For a split-second, it almost looks like a bar scene in an old Western. Set in a haze of smoke, walls covered in taxidermied animals and cowboy memorabilia rise to high ceilings. At the bar, a couple older ranch hands sip what looks like well-earned whiskey.
In that moment, you could almost mistake this for the type of sleepy bar you would have found in Sheridan many moons ago.
Then the beat drops.
Usher, Ke$ha, Katy Perry and other pop and hip-hop artists bump through the speakers of Rails Brews and Cues throughout this Saturday night. Any cowboys sitting peacefully at the bar, it turns out, are far outnumbered by 20- and 30-somethings looking to play pool and dance the night away.
Located in the historic railroad district in a more than 100-year-old train depot, perhaps no business demonstrates the juxtaposition between old and new in Sheridan more markedly than Rails.
“I’ve always loved that Western theme, but yet at the same time it’s nice we can throw in a place where the kids love to come and dance,” Rails owner Art Erickson said. “We don’t play Western music here on Friday and Saturday nights, we play hip-hop.”
Rails isn’t the only business forging history with a business model you probably wouldn’t have seen in Sheridan 20 years ago. Just a few blocks south, Black Tooth Brewing Company and Luminous Brewhouse fill up with patrons sampling craft beers and, depending on the night, listening to live music. Head west, and downtown Sheridan always has plenty going on, from the Christmas Stroll to farmers markets and other entertainment options.
As Sheridan prospers, young people, tourists, businesses, events and new ideas follow. But, in a city and region that prides itself on its Western charm, history and family values, change often comes with a price tag. How the city walks this tightrope now will help determine what the area looks like over the next 100 years.
Creating a youthful culture
Seth Orr, like many of his classmates, had zero interest in staying and living in Sheridan. After graduating high school, the 33-year-old headed west to Oregon for the possibilities the West Coast offered.
“Up until about 10 years ago, there was nothing to do in Sheridan,” he said. “You could either go to the mountains or go golfing.”
Steve Kuzara, another Sheridan native, remembers the same feeling. The 66-year-old said that, after graduation, the high school had buses lined up to take kids out of town. Not literally, of course, but the idea was to leave the sleepy cowboy town — and not come back.
Anecdotal, sure, but the numbers support the stories. For many, many years, Sheridan and the surrounding area didn’t grow. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Sheridan County’s population in 1920 sat at 18,182 residents. Fifty years later, the 1970 census registered 17,852 individuals.
A couple decades ago, however, spurred by natural resource development, people started moving to the area. By 1990, the population eclipsed 23,000, and estimates in 2014 put the county at over 30,000 people.
Growth, however, can be a double-edged sword. During the 1970s and ‘80s, strip malls and cookie-cutter business facades made their way into American metropolises and small towns alike, transforming historic, well-known downtowns into unrecognizable commercial centers in the name of so-called progress.
The Downtown Sheridan Association was founded in 1985 to combat what many began to see as addition by subtraction, or development while losing character.
“A lot of people determined that there was value in our history and organized to try to save our downtown,” DSA Executive Director Beth Holsinger explained.
The organization, with an assist from the city, does more than just encourage pretty storefronts. It establishes plans for prudent growth, works with property owners on preservation efforts and looks for grant funding and tax credits for business owners who take the plunge into restoration.
Preserving historic buildings
Still, the city doesn’t mandate buildings look a certain way outside small stipulations for properties in entryway corridors, City Public Works Director Nic Bateson said. In the end, it’s up to business owners.
And, in Sheridan, the people stimulating economic development seem to have taken DSA’s mission to heart. Many feel the city is successfully marrying old and new similar to other historical, growing hubs like Jackson Hole and Fort Collins, Colorado.
Exhibit A: Rails. The old train depot was built in 1911 and has plenty of history within its walls. Erickson, who has served as the building’s caretaker for the last 21 years, said people have come in and told him stories of fathers or grandfathers leaving for war from the station.
Along with the Sheridan Inn across the street, the building gives a glimpse into the beginnings of the city, a time when the railroad facilitated growth and served as the center of commerce.
While he has put a lot of work into the depot the last 20 years, Erickson said he couldn’t imagine the city without it. Local residents, in his mind, would be “dismayed” if it were gone.
“This building is just a beautiful part of Sheridan. I love it. It’s just a great old building,” Erickson said. “I think it’s a real monument to Sheridan, and I hope it’s here another 100 years from now.”
Trains still pass by, but long gone are passenger cars in favor of coal transport, and the world inside the bar is one 1940s-era soldiers likely wouldn’t recognize with its hip-hop and even a mirrored saddle Erickson likes to call his “Wyoming disco ball.”
“What we’ve tried to do here is a rustic, cowboy-Western kind of bar,” he said, “but at the same time, when you hear the kids driving down the street with their windows down and that ‘boom, boom, boom,’ you think there might be a niche for younger people.”
Orr, a co-owner of Luminous Brewhouse, saw a similar need. The brewery is another new-age business in an old, beautiful building. And, much like Sheridan, the entire operation is growing. The Wyoming Cattle and Creek Company is in the midst of an all-out remodel that upon completion will give the city another full-service restaurant with access to the Luminous selection of craft beers and other spirits.
Lou’s, as the building is known, is at least 100 years old. When the owner, Kuzara, bought the property six years ago, he immediately started renovating. Everything was done in a manner meant to preserve the integrity of the old building. All wood, bricks and mortar were repurposed and have homes in the restaurant-to-be, from the flooring to the tables and the ceilings.
“When we rebuilt this place, we rebuilt it for Sheridan,” Kuzara said. “We didn’t do it for a bar or restaurant or store or anything, we did it to save the building. These old buildings, you don’t do these because you’re in it for the money.”
It’s no wonder Orr and his business partner, Cooley Butler, ended up there. They “wanted to do this so we could provide culture for the youth” in a new and exciting way, all while staying true to their Wyoming roots.
Craft beer first came to the area when Blacktooth opened in 2010, an event Orr pointed to as key to Sheridan’s shift as a destination for young people. Make no mistake, craft beer is more than just a trend, it’s an all-out revolution. Consider: Wyoming has 23 breweries; Denver, within its city limits, has more than 50, each of which is filled with young people on a nightly basis.
The breweries are more than just booze. Both of Sheridan’s brewhouses host live music and beer dinners, events where restaurants serve five-star meals and brewers arrange craft beer pairings. And, of course, both operate out of historic buildings that contribute to the character of downtown
Balancing old and new
Rails and the breweries represent a tiny sample of the physical changes Sheridan has experienced over the past 10 years. New businesses offer climbing walls and other services and amenities that simply weren’t around a decade ago. The YMCA is a pivotal community hub. Walking paths help lead people to a lively downtown. Orr points to burgeoning activities like biker clubs, pool leagues and homebrewing clubs chock-full of young people. Each aspect helps to transform Sheridan into a hip, growing city.
But as much new as there is in Sheridan, sometimes it’s best not to just throw out the old. After all, what really drew Orr back, and what has kept thousands of residents from leaving Sheridan, is something that never changed at all: Wyoming family values.
Orr said returning to raise his daughters in a place where his grandparents and rest of his family live was too much to pass up. Another thing he’s noticed: he’s not alone.
“I know tons of my friends who have gone to California, Oregon, Washington, the East Coast, who came back,” he said.
Kuzara also has high school friends he’s noticed matriculating in Sheridan. Holsinger specifically mentioned young people moving back to Sheridan as one of the big changes she’s seen over the last decade.
The mountains, golf courses, parks, history, low crime rates and everything else Sheridan offers are still here, too. Of course, when you’ve got so much going on, people notice. And while numerous businesses have been successful at preserving the heritage Sheridan County residents seem to want to be known for, that doesn’t mean the process has been perfect. Just drive down Coffeen Avenue, with all its big-box stores, and look at the character of that part of the city.
For DSA’s part, the work is far from over. Holsinger said growth and history can be married, but it takes a serious, continual effort. Right now, DSA wants to continue to establish more living spaces downtown, work on a river walk and maintain the trend of a walkable, lively downtown.
With upcoming projects like the North Sheridan Interchange on the horizon and population estimates projecting Sheridan County will continue to grow, the city and surrounding area look primed for more changes. While Luminous, Rails and numerous other businesses show the way, walking the tightrope between change and history and values is here to stay — and it’s never been more important, or difficult.
By Travis Pearson