CHUGWATER – The rebuilding and resurrection of Chugwater would not be complete without revisiting the history of the Stampede Saloon & Eatery. It goes hand in hand with a series about the small town of Chugwater which has a grand vision to bring the town back to its former glory.
The name alone is quaint, quirky, and makes people want to wonder “what water?” It’s nice. The water.
Legend has it that the sound, “chug” is a Native American term for the sound of the buffalo hitting the ground after being chased off the cliffs during the annual hunt. And the water is near.
The combination formed the name of the town and it has spread and been spoken ever since.
There’s another name that Chugwater Stampede Saloon & Eatery co-owner Merwyn Nilson would like to introduce and it comes with a big vision. A vision to put Chugwater on the map and be on the lips of people around the world.
Nilson, an octogenarian bought the bar and restaurant in 2016 and when they ushered in the New Year 2017, the New Year’s Eve party was also the grand reopening of a venue that had been closed for almost six years.
The refurbished and remodeled lounge and restaurant were not only purchased by the Nilson family, but are also primarily run by them. Merwyn, or “Myr” as most people call him, his wife Margie, his son Lance, and Lance’s wife Lilly are all equal owners of the business according to the patriarchal Nilson.
“I’m having as much fun as I can,” Myr said with a half-smile. “I do marketing and a lot of that stuff, but I have them do most of the work. There’s always something to do that you haven’t done yet, and there’s always something new to come, even though I probably won’t live long enough to do everything I want to do.
For anyone who’s had a beer with Myr or had dinner with the man, you’ll soon know he’s fluent in “understatement.” His plans and visions for Chugwater are huge, but his faith and persistence are relentless and if anyone can do what he’s about to tackle, this man can.
Its marketing plan is thorough and thoughtful and its fully typed “manual for the mission” has 364 typewritten pages, each enclosed in a plastic sleeve and all contained in a huge white ring binder. On the outside of the bound notebook, the title simply reads: “Chugwater Jamboree.”
Upon closer examination, the first page begins with “Product Description and Inquiry” and the vision description begins. It’s definitely not “light reading”, but as you get into it, you start to feel a man’s passion for achieving the impossible. Detailing how the dream will turn into reality, what it will take to make it happen, and resolving any questions you may have regarding the work it will take to make it, the equipment it will take, and the staff it’s ok take.
Simply put and because some people may not want to spend a week reading the “vision manual”, the concept is quite simple and unique and something that has been done before. Myr wants to create something called the Chugwater Jamboree which is similar to what you see on PBS called “Austin City Limits”, and would showcase the wealth of talent of musicians and singer-songwriters that Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado have to offer.
In the manual, it is described as follows: “The Chugwater Jamboree will be a one to two hour AM, FM, audio and video streaming program online from the state of the Stampede Saloon & Eatery in Chugwater, Wyoming.
Now, that whole shooting match might be overdone if the talent included a crazy uncle who got drunk and drugged his guitar that was missing a string or two on stage. He would then begin his rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and had to stop to cry halfway through as it reminded him of his wife who had left him for another man.
Either way, you get the picture.
But it’s different. The Nilsons bought themselves a goldmine in 2016 and the wealth of talent coming out week after week to entertain is nothing short of amazing. From guitarists and keyboard masters to mandolins, banjos, harmonicas and sometimes a random automatic harp.
And they are good. You will find yourself eating a home cooked meal by Myr’s son, Lance, who is a culinary genius, the food will be placed on the plates by Myr’s wife, Margie and her daughter-in-law, Lilly, will bring your plate with food that will remind you of your childhood at the family dining room table. Add to the magic two incredible volunteers in Fran Hammeren, although some call her “Frannie Oakley” and her niece Tiffany Duncan. When the place opened, they walked in and said, “We just want to help.”
The food is not only good, but it’s very cheap. The music is top notch and the performers booked by Lilly have to be good or they just don’t get a nod. Lilly and her husband Lance have been in the music business for 37 years and have produced quality CDs. Lance, who ran his own recording studio, has a natural talent for good music and good food.
It’s a place where people cram most nights. The hometown atmosphere, the smell of dinner being cooked on the stove and the live music playing while people eat and the camaraderie is a winning combination. It’s almost magical. People who want to work there for free, musicians who come every Thursday evening for the weekly jam session and some who come to record the music. Because again. It is so good.
Perhaps the next step for the Nilson family is to find someone to champion the vision. Talk was launched to develop a program to be broadcast on the national RFD-TV network. People traveling west to Yellowstone or the Tetons passed Chugwater and saw the “Chugwater Jamboree” sign and had to stop for a meal and the music.
Each week the Chugwater Jamboree had a different flavor and a different specialty on the menu. Thursday nights would be “Jam Night”. Other nights would be devoted to such things as “Cowboy/Western” music, “Folk” music, “Bluegrass” and “Comedy and Novelty Nights”. Other possibilities include tribute shows or 50s and 60s parties.
The vision also includes booking outdoor concerts, developing music festivals and buying more buildings to house everything that would encompass this grand vision. From general stores to the recording studio, passing through the various stages set up in the city. Maybe a bakery. Maybe an old fashioned gas station. The possibilities are limitless.
With the railroad passing through the back window of the Stampede Saloon, perhaps a concert from the boxcar stage would be in future plans and the indoor “Depot” that would shelter crowds in inclement weather.
This national vision is too big for one man. It’s too big for one family. And it’s too big for just one community. But the Nilsons are brave enough to dream big dreams to make Chugwater the music capital of Wyoming and all the pieces come together. The draw is the food, the music, the availability to camp, the ability to sit on the porch with some locals and take a break from the rush and incredible scenery of pristine Wyoming and intact.
If they build it, will people come? I wouldn’t bet against Merwyn Nilson and her incredible family and community who started following her vision. This Old West sedan may surprise some naysayers.
For more information, hours and menu of the Chugwater Stampede Saloon & Eatery, please visit them on their website: https://www.thestampedesaloon.com/ and for reservations or more information on how to to be an artist at the Steamboat Stage, call Lilly Nilson at (307) 422-3200.
If people travel thousands of miles to see a building made of corn, then the question to ask is, “Why not the Chugwater Jamboree?”
Saloon1: Merwyn and Margie Nilson are about to have a 61st wedding anniversary surrounded by the passion of their Chugwater Stampede and Saloon, a country music band, family and friends. The Nilsons have co-owned the establishment since 2016. Saloon2: Merwin, Margie, Lilly, and Lance Nilson own the Stampede Saloon in Chugwater, Wyoming. The family that sings together works together. In the family business, everyone lends a hand to make sure everything runs smoothly. They have live music every Thursday and Saturday night from 7-9pm. Saloon3: The Steamboat Stage at the Chugwater Stampede and Saloon featured professional and amateur musicians. It has been a Chugwater staple for many years. The current owners have a vision to create the Chugwater Jamboree – a weekly music festival that will be televised and broadcast on RFDTV with a similar format to Austin City Limits.