Fill er’ up…Milkshakes, beer, and sizzlin’ steaks – The Tumble Inn and Romeo and Juliet’s – Powder River

    The Tumble Inn circa 1998 – h/t Wyoming

    Powder River once boasted two outstanding restaurants, a grocery store, a bar, motel, and a pair of gas stations. Not much of that remains in the little town to remind travelers of what once was aside from a slowly decaying red log building.

    U.S. Highway 20 never received the acclaim of the Lincoln Highway. The magic of being the first transcontinental highway, with the added boost of nostalgia when U.S. 30, the official designation of the Lincoln Highway, was submerged beneath Interstate 80.

    US 20 deserves accolades equal to that of her southern rival if for no other reason than it still exists as a vital link between the East and West Coast.

    The route begins or ends, depending on your perspective in Astoria, Oregon, and Boston, Massachusetts. In between, the American Heartland grew dependent on this vital roadway.

    The section most familiar to Fremont County runs between Casper and Shoshoni, then turns north into the Wind River Canyon. The canyon route celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer.

    This series has mentioned Hell’s Half Acre, Hiland, Moneta, and Powder River, all stops on U.S. 20 in Natrona and Fremont County.

    Betty Evenson cleaning the counter for more Sagebrush Ham sandwiches – h/t Betty Evenson

    You could get a “Sagebrush Ham Sandwich” at Hiland, or a room, beer, and dinner in Moneta or Hell’s Half Acre, but the gourmet stop between Casper and Shoshoni for much of the middle 20th century were two establishments just a few dozen yards apart on the north side of the highway in Powder River.

    Powder River barely clings to existence with only a U.S. Post Office and a K-5 elementary school in the Natrona County School District to keep it from becoming Hiland, Moneta, Walman, or Arminto.

    Maybe you remember the Tumble Inn with the giant smiling cowboy waving his arm in the blackness of the Wyoming prairie over the enticing sign reading, “Sizzling Steaks.” If you traveled between Shoshoni and Casper even earlier, you may have stopped for breakfast or even had a business meeting at Romeo and Juliet’s Café.

    The remnants of the log building that was the Tumble Inn remain intact, although the sign has been moved out of state. There is nothing left of Romeo and Juliet’s Café aside from a few concrete pads that marked its location.

    A 1940s Post Card of the Tumble Inn – h/t

    The Tumble Inn began life on another road, U.S. Highway 16 that stretches between Buffalo and Worland in the Big Horn Mountains.

    The Bird family owned the original Tumble Inn near Ten Sleep in the late 1920s through much of the 1930s.

    The origin of the name, “Tumble Inn” is shrouded in mystery, but indications are that it came from New York State.

    The August 4, 1921, Douglas Budget relates the story of a group of 100 people heading west from Brooklyn to settle in Northern Idaho. The route they chose closely followed the future U.S. Highway 20.

    the Tumble Inn in the early 1940s – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    Just 46 miles west of Brooklyn, after their first day on the road, the group camped for the night outside a rural New York establishment called, (you guessed it) the Tumble Inn.

    Douglas Budget August 4, 1921 – “The aroma of bacon and coffee whetted the appetites of hungry campers. Collapsible chairs with cushioned backs placed under the trees were ideal resting places for weary men who had guided the caravan safely through the city limits and along the Westchester County Highways.”

    There were several members of the Bird family in that group and legend has it that they were enthralled with the mountains, streams, and overall beauty surrounding the little town of Ten Sleep. Ten Sleep itself was named by Oglala hunters and white trappers since it was “10 sleeps” northwest of Fort Laramie.

    No matter the origin of the name, the 1930s were tough times across the Heartland of America, especially in Wyoming.

    The coins of the era are worn smooth for a reason, they were exchanged constantly between friends and neighbors just trying to survive the unforgiving economic climate.

    In 1938, the Birds pulled up stakes and moved south through Nowood Canyon into Fremont County then east to Powder River.

    A western theme greeted guests in the 1940s Tumble Inn dining room – h/t Thomas Carrigan

    They built a log bar and restaurant on the north side of US Highway 20.

    They sold the newly constructed restaurant and bar to a man named Burgess in 1941.

    If the 1930s were tough times for rural restaurants, the War Years presented even more challenges. Gas rationing kept tourist traffic at a minimum, but the Tumble Inn stayed profitable on rig hands, ranchers and sheepmen dropping in for a beer, a meal, or a business deal.

    The Tumble Inn changed hands several times in the 1940s and 50s.

    The post-war years showed promise not only for the Tumble Inn but for stores and restaurants all along U.S. Highway 20 from Casper to Shoshoni.

    The Tumble Inn in 1953 – h/t Thomas Carrigan

    It was the heyday for Moneta, Waltman, Hiland, Hell’s Half Acre, and the burgeoning little town of Powder River.

    Ex-sailors, soldiers, and Marines married quickly, started families, bought Mercury and Hudson sedans, Chevrolet and Ford cars, and Desoto, Packard, and Chryslers. It was a booming time in America.

    Yellowstone National Park hit its stride in the post-war years as a prime vacation spot for families along the East Coast and Great Lakes regions of the USA and Powder River was a great location for a bar and restaurant.

    The distinctive bar stools at the Tumble Inn 1953 – h/t Thomas Carrigan

    The only problem came with the seasonal nature of the business. They thrived in the summer months between Memorial and Labor Day and were barely able to keep the lights on the remaining eight months of the year.

    In 1959, Bill Grey purchased the Tumble Inn. Bill made his fortune in the oil business but dreamed of running the best steakhouse in Wyoming.

    Grey had ample competition with the El Toro and Svilar’s 100 miles west in Hudson. Competition breeds excellence and all three establishments offered legendary rib eyes, sirloins, and New York strip steaks.

    Grey knew business from his days in the oil patch and knew that quality always sells. He found the best grass-fed beef in Fremont, Natrona, and Johnson Counties and had it shipped directly to the Tumble Inn.

    With competition approximately every 20 miles along Highway 20, Grey also realized he had to have something that caught the public eye.

    A post-World War II matchbook advertising the Tumble Inn – h/t

    You could get a steak at the Big Horn Hotel in Arminto, or the Moneta Bar and Grill, but to separate his business from the competition, he needed something bigger.

    Before World War II, Las Vegas was just a sleepy, little town in the Nevada desert. Sin City came to life in the post-war years with neon lights illuminating the desert skies.

    Grey wanted a piece of that action.

    He traveled to Las Vegas and found a neon sign of a plump cowboy. The sign was too large for the Vegas establishment. Grey got wind of it, made the owner an offer with plans to bring the sign back to Powder River.

    In the late 1950s, animated “Marlboro Man” signs dotted the central portion of the United States from Texas to North Dakota and between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.

    The Tumble Inn 2014 – h/t Nancy Stearns

    Grey like the Marlboro signs that featured a tall, lanky cowboy waving his hand with an animated cigarette glowing in the darkness.

    He sent the sign back to the manufacturer and requested an animated arm that simply moved back and forth in a waving motion. While at the factory, he had the “Sizzlin’ Steaks” marquee added as well.

    The California factory completed the modifications and Grey had the 21-foot-tall sign shipped back to Powder River.

    When lit up on a dark night the sign was visible on the ridge to the west separating Powder River from Hell’s Half Acre and seven miles to the east on the long slope descending from the Natron mines.

    The sign was a hit.

    The Tumble Inn was an instant hit after this bit of showmanship.

    From the early 1960s until the economic crash of the 1980s, the Tumble Inn was the location for parties, family dinners, reunions, and boisterous, drunken nights when rig crews and seismograph teams broke chairs and had Natrona County sheriff’s deputies racing across the 37 miles from Casper to break up brawls.

    Powder River a town with a vibrant past – h/t Randy Tucker

    When the sign was lit in early 1961, it was the brightest marquee in all of Wyoming.

    Grey sold the business in the 1960s, and a string of different owners made minor modifications into the 90s.

    The Tumble Inn didn’t change, but the clientele did.

    The narrow ribbon of asphalt that was U.S. 20 was widened in the 1970s and then widened again. The speed limit, set at 55 miles per hour by the Nixon White House, was raised to 70 by the 1990s.

    The Greatest Generation grew up on the idea that you must stop every 20 to 30 miles when traveling cross country to stretch and get a break from the road. Their children, the Baby Boomers didn’t believe that.

    With faster cars, better roads, and even small, non-descript improvements like FM radio, the miles between places like Shoshoni and Casper became irrelevant. People began to talk in terms of time, rather than distance when traveling. We still do.

    The only gas station between Casper and Shoshoni by 2000 were the Sinclair pumps at Hiland. Every other station and most of the stores went out of business.

    The Tumble Inn 2024 – h/t Randy Tucker

    In 1995, the neon sign at the tumble in shorted out and was not repaired.

    People still dreamed of making a go of “the best steakhouse in Wyoming” into the 21st century, but those dreams ended in foreclosure most of the time.

    Banks became hesitant to lend money on the property.

    A final business venture, of a vastly different nature came in 2005 when a husband and wife purchased the Tumble Inn, closed the restaurant, kept the bar, and opened a strip club.

    The wife was one of the main dancers at the club, and they hired “talent” from Denver to perform from Thursday to Saturday nights.

    The business was profitable and along with the Northern Lights north of Bar Nunn and The Rack near the Ghost Town Truck Stop provided after-hours entertainment for a few years.

    Scandal and child abuse charges closed the strip club by 2007. The couple’s children sometimes wandered into the establishment during shows and that was all it took for Natrona County authorities to shut down the operation.

    A final pair of dreamers purchased the Tumble Inn in 2007 but failed to re-open the bar and restaurant.

    It remains closed to this day.

    The Powder River Post Office 2024 – h/t Randy Tucker

    In 2018 a group of Natrona County citizens started a community effort to restore the sign but never had the impetus to get the job done.

    The paint was faded, the neon long evaporated from the tubes, and the electrical connections were corroded.

    In 2023, the property, including the sign, was sold one more time.

    The sign was removed that summer and a refurberation project was started. The sign will eventually be fully restored but won’t go back to the Tumble Inn. It will find a new home in Casper, where it can be displayed without fear of vandalism.

    The Romeo and Juliet Café doesn’t have nearly the publicity or sordid history of its neighbor to the west.

    Romeo and Juliet’s Cafe 1986 – h/t Joan Myers

    Romeo and Juliet’s was a diner on the plains, a place where families on the road could get a bite to eat, find a clean restroom, and relax for a little while on the way west to Yellowstone, or on the return trip back home from the park.

    A Conoco gas station on the west end of the building offered clean restrooms too, and with a little pleading from the kids, it took only a few minutes for the adjacent café to whip up a milkshake or ice cream cone for the road.

    The secret to longevity for Romeo and Juliet’s Café was the location. Though it was isolated, it catered to families rather than the after-hours crowd, and truck drivers loved it.

    With a large parking lot and space across the high for trucks, a long counter, and booths facing the windows it became a favorite for the busy drivers hauling milk and bread from Riverton or Lander and produce back.

    Even on their days off, many drivers brought their wives and children to enjoy the café as they had during the work week.

    Local ranchers and rig hands frequented Romeo and Juliet’s for breakfast and lunch, while the same crowd hit the Tumble Inn more often for dinner.

    A busy lunch crowd filled Romeo and Juliet’s in 1962 – h/t Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office

    The lavender façade of the establishment had a warm draw for families, and the menu was substantially less expensive than the Tumble Inn Steakhouse.

    It was a very profitable business for almost half a century, but it too fell into disrepair when the roads became wider, the speed limit increased, and the mindset of the traveler changed.

    The last bits of Romeo and Juliet’s began to collapse as soon as the new millennium arrived and now nothing remains.

    Those who believe in spirits touching us from the past claim they can still smell the subtle aroma of a steak on the grill, or the laughter of children drinking a milkshake, but they are ethereal and without substance in the harsh light of the 21st century.

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