KEMMERER — Kemmerer’s historic Opera House was facing an uncertain future after the Chinese restaurant operating in it closed up shop, but no more.
Restoration of the building is nearing a grand finale that new owners Jacob and Jesica Lozier believe will give the building at least another 100 years of life, come what may.
“The Opera House is Jesica’s dream,” Jacob told Cowboy state Daily.
And what a dream it is.
The couple plans to open a store in the historic building in early December that combines several of Jesica’s favorite things all in one modern-day mercantile.
“So, we lived in Pennsylvania for a few years and there’s, like, a Mennonite store there,” Jesica told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s like a general store. So I said when we move home, ‘I’m going to open a store like this. This is what Kemmerer needs.’”
Jesica has been talking to local producers, among them a local dairy, hoping to source things like fresh milk, ice cream and things like that.
She’s also been talking to artisans from the region sourcing locally made items that are unique and will fit Jesica’s vision for her store.
That vision includes catering services, as well as a food counter with a daily special. People will be able to either sit down and eat there, or take it with them.
“It won’t be a full-service type of place,” Jacob said.
Wait, There’s More
But the grand plans don’t end with the first floor.
Upstairs, work is underway to create luxury loft apartments to be offered next summer as short-term rentals on Airbnb.
“There’s a lot of tourism in this town with fossils and also people traveling north to the park,” Jacob said. “And the Green River isn’t too far away, so there’s a lot of fishermen that come through here as well. So, we’re trying to create a place downtown that’s close to the amenities of the triangle that they can stay at.”
The triangle Jacob is referring to is the intersection of three downtown streets, including Main Street, that forms a triangle shape. Inside the triangle, there’s a park that often serves as venue for community events.
The Loziers believe rental income from Airbnbs rentals will help support the shop downstairs while it’s building a clientele.
“We definitely spent some time and created a business plan,” Jacob said. “And that was part of our plan, to make sure those short-term rentals were available and operational as much as possible.”
The Airbnbs are likely to be particularly popular, the Loziers believe, during some of the big festivals that take place in Kemmerer, such as the Oyster Ridge Music Festival.
“I believe that’s one of the largest free music festivals in the country, and it happens here on the triangle,” Jacob said.
Jacob grew up in Kemmerer, but left Wyoming for a time to work in the energy industry, while Jesica moved to Kemmerer in her 20s and lived there for 25 years.
The couple got a chance to return home in part thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of that, Jacob’s employer started allowing remote work, and the couple seized the opportunity to return to their hometown.
When Jesica learned the Opera House was for sale, and that one of the potential buyers wanted to tear it down, she knew the building was the right place for her dream store.
“It’s important to me that Kemmerer has a small business district,” she said. “We have a lot of heavy industrial and that’s super important. But it’s important for healthy community commerce to have small businesses.”
Even though the first-floor store’s opening is planned for early December, Jesica said they’re getting a little head start with homemade pies for Thanksgiving.
Five options are available, from classic pumpkin to apple cranberry and French silk. A complete list is available online.
History Uncovered And Preserved
The project has been fun so far, the Loziers said, adding they’ve learned a lot and gained new appreciation for a historic building that they’ve grown up with.
“People have come out of the woodworks with stories and photos about the property,” Jesica said.
One of the cool things that happened while they were taking the building down to its studs and demolishing a portion that wasn’t sound anymore was that a collector offered to do a little digging in the demolition area. His search yielded a few 1800s artifacts.
Among his finds were several bottles, which the collector is dating for the Loziers, as well as a penwell and some 1800s vintage shoes.
“These bottles will be displayed in the building when complete,” Jesica wrote on a Facebook post about the finds. “I was surprised how far in the ground they were.”
Jacob said engineers who examined the building for the couple found that it was very sound and solid.
“It really didn’t have any structural problems, which is great,” Jacob said. “And it’s going to have all new plumbing and electrical. So whatever happens with the building and our time with it, it’s hopefully going to be good for another 100 years.”
Jacob and Jesica have also been doing digging of a different kind in the library stacks. Old newspaper clippings and advertisements have given them a lot of insight into the Opera House’s early history in the community.
The building, which is one of Kemmerer’s oldest, started life as a saloon, one of many in a row on Main Street. It was next to James Cash Penney’s Golden Rule Store, a precursor to the JCPenney empire.
“It was owned by the first mayor of Kemmerer,” Jacob said. “And they built the upstairs into the Opera House.”
Even though the Opera House was over a saloon, it was treated as something of a community center.
“Winter programs, people who were traveling around doing shows, would happen at the opera house on the second level,” Jacob said.
More Than Entertainment
But it wasn’t just traveling shows. The space was also used for community events.
Kemmerer’s first Fourth of July program from 120 years ago lists the Opera House as its location, with singing of “America,” by children, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by Jay Quealy.
Following that, there was more singing by children of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and then concluding oration by Emil Larson.
Music and dancing followed the program for the amusement of the children, as well as candy, peanuts and lemonade.
The location also hosted the Japanese consulate at one point.
But the Opera House is special to the Loziers for another reason that’s more personal.
The couple learned that not just one but two generations of Nishis had businesses in the back corner of the building.
“The first had a pool house during prohibition,” Jesica said. “The second had a corner cafe and restaurant.”
The couple has found articles suggesting the pool house got caught during prohibition.
“A lot of my uncle’s family and his siblings, they have, you know memories of what that place was like, the time that they spent there.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.