The Sweetwater Country, trappers spoke of it, immigrants on the Oregon Trail dreamed of reaching it, hunting parties and war parties of the Shoshone, Sioux and Crow covered every inch of it. It was the crossroads of history in Wyoming, long before anyone thought of it becoming a state.
Sweetwater Station was a landmark from the late 1940s until it closed for good in 2007. For six decades, five different owners made their livelihoods serving travelers, hunters, local ranchers, and dreamers who traversed the area.
“Every year, the Pony Express stopped doing their reenactment,” Mattie Clark, who grew up at the Station and was its final owner, said. “There is so much history there, the Oregon Trail, and the Mormon Trail. Before they built the Handcart Museum, I shot my deer right where the building is.”
The Sweetwater Country was on the road west, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon migration, the Pony Express, and then the telegraph.
It was the telegraph that brought the first permanent settlement to the area. Three Crosses Station was built on the Sweetwater River near present-day Jeffrey City to protect the telegraph lines from being sabotaged by Native Americans. As a military fort, it wasn’t very intimidating, manned with only a sergeant and six men.
Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, known famously as Captain Bonneville rode by the future location of Sweetwater Station in 1832 while finding a route west to Oregon. The Donner Party rolled through too late in the summer of 1846, before starving and resorting to cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada mountains a few months later.
Buffalo Bill rode by the station carrying mail for the Pony Express a couple of times when he had to extend his normal 72-mile route between Bessemer Bend and Three Crossings Station.
It is a place laden with history, history that extends into the modern era.
John A. Myers, a local rancher who founded Myersville, and was Cindy Thompson’s grandfather purchased the station site in 1918 from Daniel Frost “Dan” Hudson.
Hudson became the Wyoming State Game Warden and served on the Fremont County Commissioners, as well as serving as a US Marshall from 1914-18. He moved back and purchased the Long Creek Ranch.
In the 1930s, Bill Scarlett purchased the Long Creek Ranch.
Mrs. Emma Rogers was the first owner of the Sweetwater Station. She sold it to Florence “Skeet” Chasteen and her husband Jack in the late 1940s.
Cindy Myers Thompson grew up on the Myers Ranch a few miles up Graham Ranch Road from the Station and has many fond, and not-so-fond memories of the area.
“Someone unloaded an elephant at Sweetwater Station in 1950 or 51,” Cindy said.” There was a Circus going through and everyone in the valley came to see and take its picture.”
She recalled Bucky Hawk working at the Station when it was just a gas station in the 1940s. Pete and Clella Hawk purchased the station from the Chasteens in the 1950s and expanded the store with a bar in 1955 and a restaurant in 1956.
“They ran the Post Office there too,” Cindy said.
Pete and Clella lost the property, and it returned to Skeet and Jack.
Prospectors, especially for uranium filled the area with dreamers intent on getting rich, but rock hunters in search of agates, jade, and petrified wood combed the area as well.
Lee Camp was one of those dreamers, but he had a steady job running the station restaurant.
There was no running water when Sweetwater Station first came into existence, but there was a hand pump, and the clear water of the Sweetwater River was just a few dozen yards away.
Sam Myers married Duey Chasteen and ranched on the home place. In 1954, a bad storm, a common occurrence on the Sweetwater hit.
“Sam road to see his wife at Sweetwater Station, she was there with her parents. He picked up the mail and started home. They think he had a heart attack. They didn’t do autopsies in those days. He ran over the hill towards the highway,” Cindy said. “Daddy found him the next day out riding.”
While winters were usually a challenge, the infamous winter of 1949 brought even more challenges.
“The corral was drifted over. Anything could walk over any drifted fence,” Cindy said. “All the adults moved into one house. They ate boiled beef and macaroni,” Cindy said. “I was still on formula. My grandparents sent a gunny sack of formula to Sweetwater Station with a highway department truck. My dad road to the station and picked it up.”
The heavy snow came with weeks of below-zero temperatures.
“They had cattle die standing up,” Cindy said. “My dad and uncle had to cut a hole in the ice and dip water into troughs every day out of Sweetwater River for the cattle.”
Jack Scarlett grew up east of the Myers Ranch.
“Granddad had a produce business in Philadelphia and came out here in 1893 at 17,” Jack said. “He got tuberculosis and the doctor said go to a high draw climate. He took the train to Rawlins, the stage to Lander, and went to work for the McKenzie’s.”
Jack was born in 1941 and remembered the early days of Sweetwater Station.
“I remember going in there, there was no bar or restaurant then. They lived behind it,” Jack said. “You went in to get a pop when you were a kid, you had to reach down into the ice. When I grew up there were no phones or electricity.”
Jack recalled the tragic death of Sam Myers.
“Sam pulled off there and froze to death, walked off the wrong way, headed toward Ice Slough, “Jack said. “Sam was a great guy. Tom Graham and I were on roundup. He was a good guy, so was Albert, they were a great family.”
Jack’s grandfather Richard Scarlett owned many properties in the Sweetwater area over the years and helped Skeet and Jack buy Sweetwater Station.
Richard had a loud, boisterous, outgoing personality. “The Native Americans called him ‘Screaming Eagle’”, Jack said.
Though he was a prominent rancher in the area, author Ruth Beebe left him out of her book, “Reminiscing Along The Sweetwater.
“Ruth didn’t like Grandpa, he was too loud, so she skipped right by his place when she was writing her book,” Jack said.
Richard died on Christmas Eve, 1951.
“He said, I don’t know what to tell you, this country is in a hell of a mess,” Jack said.
Before a school was built at Jeffrey City children had to go to school in Lander.
“Everyone had a house in town, where the kids could stay during the school year,” Jack said. “Grahams, McIntosh’s, and Scarlett’s all had a house in town. The moms stayed with the kids during the week.”
Jack had an extended vacation from school during the infamous winter of ’49.
“I missed school for a month or two,” Jack said. “Finally, Dad put gunny sacks over my head and his head, and we led horses along the fence line from the ranch towards Sweetwater Station.”
The roads were covered in drifts up to 20 feet high and impassable. They found the fence line above the gravel road and walked west along it or rode their horses when conditions permitted.
“He dropped me off at the station and I stayed with Jack and Skeet and waited until a Safeway truck stopped,” Jack said. “They put a D-9 cat behind the truck to push it through the drifts and another one in front with a chain to pull it. When we crossed Beaver Creek the road opened up and the Safeway driver took me to Lander.”
He was eight years old.
Jack recalled the primitive conditions he grew up in before electricity arrived.
“We had a hand pump in the kitchen and a dirt roof. Each summer, we’d go dig more dirt to keep the roof waterproof,” Jack said. “We cut ice on the Sweetwater in winter and stored it in sawdust. Yes, it was hard, but we didn’t know any better.”
In those pre-electricity days, fueling a vehicle was different as well.
“We’d pump the gas by hand into the big glass bulb above the pumps, when the bulb was full we’d fill the truck,” Jack said.
In 1960, Skeet and Jack sold the station to Bob Jammerman and Louie and Ida (Jammerman) Clark.
Louie and Ida eventually bought out Bob’s share.
The Clarkes owned the station until 1975 running the bar, grocery store, and café. Louie delivered fuel to local ranches.
Louie was born in October 1910 in Jerry City, Ohio before moving west with his dad to work the oilfields around Bairol.
Ida Nora Jammerman was born in Lander in 1911. She lived on the Sweetwater Ranch.
Louie and Ida met at a dance on the Sweetwater and were married in 1928. They had four children, Johnny, Mary Ellen, Phil, and Kathryn. Johnny died from meningitis at age three, and Kathryn was killed in a car wreck as a teenager.
“We were living in Littleton, Colorado,” Phil said. “Bob bought the store while we were down there. I was 13 when we moved here. When we first bought it there was very little inventory.”
Edna Wright ran the café.
“We sold candy bars and had a beer license. It was like a small convenience store, just common items,” Phil said. “We had motor oil, fan belts, oil by the case, and sold tires. We fixed a lot of flats. You didn’t have the quality of tires you have now, they were bias ply.”
The elder Clarks ran the store for 15 years.
In 1976, Phil and Janice Clarke took over the business after Janice arrived from Washington State and the couple were married.
“I met some wonderful people, a lot of the old timers that are all gone now. It was great to be around them and learn from them,” Phil said. “It was an experience, something that we lived through, the good times and the bad times. We had some tough winters and some good ones. My wife and I turned it over to our daughter Matti and her husband Rick.”
Matti started first grade in Jeffrey City and was there until 8th grade. She experienced the boom and bust of uranium mining firsthand.
“In fifth grade, we had three classes of just my grade, 30 in each class,” Matti said. “By the end of the school year, there were 18 of us left. We moved to Riverton, that’s when Lee and Shirley Jammerman had it for about a year. My folks got divorced. We moved to Washington and Dad took the station back from Lee and Shirley.”
Matti and Rick Wilmes were married when they took over Sweetwater Station on April 1, 1999.
“We were forced by the state to shut it down. The governor signed an executive order that all gas stations had to meet underground storage regulations,” Matti said. “We didn’t have underground, we had above ground, Dad had already taken them out. We had to have engineers and dig everything up. We had someone come out and do estimates. It was 200 to 250 thousand dollars for the upgrade. Dad was connected, we talked to senators and representatives, but they couldn’t do anything. There were 117 stations in the state of Wyoming that fell under the new rules, of those 112 had to close.”
The cost was too great, the profit margins at the station would never have paid the bill.
“We were making pennies on a gallon if at all, it was rough out there to get fuel delivered. What you paid, you could mark it up a little bit to cover the load, but if fuel went up you had to raise your prices, and if fuel went down, you couldn’t lower your price and people wouldn’t stop. The only thing that we were making any kind of money on was the bar.”
“The business always felt like it was on life support,” Rick said. “We were never robbed because we’d have to take out an IOU.”
The cost of supply with customers expecting similar prices as in larger neighboring towns was a constant battle.
“People would leave Casper or Rawlins, coast into the Station, and then just buy five dollars’ worth of gas, just enough to get to town,” Rick said. “The money was made in the bar.”
Despite the difficulties, Matti enjoyed growing up there and operating Sweetwater Station in its final years.
“I loved it there, if I could still be there and doing it, I would do it. I loved everything about it, she said. “There were challenges. You had to be there 24 hours, you couldn’t have employees, if there were people in the bar we served them until we legally had to close. I met so many great people from so many places. There were so many interesting people who were so generous and nice to us.”
Phil had a collection of military, police, and fire patches.
“Around Sturgis time, right after 9/11, after the towers had fallen, everything was 9/11 and New York. A lot of bikers went through Wyoming because they didn’t have to wear a helmet,” Matti said. “They asked about the patches. One of them was a police officer in New York, he was talking to us about 9/11, it was captivating. Do you have a patch? We’ll put it up on the wall, I asked. He said no New York is very protective of their patches.”
A surprise arrived at the Station six weeks later.
“A blank envelope with no return address came in the mail with a patch of the NYPD, we knew it was him and it was special,” Matti said.
Celebrities often stopped at Sweetwater Station for various events.
“We always had the guys from the one-shot, we had Donald Trump Jr. in the bar, and he bought everyone a round. James Watt was in there too, and we met a lot of professional football players,” Matti said. “I had this book as a kid with football players. Dad got to meet General Schwarzkopf and Chuck Yager. Governor Herschler came out there and knew everyone.”
Sweetwater Station was the hub of the community. People gathered at the bar for family events and community gatherings.
“You had to rely on your neighbors when the highway department dropped the gate,” Rick said. “You could still go neighbor to neighbor but not to town.”
“I learned a lot about life at Sweetwater. Being a business owner and being a hub for the community,” Matti said. “We had parties for the Superbowl and movie nights. We’d have everyone bring a dish to the bar and rolled dice.”
One incident sticks out as an example of the strange things that can happen in an isolated location.
“We’d see sheepherders once a year, they’d bring in these Peruvian guys who barely spoke English. My husband at the time was working for Crofts, they were out on roundup, so I was at the station by myself. The shearers came in and there were other people at the bar. There were at least six of them, they didn’t speak English,” Matti said. “I served them beer. One of them went out into the motor home. We all figured he was inside the motor home. They drank for another hour or two and then said we’re going to go. They drove off in the motor home. I’m closing down, counting the till when there was a bang on the door, “He’s in there, he’s in there, that’s all they could say.”
The Peruvians were back and looking for their partner.
“I thought wait a second, maybe there is someone here. I got my pistol and started clearing the house. Maybe he wandered in, I started to check the house. I go through the house, no one is there, I tucked my gun, so I didn’t create more drama. I called the Sheriff, ‘This is Mattie, could you get JD (Darnall) out of bed and help me find this missing sheepherder,” Matti said. “I said the Sheriff is coming and he is going to help you find him. They had a couple of beers, and we waited for JD. It seemed like forever. Finally, he pulled up, ‘I found the guy,’ JD said. ‘He was walking down the highway and missed the Flagg Road, he missed the turn.’ It was just crazy, they were so grateful and happy, there they were the next night.”
Over the years, there have been many car accidents and things that people hit on the highway.
“One night I get a call at 2 a.m., somebody in Jeffrey City at Drillers needed gas. I tell them to be here in 20 minutes. Well, 20, then 30, and 40 minutes go by, I can’t sleep, and after about an hour finally headlights. The guy says, ‘Can I get five dollars’ worth of gas and use your phone? We had an accident,” Rick said. “There had been three guys in the truck, and they’d been drinking. The two passengers start to fight, and one pulls a gun and shoots the other guy, grazing his forehead just above his eye. They dump the guy that was shot. It was 20 below zero and the guy was in a t-shirt. I tell them to wait at the rest stop and I’ll call the cops. They said they’d just go to Riverton. I watch turn towards Lander and call the sheriff. They all ended up arrested, DUI, assault, and illegal discharge of a firearm.”
“We had moose walk between the two buildings on the Sweetwater and started to eat hay for the cows, Matti said. “It was a one-of-a-kind place. It was a pit stop before you made the turn,” Matti said.
Rick recalled the insane clouds of mosquitos. “We’d sell bait to fisherman and tell them about the bugs, and they’d just laugh, then they’d be back in 10 minutes to get bug spray,” Rick said. “I’d watch people step out of their vehicles to fill up and jump back inside. When the pump shut off, they’d honk the horn and give me their credit card through a little gap in their window.”
Sweetwater Station officially closed in November 2007. Sheep people purchased it and use it to stage sheep on and off the desert.
The former couple share similar sentiments about their time at Sweetwater Station.
“It wasn’t so much running the business, it was about being out there,” Rick said.
“It was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it just didn’t work out,” Matti said.