|By Baylie Evans, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle,
CheyenneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September 16, 2010 - --CHEYENNE -- Evelynn Smith said she felt as though she was losing a sibling Wednesday as flames consumed the Hitching Post Inn.
More than 1,000 miles away, at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., she learned from friends and family that her childhood home and her family's legacy was burning.
Her grandfather homesteaded that land in the 1920s. Her father took it over and then her brother, Paul Smith, bought it and ran it until he died in April 2006.
"We all grew up together," she said of herself, her brother and the hotel.
Tearfully, she recalled all kinds of memories about growing up there -- the family dog, Fetzel, who used to bark and play the piano and was buried in the prairie behind the hotel; sleeping in the upstairs office as a child with her brother as her parents slept downstairs on the pullout bed; the table where her parents ate dinner together every evening, and where her mother could no longer sit after her father died.
The hotel was "like another child" to her parents, she said.
Dignitaries came and went. She remembered waiting all day so she could be the one to show singer and movie star Pat Boone to his room one year during Cheyenne Frontier Days. She didn't even recognize him when he walked in, she said, but she did get to bring him his mail.
Many U.S. presidents came and went.
When it was sold out of the family in 2006, she said it was a bit like losing a sibling.
"It's really real now," she said. "It really feels like it's really the end now."
-- Bill Dubois, a local historian and close friend of Paul Smith, said losing the Hitching Post would leave a hole in the heart of Cheyenne.
The Hitch, as it is fondly known, started out as a small motor hotel called the Lincoln Court. Pete Smith opened it in 1927.
His son, Harry Smith, took over in 1938.
In 1946, the Lincoln Court became a charter member of Best Western International. In 1948, the family opened a restaurant at the hotel called the Hitching Post. As more and more rooms were added, the name stuck.
There was a fire there in 1965, which destroyed the hotel's kitchen. It was a devastating blow to the family.
"My father collapsed" from the shock of it, Evelynn Smith said.
But, never known for throwing in the towel, they put up a tent and called the place the Hitching Post Chuckwagon Buffet. They put sawdust on the floor, cooked the food outdoors, and the waitresses dressed up as western dance hall girls until the kitchen was back in business.
Paul Smith bought the hotel from his dad in 1982.
He was well-known and well-loved in the community. He was named the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce's Person of the Year and received the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Community Spirit Award in 2000. The Children's Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens also was named after him for his longtime support, including a donation from his estate after his death.
During the legislative session, "the Hitching Post became the home of the majority of the legislators," Dubois said. "There are people who say more legislation was created at the Hitching Post than ever was at the Capitol."
State Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, said he stayed at the Hitching Post until recently when it fell under new ownership.
"Anytime there was anything going on, it was always at the Hitch," he said.
Paul Smith would go out of his way to make the customers feel welcome, he said, including requiring the staff to learn and memorize the legislators' names and photographs.
Once, he recalled, a Native American senator needed to have his hair braided in the mornings and didn't have anyone to do it for him.
"Paul made sure someone in his staff was there every morning to braid his hair," Hastert said. "That's the kind of hometown family environment that Paul fostered at that place."
Peggy Sloan worked as a banquet waitress there for 38 years.
"My whole life was there," she said. "I loved that job."
She said Paul Smith was a wonderful boss and friend.
"We could work really, really super hard, and Paul had a way of letting us believe we were having too much fun," she said.
Peggy Sloan's daughter, Diane Sloan, also worked as a banquet waitress there for 16 years.
She said she spent more time there than at home.
"A lot of us have been down to watch it burn," she said Wednesday. "It definitely will be a missed place. It can't be replaced."
Although watching it burn has been sad, she said it also has been sad to see the place decline since it was sold by the Smith family in 2006.
Last September, the hotel was shut down amid lawsuits over unpaid bills and health and safety violations.
Since then, "it was just sitting there like a big empty ghost," Diane Sloan said.
-- After Paul Smith died of cancer in April 2006, Mantiff Cheyenne Hospitality, based in New Jersey, bought the Hitching Post that December.
In July 2007, a $2 million renovation began.
In January 2009, lawsuits started to surface against the Hitching Post for unpaid bills. They included a $56,000 bill for laundry services, $480,000 in unpaid contracts, $372,000 for renovations and improvements and $109,000 for roofing claims.
A month later, days after a group of legislators vacated the hotel amid roomers that the power would be shut off, Mantiff filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It claimed it had $3.6 million more in liabilities than it had assets.
Last September, the hotel was shut down by the city after reports of more than 78 health and safety violations including exposed wiring, gas leaks, boilers in disrepair and numerous fire protection issues.
Late in 2009, it was sold to CJM Hospitality. Renovations were under way inside, but it never reopened after the city shut it down.
WTE reporters Becky Orr and Jodi Rogstad contributed to this report.
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