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.

Owen Wister, author of “The Virginian,” enjoyed the ambiance of the bar and lobby of the Occidental – basing characters in his famous novel, on the cowboys and outlaws he encountered in Buffalo.

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.

Still busy

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.

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  1. This is to Steve Voiles thank you for mentioning OUR Family! My name is Tracy Roberts Sarah was my brother Steve Roberts and my grandmother also! I know this post you wrote is from 2010 but if you see this let me know cousin lol!

  2. I was wondering why there was no mention of the founder of the occidental the Buell family , that a lot of them still remain in Buffalo.

    Thomas & Patricia Peterson
    Ogden, Utah

  3. Every once and a while, along comes a story idea or assignment which just “clicks.”
    That’s what happened with the Bluegrass Jam/Occidental/Busy Bee/Carousel story — especially trying to live up to Dewey’s insightful photographs.
    I’m moving on to Colorado to take a great job, but wife Sharon will remain in Buffalo, so I hope to make many more Thursday nights at the Occidental Saloon and listen to the Jam!
    By the way — got an idea for a T-shirt to celebrate the Jam and raise money for worthy causes in Buffalo: The Fellowship of the Strings.
    Craig: hope you can find a way to weave the Bluegrass Jam (or something kindred) into your wonderful Sheriff Longmire stories in the future!

  4. Gosh , I sure do apologize for not putting pictures of the Virginian Restaurant in here, or for Brodie not writing it into the article. As decadent older journalists, we could not be dislodged from our box suite in the saloon…the two corner stools just off stage left. Yes, Santa Claus ( and Chuck Herz) , there is still a Virginian…

    -dewey v.

    p.s. I just today ( November 3) put up a video slide show of my “40 Hours in Buffalo ” and the 4th anniversary jam , at YouTube. It’s my own photo complement to Brodie’s story above.

    ( Just be sure you tell folks to read the article first if they want to make sense as the slide show subjects zoom by , if yer one of these types who has to understand the deep meaning of photoessays and such … )

  5. Nice article. I was only disappointed that with all the discussion of the Busy Bee there was no mention of the people who created it and made it exist. It started as a pie stand run by my grandmother Sarah Roberts, then Sarah Voiles, and expanded to Bill’s Grub Bag under my grandfather, William Voiles, but it was really given its personality and durability by my father Hollis B Voiles who operated it for 52 years. The whole family worked there and did every conceivable job. The building when I was a child, was so small there were only twelve stools, three of which we actually over the water of Clear Creek where the little silver and green building stuck out over the wall. There were days when 500 meals were served on those 12 stools and people customarily stood in line at lunchtime waiting for stools to open up and everyone shifted back and forth to be sure a couple could sit together when two stools opened that were not next to each other. Many celebrities frequented the Busy Bee. The actor Robert Taylor loved to trade pie recipes with my mom and I remember Dad reaching over the counter and jostling Peggy Flemming hair and teasing her about being a Dude. The supplies were all delivered to our home because there was no room for storage. We brought down supplies daily along with 6 of 15 pies a day, six days a week, that my mother Helen Voiles baked in our kitchen every day and trucked to the cafe in a special rack/box in the back of our pick-up truck. The family always called it “The Stand” and I was probably a teenager before I wondered why and figured out that it all went back to the time it was a walk up hamburger/pie stand ran by my gramma Sarah. I spend a lot of time working in the Occidental, too, but that’s another story….

  6. What a delightful story about the Occidental Hotel and the surrounding area and it’s people.
    One of those wonderful and talented people was Helen Ullery. She played for many diffrent events and with several bands including the one you featured in your article. She played the piano like no other. She was amazing because if she’d hear a tune she’d master it in minutes and you’d think she had practiced it many hears. Helen was a great neighbor and will be missed not only by the bands but by anyone she touched.

  7. We are part time residents of Buffalo having the pleasure of attending the very first jam in 2006. We set up a home in Buffalo in 2005 and one of the first friends we made were David and Jackie Stewart. There is no other town as unique or as “homey” as Buffalo. We spent many years traveling all over the US and found a “little piece of heaven” on earth here. While here in Louisiana, we miss the Thursday nights at the Occidental for the fellowship and the musicians which has become an integral part of our lives. And we missed the Buffalo way of life immensely. Brodie, your article really captured the Occidental and its contribution to Buffalo.

  8. I had my first experience at the Occidental Hotel one Thursday afternoon in the year 2007 I believe. I had heard of a “jam” session that would include various local talents from around the area and was sure to attend, as my curiosity and love of music drew me to this fabulous hotel.

    I walked in very timid and unsure of myself… only to find the people to be overwhelmingly nice. They were so fast to sweep me into their musical group, making sure that I felt comfortable in my surroundings. That’s when the magic started..

    I experienced what was to be the starting of a most memorable and life changing experience for me. Their music and fellowship swept me away.. only to make sure that I would never again experience this multitude of joy and happiness ever at another place on this earth. Mr. David Stewart with his musical talents and his sure way of making your “best” seep out of your soul, and flow into the crowd. Mr. Lynn Young with his musical soul that ensures his music to make you just jump out of your skin.. reassuring you that if you fall, he will always be there to catch you.. Never fear.. “Lynn” will always be there! 🙂

    At every jam session.. as I sang for joy.. I always made sure to take in and memorize the walls, atmosphere, musicians and crowd.. finding myself realizing in awe that “I” was actually performing my joy to the historical Occidental Hotel,.. for this memory, I will never feel such occileration again.. I know this to be a fact.. and I embrace this memory with such warmth and love.

    The people that came into my life, with a few that are so dear to my heart, I will always be grateful for. Their unconditional love and warm ways are truly appreciated from the bottom of my heart. They have taught, and continue to teach many a lesson to the nieve at heart! Miss Dottie and Homer, along with Mr. Charlie and Betty.. to so many loving individuals that I can’t possibly name all.. I truly love and miss you all.

    I since have moved many miles away and no longer participate.. I will always be indebted to all the musicians, to the two men that created such a mark in my memory.. in my life.. Thank you from the deepest part of me.. Thank you Mr. David Stewart and Mr. Lynn Young.. I will NEVER forget..

    For a lifechanging experience, and the chance to meet two great legends, along with numerous talented musicians, the Occidental Hotel is a MUST in your travels.

    Lisa Hallwood-Tegart
    former participant – singer/guitar/floutist

  9. I had the good fortune to stumble on the Occidental on a trip across the northern counties of Wyoming this past August, and it immediately became my favorite place to stay in Wyoming. I also had a meal in the bar/restaurant, and it was superb. I hope your failing to mention it doesn’t mean the restaurant has closed or the chef has changed!

  10. Great article, very interesting. I haven’t been in Buffalo for 15 years, I now know I need to come back and bring my grandson.

  11. Hi Folks I am from New Zealand and visited the Occidental with my family in 1995 .It was empty and the young Mothers group were using as a fund raiser to look thru I think.We were inspired just to go for a look and little knowing that 4years later back in NZ we would buy a very similar old Hotel in Roxburgh known as The Commercial and having a very great historical background too though no Owen Wister connections.Eleven years layer we came through Buffalo again and were amazed to ssee tho lovely old Lady restored for accomodation and this is exactly what we had done here in the same time frame .Two of your towns youngsters have just stayed and saw the close similarity with the 2 Hotels.More to follow

  12. Great article. Read from beginning to end. Pleasedto see my friends, The Wolcotts, mentioned. Spent many years the Wolcott Ranch out on Barnum near Kaycee Deer hunting. Shirley–Peru IN

  13. I first laid eyes on the Occidental Hotel and Bar as well as the Busy Bee in the summer of 1950. That summer I worked on the Dale and Anna Patrick Ranch in Sussex. Pat (Dale) would bring the hands into Buffalo for machine parts needed at the ranch. We always stopped by the bar at the Occidental for a little refreshment. Pat knew everybody in town so buying a beer there was never an issue.

    One day we went in and ordered a Schlitz (Pat’s favorite) The bartender said it was warm so we got our first Coors beer. Free ones kept coming and finally Pat asked who was buying us beer. The bartender said the guy at the end of the bar. We tipped our hats to him and went on with the enjoyment of the day. When we were leaving the bartender set two cases of Coors on the bar for us and again pointed to the guy at the end of the bar. Later we found out that was Adolf Coors Jr. and he was trying to introduce Coors to Buffalo – it sure worked!

    Since those early days for us we have been back to Buffalo many times and visited with Anna and her niece Barbara (Meike) Wolcott and Neil. Neil worked on the Patrick ranch with me that first summer of 1950. We were there when the Korean War broke out on June 25. Neil and others answered the call as did many others from the area.

  14. The closing of The Busy Bee in 1988 is a typo error because I moved to Buffalo in January of 1997 and any time one of my out of town friends came to visit, The Busy Bee was a place to eat and visit. They must have meant 1998???

  15. I met Dan Carlat at a jam session in Sheridan several years ago. He was a very welcoming and kind man who played a great country music, and I’m glad the memory of him is opening doors for young people.

    Kudos to Dawn Wexo for restoring the hotel and bringing back the Busy Bee. I swear I remember it being open in the 90s. Can anyone confirm the 1988 closing date?

    In the 1880s, the Occidental Hotel had its counterpart in the Oriental Hotel operated by O.P. Hanna in Big Horn, Wyoming, some 25 miles north and a little west. The Oriental Hotel stood directly across the street from the Big Horn Mercantile. It was vacant for many years until the Big Horn volunteer fire department burned it down “for practice.” Thank goodness the Occidental Hotel did not meet a similar end. Places like this give our towns roots.

  16. Hey Brodie and Dewey… Great article and photos. As a good friend said, “You captured the spirit of the Jam” and I would add, “… The Occidental Hotel too.” It truly is a magical place where the energy flows in overwhelming abundance on Thursday nights, whether one is “just passing through” for an evening of those of us who have come week after week, year after year. Thanks!