Pearl of the Prairies: The Cheyenne Club

Sometime in my youth, The Cheyenne Club entered my consciousness via my viewing diet of western television programs .   It was therefore no surprise that this bastion of privilege and luxury, and  sometime-home to the British ranchers who had invaded Wyoming, would make an appearance in my western historical novel which deals with the very large ranches run by aristocratic Brits.

In the 1880s, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was reputedly the wealthiest city on earth on a per capita basis.  Conveniently located on the transcontinental railroad system, it proved an ideal spot to establish a gentleman’s club catering not only to the British aristocrats that were now there, but also to the cattle barons, railroad magnates, industrial giants and political movers and shakers within its reach.  Set up to rival the Corkscrew Club in Denver, which admitted only foreign noblemen, the Cheyenne Club was originally called The Cactus Club, but the name was soon changed.  It was built in 1880 with specifications that would rival any London club. There were two grand staircases, tennis courts, wine vaults, a grand piano, reading, billiard, dining and smoking rooms.  Rooms were paneled throughout with hardwood floors overlaid with Turkish carpets, and had tiled fireplaces displaying Shakespeare quotations.  Its six bedrooms were completed with walnut dressers and presses, marble-topped commodes and beds of hand-carved walnut.  And the library table provided members with copies of Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and the New York and Boston newspapers, as well as The Drover’s Journal so that they could keep abreast of the Chicago beef prices.  Needless to say, the club also boasted a telephone, Cheyenne #76.

Limited to 200 members, the Board of Governors appointed a 3 -man committee to oversee its by-laws, which expected, of course, gentlemanly behavior.  The rules were designed to keep this haven a small corner of civilization in an otherwise untamed territory.  Wagers of any kind were prohibited (though it is said some high stakes games went on in the private rooms), and there were no games whatsoever on Sunday.   Smoking was not permitted until after 7.30pm in the dining room, and pipe smoking was completely prohibited.  “Loud” and ”boisterous” noise was also prohibited; cheating, drunkenness and profanity were grounds for expulsion.  “Any act so dishonorable in social life as to unfit the guilty person for the society of gentlemen” was proscribed.  But there was, at times, no rhyme or reason to the punishments dealt out—often, perhaps, dependent on the friendships within the committee.   When one member put a shot through an oil painting of a pastoral scene, saying this painting of two bulls was a travesty on purebred stock, he was suspended for three months (the painting now hangs, complete with bullet hole apparently, in the Wyoming State Museum.) When another member—so wealthy as to afford a $4,ooo ‘drag’, the equivalent of a modern day stretch limo– spoke up on the suspension of his brother for striking a waiter, he was censured for his language.

The club suffered a fire in 1882, sending half-naked residents out onto the street, and thereby proving a handy excuse to expand the premises.  At a cost of $10K, the new addition included a larger, more elegant dining room, decorated with Japanese papers, a servants’ dining room, and a completely new kitchen with 3 dumb waiters & refrigerator for meats, plus trunk room and laundry. There were now 14 bedrooms, new bathrooms, a post office for the convenience of members and electric lighting.  No wonder the great and the good passing through were delighted to be guests; these included Andrew Carnegie, Oscar Wilde, and Owen Wister, who called the club, “the Pearl of the Prairies.”  The Wyoming Stock Growers Association had gatherings in the club, as did the legislative council, and the Board of Trade had its headquarters here. Some say that more laws and decisions were made here affecting Wyoming than anywhere else, and it is even rumored that the Johnson County War was planned here.  Furthermore, many of the cattle barons preferred living at the club rather than on their ranches, and why not?  With lunch at 25¢ and dinner at 75¢, and plentiful Havana cigars, most likely the club was better than home.  Food was of the highest order with oysters, fruits, and fresh vegetables brought in, olives, cheeses, and chocolates, not to mention fine wines and liquors and endless champagne.

Such profligacy was not to last.  After the disastrous winter of 1886-87, many of the cattle barons were gone, their ranches virtually disappeared.  Never great landowners since most of them had depended on open range, the money was gone.  This citadel of comfort and exclusivity in a vast wilderness was unable to repay its debts and closed its doors.  It was temporarily re-organized as the Club of Cheyenne with a much larger membership, and this evolved into the Industrial Club, forerunner of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.  In 1936 the building was razed to make room for a new home for that organization.

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My thanks to the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, for providing the above photo.

Further reading:

Spring, Agnes Wright: The Cheyenne Club, Mecca of the Aristocrats of the Old-Time Cattle Range, Don Ornduff, 1961

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14 responses to “Pearl of the Prairies: The Cheyenne Club

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Some interesting information about the Cheyenne Club. I was curious about whether they allowed women or not. There were a few women who ran some large ranches in Wyoming. Be interesting to know if any of them ever tried to become members or actually enter the premises. Great research, Andi.

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  2. Interesting and informative post, Andi. I enjoyed learning something new today!

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  3. Love this post, Andi. I feature the Cheyenne Club a bit in my novel Heartland, so I really enjoyed reading your write up on this fascinating part of Wyoming history, although I lament the loss of such a wonderful building. What a ‘man’s world’ that was!

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    • Yes, the building is quite a loss, Terri–especially when you see the horrible cement job that is in its place now. At least they had the decency to put up a plaque commemorating the club. I took a photo of the plaque but, sadly, it is almost unreadable so was not worth including in my blog. However, one can really get a feeling for the period by walking around Millionaire’s Row in Cheyenne and seeing some of the mansions.

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  4. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot, as the song goes! Oh, to time travel back to the Magic City of the Plains in the hey day of the Pearl of the Prairies. I’ll be visiting Cheyenne again in June and I can’t wait for that sense of walking in the footsteps of my characters. I’ll stop by the plaque and give a huge sigh – and imagine, a lot!

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  5. What a wealth of information you’re sharing. I can’t wait for your book to come out. My Kindle will give a happy burp after it consumes the download. If you need a place to promote, don’t forget Vintage Vonnie. I’m always open for guest bloggers.

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  6. Interesting article, Andrea. I love old buildings. It’s sad to me when they are neglected or suffer destruction.

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  7. It was still a great blog. I enjoyed reading it. I agree with the others, how sad to think the original building has been lost. But I am glad they saved the painting.

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  8. Those gentlemen (for some the term in all probability, might be loosely applied) were as the saying goes “P…..ing in tall cotton.” P…ing the more delicate of the original. 🙂 Too bad the building wasn’t saved. We Americans seem to be quick to destroy and rebuild. My sister and her husband have their ranch land in a conservancy so it can’r be subdivided and paved over when they are gone. The old saying about turning over in your grave would apply to them if their land were put to such use. The Cheyenne Social Club starring James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones is still available, at least on Amazon.

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  9. Ah, such a s shame the building is gone. I love to visit old building like that. It’s so interesting to see how people lived in other times, and what people of wealth spent their money on. thanks for the interesting article!

    pa…Happy birthday!

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