Buffalo, Wyoming-population 4,480-is the kind of town that rallies around its community members, even when memories are all they have left of the person.
The Cowboy Saloon closed down on a June day to encourage folks to attend the unveiling of a memorial park in nearby Kaycee. Why? The park commemorates rodeo cowboy-turned-Country singer Chris LeDoux, who died of liver cancer five years ago. David Michael Thomas remembers selling feed to the singer at his store in Buffalo in the 1980s, before Thomas went on to become a sculptor. Now his 13-foot-high bronze of rodeo contestant number 79 welcomes visitors to the park.
Buffalo locals will be cheering on the next generation of rodeo stars and cowboy singers when rodeo hits the town during the Johnson County Fair the week of August 1-8.
Main Street should be packed with people. No doubt they’ll be ordering buffalo steak at The Virginian Restaurant, inside the 1880 Occidental Hotel, where Butch and Sundance, among others, once stayed.
Another popular stop near Main Street should be the Jim Gatchell museum, home to a Thomas sculpture paying tribute to the Johnson County War, in the form of Nate Champion. Speaking of the alleged cattle rustler, who hired gunmen killed during a seven-hour standoff at KC Ranch, a room is devoted to him at the Mansion House Inn, also within walking distance.
Former electrician Johnnie Pond and his wife Pam McFadden own the inn. Johnnie, who grew up riding horses on a farm in Texas, does not consider himself a cowboy, yet he respects the risky lives they led and continue to lead. He agrees with singer Willie Nelson’s assessment of them, “Sadly in search of and one step in back of themselves and their slow-moving dreams.” In the six years Johnnie and Pam have lived in Buffalo, they have become big fans of these local hangouts.
Good Cowboy Bar: The Century Club and, of course, the Occidental Saloon in the Occidental Hotel. It still has the bullet holes in the ceiling from rowdy cowboys.
Popular Summer Hangout: You’ll find locals at the largest swimming pool in Wyoming, here in Buffalo.
Best Western Art Galleries: Artist and sculptor D. Michael Thomas has his studio here; Hitching Post Gallery also features works by folks such as wildlife artist Hugh Jennings.
Best Bookstore of the West: The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum offers the best books on buffalos, Indians, forts, ghost towns, Johnson County and the West.
Best Spot to View Wildlife: The Big Horn Mountains have elk, moose, deer, antelope, brown bear, black bear, pheasant, sage grouse and wild turkey.
Kid-Friendly Zone: The children really “dig” the dinosaur sites, two hours away, at the dinosaur center in Thermopolis.
That Thursday Thing: Bluegrass Jam at the Occidental Hotel Saloon, and Cowboy Poetry at the Mansion House Inn.
Old West Attractions: Historic cemetery tours with actors portraying famous pioneers who are buried at the Willow Grove Cemetery. Single Action Shooting Society competes here in the summer, with the finale at the Johnson County Fairgrounds on August 1.
Local radio personality: Aaron Palmer, with his “Classic Country,” at 1450 AM. He is a great guy and wears many hats, as does anyone working with a small company.
Average house cost: $200,000.
Average Temperatures: Summer: 105-50 degrees. Winter: 30 to -40 degrees.
Person in Buffalo Everybody Knows: Jack Meldrum, who, active to the end, passed away last year at 99 years old. He was a business owner, rancher, goof-off, airplane pilot, jokester and all-around good guy. He did not know a stranger, and he was helpful to anyone, tough on the bad guys and, most of all, fair and just. Jack was one of a kind in the great history of America’s local “one of a kinds.”
Best-Kept Secret: The 30 or so pristine lakes and miles of creeks, with fishing unmatched, at Crazy Woman Creek Canyon.
Preservation Project: Downtown Buffalo is in development to enhance its Old West ambiance with its 1880s structures and storefronts.