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Interesting History of Early-Day Kaycee, Places and People

by Thelma Gatchell Condit

Published in The Buffalo Bulletin, 16 August 1956

Kaycee, the little town on the Middle Fork of Powder River, came into existence with the wolfers, the outlaws and cattle rustlers. It still retains that independent attitude necessary for survival and much of the glamour of those early days.

Herbert Andrus, an old time resident of Kaycee, tells many interesting accounts of his trapping experiences in this area, which he says are by far the most eventful years of his life. He came to this Powder river country as a young wolfer from Fort Custer. There was money in trapping wolves in those days – it was big business – wolf robes were valuable and very serviceable; several being sewed together and lined with an army blanket. Andrus, upon arrival, established headquarters of sorts at the Circle F ranch on Beaver Creek (old Willow Glen ranch). From there he trapped in the Hole-in-the-Wall and Kaycee areas, using the John Nolan ranch on Middle Fork as a secondary camp.

Richard Car, an Englishman, and Henry James, from Wales, ran the Circle F. They raised blooded livestock and were considered prosperous. It had become a favorite stopping place; sort of a road ranch probably, for Dick Car was an interesting fellow – very friendly – many noteworthy persons were attracted to the Circle F because of this genial atmosphere.

It was here that Andrus met Sam Abernathy (Wild Cat Sam), who was a wolfer from North Platte,  Neb. It was the beginning of a firm friendship which resulted in many memorable wolfing trips into the famous Red Wall country.

Sam was a terrific rifle shot – his nerves and eyesight perfect. He’d invariably make head-shots on game at extreme ranges. He had peculiar round eyes (like marbles) – and when shaven his facial expression resembled that of a wild cat. (So Dick Car, who had a keen sense of humor, nicknamed him Wild Cat Sam.)

Sam was truly a unique character – he could neither read nor write. This lack of education, coupled with the propensity to spin yarns, often caused him to appear ludicrous. However, there was nothing mean about Sam – he was good-hearted, and one of the most expert trappers that ever hit the Powder.

Sam’s tall tales would fill a book and certainly furnished plenty of merriment for those associating with him around the wolfers’ campfires. His expert shooting gained him the respect of his companions; however, for he was not one to be trifled with in a pinch.

Andrus and Sam followed the wolf trails west from Murphy creek into the Hole-in-the-Wall. A well-known early day landmark is still in evidence just below the South Fork of Powder river crossing on the old county road south of Kaycee where Murphy creek used to flow into South Fork. It’s a large bank-like gumbo structure, whose south end looks like an old Irishman’s face. The wolfers started calling it “Old Man Murphy.” Just to the left of the face is the famous old Murphy creek crossing. It was a dreaded spot for freighters, being the worst mudhole on the whole route.

Mr. Andrus said, “If you ever wanted to locate a freighter, you could always find one stuck in the Murphy creek crossing beating on his mules.” (Old Man Murphy is still there – easily found on J-U land east of Highway 87 a few miles south of Kaycee.)

When the cows and the outlaws hit this part of the country it was time to start a town on the Middle Fork of the Powder. In those days a town meant a saloon and blacksmith shop. So in 1896 Jim and Jesse Potts built a blacksmith shop at the crossroads (where the Buffalo-Midwest road crossed Middle Fork), and Jack Toddy ran the first saloon (in a building which then stood just south of where Harve Turk’s store is today).

Toddy was a character, too. He was peculiarly slender, of medium build and with a long thin face and long drooping mustache. His eyes were sharp and grey -- like steel – he could look right through a person. Nobody knew much about Toddy, except that he was a good drinking man and was once in later years put in jail by Sheriff Beard to sober up. The door had not been locked which made it very funny the next morning when Toddy yelled for water and Beard told him “to come on out.”

The Hole-in-the-Wall gang used Toddy’s saloon as headquarters when in town. It was a gathering place for drinkers, gamblers, freighters and cowboys.

Dusty Jim, a breed Indian and a “poker playin’ fool” was the paid gambler at Toddy’s. He was rather a small fellow – always very neat – always had his hair smoothed down with grease – always very “nifty” looking, carried a gun in each boot for show – and, they said, had a hide-out gun for emergencies.

But the unforgettable thing about Jim was his long, slim fingers – he had real artistic graceful hands – very adept at card handling. The bad thing about him, his eyes were “shifty.” When things got tough and trouble started brewing Jim would shoot out the kerosene lantern hanging from the ceiling and quick as a flash tip over the gambling table and get behind it. He looked out for Jim – guess you had to in those days.

When the store at Powder River Crossing (near Fort Reno) closed down, it seemed sensible to start a store to go along with the saloon and blacksmith shop. The only merchandise available nearby was tobacco at the Mayoworth post office at ElK mountain.

They carried Bull Durham for smoking and Climax for chewing. So on September 7, 1897, some of the local ranchers incorporated the Powder River Commercial Company with a capital stock of $20,000. Some of the stock holders, being short of cash paid for their share by hauling logs from the mountains to build the store.

The trustees the first year were: R. W. Hasbrouck, Buffalo; Fred H. Hasbrouck, Buffalo; A. L. Brock, Mayoworth (who was president); George Kaltenbach, Griggs.

John and Effie Nolan, owners of the K C ranch deeded a tract of land 420 feet by 210 feet describing meets and bounds to the Powder River Commercial Co., October 4, 1897. A. W. Kennedy of Buffalo was general manager. (He’d run the Powder River Crossing store for Robert Foote – so was fully experienced.)

The operations of the store were highly satisfactory and it is interesting to note that during the time of their ownership they lost only one outstanding account to the amount of $10; a most unusual experience when selling on open account.

In December, 1901, the store was sold to an H. C. King – who had a line of stores throughout Wyoming. The original stock holders received a 70 percent net profit on their investment at the time of the sale which also was quite remarkable. (They did not wish to continue operation of store, as their own ranching interests made greater demands on their time.)

King sold out to Gen. H. Peterson and the store was subsequently owned by Kettle and Ralston, Martin Basket, W. A. Stubbs, Stubbs & Mitchell, and Sam Gibson.

The Powder River Grange purchased the building from James A. Sellar for $2500 (don’t know the year). This building from its very beginning has been an institution in the community. Many and varied are the events taking place in it.

Perhaps one of the most exciting was when the U. P. train robbers, while being chased in 1899, hid out near Kaycee and made contact with a local man for supplies of food. The purchase of groceries had been made – and the things set out to be delivered to the outlaws when a posse of officers rode into town.

It took some quick maneuvering to move the stuff but it was done – and the law was none the wiser for having ridden in so closely on the trail of the bandits. The supplies were promptly paid for with much crumpled and very blackened paper money which had apparently been damaged [when] the safe was blown up in the U. P. express car.

The old city hall building (now the Kaycee library) has been the scene of much local drama. Built of hand-hewn cottonwood logs, almost 2 feet thick, it stands today in good condition – being a most interesting reminder of the late 90s. It was originally erected as a homestead cabin on the George Kaltenbach place (old Buell ranch) one fourth miles west of town.

It is believed that John Wininger built it, as he did many later buildings in Kaycee. It is said that it originally belonged to an “Old Man Blessing” who ran 17-mile station toward Casper. When first moved to its present location it probably was used as a residence as it was not in the city limits (when the town was laid out). Later it served as a school house – and then became the sheriff's office.

The most unique feature of the building is an escape tunnel leading to the Peterson draw behind. In spite of its sturdy build, it has one bad feature – no back door – so the tunnel undoubtedly was a necessity to provide a means of quick escape – for even the stout-hearted sheriffs of that day who lacked nothing in the way of bravery – still needed a way to disappear fast upon occasion.

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