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By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
The Hotel Wolf in Saratoga was a step away from the wrecking ball when Doug and Kathleen Campbell bought the historic hotel, which has lived through 130 years of Wyoming history — more than the town of Saratoga itself.
“It needed a lot,” Kathleen Campbell told Cowboy State Daily. “There was no kitchen. There wasn’t a dining room.”
But the hotel, the Campbells realized, had something.
Call it history. It was built in 1893 for a mere $6,000 by a German immigrant named Frederick G. Wolf.
Or call it good bones. It has that Victorian-style charm which is ever-popular.
It had an allure that could not be resisted.
Despite having no restaurant or hotel experience between them, the Campbells from California signed a contract, buying the hotel from Mary Moore, on April Fool’s Day in 1977.
“We didn’t know that until we went in to sign the papers,” Kathleen said. “So the joke’s on us. We’ve lasted forever.”
One surprise After Another
In the early years, however, lasting another day seemed anything but certain.
Doug Campbell was a civil engineer, but even with that kind of experience to draw from, there were times the couple was certain they’d taken on much more than they could handle.
The basement, it turned out, had moisture in it, which required immediate preservation work. The windows were old, yellowed glass. They were easily broken, and not good at keeping out the cold. They had to be replaced, and quickly.
“You just never knew, once you opened up a wall, what you were going to find,” Kathleen recalled.
On one occasion, as they were stripping out and gutting the interior, someone called the authorities on them, thinking the couple were throwing out asbestos tiles.
“This hotel was built in 1893,” Kathleen said. “It wasn’t asbestos. It was horsehair that was in the mud that they used for the lath and plaster. And they thought it was asbestos.”
The “charming” bricks, meanwhile, turned out to be sun-dried clay, made from the Pass and Cedar Creeks in Saratoga.
They were not of great quality. But they had history. They had character. They, like the hotel, remain today.
Boom And Bust
Their first kitchen for the restaurant was outside, constructed of bricks positioned under a canopy. That allowed them to grill food, rain or shine.
The couple worked hard and in time overcame many obstacles, creating a viable tourist attraction in the community of Saratoga.
But then, in 1981, coal began to slide. By 1985, Saratoga had lost half its population. It was a full-on bust.
Two banks went under. Miners abandoned homes — mortgages unpaid — along with unpaid trucks, trailers, and snow mobiles.
“They really struggled to keep it going,” Judd Campbell recalls. Judd is the Campbells’ son, as well as general manager for the restaurant.
The Campbells hung on, riding out the bust with both determination and the support of their community.
In 1989, however, they faced a new calamity. A fire struck on a cold, winter morning.
“Fortunately, someone was filling their car up with gas,” Kathleen Campbell recalled. “He looked up while he was pumping and saw that there were flames coming up on the northeast corner of the hotel.”
Firefighters couldn’t get in on the ground floor. They had to climb to the top level and bust out windows to get at the fire, Judd Campbell said.
The wood-burning stove used to heat the restaurant was the culprit, he added.
“Right at the eave of the roof, high wind came up and separated the joints,” he said. “So it was going, and it caught on fire, and pretty well gutted out the top floor.”
The fire was a significant blow to the hotel, coming as it did on the heels of the coal boom and bust.
“It looked like Dr. Zhivago’s palace with ice,” Kathleen Campbell said.
But the fire didn’t destroy the downstairs area. There was some water damage in the kitchen, but the dining area was OK.
A Lions Club member made a stew for the restaurant that night, and the community rallied around the business. The Hotel had survived yet another catastrophe that could have been the end.
One silver lining is that the fire forced the Campbells to remodel all of the tiny hotel rooms, which had to that point, shared one of two baths. There were times, Kathleen Campbell recalled, that guests would overestimate how much space was available after they’d filled one of the two tubs. That led to a lot of displaced water on the floor.
On one particularly bad occasion, it even led to drops of water landing like rain on diners in the restaurant itself.
One of those two rooms with the shared bathtub is actually quite famous now, too.
It’s Room #9, The Joe Pickett Room. That’s where CJ Box eventually set his novel, “The Disappeared.”
“It’s probably the smallest room we have,” Kathleen said.
But it’s the most popular.
“People read the Joe Pickett book, and they met C.J., maybe at a book signing, and then they have to come,” she said. “They want to stay in the room.”
Box, however, has never actually stayed in the Joe Pickett room, Kathleen said.
Chuck Box, as Kathleen refers to him, who was a newspaper reporter for the Saratoga Sun in the mid 1980s and headed up the Chamber as well. He even had a favorite burger at the restaurant.
“It didn’t have a name at the time,” Kathleen recalled. “He just said that this is his favorite burger, so then it became the C.J. Box burger.”
Where History Still Lives
It took more than sweat equity to restore the Hotel Wolf and create the vibrant community center it is today. It took time, layers of history on layers of history, building what has become a Wyoming legend.
Hotel Wolf once hosted the leaders of cattlemen and sheep ranchers, fighting over land from 1897 to 1909. There, over dinner, they hammered out an agreement over land and territory, stopping what had been an unofficial war.
Today, Hotel Wolf still hosts the community’s leaders. Lions Club members hold meetings there, and the Skijouring crew headquarter their winter race there. The Hotel and restaurant attracts wedding parties, pool tournaments, and many a tourist.
The restaurant is worth it by itself. It features carefully aged beef steaks cut by hand, and a chicken caprese sandwich that tastes like summer, even in the winter.
The food helps fill up the restaurant with something Kathleen enjoys most of all.
“You can hear the people talking, you know, that’s where I get my pleasure is listening,” she said. “You meet some really great people who are thankful for what you may think was kind of insignificant, but it was memorable, because it was a certain anniversary or a wedding. And people come back, and they say, ‘Remember me, I worked for you.’”
And, for a moment, Campbell is capturing a moment in lived history, seeing it again, newly spun, as if in gold.
“It’s good to bring back those memories of people and things like that,” she said. “It’s good to be part of somebody else’s life, even for a few moments.”
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