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The Busy Bee

Sage Grouse

WyoFile ran a colorful story about the legendary Occidental Hotel in Buffalo. A comment submitted by Steve Voiles, former Buffalo resident, lamented the omission of reference to the Busy Bee Café, an historical landmark which rivaled the Occidental in legend, although perhaps more recent legend. The Busy Bee, a tiny diner with 12 stools, shared a wall with the Occidental and hung out, literally, above Clear Creek, which flows through the center of downtown. Steve, whom I have not seen in 15 or 20 years, makes some historically significant points, to which I will add the following.

The Busy Bee occupied a minute corner of land with the Occidental Hotel to the north, empty space (literally) to the west, the Main Street bridge to the east and the aforementioned hanging deck over the occasionally flood-prone Clear Creek in Buffalo, Wyoming.

Bits of history about the Busy Bee:

The bridge, a wide one, was often touted as the only bridge in the USA where motorists could make a legal U-turn. Not any more.

The Voiles family lived a block down the hill from the manse (Congregational) in Buffalo, which is where I grew up. Steve went off to Macalester College in 1966 or 1967, and I went there in 1969. Although we had friends in common, we saw little of each other. He had a really cute little sister, Christy. She got married and was living in Buffalo in the 1980s, where she is now.

Hollis Voiles, Steve’s dad, was a sturdy fellow with an efficient multi-tasking manner and a gruff demeanor. He ran the place like a grumpy proprietor of a Jewish deli. No matter;  It was absolutely worth standing in line for his burgers and hash browns. I would go there at 11:30 a.m. to avoid the rush, except that the other people doing the same thing were already making up the rush. People crammed into the space, waiting for a stool. At least it was a social opportunity.

Hollis perceived no need to moderate his opinions, be politically correct, or even be polite. I lived 13 miles out of town in the late 1980s and sometimes I would get up really early, drive into town and show up at the Busy Bee at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., while Hollis was simultaneously making breakfasts, entertaining customers and setting stuff up for lunch. Hollis knew me from my childhood in the late 1960s and of course he knew I was a lawyer. He entertained the guests with inquiries about why a lawyer would get up so early; He must be trying to pad his billable hours or screw somebody.

Steve’s mother made the best pies in the known universe. Cream pies, apple pies, peach pies, pecan pies.  People would stand in line for the pies. I wish I had owned a camera then. OMG.

When we moved to Buffalo after I left the Attorney General’s office in 1985, Kate, my spouse, took Matt, our son, to the Busy Bee one morning. Blair Klein, a local attorney whose company I miss, pointed out the young lad (11 years old) to Hollis, declaiming in bold basso profundo, “This is this lad’s first visit to the Busy Bee!” Hollis, playing up the momentous event, asked Matt what he would like. “Hash browns, ham and a short stack, please.” Matt plowed through half of the world’s largest pile of potatoes, 1/2 inch thick ham and two of the largest hot cakes ever seen, finally giving up, then to suffer a round of good-natured teasing.

Jim Hicks, former publisher of the Buffalo Bulletin, quite a wit, wrote about the Busy Bee and the sitting bench located on the Main Street bridge just south of the Busy Bee. Jim’s nom de plume was a fictional Swedish sawmiller named Sagebrush Sven, whose column, a weekly favorite in the Bulletin, ranged from predictably amusing to sometimes side-splitting hilariously funny. Sven referred to the Busy Bee, the center of town at lunchtime, as The Lazy Fly, while the group frequenting the bench was, of course, the Bench Sitters. Local politics, national politics, Hollis Voiles’ remarks, the weather; all were fair game for commentary by Sven and the Bench Sitters.

In the late 1980s the Library Board applied for a Farm Loan Board grant to build a much-needed new library in Buffalo. The entire board and a few supporters traveled to Cheyenne for a board meeting. My spouse went along. She grew up in a medium-sized Catholic family in Casper, alongside the Murphys and the Sullivans, so she knew her way around that community. Jack Sidi, then the State Auditor, had been her French teacher in high school. Kathy Karpan, a good friend, was the Secretary of State. Mike Sullivan was the Governor. Lynn Simons, another good friend, was Superintendent of Public Instruction. Kate had a good time introducing the Library Board members around the Capitol Building and the Hathaway Building. But the highlight of the program was when the library director presented the Governor with one of Helen Voiles’ pies. A year later volunteers were standing in the streets passing books to the new library.

I remember one spring in the mid-1960s when Clear Creek was on the verge of flooding; huge runoff came roaring into Buffalo. The water was just inches below the overhanging substructure of the Busy Bee and inches below the Main Street bridge, too. I was in junior high school, and I thought it was all going to wash away. That did not happen then, but the Busy Bee is gone, nonetheless. There are businesses and institutions which are created by families and they live and die with those families. The Busy Bee was one of those.

If I had ever had electoral aspirations, my best strategy would have been to go down to the Voiles’ house and get Helen, the world’s best pie maker, to endorse me. Many political wannabes had the same idea. Campaigning at the Busy Bee was de rigueur for candidates local and statewide.

So Steve, I hope that we have now started to fill that gap in the Occidental Hotel/downtown Buffalo story. Jim Hicks, Blair Klein, others; do you want to chip in with more stories about the Busy Bee? There are plenty of them.

Meanwhile, I moseyed over to Buffalo a few weeks ago to find that someone had rebuilt, reinvented the Busy Bee. The back bar is pretty fancy, the tables are nicer, the prices are higher. The coffee was good and the lunchtime fare was well received.

But I heard this gruff voice in the background: What are yuppies doing in my restaurant? And why is that Cox guy back in town? Whose bill is he padding?

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6 Responses to The Busy Bee

  1. Mary Flitner December 30, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    I never made it to the real Busy Bee, wish I had. I didn’t live in Buffalo – but lots of our little towns had a similar spot…the lucky ones still do. Where the waitress remembers what kind of salad dressing you like, and if you like your meat rare –

  2. Joyce Inchauspe December 28, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    Loved your article about the Busy Bee. But I also had fond memories of Hollis and Helene as tropical fish lovers. Their entire front entry was lined with tanks full of wonderful tropical fish. I used to stop at the Busy Bee to make my “appointment” to go by the Voiles’ house to see the fish, and usually buy one or two. Hollis and Helene and the old Busy Bee are gone, but live on in our hearts forever. Thanks for reminding so many of their special contribution to Buffalo’s wonderful history

  3. DeweyV December 28, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    I also saw the author of this piece in Buffalo a few weeks ago , attempting to learn/play an accordion after the Thursday night jam .

    You are forewarned…

    I developed a fondness for the ” new ” Busy Bee right away . Can’t pretend any affinity with the old aristocrats that populated the place, but I am looking forward to the new outdoor fishing /sundeck over Clear Creek when Dawn next waves her magic wand…

  4. Beth Painter December 28, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    Great article! Like Nancy, I have many many memories of the Busy Bee, Hollis, Helene, hamburgers, french fries, and pies….
    All over the country, when people learned I was from Buffalo, the first story they had was about the best burgers they’d ever had, at the Busy Bee.
    On our first trip to Buffalo I took my new big-city husband to eat there and Hollis gave him and me a hard time (of course), one of the great memories of introducing him to a small town.

  5. Nancy Purcell Pedro December 28, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Great article RT — if they could just duplicate the Hollis Hamburgers and Fries they would do a booming business at the new Busy Bee! What wonderful memories your article evoked. Everyone who was ever in Buffalo in those days ate at the Busy Bee, college kids had to eat there when home on breaks from school, and then there were all the regulars! My Dad always went to lunch at the Bee at 11:30, and Mom took the second lunch, so she went later. One of them had to keep Purcell’s Jewelry open over the lunch hour! I remember going to the Bee at breakfast time before leaving to drive back to school and ordering a hamburger and fries — I wasn’t going to be home at lunch time! Hollis raised his eye brows — but I got my burger!
    Since we lived in the neighborhood, I also remember going to Voiles’ when Helene was baking pies — just the heavenly smells were sure to make a person gain a couple pounds. I’m not sure what happened to the french fry maker that was mounted to a post in the basement — I remember Steve feeding big potatoes into that machine and pulling the crank to chop them into fries! That’s probably why they can’t duplicate the fries — they were made of real potatoes!
    And, of course, if you wanted to know anything about what was going on in town all you had to do was sit at the lunch counter at the Bee and listen — somehow everything anyone said seemed to be heard by every ear in the place!
    Your article evoked such memories — Thanks! And yes — it does seem as if one could hear Hollis and Helene when eating in there!

    • Steve Voiles February 28, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

      Thanks for that RT Cox! You definitely got the spirit of the Busy Bee back in circulation. One note if anybody is unaware: the Busy Bee once played a roll in a MGM box office movie, a thriller call Endangered Species with Robert Urich. I went to see it on the big screen in Minneapolis and got there late. I got seated and looked up to see a hamburger sizzling on the grill quickly followed by a shot of Hollis making burgers. Dad was proud that he never advertised except in the back of the high school yearbook; still he counted movie stars and governors and senators friends. Mom’s pies were an important part of the picture. She made about 3000 pies a year, as few as 6 and as many as 15 every morning 6 days a week. And the pies were made at home and carted down to the cafe by 11:00 AM in time for the noon rush. Also, for the unaware, a fictional version of the Busy Bee appears in Craig Johnson’s western novels. The stories are many. Hope to hear some more!

      Steve Voiles

      Ely, Minnesota

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