For 60 Years, Nancy Takeda Has Been A Fixture At The Historic Wort Hotel In Jackson

Nancy Takeda has been part of the famous Wort Hotel in Jackson Hole for 60 years. From watching a then-unknown Willie Nelson perform to a devastating fire that threatened to close the legendary hotel forever, shes been there for it all.

Renée Jean

January 28, 202317 min read

The Wort Hotel is a hotel for all seasons

Nancy Takeda has been with the Wort Hotel most of her life and said it’s been a wonderful one.

Takeda first became acquainted with the hotel in 1963 when she was just 13, after her parents traveled to Jackson to consider a job with the hotel.

The manager of the historic downtown hotel, then Harold Yager, was supposed to meet the family at the airport and pick them up. But the family was left waiting, a little forlornly, with all their luggage in tow. 

That’s when a well-dressed, white-haired gentleman wearing a cowboy hat approached Takeda and her family as they were waiting, wondering what to do in this era before cellphones.

Nancy Takeda has six decades of memories and history in her scrapbook of the Wort Hotel in Jackson Hole. (Photos Courtesy Nancy Takeda)

The Helpful Stranger

“You folks look maybe lost,” said the man, who introduced himself as just “Cliff.”

Takeda’s father, Roy, explained they were just waiting on the manager of the Wort Hotel to come and get them.

“Well, I’ve got plenty of room here in my truck,” the man said. “Why don’t you put your luggage in the back, and I’ll take you down into town and drop you off at the hotel.” 

There was a little hesitation, given that Cliff was a stranger, Takeda recalled.

“But he looked decent, and he was well-dressed, so they took the ride,” she said. 

At the Wort Hotel, Yager was rushing out the door just as Cliff was pulling luggage out of the truck and setting it on the walk. 

“My dad’s helping my mom out of the front seat of his pickup truck, and Mr. Yager says, ‘Oh, I was just coming to get you,’” Takeda recalls. “And (Cliff) says, ‘You’re never on time anywhere.’”

“You’re right,” Yager said, a little sheepish. 

But to Nancy’s father he said, “Did this yahoo introduce himself?”

“Well, he just said his name was Cliff,” Roy Takeda replied.

“Well, let me give proper introductions then,” he said. “Roy Takeda, I’d like you to meet Clifford Hansen, the governor of Wyoming.”

Realizing their family had just been picked up by none other than the governor of Wyoming himself was a magic moment for the family in their Wyoming journey, Takeda recalled.

“Right then and there my parents knew this was the place they wanted to raise my sister, and my brother and I,” she said. “Where a total stranger, who is the governor, offers you a ride.”

A Fascinating Western World

One of Takeda’s earliest Wort Hotel memories was the Forty-Niners Ball, a winter tradition.

“It was an opportunity for the outlying folks to come into town, stay at the hotel and bring relics of the Old West to dress in and to dance and drink and eat and visit,” Takeda said. “It was usually an overnight stay.”

She remembers approaching the top of the stairs as revelers flooded into the hotel and coming to a dead stop as her eyes beheld a strange, but fascinating, world below.

“At the bottom of the stairs, on the bottom step, is someone who looks like they just stepped out of an Old West movie,” Takeda said. “He was actually later on the sheriff.”

The imposing man was wearing a full buckskin suit with a rifle as tall as Takeda and a cowboy hat that just made him look even taller than he already was.

Before too long, a woman in a full-on dance hall costume came up behind the man, laughing and smiling and beautiful. From across the lobby, a man dressed as an Indian casually walked by.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Takeda said. “I just sat there at the top of the stairs watching. I’d never seen such things, and I had no clue.

“I didn’t even know where Wyoming was when my parents told me we were moving here.”

It would be just the first of many eye-opening experiences Takeda can recount from more than 60 years living in or working for the Wort Hotel. 

A Wyoming Legend

Jackson’s Wort Hotel is a place where legends have not only been made, but have flourished.

Among the many stories told is the one of young and not-yet-famous Willie Nelson, who arrived with friends from Texas for some elk hunting. 

Nelson didn’t do any elk hunting, though. He hung around the hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar and restaurant area every night to sing. Sometimes customers who wanted dance music would tell management to “get him off the stage.”

He wasn’t the only famous person to stay at the Wort as they explored Wyoming’s famous hunting opportunities.

Clark Gable also came for bear hunting once upon a time.

In the book “Meet Me at the Wort: History, Legends and Lore of the Wort Hotel” by Charles Craighead, an artist who was performing a Bing Crosby cover tune once jokingly claimed to be the famous singer when asked by an audience member. 

That prompted the real Bing Crosby to suddenly stand up and say, “No, I’m Bing Crosby!”

From Nancy Takeda’s scrapbook, the Wort rose from the ashes of a devastating fire in 1980.

The Place To Be

Takeda remembers many other famous people staying at The Wort over the years.

Henry Fonda, for example, was a very private guest who went so far as to hire his own cook, dishwasher and waitress to prepare and serve his food. 

Wally Cox, on the other hand, loved to come down at the height of the dinner hour.

“He loved the people fawning over him,” Takeda recalled. “‘Oh, can you sign my napkin? Can you sign my menu?’ He loved that.”

She also recalls Don Johnson staying at the hotel, as well as Jack Elam, a famous Western actor at the time, who she said had managed to scare half the restaurant. 

“He was missing one eye and had a scruffy black beard, black clothes, black hat,” she said. 

Takeda frequently saw people go the long way around to avoid Elam when he was sitting in front of her cash register.

At the time, however, she didn’t know Elam was famous. When she saw those reactions, she told him those people were “just a bunch of sissies” and chatted with him another 20 minutes.

When he paid the bill, he stuck out his hand to shake Takeda’s and told her, “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve met.”

Later, coworkers told her who he was.

It didn’t matter to Takeda. Making a guest feel comfortable was what had mattered to her at the time.

Takeda also recalls picking up a young Clint Howard and sitting him on a stool behind the register after he brought her some money and a note explaining what he was to get.

She counted back the change and, as Clint was walking back with the items to his table, looked at who was there.

It was Darren Miles and Ron Howard, who were there to film a movie.

“I met Ron Howard before he was famous,” Takeda said.

The staircase is still the original despite a fire in the 1980. It makes a stunning impression any time of year, but especially at Christmas lined with poinsettias. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

A Hotel For Everyone

The Wort, of course, did not start out in 1941 as a haunt for the rich or famous. It was built to be a hotel for everyone, from the lowliest cowboy on up.

But in the beginning it was just a dream, and a rather crazy dream at that. And the residents of Jackson weren’t afraid to tell Charles Wort or his sons just how crazy they thought it was.

Jackson at that time was a tiny, isolated mountain valley community shut off in winter by deep snow. Most of its summer and fall visitors headed for rustic hunting camps or lodges in Yellowstone.

A luxury hotel in Jackson?

You didn’t need a marketing study to see that it just didn’t make sense.

But it made sense to John and Jess Wort. They’d not only grown up hearing about their late father Charles’ dream until his death from liver cancer in 1933, they’d seen firsthand from guests at their Wort Camp and Lodge a possibility others had not considered. 

They knew the Yellowstone is a magnetic place, the kind that is always going to attract the wealthy.

In 1940, the brothers sold the Wort Camp and Lodge off to Clarence W. Harris, determined to make their late father’s dream — and now their own — a reality.

The Right Bet

John and Jess Wort hired John Lorenzo Grimmet, known as “Ren,” to design a Tudor-style Swiss-Alpine chalet for their hotel. It needed to fit the land, they told him. And it needed to make the community proud. 

Grimmet had no formal training as an architect, but he’d built a reputation for creating beautiful buildings meant to stand the test of time, and he was up to the challenge the brothers put before him.

His design was a little grander, however, than the Wort brothers could handle, leading the two to suggest he become a one-third partner in the project.

Grimmett declined a stake in a venture many saw as doomed to fail, but he did set them up with an Idaho Falls banker who approved a sizable loan for their project. 

Newspaper accounts say the Wort brothers sank $150,000 in 1940 dollars into the hotel. 

Even so, the brothers also put many hours of sweat equity into their unlikely dream, quarrying and hauling native sandstone from what historians believe was the Gros Venture area near Atherton Creek at the upper end of Slide Lake.

It Was A Time Of War

Pearl Harbor was bombed just three months after construction started on the Wort Hotel. 

That made all that work the brothers had done quarrying all that native stone for the hotel suddenly immensely valuable.

Along with World War II came restrictions on building materials. Had the brothers waited, their hotel could not have been finished before the war ended.

While many were sure the hotel would fail once the war began, the Wort brothers managed to pay it off within two years.

It was, just as the they believed it would be, an instant hit as a year-round community gathering place. It also attracted a well-heeled clientele that flocked to Yellowstone for nature and for hunting.

And it didn’t hurt that the hotel also offered gambling. This wasn’t quite legal, but in those days, Jackson was remote and the right people were inclined to look the other way.

Grimmet, meanwhile, had built a similar hotel on the Montana side of Yellowstone. Unfortunately for him, Montana not only made gambling illegal, but also enforced its law vigorously.  

The architect had lost his bet on what would be the best location for a luxury hotel near Yellowstone.

The Wort, which he could have owned one-third of, had won.

More Wort history from Nancy Takeda’s scrapbook. (Courtesy Nancy Takeda)

Kindness And Horses

All of that history preceded Takeda, whose family didn’t arrive at the Wort Hotel until 1963, after John and Jess had sold it.

But Takeda did meet John Wort, who lived in Jackson at the time and had horses in a pasture near the Takeda home. 

Many of John’s former employees described the man as not just their boss, but a friend, and Takeda had occasion to experience firsthand some of that good-hearted kindness.

“I always wanted a horse when I was a kid,” Takeda said. 

She would beg and beg her father to let her get a horse, but Roy Takeda would take one look at John’s horses, with snow piled on their backs and their butts turned to the wind to keep the wind out of their faces, shake his head and say no. 

“John would let me go in and pet (his horses) as long as he was around, or kind of over the fence,” Takeda said. “I never got my own horse, but I got to love on John’s.”

John’s descendants, meanwhile, owned Boyers Indian Arts, which is still catty-cornered from The Wort.

The store is run by John’s grandson, and the webpage for the business proclaims it’s celebrating its 60th year in Wyoming.

Silver Dollar Bar And The Fire

Nancy Takeda was among those who recalls firsthand the Aug. 5, 1980, fire that destroyed The Wort Hotel that John and Jess built.

“It was a bird’s nest on a neon transformer at the time,” she recalled about what sparked the blaze. “They had neon out in the arched gables out on the Broadway side of the building. A bird built a nest on it, and it got too hot and caught fire.”

That fire spread to the wood shingles on the hotel before anyone realized what was happening.

Once the roofing tar caught fire, that fueled something hot and furious — a monster fire whose flames could be seen licking the sky from miles away.

“There was nobody in the guest rooms,” Takeda recalled. “We had a full house, but they were all in the restaurant bar.”

Emergency workers brought in a foam truck from the airport out of desperation, Takeda said. They couldn’t think of any other way to put out the burning tar. 

Takeda over the years has read many accounts of the fire, some with inaccuracies. One that particularly bothers her claims that the Wort’s famous Silver Dollar Bar was sawed into pieces.

“No, the bar actually stayed,” Takeda said. “They thought they might be able to reopen the downstairs because all that burned up was basically the roof and some interior walls in the rooms.”

In fact, the interiors of some of the rooms were nearly untouched, but for the walls, Takeda recalled.

“You could walk in, and they’d had turn-down service,” Takeda said. “It looked like guests could have crawled into those beds and gone to sleep.”

Other rooms, however, were completely destroyed, and the hotel as a whole was a mass of soggy, burned ash and soot.

Not Doomed

While speculation ran high that The Wort was finished, the managers used the sign that used to advertise bands performing at the Silver Dollar Bar to proclaim, “We’ll be back!” Takeda recalls.

But things did look dire for a time, particularly while insurance adjusters seemed to be the only ones spending any appreciable time at the hotel.

“I’m guessing there was at least a foot of ash and burned stuff on the floor, on the staircase – which, by the way, we only had to replace one spindle,” Takeda said. “Everything else on that staircase is original from the time it was built.”

The town of Jackson also rallied behind its hotel.

The town council ultimately approved a resolution to issue $3.5 million to $4.1 million in revenue bonds.

Initially there were no takers. Ultimately, however, First Wyoming Bank bought the issue, which saved a piece of treasured and irreplaceable Wyoming history.

Meet Me At The Wort

It was while she was awaiting insurance adjusters one morning that Takeda gained a new understanding of what it means when people say “meet me at the Wort.”

Takeda was sitting on a bench across from the Wort at the time and she heard a sudden scream in the distance.

“No! No! Now what am I going to do?” she heard a woman cry out in anguish.

Takeda got up and went toward the sound. She found the woman, who was sobbing and wringing her hands.

“Are you all right? Can I help you?” Takeda asked.

Looking at the burned destruction that used to be a vibrant Wort Hotel, she told Takeda she was from South America to meet her husband.

“He won’t be able to find me now,” she said, wailing anew.

Takeda told the woman it would be OK and led her to the bench where she’d been sitting.

“She’s wringing her hands and sobbing, and I couldn’t do anything to comfort her, except keep saying it’ll be all right,” Takeda said.

Before too long, Takeda hears a booming voice from the other end of the block, where today there’s a drug store say, “Oh my God!”

Takeda told the lady to wait one moment, that she would be right back. 

“I walked down there and I said, ‘Are you all right, sir?’” Takeda recalled. “He said, ‘I’m supposed to be meeting my wife. I’m coming from Alaska. She’s coming from South America. We were going to meet here and have drinks at the bar.’”

“OK, come with me,” Takeda said, taking him to the bench where the sobbing woman was sitting.

“Do you two know each other?” Takeda asked.

Takeda’s answer was the biggest “wet bear hug” she’s ever had in her life from the man and the woman, whose plan to meet at the Wort had not fallen apart after all.

“That just made me feel so good,” Takeda said. “That I could help people connect, and say this is why we say, ‘Meet me at the Wort.’”

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter