History, bar up in smoke at Fromberg's Little Cowboy on Wednesday

2013-12-11T13:36:00Z 2013-12-12T16:05:08Z History, bar up in smoke at Fromberg's Little Cowboy on WednesdayBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

FROMBERG — As she lugged a heavy ceramic bucket filled with blackened belt buckles and a few other odds and ends from what remained of the Little Cowboy Bar and Museum, Shirley Smith just shook her head and smiled a bit.

"They say the Lord doesn't give you anything you can't handle," she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, fire destroyed the popular and historic Fromberg spot — listed in 2007 by Esquire magazine as Montana's best bar and one of the best bars in America — leaving the building's walls mostly intact but ravaging the inside of the both the bar and museum.

Smith owned the bar and museum for more than 40 years before selling it about a year ago.

Fromberg Fire Department volunteers were called at about noon, said Mike Ventling, assistant fire chief. He works down the street at the city's public works department and, by the time he ran to the fire hall, geared up and arrived at the fire, it was already burning through the building.

"It's such an old building, once it got going, it wasn't going to stop," Ventling said. "As I came down the street, I could see the smoke billowing out and knew it was bad."

It took Fromberg and Bridger fire crews about two hours to douse the flames and Ventling said the building could be a complete loss. Firefighters spent the rest of the afternoon mopping up and securing the building.

Water from firefighting efforts soon froze and slicked over the street around the building. From the street, the charred and scorched remains of the bar at the front of the building could be seen while a large hole could be seen in the building's west side.

The blaze appears to have started in the tavern's chimney, and there wasn't anything suspicious about it upon an initial investigation, Ventling said. 

The business was not open and no one was inside when the fire started. A damage estimate wasn't immediately available.

The June 2007 issue of Esquire listed the tavern on Fromberg's main drag as the "best bar" in Montana, as part of a roundup of what the magazine hailed as the best bars in the United States.

Smith owned the bar from 1972 until she sold it to Randy Wike, who lives in Alaska, last year. Although she no longer owns it, Smith said she helps with upkeep at the museum.

On Wednesday, after the flames were out, she surveyed the damage from inside a string of yellow tape around the building with a few other people while reminiscing about the "thousands, at least" of items in the museum.

"It's got a history here," she said.

Among the items she was most interested in finding — and soon learned were most likely destroyed — were a number of large original paintings, especially a newer one of former world-champion rodeo cowboy Deb Grennough, who is from Fromberg.

Many of the items in the museum were donated by people from the area and, along with the building itself, tells much of the region's history. The building's bright turquoise outer wall at the main entrance is emblazoned with dozens of brands, still visible after the fire.

"Those brands, they belong to all of our ranchers, our cowboys and our friends here in the area," Smith said. "Looks like the fire didn't get those."

A Gazette story by Ed Kemmick in 2006 described the museum, which was owned by Smith at the time: 

"As for the museum attached to the bar, no quick summary of the collection can do it justice. There are beaded moccasins made by Crow, Cheyenne and Blackfeet Indians, badges, purses, belt buckles, a black parasol from the 1800s and a pistol that a 94-year-old sheepherder used to kill himself. There is a collection of clippings, documents and photographs about infamous local outlaw Earl Durand, branded 'the Tarzan of the Tetons' by Eastern writers whose sense of drama exceeded their grasp of geography.

There are rifles and swords, a war club, old magazines and calendars, an antique vanity case, an original photograph of Buffalo Bill Cody and a complimentary pass to the 1910 edition of Cody's Wild West Show. Over in a corner, next to a large collection of mounted spiders, scorpions, beetles and bugs, gathered locally, there are two buffalo fetuses, a beaver fetus and a Jerusalem cricket, all preserved in alcohol.

Another display shows a collection of products once sold in the Bridger area by Shirley Smith's grandfather, whom she described as 'a Raleigh man.' Raleigh, like the Watkin's of today, used to be a purveyor of all sorts of useful household goods. Included in Smith's display is an antiseptic salve, an 'anti-pain oil' and some 'ready-relief inhalant.' "

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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