To Buffalo residents, everything in the series of books about Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire is more than real: the people, the places and even the food. Now fans of the books and TV series on Netflix, Longmire, have a place to visit to walk in the same boot prints as the well-read, world-weary sheriff.
So, what parts of Buffalo are in the books? “Well, pretty much the whole town,” Craig Johnson said. “When I first started out I purposefully set the series in a fictitious county, but then didn’t even bother changing the names of the streets.”
The author readily points to several locations that appear in his books. “Here are the steps that Walt comes down,” he said. “The old Carnegie Library – that’s Walt’s office. There used to be a barber shop that’s right down here that’s at the end of the Occidental (Hotel). It’s pretty much all up and down here,” he said, pointing both ways on the two historic downtown blocks of Buffalo.
The old Carnegie Library building doesn’t serve as the sheriff’s office in real-life Buffalo like it does in the books, but one can easily imagine a sheriff with a cowboy hat walking from there to the courthouse next door. The real building is used as the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum, and it showcases some of the Old West’s greatest history, including the Johnson County Cattle War between cattle ranchers and open grazers, and life along the Bozeman Trail.
Perhaps the most well-known location in the books is the town’s café – The Busy Bee. Tucked into the side of an historic hotel like a cowboy with his arm around his sweetheart, The Busy Bee serves up three meals a day for locals, law enforcement and lucky visitors who can get a table.
In the Longmire books, the restaurant was “only three hundred yards away, past the Owen Wister Hotel, and the Uptown Barber Shop, down a pair of crumbling, old steps behind the courthouse,” Johnson wrote. Fictional Dorothy, the Busy Bee owner, serves the sheriff “the usual,” and the real restaurant will bring a plate of “the usual” to anyone who orders it as well. The breakfast “usual” is a heaping plate of biscuits and sausage gravy.
When Johnson takes off his cowboy hat in the café to sit down for a meal, his “usual” is a bit different than the fictional sheriff. “You know, the bison-burger is kind of hard to get around,” he said.
Sheriff Longmire often walks past the fictional Owen Wister Hotel in the books, but in Buffalo the hotel is known to travelers as The Occidental. Western literature fans will recognize Owen Wister as
the author of The Virginian, one of the first westerns to surface in mainstream literature when it was published in 1902. He was a guest of the hotel and historians say the place, the people and the Old West spirit inspired him to write.
The stories of the historical figures that stayed at The Occidental Hotel make any well-read visitor scratch their head in wonder. Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Tom Horn and even Ernest Hemingway stayed there. So did several of the Old West’s most notorious – in a 1990s renovation of the hotel’s saloon, more than 20 bullet holes were found in the walls and ceilings. Two remain for visitors to ponder – one in the bar and one in a ceiling tin.
Current hotel owner, Dawn Wexo, embraces the visitors Johnson’s books are bringing to Buffalo. Families come through with their teens in tow. “I’ve watched teens walk through,” she said. “They hear music, the floor squeaks, their eyes look up and their iPods go down into their pockets.”
Buffalo is the county seat of Johnson County, Wyoming; fictional Durant is the county seat for Absaroka County, a name author Johnson made up. He also made up some bumper stickers to give out to promote his books that read “Walt Longmire for Sheriff.” Johnson said the fictional sheriff actually got 13 write-in votes in the last local election. “That might not be a big deal in some places, but in Johnson County, that’s a lot of votes.” Johnson said he called the sheriff to apologize the next day.
Buffalo is a bit bigger than the fictional Durant, though. “Buffalo is actually bigger than I wanted Durant to be because I didn’t want it big enough to have a city police department; I wanted the Sheriff’s Department to have to take care of everything—so it would be Buffalo pared down to the size of Lusk (Wyoming),” Johnson said.
Locals, tourists and book fans gathered in Buffalo recently for their first annual “Longmire Day,” sponsored by the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce. Johnson signed books most of the day outside the Busy Bee, next to the truck that inspired character Henry Standing Bear’s truck, Rezdawg. Signature after signature, Johnson greeting all his fans with kind words, questions and smiles. He only stopped when a waitress from the Busy Bee brought a bison burger to his sidewalk signing table.
Buffalo will continue to be a great attraction in itself, but having Johnson’s books and TV show will only make it a more interesting place to visit. For more information on Buffalo, Wyoming, visit the Chamber of Commerce’s website.