It is a place of legend, that embodies all the romantic notions of the West — cowboys, cattle, vast open range, shootouts and notorious outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Hole-in-the-Wall is the kind of place Hollywood had in mind when it built the Western movie genre.
In actuality, Hole-in-the-Wall started as a cabin where the Smith brothers lived, as Al and George Smith, were known.
It sat near what is called Outlaw Canyon, just below the confluence of Spring Creek and Buffalo Creek in Johnson County.
“People called them, ‘The Smith Gang,’ but my great-grandparents always referred to them as ‘Our good neighbors the Smiths,’” Brock Hanson said.
Hanson’s great-grandparents Albert Lafayette Brock and Julia Brock married in Missouri and settled in Johnson County, near Buffalo in 1884, then moved near the now infamous Smith brothers’ cabin a few years later .
The legend started with the name. As one version of the story goes, when a stagecoach driver asked the Smiths where he should leave their mail, Al Smith thought about it, and described a cliff near the road and the cabin.
“Just stick it into the hole in the wall,” he said. The overheard conversation led to locals calling the Smith place Hole-in-the-Wall, Hanson said.
The Smith brothers were known for collecting mavericks, unbranded and ungathered cattle on the range, and claiming the animals. It was common practice in Johnson County and much of the West at the time, Hanson said. But the cattle barons who lived elsewhere and ran their animals on public land in Johnson County called it rustling.
In 1892, 52 armed men, including some of the most powerful cattlemen in the state, arrived in the area with a list of 70 men they planned to shoot or hang for stealing cattle. This became known as the Johnson County War, or the invasion, depending on which side one was on.
While the invasion is not directly linked to the outlaws that eventually made their home at Hole-in-the-Wall, it’s impossible to separate the two, said Laurel Foster, executive director of Hoofprints of the Past Museum in Kaycee.
“The area became known as lawless and a place for rustlers,” Foster said. “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that’s a great to place to go if you are an outlaw.”
Hanson doesn’t know how the outlaws found Hole-in-the-Wall. But in time neighbors began noticing strangers coming and going regularly from the Smith place and sometimes moving cattle through at night.
From the late 1890s to the early 1900s, Hole-in-the-Wall, the cabin and the surrounding property, became a haven for wanted criminals such as George “Flat Nose” Curry, Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They were members of gangs, like Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, but collectively, anyone who stayed at Hole-in-the-Wall was lumped into the Hole-in-the-Wall gang.
It was a rough crowd of thieves and murderers that gathered at Hole-in-the-Wall, Hanson said.
“But the law wasn’t any better,” he said. It’s said Frank Canton, Johnson County’s sheriff, carried the list of names of the people the “invaders” wanted killed. At times during that era, it was hard to differentiate the law from the outlaws, Hanson said.
Despite the gang’s reputation, Hanson’s family and other settlers were friendly with those who stayed at Hole-in-the-Wall.
Hanson’s great-aunt Gene visited the cabin as a female chaperone when the Smith brothers’ sister was courting. Decades later she told Hanson stories of the gang practicing their horseback getaways and teaching her to play poker.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Those that stayed at Hole-in-the-Wall plotted robberies and other serious crimes. In 1897 there was the famous gunfight between members of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang, a U.S. Marshall and men from the CY Ranch. One member of the gang died that day. Al Smith fled on horseback and dropped his gun when a bullet hit him in the hand. A couple of decades later, when “that country finally got fenced,” they found the six-shooter Smith dropped, Hanson said.
Activities at Hole-in-the-Wall calmed down in the early 1900s, Hanson said. It was harder to be an outlaw. Telephones transmitted messages — and warnings — faster than horses. Motor cars brought help faster. And in 1909 a jury convicted men involved in the Spring Creek Massacre, where several sheepherders were murdered, a signal such crimes would no longer go unpunished.
Today, the name Hole-in-the-Wall belongs to a red cliff face on Bureau of Land Management Property about 40 miles from Kaycee and a few miles from where the Smith cabin once sat. A steep trail that “would about cripple a horse,” runs to the top, Hanson said. Myths swirl that rustlers used the trail to cut calves from cows, but Hanson doesn’t buy it.
“You couldn’t force a cow through there,” he said. “The belief that they used that gap for rustling is by far the most far-fetched and outlandish one I’ve heard.”
There’s a lot of outlandish stories about Hole-in-the-Wall and it’s hard to tease out what is fact and what is myth, said John Davis, of Worland, who is co-writing and researching a book on the area.
The outlaws chose Hall-in-the-Wall as a hangout because it was remote and away from prying eyes. There aren’t many objective primary sources from the late 1890s to fact-check local lore, Davis said.
“There is so much mystique, but the problem is, you start to wonder if maybe that’s all there is,” he said.
Hanson knows there’s more to it. It’s his family history, as well as the area’s. But there are a few things that remain a mystery even to him.
Rawhide beds and other furniture once occupied a nearby cave known as “Outlaw Cave.” For generations Hanson’s family pondered who might have stayed there. The local rumor mill offered plenty of guesses, but no solid answers.
“Someone spent a lot of time there,” he said, “but no one seems to know who.”
This article was amended Jan. 16 to correct the Smith brothers’ cabin location and ownership, Brock Hanson’s ancestors’ surname and the initial location of their settling — Ed.