The Occidental Hotel
You’d be hard-pressed to find more storied and authentic Old West accommodations than The Historic Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming. East of the Bighorn Mountains, along the Bozeman Trail, the grande dame has seen a thing or two in the 131 years since she was established, including a recent award-winning restoration that preserved an authentic early 1900s experience while adding all the modern comforts.
Melodious chimes ring as you open the heavy oak-and-glass door and step across the worn hardwood threshold into a bygone world where burgundy embossed wallpaper and patterned tin ceilings graced the most elegant establishments. Through massive windows overlooking Main Street and Clear Creek, soft light plays on a grand piano while Gene Autry and Roy Rogers resonate from a 1930s Edison radio. Above the fireplace hangs an original oil of Custer’s Indian scout, Curley, by Crow Indian artist T.L. Fox.
Beyond the lobby lie more experiences in frontier luxury: slumbering in antique beds, soaking in claw-foot tubs, sitting at desks once occupied by U.S. presidents. But don’t let this genteel demeanor fool you. In the hotel’s more rip-roaring days, Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, Calamity Jane, and Buffalo Bill downed their whiskey at The Occidental Saloon, and more than a few gunfights broke out — 23 bullet holes remaining in the ceiling and woodwork attest to the rowdy fact.
Guest registers at The Occidental date back to the late 1800s, revealing signatures of many legendary guests: Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt, Butch Cassidy, and Owen Wister among them. Wister is said to have written part of his famous novel The Virginian in a room here and to have set the famous climax shootout scene just in front of the hotel.
Little did Charles Buell know what he was starting when he first pitched a tent here. The Wisconsin native was just passing through along the Bozeman Trail with a group of travelers in 1878 when the cavalry at Fort McKinney recommended he stay the winter. Buell made camp along nearby Clear Creek and soon found himself extending hospitality to a group of miners weighed down with gold from the Bighorns. He agreed to let them board for a few days, cooked them some meals, and stored their booty (“deposited” in a hole covered with a buffalo robe). Thus, a hotel and Buffalo’s first bank were born. In 1880 the enterprising Buell built the majestic log-hewn Occidental Hotel, which quickly became a popular site for gatherings of cowboys, ranchers, outlaws, and politicians.
After O.N. Quick purchased The Occidental, he tore the log structures down and, from 1900 to 1910, rebuilt the place into a block-long brick structure offering a hotel, bank, mercantile, barbershop, restaurant, saloon, and bordello. In 1918, during a high-stakes poker game, Quick lost the hotel to ranchers Al and J.R. Smith. Al asked his wife, Margaret, to operate the hotel for the winter; she ended up staying for 58 years until her death in 1976. A frugal lady who loved The Occidental, Margaret over the years stored away the hotel’s old furniture, advertising, papers, and guest ledgers in attics and unused rooms.
When Dawn and John Wexo purchased The Occidental in 1997, it was in ruins and nearing demolition. Sharing Margaret’s passion for the place, they discovered original ceilings, wainscoting, documents, photographs, and furniture and resolved to restore The Occidental to its early 1900s self. “The locals have been very supportive and helped us put this hotel back together the way it was,” Dawn says. “We had all the furniture and records, but what went where? It’s the stories that these old-timers share that are really a passion of mine because they bring the heart and the pulse of the place alive.”
That pulse might beat strongest in the 1908 Occidental Saloon, once called “a regular gambling hell,” where both the law-abiding and the lawless played faro and poker and drank at the very same back bar you can drink at today. Embellished with iridescent stained glass by Charles Rennie Mackintosh of the Glasgow Glass Works, in Glasgow, Scotland, the bar is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. For masterpieces of the culinary sort, you need only wander into the hotel’s The Virginian Restaurant, which fills the 1900 bank and mercantile wings with tantalizing aromas from its fine menu of bison, beef, lamb, and fresh seafood. There, you can toast the grande dame with a lovely glass of something special (the wine list is good) and let your benediction on your Occidental sojourn be these words borrowed from Wister’s immortal novel: “The cow-boy is now gone to worlds invisible; the wind has blown away the white ashes of his camp-fires; but the empty sardine box lies rusting over the face of the Western earth.”
The Virginian Restaurant
At The Historic Occidental Hotel, in Buffalo, Wyoming, the attractions are many. An award-winning restoration makes the colorful landmark a favorite place to stay among Old West aficionados, who no doubt appreciate the fact that a former bordello and drunk tank have been repurposed as elegant accommodations. The Occidental Saloon offers an atmospheric place to have plenty of history with a cold one after a dusty day on the traveler’s trail. And The Virginian Restaurant serves up memorable meals. Here’s The Virginian’s recipe for the hotel’s namesake shrimp.
2 tablespoons fresh garlic
2 tablespoons fresh shallots, minced
2 cups andouille sausage, cut julienne
2 cups red pepper, cut julienne
2 cups yellow bell pepper, cut julienne
½ sweet onion, finely chopped
2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon hot sauce (your choice)
1/8 cup chenin blanc or champagne
3 jalape"o peppers, deseeded and diced
½ cup cream
5 large black tiger shrimp
1 cup penne pasta
1 artichoke heart
In a large skillet, combine shallots, garlic, andouille sausage, red and yellow peppers, jalape"os, onion, and mushrooms. Sauté until peppers are tender — approximately 15 minutes. Add cream, crushed red pepper, hot sauce, and wine. Let simmer for 10 minutes on medium heat. Add precooked penne pasta.
Boil shrimp until firm and pink in color. Place pasta and sauce in large bowl, top with shrimp, and garnish with artichoke heart, paprika, chopped parsley, and grated Parmesan cheese.
(Recipe courtesy The Virginian Restaurant.)
For more information on The Historic Occidental Hotel, call 307.684.0451 or visit www.occidentalwyoming.com.
Read the feature on The Historic Occidental Hotel from the June 2011 Best of the West issue of C&I.