Early spring wind whips through broken windows on Shoshoni’s Main Street, pushing tumbleweeds into abandoned buildings and pulling at loose tin on their roofs.
The sun beats down on the dusty shell of a downtown. Almost everything — the buildings, the street, the air — is gritty grey or tan.
Except for the building on the corner.
Looming over its vacant neighbors, the two-story structure stands out in a relatively new coat of pink. Unobtrusive signs label the building “Tinnelli’s House of Wonder” but do little to dispel its mystery.
A man in a fedora, large hoop earrings and maroon pants opens the front door, releasing a burst of cold air and the crackling of old-time music into the desolate street. Inside the entryway, a sign hung across a large mirror commands: “Come in & get LOST.”
And that’s exactly what the man in the fedora — Casper tattoo artist Ryan Tinnelli, the historic building’s fourth owner — wants for his visitors. Tinnelli bought the 20,000 square-foot edifice from the local Masonic Lodge in 2006 and has spent the intervening 12 years renovating it into … something.
The building — one of the oldest in town — has housed a bank, a grocery store, an antique shop, the headquarters of a lumber company and other enterprises during its 112-year history. When Tinnelli bought the building, he planned to rehab the structure and return it to its former glory as the famed Yellowstone Drug malt shop.
But Shoshoni has changed since the days of long drugstore counters and 25-cent milkshakes. Stores have shuttered and the population has flatlined. Travelers rarely pause on Main Street these days. They zoom down the highway toward Riverton, Casper or Thermopolis instead, passing through the town of about 640 in a few minutes.
“It’s basically a ghost town, but still inhabited,” Tinnelli said, looking out a window at the boarded up buildings across the street. “Main Street looks like the set of a Rob Zombie movie.”
But the Wyoming native has a plan to attract people again to this small, central Wyoming town that he has grown unexpectedly fond of. Even if it costs him hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work. Even if the residents are at times skeptical of his ideas.
As the 41-year-old Tinnelli sees it, at least he’s trying to do something for the dwindling crossroads town.
“You’re recreating a legend, but it died for a reason,” he said of the malt shop.
“So now I’m creating a new legend.”
A rich history of boom and bust
When President Gerald Ford’s grandfather, the successful entrepreneur C.H. King, constructed the building in 1906, Shoshoni was on the verge of booming into a bustling railroad town. King owned properties and companies across the country, but his Shoshoni building was his palace, Tinnelli said. A newspaper article from the Feb. 24, 1906, edition of The Shoshoni Capital notes that King “has shown great faith in Shoshoni and its future.”
King’s companies housed in the building would supply both the workers building the railroad and the homesteaders expected to flock to the region as one million acres of the Wind River Reservation were sold to the public.
The town’s population swelled to thousands of people in a few short years, most of them living in tents. It developed a reputation for its “hell on wheels” atmosphere at the time and hosted more than 20 saloons, according to the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. At one point officials sent militia from Douglas to maintain order following the murder of the town attorney, according to the office.
The head-count dropped after the the reservation land lottery. But Shoshoni remained an important hub for nearby ranches, farms and energy operations. The town’s population and relevance fluctuated over the decades: shrinking during the Depression, growing during the construction of the dam that created Boysen Reservoir in the 1940s, ticking up again during the oil and gas booms of the 1970s.
King sold the building in 1919 and its second owner converted it to a grocery store, but that owner lost the property during the Great Depression and the government of Fremont County sold it to The Wind River Lodge of the Masons in 1937. During the 1950s, the building’s best-known business — perhaps the most widely recognized establishment in Shoshoni’s history — Yellowstone Drug, moved in. Over the next decades Yellowstone Drug served millions of malts to passing tourists, including Ryan Tinnelli.
The Masons were downsizing when Tinnelli stopped in Shoshoni for a malt in the spring of 2006.
Someone had painted “FOR SALE OR FOR RENT” in shoe polish on the store’s windows. On a whim, Tinnelli scribbled the phone number on the back of a parking ticket. Just in case, he thought.
For years, he and his brother had been interested in restoring properties. The opportunity to buy the legendary C.H. King building was compelling. But by the time he made the hour and a half drive back to Casper, Tinnelli had talked himself out of it. He had three young kids. And what would he do with an old building in Shoshoni anyway?
A few weeks later, however, he came across the parking ticket and the phone number. He decided to call — just for fun, just to see how much the building would cost.
A real estate agent, who was one of the Masons’ sons, invited him to tour the property.
“Once I walked in and saw the building, I thought, ‘Man, this is insane,’” he said. “I was hooked.”
The Masons had a few requirements: That the buyer be a Wyoming native and that the buyer re-open the malt shop. Tinnelli, who was born in Kemmerer and grew up in Casper, made his promise.
At 29, he bought the building for $105,000. He didn’t even own a house yet.
A new era
Many residents of the small, tight-knit community didn’t believe he owned the building at first, Tinnelli said.
Rumors spread: That he was cooking meth, that he was selling said meth to kids on their lunch break. At one point, the tittering became so intense that he went “Willy Wonka style,” covering the windows with newspapers and continuing his work inside, free from prying eyes. For the most part, he disregarded the town’s chattering.
“All I ever had to care about was what the Masons thought,” he said. “And you know how the Masons are.”
But Shoshoni Mayor Scott Peters commended Tinnelli’s efforts. His contributions to downtown will be especially crucial as the town seeks to demolish the abandoned buildings across Main Street later this year.
“[Tinnelli] came in at a time that no one was willing to invest in our community,” Peters said in an email. “[He] also took a financial risk, especially with a new modern concept that most people have not seen before in our area.”
“Most people that drive through town see the falling down, decayed buildings and have labeled our town in a poor light because of them,” he said. “Also it has hindered the community’s ability and potential to grow, both with businesses and new residents.”
“The town’s main street is also moving into a new era and Tinnelli’s will be one of the faces of our progress forward,” he added.
Tinnelli can’t begin to estimate how much time and money he’s spent cleaning up and renovating the building. During the summer, he makes the hour and a half drive from Casper four or five times a week to work on his building, hauling the necessary supplies and equipment with him. In the winter, he braves the roads once or twice a week.
He hauled decades worth of debris to the landfill in Casper. He built new walls and restored the original cavernous ceilings. He repaired a hole in an exterior wall that an elderly woman had driven into. His kids, who were in elementary school when he bought the structure, grew up helping out around the place.
“Their whole childhood they’ve been building, painting, sculpting,” he said. “Even that alone has been worth the effort. It’s helped shaped them and kept them out of trouble.”
Last summer, Tinnelli opened a malt shop in the building — his ode to the famous Yellowstone Drug Store — fulfilling his promise to the Masons. He installed a long bar and a line of stools in the large room where the drug store used to be. But otherwise the decor is anything but classic malt shop. Dozens of antique bikes hang from the ceiling. A plastic skeleton sits in the driver’s seat of a classic car. One wall is made entirely of discarded doors. The yellow bar overflows with stencils of the hundreds of tattoos Tinnelli has inked throughout his career: fairies, skulls, the words “BIG DADDY” in ornate lettering.
About 400 people came through the shop between June and December last year. Townsfolk were curious and generally supportive of the historic shop’s resurrection.
But the malt business wasn’t self-sustaining and was taking away from Tinnelli’s time to work on his art.
He closed the malt shop and hatched another plan.
The ultimate artistic medium
In a room off the large entry hall, Tinnelli pointed to an inscription above a doorway — “FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF SHOSHONI” — before stepping into the century-old bank vault now used to store his collection of Grateful Dead records.
Tinnelli painted the former bank lobby all white. Rows of chairs sat empty while a projector played an original Pink Panther cartoon on an empty wall — a prototype for Tinnelli’s next vision for the building.
Now, Tinnelli is repurposing the building to house five cartoon theatres and his new animation company, Tinnelli’s House of Wonder Cartoon Theatre. The theatres will initially run classic animations, but will eventually transition to showing the company’s hand-drawn animations — the ultimate artistic medium, according to Tinnelli.
“Anything you can imagine you can create,’ he said. “It’s magic.”
Upstairs, Tinnellli has renovated the Mason’s former lodge into a second theater. A projector plays an old animation in front of rows of church pews.
Along with the cartoons, visitors’ $5 dollar entry fees will entitle them to wander the building’s labyrinth of rooms and floors. For Tinnelli, the entire building is his canvas. He’s hung dozens of bicycles from its ceilings, painted murals onto its floors and walls.
“A true work of art is when you’ve been in the Mojave Desert for three days crawling on your hands and knees and you’re about to expire and BAM! There’s a beautiful statue,” Tinnelli said. “That’s how I see this place.”
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He never expected to own a historic building in Shoshoni. And he never expected it to turn out like it did. The house kind of created itself over the years, he said. It’s much like his native state: Every corner is a surprise and wildly different from the others.
Tinnelli hopes to move to Shoshoni in the next five years and live full-time in his palace as soon as the youngest of his three kids is out of the house. Shoshoni has become a quiet escape for him, a place where he can practice his art and create a world that is wholly his own. He is thrilled by the overwhelming challenge of it all.
“I am always thinking about that place,” he said. “It’s definitely become a part of me. It’s a thing for life now.”
Sometimes at night, when he’s by himself in the empty building, Tinnelli hears the sound of heeled boots pacing the wooden floors upstairs. He hopes that he’s kept the ghost of C.H. King happy — that his work has been good enough.
“I’m going to be that guy someday who is going to be haunting this freakin’ place,” he said.
After a ride across the “dementer” from Casper a stop in Shoshoni is always a needed break. Can’t wait for a ice cream in the re-modeled digs.
Great job, Elise. I started out intending to scan the piece.but read the whole thing instead.
A soulful story. Thank you!
Excellent story! Clean and interesting writing, Very interesting topic, Graceful means of writing about sensitive politics and enormity of the challenge for Tinnelli. God Speed to Tinnelli.
Nice. Now going to have to stop on my way through Shoshoni.
Can’t wait to go there!
What an absolutely terrific piece. Painstaking research and sprightly reporting.
A wonderful story – I want to jump in my RV and rush to Shoshoni to be a part of this young man’s narrative!