The roadside sign for the Tumble Inn in Powder River, Wyoming, is a genuine slice of Americana. Kitsch and caboodle nostalgia from hat to boots, it looks like it belongs on an eerie stretch of forgotten asphalt off Route 66.
Instead, the towering retro cowboy flags down wayward motorists along an eerie stretch of highway between Casper and Shoshoni on U.S. Highway 20/26.
It’s less trafficked than it used to be (blame Eisenhower and his interstate) but plenty of Wyomingites have whizzed by the bygone bar and restaurant, and its larger-than-life landmark cowboy beckoning weary travelers to tumble in and sit a spell.
Sign Of The Times
Don’t look now, but the portly cowpoke with the six shooters has been scalped.
Motorists first started noticing the hair-raising alteration last week. Some reports speculated merciless Wyoming wind was to blame for the new look.
The sign has a new owner and a new future. Work is underway to restore the 70-year-old vintage guidepost to its former glory. The eatery? Well, that’s probably a heavier lift.
Meet Jonathan Thorne.
Like the rest of us, he’s passed by the classic sign in the middle of nowhere and watched it slowly rust away.
“That’s a shame. Someone ought to rescue that sign,” Thorne said he thought to himself about five years ago when he zoomed by.
“We used to drive that stretch when I was a kid. Stop at Romeo & Juliet [Café], Hells Half Acre,” Thorne said.
The University of Wyoming graduate lives in Colorado but has family ties in Cody.
After months of negotiation that turned into years, Thorne is now that someone. And he has grand plans for the ol’ buckaroo.
“The owners were very hard to track down. They like their privacy,” Thorne said.
After a year of back and forth where months would often go by with no word, Thorne finally bought the sign as a package deal. It came with the half-acre property and a barely standing bar building.
“The price was close to what I was willing to pay for the sign. So, I'm now the proud new owner of an abandoned bar,” he said.
It’s All About The Sign
Thorne is a semi-retired engineer who has the time, passion, and means to revive the Tumble Inn sign. He thought it was the right thing to do for Natrona County and Wyoming at large. He has no plans, however, to go into the bar business.
“The paint is coming off and it is starting to rust. I'm an engineer, so I knew corrosion was going to take hold and soon it would be too late,” Thorne said. “I bought it on faith. I’m betting if I take this leap and start a restoration project, there are people out there who also want to help.
“This is not about me. This is for Wyoming.”
Thorne eagerly points out he’s not in this alone. Quite organically, he’s assembled a team of specialists to come alongside and lend their expertise. They’ve gravitated toward the endeavor like barflys to neon.
John Huff, who founded Yellowstone Garage in Casper, is a lover of classic cars, as is Thorne. Both know their way around a metal sander.
They are leading an effort that also includes SF Neon, a sign restoration company based in San Francisco; Connie Morgan, a neon expert and tube bender extraordinaire; as well as various electricians and other helpers.
The entire restoration project is being documented by Emmy Award-winning videographer Anthony Stengel.
“We are putting together a top-notch team to get it done it right,” Thorne said.
The first step toward rehabbing the Tumble Inn icon was to remove it in sections, beginning with the top layer. That dismemberment included the cartoon cowboy’s hat and the arrow that pointed to the bar/restaurant.
That’s what prompted the speculation that wind had topped the cowboy.
Thorne said the entire 21-foot-tall piece is constructed with an 8-inch-diameter pole centering the structure. As crews take sections away in this top-down method, a wood backing will be added to make sure what’s left doesn’t blow away.
SF Neon said it is hopeful to learn the identity of the company that originally manufactured the sign as they reverse engineer it. It is thought to have been added to the property in the early- to mid-1950s. No one really remembers.
As the sign is disassembled, it is brought piece-by-piece to a workspace in Casper, where it will be reconstructed. That work includes the painstaking process of removing and testing the neon tubes.
“We removed all the neon after photographing where it was so we know how to put it back. A substantial amount was still intact. Those glass tubes are more rugged than I would have thought,” Thorne said.
Just for fun, electricians fired up the neon before removal and found all but one tube still lit up after all these years.
Weathering Watering Hole
Almost as colorful as the Tumble Inn’s neon sign is the history of the business it promoted.
From steakhouse to roadhouse, the Tumble Inn was a place many an imbiber stumbled out of. Through its legacy, the juke joint was a haven for prohibition violators, exotic dancing and even a murder.
Back in the day, the historic U.S. 20 was the longest continuous highway in America, spanning from Maine to Oregon. After interstates took over, the section in Wyoming between Casper and Shoshoni was still a long one for many vehicles to navigate without handy watering holes like the Tumble Inn.
An early version of the Tumble Inn was reported to have been in operation in Ten Sleep. Also, according to newspaper clippings, a place of business operating as the Tumble Inn was raided in 1925 and its bartender, S.A. Michaelson, arrested for serving moonshine during prohibition.
The official launch of the modern-day Tumble Inn began with the Birds who built the log cabin restaurant on the site of the Powder River Inn, which burned down in 1938. Bill and Delilah made sure to install a 21-by-30-foot dance floor. They sold the place to Warren Burgess Jr. and his wife shortly thereafter in 1941.
The Tumble Inn changed hands frequently through the ’40 and ’50s. Owners and leasers numbered at least 10, including E.E. Jennings, Mike Ward, Bud and Catherine Fisher, J.E. Macy, Ed Nichols and the Williamses.
In 1954, Eddie Macy installed the 126-foot TV tower behind the place that still stands. He was trying to get Casper’s KSPR to come in better. He was reportedly less-than-thrilled with the results.
It was about that time that the iconic sign was added to the property.
Rough And Tumble Inn
The Tumble Inn was the site of a death Dec. 16, 1958, when John Carr, 53, had been repeatedly trying to regain access to the bar after he was tossed out for being intoxicated.
Carr then began flagging down passing truckers for a ride until he was eventually struck and killed by one driven by J.E. Wyrick.
Two years later in 1960, the Tumble Inn’s dishwasher, Joe Baker, was found murdered behind the gas station across the street. A deserter from the Navy by the name of Ed Brewer confessed to the crime shortly after.
Bill Gray bought the property, which included three cabins, in 1961. Donald and Eleanor Vanatta took their chance with the establishment in 1989. When the Department of Health expressed concerns about the drinking water, the Vanattas opted out of their lease in 1992.
Bud Galbreath took over, but sold out in 1995.
The Tumble Inn continued to be operated as a highway tavern of somewhat ill-repute through the early 2000s.
The end came in 2005 when owners Joe Trujillo, 50, and his 22-year-old girlfriend Kayla Byerly shuttered the establishment after pressure from law enforcement. The topless dancing was reportedly the nail in the coffin.
Not much remains of the near-ghost town of Powder River.
Population is less than two dozen diehards. It’s likely to return to sagebrush in the next generation, which is why Thorne is still not sure where the Tumble Inn cowboy will set his spurs next.
“Moving a historic sign is tough because it does take away from history and aura and everything when you relocate it. But do you get it all fixed up and put it back out on a desolate highway?” Thorne wondered.
Wherever the sign ends up, it’ll likely enjoy a lasting second life. Vintage neon signs are back in style and trending in many places across the country.
Fremont Street Experience (“Glitter Gulch”) in Las Vegas is practically founded on the retro neon look. Pueblo, Colorado, has its “Neon Alley” in the city’s historic district south of downtown. And don’t forget the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, the nation’s largest collection of vintage signs.
“We’re on a loose timeline, more focused on getting it right than getting it fast,” Thorne said. “There will be some tough decisions to make. This is a journey, but not one that has been fully mapped out.”
Jake Nichols can be reached at Jake@CowboyStateDaily.com