By Ruffin Prevost
MEETEETSE, Wyo. — Jim Blake often shares stories with customers in his Cowboy Bar and Cafe about the colorful history of his establishment, especially tales of the many outlaws and renegades who have stopped in for a drink since it opened in 1893.
So he didn’t think much of it when a visitor in August 2010 asked question after question about the bar’s most notorious patrons — men like Butch Cassidy and Earl Durand.
“He seemed like a nice guy,” Blake recalls of the unassuming man with stubble and close-cropped hair who sat in his bar for hours listening to stories about desperate men, gunfights, betrayal and revenge.
“He sat right here at this table for two nights in a row. He was really interested in hearing all the details of the famous Western outlaws who’ve been in here,” Blake said. “Being so many of them, it took a while to tell him.”
The next day, as it turns out, that same customer became the latest violent outlaw arrested after drinking at the Cowboy Bar. Police captured Tracy Province, 42, just up the street, as he was trying to hitchhike to Casper, Wyo.
“When he was in here, I had no idea who he was,” Blake said of Province, who was then the most wanted man in America after his escape from an Arizona prison led to the murder of two people following a carjacking in New Mexico. An intense manhunt brought the search to Yellowstone National Park and eventually, Meeteetse, a small ranching community of about 350 in Park County, 80 miles from Yellowstone National Park.
Blake was suddenly giving TV interviews on morning news shows as the national media focused on Province’s capture and the ongoing search for another inmate who had escaped with him.
Then, after the media frenzy blew over, he went right back to running poker games, pouring beers for local cowboys and cooking pizza and ribs for tourists.
“When a station wagon full of people stops in Meeteetse, that’s an economic stimulus,” Blake jokes.
“We pride ourselves on our food. When you order your pizza, that’s when it’s made, and with homemade dough,” he said. “Our ribs are to die for.”
Blake won’t reveal the exact recipe for his barbecue sauces, but he will admit to using a little Captain Morgan’s Rum, Jack Daniels and molasses.
Buffalo chili using bison from a local ranch is another house specialty.
Focus on Meeteetse
Blake has owned the bar and the cafe next door for about 20 years, and he has written several books on Western history. His main historical focus is on Meeteetse.
While the bar and its collection of historic photos, furniture and artifacts could serve as a museum of sorts, it’s actually a popular spot for locals and tourists, and has been in continuous operation for 119 years.
“Even during prohibition, things never stopped,” Blake said. “This building still had a bar, but it was also a post office and a newspaper. The sheriff came in to pick up his mail and always said he ‘averted his eyes’ so he didn’t see the bar.”
Moonshiners Broncho Nell and Grover Florida operated a large and busy still just down the Greybull River from Meeteetse, and supplied prohibition-era hooch to The Cowboy and other establishments delivered in large metal milk cans. They called their illicit product “Florida milk.”
Called the Cowboy Saloon when it was founded, it changed names after prohibition to the Cowboy Club Bar in an effort to avoid the stigma of “saloons” and add a dash of respectability to the watering hole, Blake said.
Also around that time, a reclusive young mountain man named Earl Durand stopped in for a drink at the Cowboy Bar. Durand was a crack shot who lived off the land, hunting in the hills around Meeteetse at a time when the Great Depression had made good jobs scarce. But he was a loner and socially awkward in the rowdy bar. A gang of bullies lead by Meeteetse resident Arthur Argento roughed up Durand and threw him in the Greybull River a couple of blocks away, Blake said.
In 1939, Durand was sentenced to six months in jail for elk poaching, but he broke out after assaulting a guard with a milk bottle. He went on the run and killed two people during a bank robbery in nearby Powell, Wyo. before hiding out in the hills. In a geographic lapse, the Denver Post dubbed him ‘The Tarzan of the Tetons.”
A posse tracked Durand to a rocky hideout in the Clarks Fork Canyon, just south of the Montana line. Among the men who brazenly charged up the canyon wall in pursuit of Durand was Argento.
“Earl Durand could see him coming and shot him,” Blake says. “I believe Earl knew who he was and remembered him.”
The arrest of Butch Cassidy
By far, the most famous outlaw connected with the Cowboy Bar was Butch Cassidy, who ran afoul of the powerful Meeteetse cattle baron, Otto Franc. Cassidy had been involved in a deal to buy three horses, which turned out to have been stolen, though he didn’t know it.
After being acquitted of charges related to one of the horses, Franc ordered Cassidy arrested again for theft of a second of the three horses. The sheriff and a trusted deputy caught up with Cassidy in June 1894 as he stepped outside the Cowboy Bar. Cassidy was found guilty and sent to jail, and blamed Franc’s unfair treatment for turning him into an outlaw.
Blake points out that at one point in the 1800s, again in the 1900s and already in this century, the most wanted man in America drank in the Cowboy Bar — Cassidy, Durand and Province — a claim few other saloons are likely to make.
“There are 59 bullet holes in this bar, 17 of them since I’ve been here,” he says.
The history of not only the bar, but also the town, are dear to Blake, who relishes telling tales to customers, but typically only if they ask. He enjoys letting visitors discover the bar’s history as they wander around, looking at the 1875 J.P. Hale upright piano or the massive and ornate1893 Brunswick-Balke-Collender bar.
It was that history that Meeteetse residents worried they might lose when Blake first bought the bar.
“I think it scared them to death when I came in that I was going to change things,” he said.
“But I’ve made more friends here, true friends, than I’d ever have imagined.”
Blake said he’s happy to live in Meeteetse, where visitors are less common than in nearby Cody, but where residents cherish the small town’s outlaw heritage.
Cody, Wyo. turned out to be the major tourist stop on the east side of Yellowstone National Park, but Meeteetse is older, and was growing much faster at the end of the 1800s.
“In 1899, when Cody got its first newspaper, Meeteetse had seven saloons, 11 brothels, three banks and six full-time stage lines going,” Blake said. Meeteetse had an estimated 1,800 people then, none of them lawmen.
But after Western showman and global celebrity William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody promised to build the Irma Hotel in Cody and the Pahaska Tepee resort at the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park, the railroad line that had been planned for Meeteetse came instead to edge of Cody.
“In the end, it turned out to be good in a way for Meeteetse, because the town has stayed more true to what it was,” Blake said. The community is still populated by ranchers and farmers, as well as a few modern-day outlaws who like to keep a low profile.
The Cowboy Bar, too, has stayed true to its roots, Blake said, still operating as a local bar where cowboys gather and the occasional outlaw visits.
“I think it’s real, and I think people can feel that. It’s not make-believe and it’s not a Hollywood situation,” he said. “You can come here and walk in the footsteps of some pretty famous and infamous people.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.