MEETEETSE, Wyo. — With an estimated population of 1,800 people, seven saloons, 11 brothels and absolutely no law enforcement, Meeteetse, Wyo. was a destination during the early part of the last century — a place to earn a living for many small businessmen and sportin' ladies alike, a place for cattlemen off the range and gold-seekers with a day off from the nearby Kirwin mines to relax and be entertained for a short time. The little town at the bottom of the hill was also a sanctuary for the occasional bank robber with a posse hot on his tail after a Cody holdup. The posse would typically turn around when Meeteetse came into sight.
The Cowboy Bar has served them all — from the early gunslingers to the modern day most wanted. The establishment has been continuously operated since 1893. During prohibition they simply took down the sign for the saloon and started getting their whiskey shipments in milk barrels. As a matter of fact, the residents of Meeteetse had such a disdain for authority that when the law finally came to town and built a jailhouse out of logs, they burned it down. Lawmen built a stone jail next. Residents tried to burn that down too.
Today, a Saturday afternoon in late January, the bar is somewhat quiet. Trinkets, antlers and area cattle brands share space on the walls with framed pictures that would be just as comfortable under glass at the museum across the street.
Jim Blake sits at a table in the same room members of the Hole in the Wall gang used to drink and collude. He's telling stories that span nearly 120 years of desperados and questionable lawmen bellying up to his bar. The proprietor is also a local historian who has published over 20 books on the area's history. He has lots of stories to tell.
He tells the story of a young Robert Leroy Parker who spent a lot of time in Meeteetse back in the late 1900s.
The same year the Cowboy Saloon opened, Parker and a friend faced a grand larceny trial in Lander. The charges stemmed from a horse deal gone bad. According to Blake, Parker had purchased three horses that ended up being stolen. The charge was for the theft of a single horse. In 1894, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict, Parker headed to Meeteetse to celebrate his freedom with friends.
After a lonely celebration (the friend he was supposed to meet had been arrested for butchering someone else's beef), Parker walked out of the Cowboy Bar and was arrested by Sheriff Charles Stough who had followed him to Meeteetse to arrest him for the same charges as before — but for the second of the three horses.
Parker was found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor at the state penitentiary. When he got out, he traded in questionable horse deals for bank and train robberies. His given name was also soon replaced by the more well-known "Butch Cassidy."
Today, a couple modern-day cowboys play pool — work boots substitute cowboy boots and baseball caps replace cowboy hats. They sip on bottles of Bud Light while they take turns chasing a cue around the green velvet.
Over the crack of the break shot, Blake tells the story of a young mountain man by the name of Earl Durand that found trouble at the Cowboy Bar back in the 1930s when he had the misfortune of running into Arthur Argento and his buddies. Argento's gang bullied the quiet loner and eventually dragged him outside and tossed him off the bridge into the freezing Greybull River.
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In 1939, Durand was arrested for poaching an elk out of season. After escaping from jail in Cody by knocking a jailer over the head with a milk bottle, the 26-year old fled to the home of his parents outside of Powell. He shot and killed two law enforcement agents that tracked him there.
He soon made his escape to the Beartooth Mountains. During the standoff, Durand's marksmanship picked off two more of the approximately 100 men in the posse. One of the men he killed was, not-so coincidentally according to Blake, none other than that bar bully Arthur Argento.
The young man's story exploded through the national media and he was soon known as "Tarzan of the Mountains" who ate raw meat, poached to help feed the poor during the Great Depression and was an expert shot. But his story ended abruptly during a holdup of First National Bank in Powell just days after his escape and hours after alluding law enforcement in the mountains. After being injured by a bullet allegedly shot by a high school student while leaving the bank with hostages, Durand went back into the lobby and turned a pistol on himself.
Today, the Meeteetse Longhorn's high school basketball team is playing the Dubois Rams on a television in the corner of the bar. Most of the town is at the game which might explain the sporadic customers not only at the bar, but at the attached restaurant. Soon the game will be over and folks wearing "Meeteetse's Sixth Man" shirts will be stopping by for some barbecue, pizza and maybe a beer.
On Aug. 9 of 2010, Tracy Province watched a news report on that same television about a manhunt for a pair of escaped killers and their accomplice from Arizona.
According to Blake, Province spent a couple evenings drinking in the bar before a resident recognized him as one of the escapees from the television reports. He had also attended Sunday worship services and did some yard work for a local church during his brief visit to Meeteetse.
After he was arrested, he told authorities that he was relieved.
Province was serving a life sentence for murder and robbery in Arizona at the time of the escape. He is now facing federal murder and carjacking charges in New Mexico in connection with the deaths of an Oklahoma couple whose burned remains were found in a camper shortly after the prison break.
Today, Blake isn't done telling stories. He'll tell you about other Cowboy Bar customers throughout history. He has stories about Tom Horn, Kid Curry, Baron Otto Franc, Broncho Nell and Buffalo Bill Cody. Those ghosts of outlaws and lawmen now mingle with modern cowboys and the Longhorn basketball fans — their history memorialized by the trinkets, pictures and brands that adorn the walls of Meeteetse's Cowboy Bar.