DAYTON—A headless mannequin greets visitors to the Dayton Mercantile Museum, a silent docent ushering people into one of Wyoming’s most eclectic collections.
Here, on the second floor of a building built 131 years ago, exotic mounted animals adorn the walls and scores of arrowheads line glass cases amid old stamps and bottles unearthed in the yard. A piano stands in a corner, a nod to the room’s original purpose and reminder of the lively dances that once filled it.
Henry Baker built the first iteration of the mercantile in 1882, eight years before Wyoming’s statehood, to serve as a general store in the eastern foothills of the Bighorn Mountains.
Hank Croghan bought the store in 1898. He enlarged the building footprint and added a second floor, hiring a man from Sweden to build an elegant upstairs dance hall. The herringbone patterned maple floor was laid over springs and horsehair to make it especially dance-friendly. The hall became a popular hub in the little town of dirt streets and wooden sidewalks, drawing people for entertainment and cavorting.
After it was deemed unsafe in 1936, the hall fell silent. By the time Cheyenne couple Elaine Stevens and Craig Boheler visited the mercantile nearly 90 years later, the building had fallen onto hard times. It had been on the market for eight years, Stevens said, and neglected for many more. But the structure was sound and they saw potential in the building. They bought it in 2013.
What ensued was an extensive renovation. They built a lunch counter downstairs for ice cream and sandwiches, installed molded ceilings, created a mining exhibit outside and turned the old ballroom into a museum.
The gallery features typical museum fare: a case of artifacts on loan — evidence of Indigenous cultures that lived in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of white people — along with bottles excavated from the adjacent lot during construction.
More unexpected is what covers the walls: all manner of mounted animals — a collection Boheler, an avid hunter, has built through hunts in Wyoming and around the world. It includes everything from pronghorn and elk to Chinese water deer, small ungulates with tusks.
Ten years after they bought it, Stevens said, the building has once again become a busy gathering place. It requires a lot of work, but they enjoy the payoff.
“We love it,” Stevens said. “You’ve got to, though.”