Occidental Hotel, Buffalo Wy....
Sep 22, 2012
|This morning we got up and moving early as we wanted to visit the Occidental Hotel as well as the museum here in Buffalo before getting on the road. We got permission for a late check-out (if needed) from the campground, as we weren't exactly sure what to expect time wise. We allotted an hour for the hotel and an hour or two for the museum. Wow, did we ever underestimate that! We could have easily spent 3 hours in each. We arrived at the hotel & were greeted with a friendly 'hello' from front desk employee Angela. She was extremely helpful & full of great facts and stories. She encouraged us to check out the lobby, photo lined halls, saloon, Virginian Restaurant etc. She also gave us permission to go upstairs & view several of the unoccupied rooms. These rooms are roped off but the doors were open. We were instructed to not open any closed door as we might disturb a paying customer. I guess some folks do so, even after being instructed not to! Amazing, lol! This hotel is absolutely wonderful! And now, a bit of the history of this magnificent Buffalo establishment:
Founded in 1880, the Occidental Hotel quickly became one of the most renowned hotels in Wyoming. Located near the Bozeman Trail at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, it was visited by many famous people of the Old West as they traveled along the Trail. Among those who enjoyed the hospitality of the Occidental in the early days were Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt, and General Phil Sheridan. Calamity Jane, who drove freight wagons on the Bozeman Trail, stopped often at the hotel. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rode to the Occidental from their hideout at the nearby Hole-in-the-Wall. The famous cattle detective and killer, Tom Horn, was another frequent visitor. And legendary frontier sheriffs like Frank Canton and "Red" Angus were regulars at the bar.
In the rip-roaring days of early Wyoming, the saloon at the Occidental Hotel was famous far and wide. In the barroom, the lawful and the lawless played faro and poker, flirted with pretty ladies, drank copious quantities of powerful spirits and occasionally shot up the place! One visitor in the early days called the Occidental Saloon "a regular gambling hell," where high-stakes poker games sometimes continued for days. In 1908, the original rough barroom was replaced with one of the most elegant saloons in Wyoming. An imposing back bar with stained glass accents was installed, along with an intricately embossed tin ceiling, and impressive period decorations everywhere. All of this has been preserved and restored, for patrons to admire today as they enjoy a soda or something stronger.
Early in its existence, the Occidental established a reputation for hospitality and fine food. Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, spent many happy hours in the Occidental lobby and saloon, and based characters in his celebrated novel on cowboys and gunslingers that he observed there. Many historians believe that the shoot-out at the climax of the book — the first "walk down" in Western literature — took place in front of The Occidental.
As time passed, the Occidental was expanded and re-built until it became a "grand" hotel, with elegant decor and fine service. Cowboys and ranchers from miles around, and many business travelers and tourists, went miles out of their way to enjoy the many pleasures offered by the Occidental. Among the famous people who visited the hotel at this stage were President Theodore Roosevelt, President Herbert Hoover and Ernest Hemingway.
Then, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the splendor of the hotel began to fade. As everybody in Wyoming tightened their belts, money became scarce. As business dried up, the owners of the Occidental began a long struggle to keep the doors open. During World War II, business picked up temporarily. But after the war, the slow decline of the hotel continued, as motels began to take business away from hotels. By the 1970s and 1980s, the Occidental was barely functioning as a hotel, and many of its rooms had been turned into apartments for retirees. In 1986, the hotel finally closed its doors.
By 1997, the final demolition of the Occidental seemed close at hand. But the Occidental was not demolished. Instead, 1997 proved to be the year in which the grand old hotel was re-born. In that year, Dawn and John Wexo purchased the building and began a 10-year restoration process that has returned the Occidental Hotel to its status as one of the fine hotels of the West. Dawn, had previously worked on the restoration of other historic buildings, and she had "a positive feeling" about the Occidental when she first saw it. She suspected that there was "a historic gem" under all of the dilapidation. As it turned out, she was right. Gradually, as multiple layers of ancient and unyielding paint were scraped away, and multiple thicknesses of decaying carpet were pulled up, the grand old Occidental began to reveal itself. And it was even more intact and splendid than Dawn had suspected.
On the first floor, all of the wonderful decorated tin ceilings proved to be in perfect condition. The wooden floors under the dead carpets were in fine shape (with the exception of the dance floor in the saloon, which needed to be jacked up five inches on one side). Today, everywhere you look you will see the Old West the way it really was. The magnificent back bar that you will see in the saloon is the original back bar that was brought in by wagon a hundred years ago. And the chairs you will sit in are likely to be antiques that are original to the hotel. All rooms and suites are furnished with antiques and decorated in elegant period style.
Typically, as buildings grow older, they are subjected to endless remodeling by a succession of owners, and their original character is destroyed in the process. Year after year, original structures and architectural details are ripped out and thrown away, until virtually nothing remains of the original spirit of a building. As Dawn Wexo discovered, there was a reason why this had not happened to the Occidental Hotel.
In 1918, two ranchers named John and Al Smith (father and son) won the ownership of the Occidental Hotel in a high-stakes poker game in the back room at the Occidental Saloon. Not knowing what to do with their enormous new possession, they asked Al's wife Margaret to take over running the hotel for "a month or so" until they could sell it. Margaret Smith ended up running the hotel for 58 years, until she died at the age of 92 in 1976. And during all that time, she rarely threw anything out. This was partly because Margaret Smith was naturally frugal, but it was also because the Occidental Hotel became a focus and joy of her life. She stored away the past of the hotel as lovingly as other people might store personal memories in a photo album. In this way, the Occidental Hotel became a kind of time capsule, just waiting for somebody to come along to "dig it up." And two women who never knew each other — Margaret Smith and Dawn Wexo — worked together (in a manner of speaking) to bring about the survival of the unique historic treasure that is the Occidental Hotel. And now, you know the rest of the story!