Way Back Wednesday Looks at Albany County, Featuring Nation’s Smallest Town, Really Old Tree

If names like Binford, Garrett, Harmony, Keystone, Millbrook, Sherman and Toltec sound familiar, you just might be from Albany County, Wyoming.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

November 24, 20218 min read

Tree Rock 1

Presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones

If names like Binford, Garrett, Harmony, Keystone, Millbrook, Sherman and Toltec sound familiar, you just might be from Albany County, Wyoming. No, it’s not the lengthy name of a law firm with seven partners; it’s actually an incomplete list of many small, unincorporated towns located within Albany County. 

You can certainly add Buford to the list. Buford, Wyoming was named after General John Buford, a hero of the Civil War. Buford led the unit that fired the first shots at the battle of Gettysburg, and distinguished himself in many other battles. John Buford was a lifetime military man and the beginning of Buford Wyoming history. The unincorporated town became somewhat famous in recent history as the unincorporated town on Interstate-80 that was auctioned off in the spring of 2012.

Now described widely on the Internet as an ‘ghost town’ in Albany County, located between Laramie and Cheyenne on Interstate 80, the town sits along the eastern approach to Sherman Hill Summit, the highest point along all of the transcontinental Interstate 80, Lincoln Highway and the Overland Route. To call it “the town formerly known as Buford” makes it sound like a rock star, and yet it does have an access to reach the Ames Monument, which marks the highest point along the original routing of the First Transcontinental Railroad, an 1,911-mile continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869 that connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa with the Pacific coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. If you think that’s pretty cool, rock on…. Tree Rock that is. 

Buford is also the official home of Tree Rock, a roadside obscurity that has fascinated passers-by since the 1860’s when the first Union Pacific train rolled by. It is said that the tracks were once diverted to pass by Tree Rock. In 1901, the railroad line moved south, but a wagon road remained. Then in 1913, the old Lincoln Highway came by Tree Rock, and by the 1920s, the Lincoln Highway gave way to U.S. Highway 30. Finally, in the 1960s, Interstate 80 was built, and Tree Rock was guaranteed a large audience for years to come. 

Tree Rock is a small, twisted, limber pine tree. Sure, there are many others around the Cowboy State that look very much like it, but this one grows out of a crack in a pre-Cambrian Era pink Sherman granite boulder. No one knows exactly how old the little defiant pine tree is, but we do know that the species can live as long as 2,000 years. As for the rock, it is known that the boulder was formed anywhere from 1-4 billion years ago. With Tree Rock, yes Buford does have some rockstar status.

This trivial tree has spellbound the travelers since the first train rolled past on the Union Pacific Railroad. It is believed that the builders of the original railroad diverted the tracks somewhat to pass by the tree as they laid rails across the Sherman Mountains in 1867-69. The train used to stop here while the locomotive firemen “gave the tree a drink” from their water buckets.

So what’s the history of Buford?

The original town was founded in 1866. Near the turn of the last century the town boasted a population of 2,000 people. 

The Buford post office was established in August 1900, originally attributed as being in Laramie County but attributed to Albany County beginning in 1901.

A Chicago Tribune article from 2012 stated that the locale began as a military outpost during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which makes sense, but the town dwindled when the fort moved to Laramie.  

Buford was a railroad town and it’s reported that there were families with young children among the population and there was indeed a school operating in Buford from 1905 to 1962. The railroad sold the Buford site to a private buyer in 1970. 

Don Sammons, long the town’s sole resident, moved with his wife, Terry, and their son, from Los Angeles to the Buford area in 1980. In 1992, six years after his wife died, Sammons purchased the town consisting of roughly 10 acres of land, including the Buford Trading Post and fuel stop. As in many small towns, Sammons labeled himself owner and mayor, while successfully marketing Buford as “the nation’s smallest town” to attract travelers passing through on their way to Yellowstone National Park.  He was the officer-in-charge of the post office beginning in 1993, and postmaster from April 1994 until the post office suspended service on February 1, 1999 when the post office was decommissioned on July 24, 2004. Mail service for Buford was then charged to the post office at Cheyenne. 

He decided to sell Buford so he could move to be closer to his adult son in Colorado, so he auctioned off the site in April 2012. “I brought Buford into the twenty-first century,” he told The New Yorker. “I took it as far as I could.”

While you may be thinking that Buford must be the smallest town with a population of just one person, Nebraska actually has an incorporated town of one; Monowi is an incorporated village in Boyd County, Nebraska. It garnered national and international recognition after the 2010 United States census counted only one resident of the village, Elsie Eiler. Though the 2020 census reported Monowi’s population had doubled to two, Eiler remains the town’s sole resident.

Back in Buford, Wyoming, the 11-minute Internet auction attracted interest from 46 different countries. Up for grabs was the very tiny town, with “10-plus acres” including the convenience store, gas station plus a modular home. 

The town went on the auction block April 5, 2012, and garnered a winning high bid of  $900,000.  The buyer, who wished to remain anonymous, flew to Wyoming from Vietnam for a purchase he likened to “the American dream,” according to a statement released by Williams & Williams, the Oklahoma auction house handling the sale.

“Owning a piece of property in the U.S. has been my dream,” the buyer said in the statement.

Buford sat quiet for a year, until early in September of 2013 when then 38-year-old Phạm Đình Nguyên revealed that he was the winner of the auction and new owner of buford and he unveiled the town’s new name. A resident of Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen announced plans to start selling PhinDeli-brand coffee from the small Buford Trading Post, with the hope of making it into the national, and ultimately international, market. That September, the one-man hamlet of Buford, Wyoming announced the rebranding: the nation’s smallest town had been renamed “PhinDeli Town Buford.” While Nguyên never lived in the town but did visit occasionally.

Promotional sign related to the years 2011 to 2017

Nguyên’s company had three offices: one in Vietnam, one in New York City, and one in PhinDeli Town Buford. On the town’s website, a proud mission statement read: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, the pursuit of Happiness and enjoyment of Coffee.” 

Meanwhile, Sammons, who became one of 70,000 residents of Loveland, Colorado, had agreed to remotely manage the town’s sole business, then offering Vietnamese coffee.

The story of America’s smallest town is as compelling as its longtime owner and is a true reflection of the grit, stamina, optimism and never-quit attitude of Don Sammons and the Western Frontier.

Sammons wrote his memoir, “BUFORD One: The amazing true story of how one man developed a town and then sold it to the world,” in 2013. The book remains available online.

By early March of 2017 Jason Hirsch was Buford’s town manager, but he didn’t live in town but out in the ‘Buford suburbs,” as he liked to say. He was leasing the town from Nguyên.

The sole resident of Buford at that time was Brandon Hoover. He had quit his job at the Candlewood Suites in Cheyenne, 30 miles down the mountain, and took the job running the place and living in Buford full-time with his horse, Sugar.  In a 2017 interview Hoover remained optimistic, but from a business standpoint the PhinDeli Town Buford wasn’t looking like a stellar endeavor.

In a November 2021 telephone conversation with Brandy Proulx, Property Specialist in the Albany County Assessor’s Office in Laramie, she said that while there are still Buford property addresses for tax statements, the business accounts for PhinDeli Town Buford were officially closed in 2019. 

A search of property listed for sale with a Buford address revealed half a dozen ‘suburbs’ properties for sale, or sale pending, in early November 2021, however none appeared to be the approximately 10-acre town site. 

This video from 2017 is believed to explain the disposition of PhinDeli Town Buford, or maybe not, we cannot say for certain.

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter