By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Many places claim Owen Wister based his famous novel “The Virginian” on their hotels. The proprietors of the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming, can point to the very chapter in which Wister set the storyline at their historic Western hotel.
“One thing we know for sure is that the scene in ‘The Virginian’ where Owen Wister’s (protagonist) finally gets his man is staged outside of the Occidental Saloon,” said Amber Manning, event planner for the Occidental.
Built in 1880, 10 years before Wyoming became a state, the hotel has hosted a number of famous guests: Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wister, Tom Horn, Herbert Hoover and President Teddy Roosevelt all have hung their hats at the Occidental, as have Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ernest Hemingway.
“The Occidental has always been a place of meeting all the way back to the Johnson County Cattle Wars,” said owner David Stewart.
But its fame couldn’t outrun time and inattention, and in the mid-1980s, the hotel was closed permanently. It remained closed until Dawn Dawson bought the property in 1997 – just in the nick of time, according to Stewart.
“When Dawn Dawson purchased it in 1997, it was eight weeks from being torn down,” he said. “They were going to raze the building to the ground.”
But Dawson and the Stewarts restored the showpiece to its original glory and once again, the Occidental is the center of activity in downtown Buffalo.
Events are held at the saloon most evenings, from trivia nights to the weekly Thursday Night Bluegrass Jam. There are 18 rooms to rent at the historic inn, each with its own personality.
Restoring Its Glory
The decision to partner with Dawson came from a desire to save a piece of the town’s history, David Stewart said.
“We both loved history and we wanted to try to preserve it,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “When we purchased it, there were still some difficulties with the elements coming in, and the brick needed repaired and the roof needed fixed.
“You know, the place is 100-and-some years old, so we wanted to try to make sure that it lasted for another generation.”
Music Of The Night
In 2006, David Stewart started the Thursday Night Bluegrass Jam at the Occidental Saloon, one of the reasons why the Stewarts initially became partners in the operation.
“We decided that it would be a good place to play my music,” said Stewart, an award-winning bluegrass musician. “So we started the Occidental Jam even before we purchased it for Dawn, to help her bring people into the hotel and into the saloon.”
The weekly gathering of local musicians has done more than just allowed talented artists a place to play – Stewart said they’ve raised thousands of dollars for charity.
“We give three $3,000 scholarships away every year to students who are pursuing music as a minor or major. They don’t have to major in it, as long as they’re doing music,” he said, adding that so far as many as 16 scholarships have been awarded.
But students aren’t the only recipients of the generosity of the Occidental owners and guests.
“From the very first time that we started doing the jam,16 years ago, we passed around the little tip can, and we use it for buying Christmas gifts and dinners and so forth for needy families,” said Stewart. “That little can over the years has held probably a quarter million dollars or better.”
Virginian Restaurant And Occidental Row
The west side of Buffalo’s Main Street, just past the courthouse, is known locally as “Occidental Row.” It includes the Occidental, the Busy Bee Café and Lolly’s Sugar Shack, as well as the dining room associated with the hotel, The Virginian.
The Virginian is closed this month, though, as management of the restaurant transitions from the previous managers, Joe and Jan Johnson, to the Stewarts, who own the building.
Manning said the restaurant will reopen in February.
“It will reopen under David and Jackie’s ownership for Valentine’s Day weekend,” she said.
Is It Haunted?
The Occidental is old enough that it’s been the setting for a number of ghost stories. The most famous, Manning said, is that of a young girl who came to Buffalo as a child in the early 1900s.
A woman named Mariah “was coming to Buffalo with her husband and her young daughter, Emily,” said Manning. “But because of the arduous state of travel at that time, her husband actually died on the journey here.”
So Mariah, being a woman in the West without property ownership rights, had to find a way to support herself and her daughter.
“She ended up coming here and working as a soiled dove in our bordello,” said Manning. “They were making about $3 a day back then.”
But tragedy struck Mariah a second time when Emily caught cholera and died July 7, 1912, at the age of 6.
“Some people claim that they see a gentle, kind presence wandering the halls of the hotel, who is Emily, the 6-year-old,” said Manning. “And they often say that they see her being followed by a yellow tabby cat, which is said to have been the cat that the women who worked at the bordello – and the daughter Emily – took care of.”
The Longmire Connection
For fans of Craig Johnson’s popular “Longmire” books and Netflix series, the Busy Bee is a must-stop on its own, Manning said, adding that the Occidental plays its part in honoring Johnson County’s most famous author.
“During Longmire Days (Johnson) does a lot of events at our hotel, and we host some of the stars (of the television show) who come,” said Manning. “And of course we have his books and some other merchandise available for sale.”
Staying At the Occidental
Summer is peak season at the Occidental, as the historic hotel is a tourist attraction of its own. But during winter there are deals to be had.
Above all, Stewart said, the Occidental is still a place where the community gathers.
“It’s a family-oriented place where people can come together and hear music and be able to enjoy it with their families,” he said.
And perhaps, Manning added, catch a glimpse of the past.
“If you want to see if we have ghosts, the best thing to do is to come stay and see for yourself,” she said.