Yesterday’s dreams, now gone to ashes – Arminto – store, hotel and bar

    Wyoming is the story of someone passing through while on their way to somewhere else. It started with the Rendezvous almost two centuries ago and continues today. This is the story of a town that was from somewhere else, before rising from the sagebrush prairie and then disappearing back from whence it came.

    Arminto is marked by two signs, one from the west and one from the east on US Highway 20/26. Aside from private residences, that is all that remains of a town that once prospered as the world’s largest sheep shipping center. A town that boasted a historic hotel, stores, blacksmith shops, wool-storing barns, and an active social life.

    Other towns sprang up on the windswept plains of Natrona County close to Arminto, including Wolton, eight miles distant.

    1904 stagecoach bringing the mail into Wolton – h/t Pitchfork Ranch

    Jack Clark built a stage station at Wolton in the mid-1890s. Clark and his family owned three stations on the Casper to Lander stage route owned by C.H. King. King started the business in 1893 and it was a success, growing to become the largest freight-hauling firm reaching Lander.

    Wolton became a major sheep shearing center and a place for ranchers east of the Wind River Reservation to get supplies.

    The stage line traveled north to the Red Wall region to another stage stop called Bucknum where the Buffalo Stage continued to Kaycee.

    Clark was a rancher, but the money he made running the stage station aided his operation. As 1910 approached, so did a rapidly developing petroleum industry, and he was attuned to that as well.

    Railroad map of Natrona County 1915 – h/t University of Wyoming Library

    The arrival of the Chicago, and Northwestern Railroad in 1906 meant an increase in business and promised a bright future for Wolton.

    Just months after a rail depot was built at Wolton, a hotel began to take shape, rising high above the treeless plains.

    The Big Horn Hotel was built by J.L. Marquis to take advantage of buyers and businessmen arriving at Wolton to buy and sell sheep. The bar was the center of many large real estate and livestock deals.

    Travel has always been a key point of Wyoming’s fickle economy and the arrival of another railroad, eight miles to the north of Wolton ended the little town just seven years after it was established.

    Sheep waiting to be sheared – h/t Getty Images

    The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, which became the Burlington Northern, arrived at Arminto in 1913.

    The original line, the Chicago and Northwestern terminated at Lander, but the new line extended through the Wind River Canyon north into the Big Horn Basin and into Montana.

    The increase in traffic that the new line represented was all that Marquis needed to load the town on wagons and head north to the new rail depot at Arminto.

    The name, Arminto, has a couple of stories attached to it. The first is that it was named for Manual Armentam, the owner of the Jack Pot Ranch. The ranch headquarters were just a few miles from the new townsite so it made sense to name it Armentam.

    The name wasn’t easy to say, and the railroad preferred shorter, easier names for telegraph offices and the US Postal Service had the same preferences.

    Robert Leroy Parker “AKA Butch Cassidy” – h/t American Heritage Center

    Armentam was loosely associated, with the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame after his name was seen repeatedly with gang members on the Occidental Hotel Register in Buffalo, Wyoming. It was most likely guilt by association, since Armentam was a well-known rancher. In defense of the story, Butch Cassidy was well respected and regarded as an ideal neighbor by all the Wyoming ranchers who lived near him as well.

    Armentam was said to have a “long rope,” meaning he was suspected of rounding up calves early and putting his brand on them. One local legend said Armentam had a steer that had 14 calves one spring.

    A newspaper article appeared in the Casper Press in the 1920s with the title, “Who Dares Call Armento An Outlaw,” so the debate remained long after the demise of Butch and Sundance.

    The railroad changed the name to Armenta for easier spelling, and as often happened in the early 20th century, it was a surveyor misspelling the town that gave it the name Arminto. The same thing happened with Pavilion, Wyoming when a surveyor wrote Pavillion on an official document.

    With the new name in place, the legend of moving an entire town to a new location grew across the region.

    Stories of the challenging move of a well-constructed, multi-story hotel across seven miles of open prairie made entertaining reading across Wyoming.

    Excerpt from Riverton Review

    The Riverton Review, in an October 3, 1913 story said, “I.D. Woodward was down in Natrona County last week and surveyed a new town for the Burlington railway. The town is named Arminto and I.D. says she is a comer.”

    “The population of the town of Wolton, seven miles south of Armenta on the Chicago Northwestern moved to Armenta, a new town on the Burlington’s new line, and hereafter will remain there,” read a January 9, 1914 story in the Pine Bluffs Post.

    Excerpt from Pine Bluffs Post

    Before the hotel, livery stable, store, and outbuildings were set up in the new town, the sheep industry was hard at work.

    “J. L. Marquis opened his big shearing pens at Armenta the new town on the Burlington today and shearing commenced with a crew of 40 men. The pens at Armenta are the largest in the state and 100,000 sheep have been booked for this season. The big hotel which was moved from Wolton to Armenta was opened to the public last week. The general merchandise stock of the Wolton Commerical Company is being moved and the store building will be moved from Wolton to Armenta a distance of seven miles, next week.” The Casper Press, May 22, 1914.

    Excerpt from the Casper Press

    The store, outbuildings, and even the livery stable weren’t that difficult to lift, place on wagons, and move across the plains, but the hotel was an engineering challenge.

    John McClellan of Shoshoni worked to move the hotel as a young man and recalled moving the hotel in an interview many years later.

    “Two men from Douglas had contracted to move it and they cut it in two in the middle. And they came up, and well, it was the first tractor I ever saw in my life. They had a tractor, a big, high-wheeled outfit, and two house-moving, four-wheeled dollies, they called them bib tongues just like a wagon, and were going to pull it with that tractor. Well, it wouldn’t do it. So they got a block and tackle, a three-lined block and tackle, and set a dead man (pole) and pulled it with that tractor,” McClellan said. “Little me, I had the job of stretching the block and tackle back out with a team of horses after they’d pulled it up. They moved one half over, then they took the outfit back and moved the other half and put it together there on the foundation. We moved it all in one summer. We were stuck half the time, but then there never was any stuck delay that we couldn’t figure out to get out of in a day or two.”

    A large mule team – h/t

    The “outfit” that McClellan described was a team of 30 horses and mules that pulled the two sections across sagebrush, ravines, sandy outcroppings, and wet, slippery ground during the spring thaw.

    They moved the first section that summer, but were stuck in the fall and had to wait until the following spring to bring the second half to Arminto.

    “As I recollect the story, it was moved twice. The first time it was sawed in half vertically using two-man saws and loaded on two freight wagons pulled by teams of draft horses, then unloaded onto a pre-built foundation at the new location. During the final move, an early blizzard interrupted the hauling, and the second half stood alone on its wagon on the prairie all winter. Come late spring, when the ground firmed up, they hitched up the horses and completed the trip. But once on the new foundation, the two halves didn’t line up quite right. That’s why, when you headed to the men’s room after a few beers you weren’t sure if it was the beer or the building that made you stumble going down the hall,” longtime Arminto resident Buck Buchta said in a 1965 interview.

    The Big Horn Hotel in the 1970s – h/t David Manchester

    They bolted it together and it became the centerpiece of the new community.

    By 1920, the official census had Arminto with a population of 100.

    An unofficial census, recorded by sheep buyers and producers had Arminto as the largest sheep shipping center in America, with 4,000,000 head loaded onto trains each year. It was arguably the largest shipping center in the world, surpassing anything in Australia at the time.

    The hotel was first class, an unexpected marvel for cowboys and oil field workers arriving in the area for the first time.

    The famous cherry wood bar at the Big Horn Hotel – h/t David Manchester

    It had a large cherry wood bar, and back bar that had arrived in Wyoming during the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s.

    The origin of the bar was a mystery, but it was seen in hastily built and dismantled tent cities from Pine Bluffs to Point of Rocks as the railroad moved west.

    Marquis had a large, brass cash register made by the National Cash Register Company for him in 1903 on the east wall of the hotel dining room, yet another unexpected marvel on the isolated plains of Natrona County.

    A cat sleeps in one of the upper rooms of the Big Horn Hotel – h/t David Manchester

    By 1914, all the homes and major businesses of Wolton were now in Arminto.

    The post office, stage station, and telegraph were all moved as well.

    With a young, growing population, a school was built and Minnie Mitchell was hired as the town’s first teacher. Mitchell went on to become the first female State Treasurer, serving two terms, the first from 1952 to 1954, and the second from 1966 to 1971. In between she held the office of State Auditor from 1954 to 1966.

    A section house at Arminto – h/t David Manchester

    The town was incorporated in 1915, with Joe Marquis named town marshall. Marquis later became the Natrona County Sherriff.

    According to local legend, the town celebrated the formal incorporation with a well attended dance at the schoolhouse and a banquet paid for by Mr. and Mrs. Marquis at the Big Horn Hotel.

    Cattlemen arrived at the store, which kept its name as the Wolton Commercial Company Store, even though it was now in Arminto in four-horse wagons during the early years, but those horse-drawn wagons were gradually replaced by trucks and converted Ford Model-Ts.

    The Wolton Commerical Store burned down in 1949, but the hotel, and particularly, the hotel bar remained a popular place for locals to gather in the evenings.

    Sheep shearing, wool storage, and shipping remained a good business into the mid-1960s.

    Problems with water existed from the early days at Arminto. The nearby community of Hell’s Half Acre had the same problem.

    Potable water had to be hauled into both towns. Cisterns were built in each home and larger ones for the store and hotel. A community cistern offered a hand pump for locals to draw drinking water.

    A story from a surveying student doing an internship in 1965 in Arminto described the water problem.

    “Buck and Ruby Buchta were running the Big Horn Hotel. I paid to take a bath there one time, and ran the well dry trying to fill the tub,” the anonymous intern reported. “Buck told stories about working as a wrangler in his youth, rounding up wild horses in the Great Continental Divide Desert to load on trains headed to the glue factory in Chicago, and how a crew from Hollywood came through town and offered $20,000 for the hotel bar, with its large glass mirror – a real wild-west affair. Tradition was that one end of the bar was for sheep herders, to separate them from the cattlemen at the other.”

    Sheep remained a viable industry, but oil and uranium took center stage beginning in the mid-1950s.

    “I took “board and room” at the Hotel/Restaurant/Bar in Arminto the winter of 1959. Chevron (then The California Co.) was drilling a well between Arminto and Waltman on the east side of the road. At the same time, there was some uranium activity south of Waltman and there was a crew from there at the hotel as well. Occasionally there was a sheep herder who showed up and drank himself into a stupor. As I recall he was supposed to have been a disillusioned Irish doctor,” Jim Smith said.

    Buchta and his wife Ruby ran the hotel and their two teenage daughters spent the week in a boarding house while attending Natrona County High School. They came home on the weekends.

    The Arminto Store was across the street from the hotel. It carried general merchandise, milk, and groceries and had a single gas pump out front.

    A solitary gas pump marks the location of the Arminto Store – h/t David Manchester

    Frank and Maude Harper owned the store, known as “Harper’s” by local residents.

    The store was in a “tin” building. A metal façade over a wooden frame. The Harpers carried staples like sugar, flour, bread, canned beans, and soup. They had a big refrigerator in the back with milk, eggs, and other perishables. Harpers carried two kinds of meat, slab bacon and uncut rolls of bologna. They’d slice the bacon and bologna to customer’s requests.

    “Sometimes these items ran out, because the delivery trucks did not make it to Arminto all that often. Some supplies actually came in on the passenger train that ran between Casper and Billings. Mr. Harper would go to the train and pick up the supplies he had ordered. David Manchester of Shoshoni, who grew up as a small child in Arminto, said.

    Arminto, Wyoming 1940 – h/t BN Railroad

    Manchester had other fond memories from his elementary school years.

    “My family lived in Arminto from about 1959 to 1962. We went to the “one-room” school and our teacher was Hazel Hall. We lived in a two-room log cabin (still there but changed). Harper’s ran the Store and Post Office for most of the time we were there. “Curly Turner” ran the Bar and Hotel. I have many fond memories of that time. I wrote a story about one of Arminto’s most famous (or is that infamous) citizens, Emma Hall, who we grew to love and called “Grandma Hall.” What a character she was.”

    Like most country store owners, the Harpers offered credit to locals.

    Pumping water for trains at Arminto – h/t David Manchester

    “Most everyone had a charge account at the store and paid once a month,” Manchester said. “Mr. Harper used the old style flip open books where you inserted carbon paper between the white and yellow copy and everything was written down by hand with the price. You had to sign for the items purchased.

    The Harper’s ran the business until the 1960s, even after tragedy struck their family. Their grandson Alan lived with them. Alan was an avid skier but his grandparents were not. On a trip to the Meadowlark Ski Area near Ten Sleep Alan had the hood of his coat trapped in the ski lift rope and he was strangled.

    Water pumping for steam engines during World War II – h/t BN Railroad

    The elder Harper’s were heartbroken and it took several years before they were able to enjoy community activities again.

    Mrs. Harper was the postmaster until Gretchen and Merril Shelby moved into the community. Gretchen took over for Maude and operated the post office and hotel after purchasing the entire town from Ed Huchta in 1967.

    The Big Horn Hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places but burned down on February 17, 1985.

    The remains of the Big Horn Hotel – h/t David Manchester

    After the arrival of the 21st century, the area around Arminto became a haven for “off the grid” types trying to escape civilization. When COVID-19 struck, even more people sought the isolation and sanctuary offered by the extreme isolation and a few more off the track dwellings appeared. It wasn’t enough for a resurgence.

    All that remains of the once vibrant community that reached a peak population of 218 in 1928 are a few abandoned buildings, a couple of private residences, and memories of what once was.

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