Reborn Occidental plays hostess to the life of Buffalo
By Brodie Farquhar
Photos by Dewey Vanderhoff
The beating heart of Buffalo, Wyoming, and arguably of Johnson County, isn’t only found in a school, church, town hall, museum or courthouse.
You’ll also find it in an 1880-vintage hotel and 1908-era saloon, in downtown Buffalo.
Every Thursday night in the Occidental Hotel bar, musicians young and old, local and from far afield, jam together playing bluegrass, folk and country music.
“Most jams among musicians last a month or two, and then they fizzle,” said David Stewart, a professional songwriter and co-founder of the Bluegrass Jam, which celebrated its fourth anniversary on Oct. 15, 2010.
“The first time we got together in a corner of the Occidental Hotel bar, there were maybe five people in the audience,” Stewart said. Now on many Thursdays, the bar is standing-room-only, with people spilling out onto the sidewalk of the historic hotel.
The musicians are loyal. Charlie Firnekas, 75, a Kaycee-area rancher, is the oldest of the original founders of the jam. Every Thursday, he drives 73-miles one-way (25 miles on a gravel road) to get to the jam and play guitar. Winter blizzards have never held him back, and he’s missed only a few sessions.
The audience gives back. There are tips, are used to help needy families with rent or send an aspiring high school student to college for a music education. There are things people bring from home, like baked goods, fresh country eggs, or handmade birdhouses. Everyone in the audience is given a numbered ticket and drawings are held during the jam. Even if a winning ticket isn’t drawn, first-time visitors usually win fresh-baked cookies or other prizes.
Hotel almost wasn’t
And yet, the Occidental Hotel came within a hair’s breadth of being torn down, just over a decade ago.
The hotel was founded in 1880 as a tent on the Bozeman Trail. Over the ensuing years and decades, the Occidental was a log structure, a frame building, then constructed of brick. According to historian Gil Bollinger, the Occidental has served as hospital, bank, polling place, post office, town hall and stagecoach stop.
The name of the town, Buffalo, was drawn out of a hat. This happened at the Occidental.
The hospitality of the Occidental was enjoyed by the famous and infamous alike – Buffalo Bill Cody and Theodore Roosevelt, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, cattle detective and killer Tom Horn.
Indeed, some historians believe that the novel’s dramatic showdown — the first in Western literature — was based on what took place in front of the Occidental. Every “High Noon” showdown in print or on the silver screen can be linked back to the Occidental and “The Virginian.”
Over time, the raw timber structures on the banks of Clear Creek were expanded and rebuilt, until the Occidental became a “grand” hotel noted for elegant décor and fine service. In 1918, two ranchers named John and Al Smith took ownership. Al’s wife, Margaret Smith, was asked to manage the hotel “just for a while” – a temporary job that lasted 58 years, until she died in 1976.
During all that time, Margaret Smith didn’t throw away much of anything. Furniture was stored, while tin ceilings and wainscoted walls got covered up in a “modernization” kick that happened in the ‘40s and ‘50’s.
In the 21 years after her death, however, Margaret Smith’s “time capsule” deteriorated badly. The roof leaked, ceilings caved in, the electrical wiring was dangerously antiquated and layers of carpet built up into what was then a rundown tenement.
The Occidental appeared to be headed for a date with a wrecking ball and redevelopment as a mini-mall or parking lot.
That’s when Dawn and John Wexo entered the picture, in 1997. The couple, haling from California and Texas, had almost settled in Cody, but decided to make a little day trip east of the Big Horns. Buffalo would be ideal for their then-flourishing publishing business, Dawn thought, since it had immediate access to both I-25 and I-90.
At the intersection of Main and Fort Streets, Dawn happened to glance to the right and saw the Occidental. The next day, a realtor showed them through. Dawn had experience with historic building renovations and suspected the Occidental might be a gem under all the ‘50’s era false walls, ceilings, worn-out rugs and peeling paint. One sign of encouragement was the impressive back bar in the Occidental Saloon, with Tiffany-like stained glass. Wexo learned it was built by the Glasgow Glass Works in Scotland, and then shipped to Buffalo. The Wexos bought the building for $180,000 and spent $1.6 million on the restoration, resulting in a hefty mortgage.
The work of restoring the hotel hasn’t been easy, what with daunting financial and health challenges. But eventually, the original Occidental emerged. Tin ceilings and wainscoting and wooden floors were in superb shape (though the dance floor in the bar did need to be jacked up about five inches).
Dawn Wexo said she feels like she’s had an extended conversation with the late Margaret Smith, as she’s restored the Occidental Hotel to its original finery – a job made much easier by Smith’s habit of hanging onto things.
Of course, some items slipped away from Margaret Smith. Local people had salvaged them – and now returned them, to help the Wexos with the restoration. Stained glass, linens, doilies and more emerged from basements and attics.
Dawn Wexo’s touch can be found everywhere in the Occidental, which is as much a museum as a fine hotel. Take the Teddy Roosevelt Suite. Not only does it feature antique furniture and a print of TR, but also century-old books authored by the former president. And for a touch of whimsy, there’s a modern book about teddy bears, which were, after all, named in honor of TR and a bear cub.
The Occidental Hotel isn’t the only restoration project on the banks of Clear Creek. The Busy Bee Café, founded in 1927, closed in 1984 and rebuilt this summer by Dawn Wexo, is once again offering family dining in downtown Buffalo.
Readers of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Longmire mystery series will be familiar with the Busy Bee in the mythical northern Wyoming town of Durant – which bears a startling resemblance to Buffalo.
“I had bought the Busy Bee sign at auction for $25,” said Johnson, “but when I heard that everyone was looking for it, it felt it was only fair to put it back where it belongs.” It hangs proudly on an interior wall of the café.
The Busy Bee Café is a continuing presence in Johnson’s books. “Every law officer knows there are two places to go for information – bars and cafes, ’cause that’s where everyone gathers to talk,” he added. The Busy Bee also feeds Sheriff Longmire most of his meals, said Johnson – and that beats the frozen potpies and burritos in the jail’s freezer.
“I’m tickled they’ve reopened, cause I get emails from all over the world, from fans who want to eat there. Now I can tell them it is open,” he said.
Johnson was book-touring through France in recent weeks, so he missed the September re-opening of the Busy Bee. He said he’s looking forward to eating there. He’ll find something old and something new. The cement floor of the old and the rebuilt Busy Bee is imprinted with branding irons from surrounding ranches. A new feature is a century-old, stained-glass back bar and soda fountain from – wait – the Busy Bee Café of Walsenburg, Colorado. Hey, it was a popular name back then.
Still to come
Tucked away and shuttered behind the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse (near I-25) is a 1925 Cowboy and Indian Carousel, made by the Spillman Company of New York, once the leading carousel manufacturer in the country. The Buffalo Development Association is working to move the carousel and its building to a downtown Buffalo site, in a corner of the Crazy Woman Square park.
The carousel has 24 horses – Indian war ponies and cowboy/soldier broncs and mustangs. Buffalo’s Bill Jennings, an award-winning master wood carver, carved the Western-themed horses.
There’s “Steamboat,” the famed bucking bronco that is stamped into Wyoming license plates. There’s also “Little Soldier,” a paint pony ridden by one of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts. “Comanche,” the sole survivor from Little Big Horn is also there to ride, complete with 7th Cavalry saddle blanket and McClellan saddle.
“Every state in the Union has a carousel, except Hawaii, and they have one being carved right now,” said Olin Turner, Buffalo Development Association president. Carousels have a legion of dedicated fans that travel all over the country to see each unique carousel, he said. Regional carousels, like the one in Missoula, Mont., attract over 100,000 visitors each year, he said.
There’s a lot more to see and do, in and around Buffalo. The Big Horns rise just a few miles to the west – a playground for hunters, hikers, rock climbers and fishermen. Clear Creek is fishable year ‘round and a trail system runs from the town to nearby foothills. The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum resides in the Andrew Carnegie Library building. Outside is “Nate Champion’s Last Run” sculpture by Michael Thomas – a stark reminder of the Johnson County War. Down the street is the Sports Lure (the longtime local outdoors shop), the Udder House (for ice cream and other delights), Margo’s Pottery, and other strictly local stores – no chain operations downtown. The town hosts a vibrant community of artists, including a steel drum group led by the state’s poet laureate, David Romtvedt.
Back to the Jam
But to get a feel for the town, go to the Thursday night Bluegrass Jam at the Occidental.
What goes on is less of a formal performance and more like a group of musicians playing for and with each other – the entertainment is free, notwithstanding brisk sales at the bar. “The model is the Grand Ol’ Opry, where the musicians would play in a circle backstage,” said David Stewart, the songwriter and co-founder of the jam. “Often, that’s where the best music happens.”
Each Thursday, the jam opens at 7 p.m. with “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” and closes at 11 p.m. with “Amazing Grace.” In between, almost anything can and does happen. Tourists wander in, figure out what’s going on, and dash out to retrieve a guitar, banjo or fiddle from their car and jump right into the jam.
A few weeks ago, a young couple from Ireland asked shyly if they could join in. “They sang an Irish ballad a cappella,” said Occidental owner Dawn Wexo. “You could have heard a pin drop.”
Musicians from Denver, Billings, Rapid City and beyond will drive to northern Wyoming to play in the jam. About the only rule is no instruments that would overwhelm the others, said Lynn Young, another co-founder of the jam. “No drums or electric guitars,” he said. About every kind of stringed instrument is brought to the jam – bass, guitar, dobro, autoharp, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. Oh yeah, and smokin’-hot harmonicas.
Stewart said he hoped no one ever shows up with a Hawaiian ukulele – doesn’t quite fit the whole bluegrass, folk and country thing.
“I like songs like ‘Frankie ‘n Johnny’ or anything by Jimmie Rogers or Hank Williams,” said Charlie Firnekas, the rancher who drives in from Kaycee, and who has played in regional bands over the years, often with his friend, the late Dan Carlat. Another of the original jammers, Carlat loved to shout out “One more time,” to get the audience to chime in on a verse or two, said Stewart. In a nod to their old friend, Occidental jammers often shout out “One more time!” to an audience that understands exactly what that means, joining in with a will and a way.
When Doug Brothers isn’t fixing someone’s transmission, he’s probably picking away on his Gibson J50 – the guitar he bought in 1970 while serving in Viet Nam. “We all come from different backgrounds,” he said, with a soft drawl from the hills of Tennessee. “What we have in common is a love of music,” he said.
Steve Stranski plays guitar and upright bass, but his true love is a washtub bass — something a fellow cowboy from Tennessee taught him years ago. A groundskeeper for the Johnson County school district, Stranski said he likes the Occidental Jam because it allows players to learn different songs and play with a variety of instruments. But the big crowds now coming to the Occidental have made him less likely to show up for the jam – so many people are too noisy for him.
Don Conklin, the last of the original seven jammers, said he never knows what to expect at the Thursday jams – just that it always pays to encourage anyone and everyone to play or sing. A man from neighboring Story told Conklin that he knew a lot of Irish pub songs, but doubted they’d be welcome at the Bluegrass Jam. “The audience loved it,” said Conklin. Last month, Conklin encouraged a young woman harmonica player – Anya Tyson, a BLM intern from Chicago. She got up and played some scorching blues — enthusiastically backed by the rest of the musicians.
“I was so excited,” she said of her debut with the Bluegrass Jam. “You can really feed off of the energy from the audience.” And while the jammers have their standard songs, said Tyson, they’re willing to try new things as well.
“This really is a fellowship,” said Lynn Young. He sees parallels between Old West social entertainment (the party scene in the first Western novel, “The Virginian”) and what happens at the Occidental.
“Back then, people would gather from all around, bring their guitars and fiddles to play, sing and dance,” Young said. Often, the distances back home were so far that the pioneers would make a night of it, playing and dancing until dawn and the long trip home.
And small things take on a life of their own at the Bluegrass Jam.
Early on, someone had left an empty tip jar on the Occidental piano, and by the end of that Thursday night jam, some $16 dollars was tucked inside, said Young.
“What do we do with this?” asked Stewart.
“I know someone who could use it,” answered Brothers.
The tip jar has remained and gets filled every Thursday night. “We use it mostly for needy families,” said Stewart, who estimates that $22,000 has been raised in the past four years.
Funerals, rent, food and utility bills have all been covered by the Bluegrass Jam tip jar, said Wexo.
Last year, the Bluegrass Jam set up a music scholarship fund in Dan Carlat’s name, raising $8,000 from a community auction that featured saddles and outfitter-led hunting trips.
“We helped send a young man from Buffalo High School to study music at the community college in Powell,” said Young.
“One of the town ministers likes to come hear us play,” said Young. “He said the Bluegrass Jam was a church, more than most churches.”
Editor’s Note: For more about Merlin “Whitey” White, the 93-year-old regular dancer at the jam who always dances with every woman in the room check out an interview from 2008.