BUFFALO — Fantasy tales often feature some well-hidden secret door that only certain people can see, leading to a place of wonder far, far away.
But in Buffalo, Wyoming, that door is not hidden at all. It’s right out in the open, and travelers from all walks of life are more than welcome to step right on through.
Welcome, stranger, to the Occidental Hotel, where in the swing of one door, travelers are swept away to a time 100 years removed. Sit for a spell on the antique chairs in the lobby, and gaze at a scene that’s much like it was a hundred years or more ago.
The Occidental Hotel is as it happens is an actual, registered museum. But unlike most museums, guests are more than welcome to climb into the historic, antique beds in 18 different rooms, which offer not only layers of history but restful sleep in a place removed from the modern day and all its cares.
They’re also welcome to sit in antique chairs to daydream, or sip cocktails while the sun sets on that awful modern world outside.
When hungry, there’s the adjacent saloon, which looks very much as it did around the turn of the 20th century, when it was built. The original hand-struck tin ceiling is intact, as is the original Charles Rennie Macintosh backbar, with its stained-glass window, imported all the way from Glasgow, Scotland.
There are even bullet holes in the antique ceiling and the backbar from long ago games of chance and love gone awry.
The space is so real and authentic, it isn’t a stretch to imagine Butch Cassidy himself with his pal theSundance Kid, aka Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, bounding into the saloon for a high-stakes game of poker or other game of chance in the back room.
Wild Bunch gang member Cassidy and Longabaugh weren’t the only famous characters of the day to stay at the Occidental. The guest register from days gone by is a who’s who of the most interesting characters and figures of the West, with a few extras thrown in.
The signatures include legends like Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Tom Horn, and General Phil Sheridan, as well as two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.
Ernest Hemingway was a guest in his day. “The Virginian” Author Owen Wister was likely a guest as well. The hotel owners believe Wister was inspired by a real shootout in front of the Occidental when he wrote the famous scene where the Virginian finally gets his man.
Other hotels also lay claim to various aspects of The Virginian, but Wister himself has said he drew upon all of Wyoming for his book, and he did spend a substantial amount of time in the Buffalo area.
A Different Room For Every Mood
Each of the Occidental’s 18 renovated rooms has its own story to tell, and its own character, making the experience of each room unique.
The Cloud Peak Room is a popular honeymoon suite, and it’s easy to see why. It is so intimate and cozy, with a fireplace and living room right next to the huge king-sized bed. In a little side nook, there’s a reading area perfect for hiding away for a bit, and there’s an oversized balcony where guests can enjoy morning coffee or an evening glass of wine while the world passes by.
A second bedroom is available with the suite as well, making it a versatile stay.
Down the hall from the Cloud Peak room, it’s a short hop to an entirely different experience in the Nate Champion room. Artwork on the wall and placards tell the history of the famous rancher who was murdered during the infamous Johnson County Cattle War. There’s also a statuette that looks suspiciously like the work of artist Mike Thomas, who has several sculptures around town in Buffalo that tell the story of the Johnson County Cattle War.
The Nate Champion room features a king-sized bed fit for a champion, as well as a sitting room with a fireplace. There’s also a roomy work desk perfect for writing postcards or journal entries or any other writing task.
One of the cutest rooms of all also has a cool story behind it. The room at first doesn’t seem to have a private bathroom. But the Hole in the Wall room does indeed have a bathroom. It was just built into what was the room’s closet.
According to hotel legends, that room belonged to a teacher who complained about having to take a bath where all the cowboys bathed. So, in keeping with her status, a private bath was built for her in the room’s closet.
The bathroom is quite roomy, despite being in a small closet, and the room includes an armoire for clothing, making it a comfortable and charming stay.
Before She Was A Hotel She Was A Tent
The man who built the original Occidental Hotel was named Charles Buell, and like many young men of his day, he’d come West with dreams of gold and fortune dancing in his head.
He wasn’t planning to run a hotel at all. But, as the skilled carpenter was camping out along Clear Creek in the rapidly forming community revolving around Fort McKinney, he was approached by miners looking for a warm, dry place to lay their heads and get a good meal.
After that meal, the miners wondered if Buell would also know of a bank where they might secure some gold they said they’d found in the Big Horns.
Buell had just the thing, he told them. He led them to a deep hole in the ground that he’d covered with a buffalo hide. Their gold was safe and sound until they went on their way, and Buell’s reputation as a businessman with a first-class stay was born.
Those travelers wouldn’t be the last to seek respite and secure storage from Buell. He was, after all, at a site very near the Bozeman Trail, which was built to take many a fortune seeker to gold found in the Badlands north of Wyoming. Buell quickly realized that he could make a good living by simply offering those fortune seekers a safe place to stay with a good meal.
Eventually, Buell replaced his plain canvas tent with a two-story log building that resembled a barn. It had a gambrel roof and gabled dormers, very similar to buildings in his native Wisconsin. That made the Occidental’s predecessor quite distinctive for Wyoming, even in its earliest and simplest form.
The log building was soon followed with a two-story brick building in the early 1900s, followed by additions in 1908 and 1910. Each new section included space for shops and restaurants on the ground floor. Rooms were mostly on the second floor, with few exceptions.
Saving The Occidental
One of the Occidental Hotel owners eventually lost the hotel in a high-stakes card game in 1918. Two ranchers, John and Al Smith walked away from the back room of the Occidental as its brand-new owners.
Neither knew a blessed thing about running a hotel.
That fell instead to Al’s wife Margaret. She agreed to run the hotel for “a month or so,” but ended up running it for 55 years until she died in 1976.
From there, the Occidental began a vicious downward spiral. By the 80s, its 50 to 60 rooms were just too tiny for the modern day, and its amenities were subpar. It was finally closed in 1986, and would remain so until 1997, when Dawn and John Wexo purchased it.
The hotel was not even a shadow of its former self by then. The ceiling had given way in some places, and water was attacking the structural stability. The electrical system was decrepit and dangerous. Here was only dust, debris, and decay. A wrecking ball surely couldn’t be far away.
But Dawn Dawson wasn’t daunted by all of that. She’d worked on the historic restoration of other buildings, and believed that underneath all the decay was something grand, something worth saving.
She wasn’t wrong.
Beneath the moldy old carpets were fine wood floors. Hiding behind false ceilings were old-time tin ceilings in perfect condition. Fake walls meanwhile hid original wainscoting and intricately embossed wall coverings.
In the cellars and attics, a treasure trove of historic furnishings and architectural details awaited — things that could be put back into their places with minimal restoration.
In 2005, David and Jackie Stewart entered the picture. Initially, they just invested money to help with the renovation and David started an enormously popular Thursday night jam session, which today brings a full house into the Occidental saloon every Thursday night.
The Stewarts would eventually buy the hotel outright in 2015, and are its present owners.
They are continuing to renovate and improve the hotel each year, taking care to retain the essential character of each room, while creating a stay that includes all the expected modern comforts.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.