OPAL — Amidst the sprawling Wyoming plains, the Opal Mercantile in this tiny town 15 minutes east of Kemmerer, is historically important to the area but has stood vacant since 1987.
That’s when the previous owners closed shop, leaving in their wake a time capsule that held the relics of the rural Wyoming town.
The Opal Town Council had toyed with the idea of buying the Mercantile at one time, but without more money they knew they wouldn’t be able to restore it. With the building gradually deteriorating, talks shifted to the possibility of demolition.
Just when it seemed the building’s fate was sealed, Dan Whiteford Sr. and his son Dan Whiteford Jr. swept it up for a mere $3,300 in a tax sale.
Hailing from California, the Whitefords had been captivated by their vision of restoring and transforming the building into an ammunition manufacturing company since 2013. This inspiration sparked after the older Whiteford's brother, Bill Whiteford, sent him a photo of the property.
Patience Pays Off
But at the time, the tax lien holder wasn’t interested in selling. When that changed, White, who served on the Opal Town Council, notified his brother and the Whitefords jumped at the opportunity.
“When I first saw the building, I said to my brother, ‘That would make a great place to open an ammunition company,’” Whiteford Sr. said. “But it wasn’t the right time. But when the guy decided to sell we jumped at the opportunity. It took eight months of transfers and paperwork before we finally closed the deal.”
The building remained dormant for two years as per Wyoming law, allowing previous owners a chance to reclaim their property by paying the tax lien.
“There was no point in investing in the business until we knew for sure no one was coming back,” Whiteford Sr. told Cowboy State Daily. “We started working on it probably at about one year and nine months, because by then it was pretty obvious no one was going to try and get it back.”
Although excited about their new endeavor, the Whitefords' move to Wyoming wasn’t just about opening a new ammunition company. As owners of an insurance company in their home state, the father-son duo said they wanted out of that rat race and away from California’s politics.
Opal, Wyoming, seemed like the perfect place — quiet, slow and Second Amendment friendly.
“This feels like a different life,” Whiteford Jr. said. “We just knew it was time to get out of that state and the insurance business. Between the woke politics, the cost of living and the state of affairs in both our business and California, we knew it was time to leave.”
That Historic Building
The Opal Mercantile was established in 1892, and also served as a post office and stage station.
It sold groceries and gasoline along with a variety of goods like tractors, furniture and International Harvester motor trucks. The store was the largest of its kind in western Wyoming with customers coming from as far north as Sublette County.
In 1927, a fire destroyed the original building. The town’s only hotel, owned by William Solliday, also burned just a short time before that. When the store was rebuilt, the owners and Solliday decided to incorporate both businesses into the same building. That three-story brick building that still stands opened for business in 1928.
The building was sold about 1985 and became Ham’s Fork Supply Co. The Bar-N Bar also occupied a portion of the building, which installed a long bar along one side and a stage for go-go dancers on the other.
The upstairs rooms were used as a hotel and a brothel. In its heyday, the business thrived with the construction of the Opal Gas Plant and the Exxon oil boom.
The Mercantile’s narrative took another somber turn in 1987 when the owners were no longer able to keep the business open. Since then, the building has remained vacant, weathering the passage of nearly four decades until the Whitefords bought it.
New Life For Old Building
While the Opal Mercantile was once a bustling hub pulsating with life, it had fallen into disrepair over the years. Bearing the scars of nature’s forces and human neglect, the Whitefords had their job cut out for them.
So far, they have invested about $100.000 into addressing its structural wounds, including a leaky roof and broken windows.
“The roof had a hole in it, so there was an enormous amount of water damage, and the entire upstairs was covered in insulation,” Whiteford Sr. said. “The clean-up job has been massive. I swear, we have hauled off at least 10 to 20 tons of junk and debris.”
To kick off the cleanup project, the Whitefords invited nearby residents from Opal and Kemmerer in 2016 to come help and welcomed them to take any souvenirs they wanted.
“Everything was just like it was when they closed the doors years ago,” Whiteford Sr. said. “It was like time stood still, except for the damage. The old bar was still there and the mirrors that were there for the go-go girls were also still there. There were even a bunch of hats still hanging behind the bar.
“One guy wanted part of the bar, so we cut it in half and he took one half home. We had to cut up the bar anyway to get it out of there, so it worked out.”
Plans For The Future
With a three-year plan in place, the Whitefords aim to restore the building to its original glory.
For now, however, the building houses their entire ammunition manufacturing company, Opal Ammunition. When the two started their company, they had three calibers of ammunition they were manufacturing, which has grown now to 17.
“Our long-term goal is to restore the building back into a mercantile store,” Whiteford Sr. said. “And I may lease some space to someone who wants to put in a coffee shop or deli there.”
In the spring, the Whitefords plan to build a new 1,500-square-foot building next to the Mercantile that they will use for packaging and shipping.
Within the next two years, the new owners also plan to build two more buildings on the property that will encompass around 15,000 square feet. One they will use to make their own brass and the other for making projectiles. At that time, they will finish renovating the Mercantile store and open it for business.
The 15 hotel rooms upstairs will likely be transformed into studio apartments, a strategic move by the Whitefords aimed at addressing an anticipated housing shortage triggered by a forthcoming gas line expansion in the area.
Moreover, the construction of a new nuclear plant just 15 minutes away in Kemmerer is set to begin in 2025. This also is expected to increase the need for additional housing options.
“That’s the goal,” Whiteford Sr. said. “I know we plan to put in a store, and then I may lease some of the space inside the building to someone who is interested in having a little coffee shop or deli.”
When completed, the business will employ 150 to 200 people and will bring in about an additional $1 million in revenue to Lincoln County, Whiteford Sr. said.
And By The Way, It’s Haunted
The renovation project hasn't escaped its share of supernatural happenings. Once a thriving epicenter of commerce, this century-old building appears to retain spectral imprints of its vibrant history.
During the initial stages of the building’s renovation, Whiteford Sr. enlisted the help of a friend from California, William Solliday. It was coincidence this friend shared the same name as the owner of the original Solliday hotel in Opal, which burned down in 1927.
Following the fire, Solliday became one of the owners of the new mercantile building as the overseer of the hotel rooms.
As they worked, the friend began hearing faint whispers and voices saying "hello" that Whiteford Sr. couldn’t hear.
“He kept saying, ‘Can you hear that? I’m hearing hello and people talking.’ But I couldn’t hear anything,” Whiteford Sr. said.
Intrigued by the mystery, the Whitefords and Solliday invited a paranormal investigative team with a popular TV series to the property. Strangely, there was no activity observed until Solliday spoke, causing the meters on the paranormal equipment to surge showing something was happening.
The inexplicable phenomenon perplexed even the seasoned ghost hunters, Whiteford Sr. said.
The mystery took another unexpected turn when Solliday and his wife visited the local museum in Kemmerer. Among the historical artifacts, they stumbled upon a photograph of the original William Solliday.
The uncanny resemblance between the contemporary Solliday and his historical doppelganger sent shivers down their spines as it became obvious the spirits of Opal Mercantile thought he was the man who once owned the building a century earlier. Yet, Solliday said he had no knowledge of any family linked to Opal or Wyoming.
“It was crazy. The two men looked identical to each other,” Whiteford Sr. said. “They literally could have been brothers or father and son, that’s how much they looked alike.”
Whiteford has since had a couple of personal paranormal encounters, including hearing someone say “hello” when he was alone and witnessing items move mysteriously across the floor.
Despite these experiences though, he has opted to keep the investigation private and said he will reconsider a visit from the team after the renovation.
For now, the Whitefords plan to look toward the future as they continue working to restore the Opal Mercantile, ghosts and all.