Nels Hansen Smith was born on August 27, 1884, in Gayville, South Dakota. He graduated from the University of South Dakota, following which he ranched for two years (1905-1907) near Gettysburg, SD. He came to Wyoming in 1907 and acquired ranch properties in Crook and Weston Counties. He married Marie Christensen in 1911. They had two sons, Peter and Christy.
Smith, a Republican, was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1918. He lost an election for a Senate seat in 1926. He continued to be politically active and was nominated by his party for the 1938 gubernatorial election, which he won by a large margin over incumbent Leslie Miller. This achievement made Marie Smith the first Wyoming born first lady.
The new Governor gave a short and very Republican address to the 1939 legislature, favoring no new taxes, reduced gasoline and utility prices, and less highway transportation regulation. Regarding education expenses, he thought school districts could manage a “slight decrease” in their budgets. In 1941, he told the legislature he didn’t think the interpretation of current equalization law fully accomplished the goal of providing equal opportunity to all Wyoming students.
During his tenure as Wyoming’s chief executive, Smith was credited with removing the Game and Fish Commission from partisan politics after getting approval from the state legislature to reorganize it. He is also remembered for instituting programs that brought about the abolition of the state property tax; starting a vocational training program at the Industrial Institute, which led to the building of 300 miles of roads in the state; beginning a program of acquiring public hunting and fishing areas; recommending a budget system with appropriations for each department; being active in the marking of state historic sites; and strongly advocating states’ rights.
Oil and gas production had been a hot topic for decades and it occupied Governor Smith’s time as well. In 1941, he urged the legislature to join a compact of other major oil producing states. The compact had been organized in 1935 to help conserve oil resources and eliminate overproduction, which drove prices down and impacted royalty payments to the states. The legislature, fearing restrictions on Wyoming production, declined to join in 1935 and defeated the Governor’s recommendation in 1941.
Governor Smith is remembered as a straightforward man who struggled with political maneuverings and advice. His handling of affairs related to the University of Wyoming, particularly the dismissal of President Arthur Crane, were a major source of negative publicity. He was defeated in a 1942 re-election bid.
Tragedy struck the Smith family in 1952. On July 16, ten year old granddaughter Connie Smith walked away from Camp Sloane, a summer camp in Salisbury, Connecticut. It was theorized she left because of an altercation with camp mates, or possibly because of homesickness. She was last seen hitchhiking on a road near Salisbury. The Smith family maintained search efforts for years as possible clues to her whereabouts were reported. However, the case remains unsolved.
Nels Smith continued to be an active public servant later in his life, serving on the Wyoming Highway Commission and heading the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. He died July 5, 1976 in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Governor Smith’s records constitute one of the smaller gubernatorial collections in the State Archives. The records include a register of visitors to the Wonderful Wyoming exhibit at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, executive orders calling elements of the Wyoming National Guard into active service (reflecting pre-World War II tensions), a proclamation concerning livestock importation regulations, some financial records, a copy of the Governor’s 1941 message to the state legislature, an article about states’ rights, and requisitions and extraditions for fugitives from justice.
— Curtis Greubel, State Imaging Center and Records Management Supervisor