalition that encourages interest in local cultural and natural history. Judy Knight is Collection Manager at the Laramie Plains Museum.