Restoration Of Iconic 21-Foot Tumble Inn Cowboy On Pace To Be Finished This Year

An effort almost as tall as the iconic 21-foot-tall Tumble Inn cowboy to restore the neon giant to its former glory is progressing quickly and could be finished by the end of the year.

DK
Dale Killingbeck

April 06, 20247 min read

John Huff checks to ensure a piece of neon glass that is part of the Tumble Inn sign fits in the right place.
John Huff checks to ensure a piece of neon glass that is part of the Tumble Inn sign fits in the right place. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)

CASPER — His cowboy cleans up good and starting to look like he’s had a Saturday night bath after months on the trail.

His body still needs its iconic neon, the paint requires some intricate detail work, and the top of his head needs his Wyoming 10-gallon hat. But all is rust is gone and that weakness that had him a little weak in the knees has been bolstered.

Yep, the ol’ Tumble Inn Cowboy — all 21 feet of him — continues a makeover and could be back to his neon glory of decades ago before the snow flies.

The giant neon sign that for years beckoned travelers along U.S. Highway 26 between Casper and Shoshoni now is closing in on a half-year of restoration work after being trucked to a discreet Casper location by new owner Jonathan Thorn.

He has trusted the smiling, waving cowboy to Casper muscle-car restoration guru John Huff, who knows the metal and electronic side of things, and a neon glass expert, Connie Morgan, who can make the cowboy light up a region again.

“I think it is just by fate that John and Connie and I connected,” Thorne said. “John is an absolute pro at restoration, I mean big restoration. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cars he’s done, but they are like museum pieces. He’s restoring the sign, so it will last a long, long time, 70 to 100 years, I’m sure.”

Timeline Looking Short

Thorne said when he initially moved the sign in June 2023, he expected the project to take a few years. Now it looks as if it will be done by the end of summer, or at least before the snow flies.

A motivated man and founder of Yellowstone Garage and a Casper entrepreneur, Huff said he has been working nearly full-time the past four months to get the cowboy back in shape. The west side of the sign facing the Wyoming winds had a lot more issues than the east side. But sandblasting and painting inside and out have the cowboy more than 60% ready for a night on the town.

“I’ve been working on the cowboy’s hat, I’ve primed and painted the inside of it and sanded all of his hat off except his face,” Huff said. “I have to finish a lot of detail work. I am getting the boots figured out and outline the belt buckle and cartridges.”

Huff has rebuilt the “Sizzling Steaks” platform that was part of the sign because most of the metal was eaten away by rust. That part still requires paint.

The cowboy is mounted on its side using a spindle-like device like a spit for the barbecue that allows Huff to turn it as he works on different areas of the body.

One very tedious part of the restoration involves ensuring all the wiring insulators and connectors are cleaned or replaced to handle the 15,000 volts of power needed to fire up all the neon the big guy boasts.

“You can literally spend days on this,” Huff said, holding up old wiring, connectors and insulators. He has trays of the parts he has completed and other trays of the small components yet to do.

“It’s kind of one of these things that you’ve got to do it as you go,” Huff said.

  • Connie Morgan, of GloW Neon Lights in Casper, is refurbishing the Tumble Inn signs’ neon lights if possible or recreating the portions of the lights that were broken.
    Connie Morgan, of GloW Neon Lights in Casper, is refurbishing the Tumble Inn signs’ neon lights if possible or recreating the portions of the lights that were broken. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Insulators and connectors for the neon lights and wiring restored and cleaned by John Huff sit on a tray.
    Insulators and connectors for the neon lights and wiring restored and cleaned by John Huff sit on a tray. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • John Huff holds a clean and dirty insulator that are used as part of the neon light system on the Tumble Inn sign. He has spent hours working on cleaning all the small components of the sign’s electrical system.
    John Huff holds a clean and dirty insulator that are used as part of the neon light system on the Tumble Inn sign. He has spent hours working on cleaning all the small components of the sign’s electrical system. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • While the giant Tumble Inn cowboy is friendly, the Powder River bar also has a rough history, as seen in this 1925 newspaper item in the Casper Morning Star.
    While the giant Tumble Inn cowboy is friendly, the Powder River bar also has a rough history, as seen in this 1925 newspaper item in the Casper Morning Star. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • After inspecting all the neon tubes from the giant "Sizzlin Steaks" cowboy in Powder River, Wyoming, it was found that most of the neon tube segments still burn brightly even after 70 years.
    After inspecting all the neon tubes from the giant "Sizzlin Steaks" cowboy in Powder River, Wyoming, it was found that most of the neon tube segments still burn brightly even after 70 years. (Jonathan Thorne)
  • Tumble Inn owner Jonathan Thorne, right, and artist Samuel Austin discuss how they're going to restore the iconic Tumble Inn neon roadside sign in Powder River, Wyoming. At right, the work is underway.
    Tumble Inn owner Jonathan Thorne, right, and artist Samuel Austin discuss how they're going to restore the iconic Tumble Inn neon roadside sign in Powder River, Wyoming. At right, the work is underway. (Jonathan Thorne)
  • Tentative plans call for the cowboy to remain in Casper, most likely at this intersection of Yellowstone Highway and Elm Street.
    Tentative plans call for the cowboy to remain in Casper, most likely at this intersection of Yellowstone Highway and Elm Street. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Tumble Inn A more colorful era for the cowboy sign Van Etten Natta Family 6 3 23
    (Van Etten/Natta Family)
  • The Tumble Inn along the highway through Powder River, Wyoming, in 1952, before its iconic neon cowboy sign.
    The Tumble Inn along the highway through Powder River, Wyoming, in 1952, before its iconic neon cowboy sign. (Van Etten/Natta Family)

Restored Portion

Meanwhile, the “Lounge Cafe” part of the sign is complete and sits in another garage where Morgan has refurbished part of the 70-year-old glass tubes that spell out the words in bright neon gas. Tubes on the east side of the sign were able to be salvaged, but the west side required her to create new letters with the glass she fires and bends.

Just making the letter “L” for “Lounge” required 13 bends, and she said she still needs to paint some of the glass and do touch-up work on that part of the sign before it’s complete.

Morgan said she started the neon restoration with the easy pieces and then went from there. She has made patterns of all the various parts of the sign and put the intact and broken glass pieces together to determine what needed to be fabricated.

Her tools include a file to cut the glass and high-powered torches that heat up to 1,800 degrees to bend it. For glass that can be reused, she evacuates the gas, cleans it of impurities and fills it back up with neon.

On one table, she points to bent red glass that was part of the cowboy’s sleeve.

“This original tubing was made by Sylvania, and they don’t make this tubing anymore,” she said. “This glass is all from the ’50s. And the cool part of it is that it all lights up 75 years later.”

Matching the glass colors is a challenge, but she said she is trying to get things as close to original as possible.

“When it is all lit up you are going to have to understand that we are using a mixture of old and new,” she said. “My personal thing was to use as much of the original glass as we could.”

  • Tumble inn 5 5 22 scaled
    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • John Huff, an expert at restoring muscle cars, is leading the body work on the Tumble Inn sign. He has spent the past four months dedicated to the project.
    John Huff, an expert at restoring muscle cars, is leading the body work on the Tumble Inn sign. He has spent the past four months dedicated to the project. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The restoration of the “Lounge Café” portion of the Tumble Inn sign is shown pre-restoration and following completion.
    The restoration of the “Lounge Café” portion of the Tumble Inn sign is shown pre-restoration and following completion. (Courtesy Jonathan Thorne)
  • A portion of the Tumble Inn cowboy’s face can be seen on a newly painted portion of the sign. Sign owner Jonathan Thorne plans to have a muralist work on sign as one of the last stages of restoration.
    A portion of the Tumble Inn cowboy’s face can be seen on a newly painted portion of the sign. Sign owner Jonathan Thorne plans to have a muralist work on sign as one of the last stages of restoration. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The Tumble Inn cowboy’s hat and portion of his head are still a work in progress.
    The Tumble Inn cowboy’s hat and portion of his head are still a work in progress. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • After being sandblasted and painted, the Tumble Inn sign’s cowboy is starting to look sharp.
    After being sandblasted and painted, the Tumble Inn sign’s cowboy is starting to look sharp. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Tumble inn sign 6 27 23 v2
    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • The sign's “weathered” look will not remain after restoration is complete.
    The sign's “weathered” look will not remain after restoration is complete. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)

Final Touchup

Thorne said once Huff’s work and painting is complete, he plans to have a muralist touch up the sign to make it more lifelike with shading and highlights.

All three involved say the project is a big labor of love. Morgan said when she first saw the sign after moving to Wyoming, she had tried to find the owners to see if she could buy it.

Huff said all the hours and days spent on the project may be tedious at times, but he has no regrets.

“My heart’s in it 100% because it’s a really cool project,” Huff said. “But it takes so much time to do these things.”

For Thorne, years as a youngster passing the cowboy on his way from Colorado to his family in Cody and being inspired by the cowboy will soon be the same for new generations and other young eyes.

“All of us involved in the project feel this is a gift to the state of Wyoming and Natrona County,” Thorne said. “Those of us who are working on this have all loved the sign and want the sign not to rust away.”

Thorne said the project is not about the purchase or an attempt to get a return on investment.

“It’s an investment not so much monetary, but an investment of our souls, and it feels pretty good right now,” he said.

Plans call for the sign to be installed in the Yellowstone District of Casper. Huff said he continues to work with city officials to secure the site.

Thorne said while the website dedicated to the cowboy has photos from the sign removal and restoration process, he is looking for anyone with historic photos of the sign who may be willing to share for others to enjoy.

“If anyone has historic photos, especially of it lit up, we have not been able to find any photos of that,” he said.

Contact Dale Killingbeck at dale@cowboystatedaily.com

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Dale Killingbeck can be reached at dale@cowboystatedaily.com.

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