A history of Chugwater and Chugwater Chili


TORRINGTON – More than 20 people gathered in the Community Room of the Platte Valley Bank Tuesday evening, Sept. 27, to sample goods from Chugwater Chili before Joshua Hopkins and Karen Guidice presented on the history of the town of Chugwater and Chugwater Chili.

Mary Houser, the Goshen County Historical Society (GCHS) president, introduced the speakers for the presentation, offered a word of prayer and led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. She then turned the mic over to Hopkins and Guidice. 

What’s in a name?

Guidice asked audience members if they knew how Chugwater got its name. Many did, but some did not. Guidice shared information about the legend behind the name.

The Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho nations controlled the area during the time before Chugwater was established.

As the legend goes, a bull buffalo severely injured a Mandan tribe chieftain. The chieftain unable to hunt, ordered his son, Dreamer, to lead the hunting party. His son was not as tenacious as he and was said to be a thinker who “considered manual labor a necessary evil and avoided it whenever he could,” according to Chugwater.com.

He thought about how to easily kill the buffalo without much physical labor. He decided to force them off a cliff.

“The word ‘chug’ is said to describe the noise that the buffalo or the falling chalk made when it hit the ground or fell into the water under the bluff, depending on which version of the legend you wish to believe” according to the town history section of Chugwater.com. “Indians began to call the area ‘water at the place where the buffalo chug.’ Whites adopted the Indian name and called the area ‘Chug Springs.’ Chugwater Creek was named after Chug Springs, and from that came the name of Chugwater.”

Pennsylvanian turned Wyomingite

Originally from southeast Pennsylvania, Hopkins now lives in Chugwater, as he has for the past four years, and runs Tri-County Mercantile, “a Western mid 20th-century style General Store serving the needs of our small ranching and farming communities,” according to their website, tricountymercantile.com.

“I spent only maybe a week in the state in 2016 and I fell in love with the plains, and I thought, ‘I’m going to live there,’ and it turned out to be a good decision,” Hopkins said. “So, now I live in Chugwater and as of this past June, myself and two of my co-owners and very good friends of mine opened the Tri-County Mercantile.”

Hopkins immediately jumped into the community and ways of the western lifestyle. He began doing history and research of Chugwater and ended up becoming a member and now, the vice president of the Chugwater Historic Community Group. Guidice is the president of the group.

Pre-1860s

“It was always kind of a natural stopping point,” Hopkins explained. “If you’ve been through the area, you can see why: the creek runs right down through the middle, you’ve got the bluffs and its sort of the mouth of the valley.”

Hopkins explained how Chugwater sits in a natural valley, leading many to stopover in Chugwater while traversing the area.

“Some of the first operations in place were the Deadwood Stage and the Swan Land and Cattle Company,” Hopkins explained. “There were some [entrepreneur] guys from Scotland, the Swan brothers, Alexander Swan is the more well-known name, and basically, these guys had their headquarters at 313 and what was old Highway 87 in the main part of town on the east side of the train tracks.”

This was the location for the Deadwood Stage Stop. The location served as a hub for the majority of the surrounding ranching operations during that time. The surrounding ranchers in neighboring counties and communities would congregate at the location to conduct business. 

“The Swan kind of had its heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, and the Swan operated into the 20th century, but it sort of declined from there,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said the decline emerged after the land became divided up, open range grazing sort of consolidated and the Homesteading Act was established. 

1860s to 1930s

“There were earlier homesteading acts in the 1860s and they went up all the way through the turn of the century, but the really big one that hit Chugwater was right around 1908, 1910,” Hopkins explained. “So, the town was originally platted by the Swan. They actually had about 12 lots and that was on the east side of the tracks where those buildings are, still today.”

This location was where the Deadwood Stage came into the area and stopped. The Deadwood Stage came from the east of the town, crossed the tracks at the center where the stage would stop and that’s where Chugwater was established.

However, despite the slow growth at that time, the town didn’t begin to boom until between 1910 and 1920, according to Hopkins. 

“The town really boomed between that 1910 and 1920,” he said. “That’s when you had people coming out and getting their 320 acres, in the later acts, there’s a few that were 640. [The] 160-320[-acre], the quarter-half section, were the most common. A lot of that was concentrated east of the town in what’s called the Iowa Flats. There was the Iowa Flats and, actually, there is also Slater Flats [to the] north. They both kind of got settled in a similar way.”

Many of the people who moved into the area, dubbed “The Flats,” came from areas in Iowa which closely resembled the geographical features to their home locations in Iowa. The appeal of what looked to be good farming area drew a great deal of four and five-unit families to the area. A church and the town’s cemetery, which both remain today, were established. 

“The town, from that time period on, they quickly found out the land was not good for farming,” Hopkins said. “With the dust bowl and everything that happened in the 1930s that population started to decline, and that was all east of town up on the flats. The west of town has always kind of been the ranching side of town; really the north, west and south, and some of the colorful characters over there would have [been] Tom Horn, who hung around at the Swan, was known to have kept his horse there...”

Horn was hanged on Nov. 20, 1903, after he purportedly killed Willie Nickell, a 14-year-old son of a local sheep rancher. The boy was allegedly shot west of town on Iron Mountain Road. A monument stands where this purported killing occurred, and the gate is allegedly there. 

“He was hanging around Bosler as a range detective during the time when cattle were still moved freely, cattle rustling was still an issue…down that same way, where Tom Horn was, you had the Foss Ranch.”

Steamboat, the bucking bronc appearing on the University of Wyoming’s logo and license plate, was said to have been foaled on the Foss Ranch and owned by a Chugwater railroad station agent, Frank Foss. Steamboat was reportedly born in 1896 and sold by Foss to the Swan Land and Cattle Company in 1899. To learn more about Steamboat and Steamboat’s history, visit https://ahcwyo.org.

Despite the heritage and historical significance of Steamboat, there was much more to the area at that time. 

“The cowboys were doing that work right in the center of town, actually where the mercantile sits now,” Hopkins explained. “There were corrals and there was a railroad depot for a while, and it was kind of a busy place. The center of town around that 1910 period, some of the building left now, we’ve got the Grant Hotel…Chugwater Soda Fountain.”

The Grant Hotel went out of business in the 1980s, according to Hopkins, and the Chugwater Soda Fountain opened in 1914, but was rebuilt in 1916 after a fire burned portions of the building. 

“It’s pretty much been continuously operating since then as a drug store…and a soda fountain,” he explained. “With the recent renovation that’s happened in there, we think we found the original soda jerks that were in the basement, and they are working on re-installing them.”

Despite the renovations to the Chugwater Soda Fountain, owners Jill and Christian Winger have worked to maintain the 1920s character of the building.

Additionally, the Jill has done extensive research and made inquiries of local historians to ensure the building has remained historic.

“So, that was kind of always the center of town, there; that’s on First Street, right across from us (Tri-County Mercantile),” Hopkins continued. “Even though the farming has kind of declined since the 1920s, there was still a lot of use for it, and there was still a lot of productivity going on in the area up until at least the 1970s or ‘80s.” 

1930s to 1960s

“You had the Tri-County Grain Company, which is the predecessor to my business, in the same building, which was built in 1948, and then you had the coop elevator, which was actually built in the ‘30s, or earlier than that, and then there was the coop grocery store, there was the gas station and so there were two elevators running in town as well as the Slater elevator, just up the way,” Hopkins explained. “So, it was quite a lot a bit of farming still coming out of the area in the ‘30s and the ‘40s, even with the decline and the Dust Bowl and everything. So, it was a very productive, busy area and that added a significant population to the town.”

The population of Chugwater in that time averaged around 200-300 people, but the population of the area was far greater. The surrounding areas, such as the Iowa Flats, was what filled the schools, according to Hopkins.

“The history of Chugwater always is kind of tied to transportation. Early, it was the railroad that brought a lot of the homesteaders; a lot of the homesteaders who actually homesteaded west of town and tried that miserable land out there, which was farmed for very brief periods of time, and kind of intermittently, soybeans and all kinds of things.”

Many of the people who came into the area came into the Diamond and Horse Creek stations. Carrying much of their load by hand or cart, they trekked up the bluffs. Even a distance from town, which was where they conducted most of their business. 

Several communities popped up around Chugwater as a result, such as the Little Bear community south of Chugwater, between exit 39 and 47 on I-25.

“That kind of continued for a long time up from really that settlement period of 1910 up to about probably the 1960s and ‘70s,” he explained. “Early on, when you had the Deadwood Stage, which was a very short period of time that it was operated. Chugwater was a stopping point but wasn’t necessarily bringing lots of people moving into in town.”

Around the early 1910s, highways began to form, connecting destinations across the United States. These newly formed highways weren’t the pristine asphalt we are accustomed to traversing today. 

“The very first main auto trail in the country for people to drive their Model As, Model Ts, was the Lincoln Highway in 1913, and that passed through Cheyenne, just south of us,” Hopkins said. “Then, you had the Park-to-Park Highway and the Yellowstone Highway. These were basically unpaved, unimproved in anyway, except for in certain towns or places, municipalities with money, for people to go from Rocky Mountain National Park to Yellowstone Park. The Park-to-Park Highway was actually a huge loop that went throughout the west.” 

Hopkins expressed the significance in how these vehicles of the time were typically “four bicycle wheels and a motor” that people used to drive across the nation. 

This nationwide movement of automobile traffic is, in large part, what helped to establish where towns would remain and thrive for the time. Being as the cars of the time were typically very low power and had minimum fuel capacity, there was a need for stops to refuel, eat, drink, etc.

“It was actually during that time from the 1920s to the ‘50s that Chugwater gained up to five gas stations,” he explained. 

These gas stations included a Conoco station, Texaco station, coop fueling station, Standard Oil Stations, Phillips 66 and later a Mobil Station.

“Five gas stations serving that route,” Hopkins continued. “The Yellowstone Highway originally followed that Deadwood Stage route and then it expanded over to where basically 25 is today. You had some minor changes here and there to sort of straighten out some curves, you can drive on some older portions of it, but the Yellowstone Highway eventually in the 1910s turned over to what was U.S. 185 in 1926.”

The federal government passed the Federal Highways Act in 1925, which created a network of trails to begin the process of the standardization of interstate highways which were maintained by local governments.

With the 1925 Federal Highways Act and U.S. 185, the main thoroughfare through the area remained as a passage through Chugwater. However, things changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

1960s to Today

“We were bypassed eventually,” Hopkins said. “People were still moving into Chugwater, and it kind of fluctuated, as Wyoming towns do, up through the 1950s and ‘60s, about 300, 200 people or so. The biggest change that we had was the interstate, which passed us, it started around Cheyenne in the early 1960s and I think the final bypass around us was the late 1970s. It was only a few years later, the 1980s, the mid-1980s, that a lot of our major businesses, the coop closed, the hotel finally closed, the Standard Oil station closed, both the Texaco and Conoco were closed quite a few years earlier; there were a ton of little cafes: the Yellowstone Café, the Wagon Wheel was attached to the Grant Hotel; that sort of had the nail in the coffin done at the time, because why stop in Chugwater, Wheatland’s only 25 miles north of that.”

While the interstate eased some of the burdens of long-range travel on motorists, it severely damaged the small towns it bypassed, such as Chugwater. Major businesses closing, downtown areas which were once thriving and flourishing with people were now silent and empty, save the few locals who remained in the area. 

A new law also greatly impacted the locals as well. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in 1985 under the Reagan Administration, greatly changed the mindset of local farmers.

“CRP…the [Conservation Reserve] Program by the federal government to basically pay people to not farm, and that helped a lot with the consolidation of farms or lowering of the profitability of farms…that hurt the Iowa Flats, which in turn hurt Chugwater a lot,” he said.

With businesses going out, some farmers consolidating property and others selling their property to the government for CRP, the school began to decline and hurt the area. Additionally, farmers had equipment being serviced at fueling and serving stations, ongoing elevator operations and more which were impacted. The service stations going out of business and elevator business in decline precluded farmers from going to Chugwater for their business needs. 

“It was around that time in the 1970s, that kind of all of that history sort of came to an end and a lot of the buildings went away,” Hopkins said.

Chugwater Chili

Moving forward from the 1970s and 1980s, the town of Chugwater needed businesses to help sustain their community. One of the businesses to rise above was Chugwater Chili.

“I moved to Chugwater in 1979,” Guidice said. “I originally came from Iowa, and I lived in Chicago, L.A. and Arizona, so it was nice. I grew up in a small town, so that was my goal, was to get back, raise my family in a small town. So, when we moved to a ranch south of Chugwater, the idea was to have our kids educated in Cheyenne, but then we started meeting a lot of people…had great friendships. So, our kids all went to Chugwater, they graduated from Chugwater, they all went to the University of Wyoming, so I am very proud of Wyoming, that’s my home.”

Guidice worked for the Town of Chugwater for 22 years as their clerk and treasurer before beginning work with Southeast Wyoming Economic Development. After that, Guidice said she wanted to retire, but she wanted a piece of Chugwater Chili. She obtained a small piece of Chugwater Chili, but about four months later, the manager left, and she ended up with the whole of Chugwater Chili. 

“I got involved with economic development in the early ‘80s and one of the things that we did was the rest area and the community center, at that time,” Guidice explained. “What was interesting about that is we had a town council that was completely opposed to both. So, we had literally seven elections, seven different votes to try to get the rest area and the community center into our town. Finally, we had a group of people that went down to the Wyoming Department of Transportation and said, ‘please wait until an election, which was coming up in May, we hopefully have a new council that would agree to have that rest area in Chugwater. We wanted it there because we knew that once people came off the interstate, they would come into town and travel.”

The new mayor was elected, winning by one vote, and the council voted to have the rest area and community center established in Chugwater. The focus then became bringing people and businesses to Chugwater, thus growing the town.

“Terry Baker was in our group, and we suggested to her to go down to the state and see if there is something they might know of that could help Chugwater,” Guidice said.

A gentleman with what would be the modern-day Wyoming Business Council provided Baker and her husband, Dennis, with a name: Dave Cameron. 

“He has this chili that he is going around competing and winning everything,” Guidice said. “Ironically, he called it Chugwater Chili.”

The representative from the state got a group of people together to approach Cameron about his chili recipe. The group ended up buying the recipe from Cameron.

“And that was the start of Chugwater Chili,” Guidice said. 

Everything was packaged in the bunkhouse at the Kaufman Ranch, made from scratch and also packaged in basements.

The business was passed on throughout time.

“When I came in, after I was doing economic development, as a retirement thing, which was when I bought into it,” Guidice said. “Actually, when I bought into it, they said it was already sold and this gentleman was going to take it out of Chugwater.”

A week later, Guidice received a phone call learning the contract had been canceled and they were looking to sell it to Guidice because they knew she was going to keep it in Chugwater. 

“So, I bought into it with several others that were still in it,” Guidice said. “The manager left, so I ran it for about a year by myself; that was eight years ago. Then a year after I started that, Justin Gentle…he wanted to buy into it, so then we shared the company for seven years. Justin pretty much did the operations of it. I did a lot of the sales; I did a lot of the trade shows. Then, in July, Justin said, ‘I’m ready to just ranch.’”

Guidice bought out Justin in July and now runs the company alone, with a silent investor.

“We have a lot of exciting things planned for Chugwater Chili,” Guidice said. “I used to do trade shows for everybody before Chugwater Chili, before I bought into it, and that’s when I fell in love with Chugwater Chili, because when you sell Chugwater Chili and you give out a sample, and people just stand there and go, ‘Oh my God, this is so good’ or ‘Wow’ or the kids say, ‘Oh my gosh, mom, I love this stuff;’ it just reinforced my thought of how good of a product that was. It’s all natural, it’s gluten free, it’s just the best, I love it and I love running that company. It’s been great for Chugwater. You talk to most people, and you say, ‘Chugwater,’ and they say, ‘Chugwater Chili’ and I’m very proud of that.”

Guidice said Chugwater Chili belongs in Chugwater and that’s where she plans to keep it. 

GCHS Board Member Marilyn Pettit told attendees Chugwater Chili makes great gifts for this upcoming holiday season and recommends people consider their products. 

Guidice added Chugwater Chili would be soon launching a mango jalapeno jelly next year. Currently, they offer standard and hot chili mixes, seasoned crackers, beef sticks, pork and chicken rubs and much more. 

While Chugwater Chili doesn’t do their own blending at this time, Guidice said she hopes to bring the blending process to Chugwater as well. Currently, Guidice has the blending done in Denver, Colorado, while the packaging, shipping, marketing, sales and all other business takes place in Chugwater.

Guidice and Hopkins have a great deal in store for Chugwater. While Guidice plans to expand her operations at Chugwater Chili, Hopkins is looking to possibly bring in an electric vehicle charging station and begin selling fuels at a service station, which Hopkins is considering to be full-service during portions of the year. He said he would like to make the service station to represent the 1950s era. 

Guidice and Hopkins agree, there aren’t many businesses in Chugwater, but there are strong businesses in Chugwater. 

© 2022-The Torrington Telegram

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