Bill Menor was Gangsta : America’s “Toll Troll” King with Historic Site to prove it!
I had passed this area, going down the Snake River while rafting. Yes, non-stereotypical people visited Wyoming long before Kanye West made it cool to go there, and long before I did it frequently, the people who made travel there famous, SINCE THE 1800s, were called DUDES. I looked over at the shore and saw this old, beaten up, white shack. I wondered if anyone was actually living there so I questioned some people about the shack structure I saw. It turned out that that shack belonged to a very important American Settler, one of those original True Life Hustlers, William D Menor (the D should stand for “Dollars”). Bill Menor was the very first Settler to set up a homestead in this part of what is currently Moose, Wyoming, in 1894. He lived in many different states before deciding to make his way down to Jackson Hole to homestead, in a place which hugs the very rough and wild Snake River. Right where his homestead was, today, there remains the remnants of Menor’s homestead, like his cabin and another building I later learned was a general store. I saw this flotation device, and well and this cable log structure with hard cable line, I was completely confused as to what was going on in that place, back in the 1900s. The very next thing I wondered was “who the hell is going way out here to buy things from this guy in this remote area, from his general store???” I mean, there aren’t but so many ways to get there today, so I can’t imagine how terrible it was to traverse this area in the 1890s to early 1900s. Who would put themselves through all of that travel, and that crazy river, just to make it to this area to use his store? And how the hell did he get his hands on “white paint”, back then?
It turns out that Bill Menor was the ONLY person to officially homestead there, by the west of the Snake River, by 1894, but he didn’t trust the soil being good for long-term farming. He actually knew that before selecting the place he decided to homestead. He couldn’t trust the farming would produce consistent results all year, which meant that his only way to sustain crops would be to rely on what farmers called “dry farming”, which is relying solely on rain to be your water supply for crops, in absence of a proper irrigation system. Jackson Hole’s weather was all over the place, farming was going to be a challenge if he was going to make a living off of this. Most Settlers moved to find fertile land to make crops when homesteading, that was his first challenge to overcome. The east of the Snake River had scattered areas of fertile land and people were settled in these slim pickings areas, but Bill Menor decided on homesteading on the west of the Snake River, which everyone knew would not be suitable for year-round farming. Clearly not discouraged, Menor applies to get a patent to homestead (not squat on the land, like many other Settlers were doing, he wanted to own it), then using his brains, all under the guise of cultivating a good 12 acres of land (ultimately only utilizing 5 of that 12) to prove that he could homestead, then went on to build his cabin, general store, ice house, smokehouse, by 1908. If you would prove you could homestead, you could have the land for free by most homesteading laws in those times, or at worst, just over $1 per acre would be the charge, in some areas. Everyone seeing him set up on the west of the river, must have thought he was absolutely out of his mind since no one wanted to even mess with that area after he got there. Settlers set up in all direction away from his location. He really was the only one west of the Snake for more than a decade. By the time 1908 struck, all investment and tactics started to come together for him, he had his patents and rights to the Cottonwood Creek, to start his irrigation system. History would prove that he never really had his mind on farming that land when he decided to homestead, he picked where the homestead for a more important reason, which is why his site is still known today as Menor’s Ferry Historic District.
Seeing that dry-farming wasn’t going to get him paid (before the irrigation system was put in and it’s seasonal/lucky-at-best farming), Bill Menor realized early that Snake River was too scary and rough, but it would eventually wind down to a smaller channel, and that was actually what turned out to be the key element to picking the location to set up the homestead, in the first place. He had ideas to utilize the Snake River, to make himself money, the whole time, but he kept his plans on the low (VERY SMART!), surveying it to find its most narrow location and to advertise that it would be the best place to cross the river. That would prove to be genius hustler mentality! Bill Menor decided that he would come up with a contraption that would allow people on the other side of Snake River safely, in order to make it to his homestead. He created a cable-car 2 pontoons-on-a-platform type of float, like a “reaction ferry“, which would traverse the Snake River on a cable, propelled by the river’s current. It was guided also by a wheel you’d expect on a sailboat. It’s a funny looking flotation device, but it could hold a wagon and up to 4 horses, or move huge supplies. This ferry would use the force of the river to it cross over via a very sturdy cable. This cable would make it so that the boat wouldn’t go flying off crazy down the really rough Snake River, and would steer it to his area. He made a killing on this, making it (almost)-free for a regular pedestrian even if they crossed with their personal regular wagon (no initially though, EVERYONE had to pay), 25 cents for a ride with 1 horse, and 50 cents for the wagon and crew. If he knew you would be setting up a homestead, or you were a dude (normally a RICH wannabe cowboy, trapper, homesteader, hunter) from out east, he knew you could be hustled easily. CHACHING! See, long before Kanye, people from out East frequented this area to get in on the beauty of the area. The re-creations of this crossing system are on display at the site. The cabin he made, and the general store are both there at the site, and Bill Menor painted it in a white color, which is pretty strange to see a cabin with color, especially since it’s from the early 1900s. His brother Holiday knew how to handle a lime kiln (pronounced ‘Kill’) which is like an oven used to calcify limestone and other rock. Bill Menor used the whitewash from that to make his cabin and general store stand out even more, by painting it in that white color you see there now. That is what caught my eye when I floated down the Snake River a few days before going to that actual site, a white cabin! He knew how to stand out, for sure.
Travelers would make their way to this the homesteads to start their trek towards the Grand Teton, especially in the summer, but also, people needed to go from Jackson Hole to Moran, and Menor’s ferry was the only way to safely do any of that. Many of the most promising customers were people coming through the area were from the dude ranches, who wanted to experience that outdoors and Trapper life, locals looking to hunt, fellow homesteaders looking to pass through, and anyone else who wanted to traverse Jackson Hole in general. A lot of people hauled supplies using the ferry. In low tide (normally winter), there wasn’t a lot of water flowing on the river, but money must be made! He created a make-shift cable-car which could navigate across the river and support 4 people max, then he also made a temporary bridge to cross, they would break it down entirely by the time the currents were back, by spring. Those people were going to use his Ferry and PAY UP! If one crosses, one must pay a toll, no exceptions! CHACHING! The first person to use his ferry was a nice, polite woman, with her wagon, and Bill escorted her over the Snake River, via his ferry, and as soon as she landed, he was in her face- like WHERE’S MY MONEY??!!! Yeah, he didn’t even let that lady cross for free, which contradicts most of the polite stories painted on tourist sites I saw. Timeline and quotations about his can be found in the archive sites for Jackson Hole. lol Apparently, Bill was no “gentleman”, not by a long shot, and the Menor’s Ferry Historic Site also pokes fun at Bill Menor’s character, like at the informational sign for the general store, describing him as a guy who swore a lot and had a pretty surly nature. To make sure no one would muscle in on his hustle, he had his brother “Holiday” set up his own homestead, on the opposite side of the Snake River, to ensure people couldn’t avoid using his ferry, but more importantly, that they paid that money!
What he was doing, by being a toll troll, was actually a pretty common during Settlers’ times, especially if a Settler could set up shop any body of water that other Settlers with overland/covered wagons would have to cross. This was highlighted during the times of the Oregon Trail. Wagons were made to be able to be tall enough to roll/float/drift, in case one had to cross bodies of streams of water, but the Snake River is a category 5 danger, even to this day. If one tried to be cheap, opting to circumvent toll trolls, they would likely drown in the rivers. If you read my earlier peek into the Settlers’ hardships during the Oregon Trail, aside from sickness, DROWNING also made up the bulk of the deaths on the trail, you’d see that it was smarter to use his Menor’s Ferry than risk your life. A lot of people died trying to avoid toll trolls or crossing creeks. The other reason people would be smarter to pay up was that if they tried to cross using their wagons to float, they were moving their valuables when they moved so all of their possessions would be destroyed or go flying down the Snake River if they tried to avoid Bill Menor’s Ferry. I’d later learn that the general store wasn’t the only thing happening out there on Menor’s homestead, he had a smokehouse out back, so I’m sure he made meat available for those dudes at the dude ranches. He had all of the ideas to bring people to his businesses, he supplied all treks to the mountains and hustled every single one of them. He was raking in the dough, and others saw everything he did, then started to copy everything he did, along the river, after obtaining homestead patents. These other Settlers came and cramped his style, copied/ruined his ideas, he decided that all of that, plus the trying weather of Jackson Hole, was getting annoying. He sold it all to a lady named Maude Noble, hit the road with his cash, and got out while he was on top. He goes down in American History as a Bill Menor, the True Life Hustler and Toll Troll King, and not because he made away for people to cross Jackson Hole! Why? Because while people make it sound like it was completely impossible to cross the Snake River, Settlers would find fords (not the car, shallow locations in a river one could walk/drive across easily) along the river, during low tide and cross, if they were smart enough, and would plan moves during this time. Likely it was too cold and the weather was crazy then. So Bill Menor used gangster mentality to hustle everyone at that time too stupid to do for themselves. This is really why he is honored with this spot, and for his efforts, because of his HUSTLING ability. They could have built a bridge over the river if that was the only thing keeping people from homesteading and crossing the Snake River, but who was that smart or bold enough to move on his operation? That is what his competition ultimately did though. Yeah, he hustled all of those dummies before that point, that’s why he is a legend.
As always, the finished products can be found on the main site of www.drunkphotography.com.