“Casper Saints: Lengthening a Legacy,” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 69–70
Casper, Wyoming, brings to mind cattle and cowboys, sheep and antelope, oil wells and wide-open spaces. Nestled on the banks of the North Platte River, famed route of the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails, Casper is a city rich in the history of westward migration.
The area abounds in landmarks described in the journals of early Latter-day Saint pioneers: the Mormon Ferry Crossing, Emigrant Gap, Avenue of the Rocks, Willow Spring, Prospect Hill, Independence Rock, and Devil’s Gate. But today Casper is a landmark of modern LDS faith as well. Like their pioneering counterparts, Saints here rejoice in gospel blessings as they rely on their faith and courage to overcome challenges on the trails of life.
In June 1847 a party of Mormon immigrants led by President Brigham Young established a ferry crossing at what is present-day Casper. Nine men stayed behind to operate the ferry for other travelers. Today the LDS presence among Casper’s 47,000 people has grown to 3,412 members in one stake comprising eight wards and two branches; the statewide LDS population is 52,000, or one Saint per nine people.
The Mormon Trail and other aspects of local LDS history were commemorated in the state’s 1990 centennial celebration. And 24 July 1993 marked Casper’s first officially recognized annual Pioneer Day celebration, with activities that included the erection of a commemorative sign at a park near the ferry site. These strides in LDS community relations are modern historical hallmarks betokening a bright future for Casper Saints.
The prairies of sage and looming landmarks surrounding Casper appear much as they did 150 years ago. Three hundred miles of pioneer wagon-wheel ruts link past and present. The Old West flavor and spacious beauty of this untrampled wilderness lure many people to Casper, though many Saints of early pioneer stock have settled here for other reasons as well.
For fifth-generation Latter-day Saints Craig and JoLynn Clayton, the fun of living in Casper is taking their Utah relatives over the Mormon Trail and reading the diary of Craig’s great-great-great-great-grandfather William Clayton. Excerpts of the diary are read at the campsites where those passages were written.
Brother Clayton leads a busy life as a father of four, counselor in a bishopric, and attorney. JoLynn is also busy as a full-time homemaker whose Church service includes chairing a Scout pack committee and leading music in Primary.
“We are grateful for the influence of the gospel in our home,” says Brother Clayton. “We cannot imagine raising our children in today’s world without knowing our Heavenly Father’s plan for us and the standards we should live by.”
It was not until 1919 that Casper was formally organized into a branch and services were held in the homes of members. The Saints acquired a house in 1925 that served as their chapel. In a Sunday School meeting there, Martin Bertaganole met his wife, Sophronia, who was serving a full-time mission. After her mission, the two were married. In 1962 Sister Bertaganole was called to be Casper’s first stake Relief Society president. Four of the six Bertaganole children, now with families of their own, live in Casper and are a solid influence for the Church there.
Today ninety-year-old Martin Bertaganole, one of the oldest members in the stake, is greeted affectionately by all as “Grandpa.” He recalls when the stake was so small that his wife knew the dates of everyone’s birthday. He attends church at the Casper Third Ward, where he leads the singing in priesthood meeting.
Canadian Shirley Johnson, a registered nurse who has lived in many places, moved to Casper three years ago for medical training. She has stayed because of the low crime rate, wide-open spaces, and friendly people she has met since joining the Church in Casper.
“The gospel gives me an assurance that there is a purpose in life,” Sister Johnson says. “The Spirit helps me with my work to be in the right place at the right time. I get a sense when something is not right with one of my patients.” She knows the importance of daily scripture study and has felt the calming effect of the Spirit in times of personal danger.
Keith and Linda Sorensen, with help from their nine children, operate a family bakery. Working together is only one way this family’s unity is kept strong; they also enjoy leisure time together, such as when they, as a family choir, delight neighbors and ward members with their Christmas caroling.
Rick Koerber is captain of the debate team at Casper College. Of his joining the Church in 1992, he says, “I have never been so happy in my life.” His search for truth began two years before he met the missionaries.
“At the age of seventeen, I found myself at a crossroads. Realizing I truly needed guidance, I began my search for my own personal religion.
“I stumbled onto the full truth very quickly,” Rick says of his meeting LDS missionaries on a rainy Easter Sunday. Having found the gospel, he’s eager to “tell everyone about the Church.”
In April 1992 the lives of Corey and Ruth Rammell were changed forever by a debilitating illness—and by the faith and love of their fellow ward members. Corey’s illness struck suddenly, and his puzzled physicians feared the worst.
“My life came to a screeching halt, and I lived in the hospital with a recurring paralyzing illness that could not be explained, let alone treated.”
Corey recovered miraculously after a ward fast in his behalf. The doctors, of course, were amazed. Ward members’ loving concern impressed Corey, who says he had never experienced such great love from others before.
“Ruth and I have tried to be self-reliant, but this major crisis redefined the expression ‘No man is an island,’” Corey says. “We are all part of the whole,” truly brothers and sisters in the gospel.
Casper Saints are thrilled to read the pioneers’ names carved in stone at Avenue of the Rocks and to imagine what life was like back then. Yet in thought and deed they are not far removed from that noble heritage. In fact, they feel well connected to their faithful forerunners who, like them, were staunch followers of Christ who overcame obstacles and left behind a legacy of faith for others to follow.