Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Best of the West"

A notice in 1997 in the Buffalo, WY, newspaper might have read:

For Sale: The Occidental Hotel, a "fixer-upper." Room ceilings caved in, paint peeling, carpeting old and dirty. Electrical wires old and worn, plumbing defunct, heating system dead. Roof leaking many places. Percolating water beginning to undermine the inside structure of the building.

Just when it looked as though the grand old hotel would be torn down and replaced by a parking lot, the current owner (Dawn Wexo) bought the hotel because she had "a positive feeling" about the Occidental when she first saw it. Fortunately, Dawn had previously worked on the restoration of other historic buildings and suspected that there was "a historic gem" under all of the dilapidation.

The Occidental was certainly rich in history if not in appearance (in 1997). In 1880, the hotel was housed in the handsome log buildings and boasted six rooms upstairs. Among those who enjoyed the hospitality of the Occidental in the early days were Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt, and Calamity Jane. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rode to the Occidental from their hideout at the nearby Hole-in-the-Wall.

Demolished and re-built in 1900, the Occidental owes its existence today to two women. In 1918, two ranchers named John and Al Smith (father and son) won the ownership of the Hotel in a high-stakes poker game 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. Over the next 20 years, the empty hotel slowly deteriorated.

Margaret was naturally frugal and almost never threw anything away. The tin ceilings were simply covered over and the old furnishings were often stored away instead of being junked when the hotel underwent any "moderniza-tions."

After 10 years and $1.8 million of restoration, the grand hotel reopened in 2007 as one of the most intact historic lodging in the West. The rooms are decorated with original furnishings and reproduction wallpaper, as well as vintage radios that pick up old radio programs from an in-hotel transmitter.

Dawn and John, her husband, found rooms crammed with turn-of-the-century furniture, including several dozen brass beds. We were able to look into three of the rooms in the Hotel. The Clear Creek Suite (right) was one of the rooms that were formed by combining two or three of the small original rooms.

Behind the Registration Desk was this piece of equipment (left) which enabled the person at the desk to ring the room indicating that a guest was waiting in the lobby.

In cellars and basements, they unearthed the hotel’s original ledgers and guest registers, the big brass cash register embossed with the Occidental’s name, and the 25-foot-long mirror that backed the bar.

When members of the Buffalo community saw the restoration process proceeding, they began to contribute items. Some townspeople helped recover the original billiard table and its paperwork certifying that Buell had purchased it in 1886.

One lady handed Dawn a 55-gallon trash bag filled with the hotel’s tablecloths, lace doilies, and linens she’d saved. Others brought in the bar’s stained glass doors—rescued from the Occidental’s trash 17 years ago and donated old photos.











I am unaware of the story behind the pump organ from the Bridgeport Organ Co.













or this tricycle












or this Victrola.

But a chance meeting Dawn had with Mike Shanley, who was bidding on old radios at a farm auction, had a big impact on one very interesting contribution to the Hotel. He told her that his hobby is rebuilding them, but he was running out of room at his house.

“I have a big house, the Occidental Hotel,” Dawn told him.

The very next day Mike pulled up to the hotel with a trailer full of restored radios. He has placed about two dozen old radios in the Hotel rooms.

Mike has set up a tenth of a watt radio transmitter that can send taped ‘30s and ‘40s music or old-time programs such as The Lone Ranger or Sherlock Holmes to all of the radios. He has cataloged the tapes so guests can choose which ones to listen to.

One of the radios receiving the transmission is this 1930 Edison Model R6 (left) located in the lobby.

As we were leaving, we passed the Gift Shop complete with two original barber chairs from the Hotel.

After our brief tour, we were not surprised to learn that the Occidental had been awarded "Best of the West" recognition in 2007 and 2008 (the only two-time winner) by True West Magazine.

But there were still the dining places in the Hotel to visit--right around lunchtime tomorrow.

(All photos not specifically identified show the Hotel from the street or the Hotel lobby.)