THRIVING SMALL BUSINESSES IN WYOMING: In a World of Change, Sheridan Mainstay Clings Mightily to Tradition
The tried-and-true art of not fixing what ain’t broke
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Jul 03, 2023
The iconic bucking horse neon sign lights up the night at The Mint Bar in Sheridan, Wyoming. The bar opened in 1907, when it was built on the site where an old barber shop had previously stood. (Courtesy photo from Kat Deeds)
By Bob Wooley
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Legendary. Authentic. Iconic.
There are many ways to describe The Mint Bar in Sheridan. But to manager Kat Deeds, it’s nearly impossible to convey the deep history and ties to the city this mainstay of Western culture has achieved.
The bar’s story dates back to 1907, when it was built on the site where an old barber shop had previously stood, said Deeds, who has worked at The Mint Bar on and off since 2011. The building has only ever been The Mint Bar, but there have been 15 owners, including current proprietors Ryan and Stephanie Wagner. The couple purchased the business in 2022 from brothers Monte and Wes Buckmaster, who’d owned it since 1990.
Wagner has a background making shots of a different variety. He spent a decade as a club pro at Powder Horn Golf Club before taking over management duties at Sheridan’s Kendrick Municipal Golf Course in 2021.
Looking back, Wagner, 47, said a round of golf he played with Monte Buckmaster over 20 years ago proved to be life-changing. Buckmaster invited Wagner, then in his mid-20s to work at the bar. So for two winters, while working as a barback, Wagner learned the ins and outs of running a hospitality-focused business. The two men continued to play golf together and continued their friendship.
“That’s how I happened to be in contact with Monte when he and Wes decided to sell the bar,” Wagner told the Wyoming Truth. “Monte said they wanted to sell the bar to someone who understood its history and will leave the bar the way it is. And he felt comfortable that I was the guy to do that.”
Making the deal was a no-brainer, Wagner said, as the numbers made it a sound business investment. But more than that, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to own an important part of Sheridan history.
Wagner said he feels more like a caretaker of the bar than an owner — that it’s his turn to shepherd it along until the time comes to pass it to the next caretaker.
“I intend to keep on running the golf course, especially since Kat is around,” said Wagner, noting he has no plans to make significant changes to the bar.
On any given day, you’ll find Deeds, 41, running the show. Despite the sometimes raucous environment, she is confident her staff of five bartenders are all tough enough to handle whatever comes their way.
That hospitality will be put to the test during one of the most hectic times of the year: the Sheridan Rodeo on July 13-15.
“Friday morning of the rodeo parade, it is so packed in here after the parade ends, that there are people standing in the booths, standing on the benches, because there’s no room for people to stand in the bar,” Deeds said. “That’s probably my favorite time of the year because there’s just so much great energy.”
Deeds, who studied business at Sheridan College, was the Buckmasters’ choice to become manager as the bar emerged from a mandatory COVID-19 closure in May 2020. A self-proclaimed Mint Bar historian, Deeds learned everything she could about its fabled past from local townspeople, long-time customers whose families had frequented the bar for generations and historic documents and photos archived in the bar.
“I truly love this place and what it represents,” she said. “Because it’s not just a bar. It’s a piece of history.”
Since its opening 116 years ago, there’s been a lot of change in Sheridan, the state and the world around us. But at The Mint Bar? Not so much. And that, Deeds said, is what keeps people coming in and coming back.
“It went from Mint Bar to The Mint Bar, so just a slight name change. Other than that, there was a little room added to the back [of the building] in the early years,” she said. “You’d get tarred and feathered in this town if you tried to change it.”
During prohibition, the front of the bar was run as a soda and cigar shop, but the establishment itself operated as a speakeasy and gambling hall in the space that’s now Deeds’ office. After prohibition was repealed, the owners allowed high-stakes gambling to continue in that back room for nearly 30 more years. Deeds said legend has it that everyone from Ernest Hemingway to local cowboys gambled back there.
Tuffy and the brands
A slight remodel in the late 1940s saw the addition of the famous cedar planks — with cattle brands burned into them — that are tacked above the bar.
One of Deeds’ favorite tales about the bar, relayed to her by Monte Buckmaster, is the origin story of the cedar planks.
“The owner of the bar at that time paid a guy named Tuffy, in shots of whiskey, to burn the brands into planks of wood,” she said. “The story is that Tuffy would burn the brands until they would start getting crooked because he drank too much whiskey, and then they would send him home for the day.”
The brands — some 9,000 of them — were all authentic working or retired brands from cattle, horse or sheep ranches in Wyoming, according to Deeds. Other decor — old photographs and even an original newspaper article published just after the Battle of Little Bighorn — have adorned the walls since the early 1950s.
A vast array of taxidermy trophies is mounted high along the bar’s walls, and some came from places as far-flung as the Yukon. But most have been there for the 70 plus years since the remodel, which gives them as close to native status as you can get. An eight-foot rattlesnake specimen took its place of honor in the 1960s when a hunter gifted it to the establishment.
The original bar (as in belly up to the…) itself, arrived by train from Chicago in two separate pieces. But legend has it that it was sold to a different drinking establishment in nearby Buffalo during prohibition and unceremoniously chopped into pieces during a raid by the Feds.
The neon sign above the door dates back some 70 years and includes famous brands of the era. None other than Monte Buckmaster himself has said he’s pretty sure acclaimed Western artist, Bernard Thomas, painted it. The HT brand on the sign’s bucking horse stands for “hard times,” according to Deeds.
Meet me at The Mint
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Sheridan, with its first-rate polo grounds and incredible Bighorn views, is a natural draw for world travelers. Not surprisingly, many have found themselves at The Mint Bar.
Cast members of the popular TV show “Longmire” pop in from time to time; other recent notables include members of rock band Mumford and Sons. Deeds said there’s a pretty constant interest in using “The Mint” as a location: The front of the bar was recently featured in a Boot Barn catalog with country singer Ian Munsick.
“And the cool thing is, that one of those [famous] people can be sitting at the bar next to someone who works at one of the local shops and everybody gets along,” Deeds said.
But celebrity sightings aren’t what make the place so special. Deeds said that even though it gets a bit rowdy sometimes, The Mint Bar has a fun atmosphere where virtually everyone feels at home.
“The bar is a very big part of the community,” she said. “This is where people come to take their wedding photos. They come after somebody’s passed away. They come if they’re celebrating something special.”