Small-town western saloon & eatery serves up history and family-friendly country western fun.

Tucked between the wind-blown bluffs of Chugwater off Interstate-25 between Wheatland and Cheyenne, the neon lights from the Stampede Saloon and Eatery glow like a beacon in the inky, dark sky. While most of the sleepy town shut down hours ago, the Stampede Saloon is just getting going. On a crowded Friday night, the tiny Wyoming town of just over 200 nearly doubles in size as couples and families from neighboring ranches and communities stream into town for a night of dining and entertainment.

Inside the door, Merwyn “Mer” Nilson greets customers with an armful of menus as he leads them across the wooden floor to a large family style table. Dressed in a turquoise bolo tie and western leather vest, the slim 82-year-old, like the ambiance in the room, might have stepped right out of the Old West. Posters of old-time country music legends line the walls next to ranch brands that have been seared into the knotty pine posts. Bucking horses rear back their legs as cowboys and Indians fight it out in a large mural on the back wall. Overhead wagon-wheel chandeliers set the mood in the room, complemented by the flicker of candles from the handmade elk shed candelabras in the centers of the dozen or so booths and tables.

He hopes they’ve worn their dancing shoes, Mer says to a couple as he leads them to their table. This weekend’s band, Dakota Country, is pretty much the best country western dance band, he says.

Come for dinner and music and make it an overnight or weekend getaway in the history-loaded town of Chugwater. The Buffalo Lodge offers an affordable, comfy overnight stay.

Of course, he might be a bit biased given that his son Lance and daughter-in-law Lilly played in the band for nearly 40 years until recently stepping down to open the Stampede Saloon nearly two years ago. Prior to this, Lance and Lilly had toured all over the West and Nashville. And though Lance and Lilly are humble about their resumé, Mer doesn’t mind giving them bragging time. Along with the being one of the most popular country dance bands throughout the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, they’ve also played backup for many country western legends, including Johnny Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jim Ed Brown, Jeannie Seally and Jack Greene, to name a few. Over the years, the band has even opened for big name acts like Charlie Pride, Sawyer Brown, Mel Tillis, Gene Watson, Hal Ketchum, Bellamy Brothers and long list of other top bands.

Leaving life on the road to open the restaurant came out of the blue for the couple, who had their home base in Chugwater, where Lilly is from. The restaurant had long been an icon while she was growing up, but in recent years the previous owner had closed it down and it had been sitting vacant for six years. It wasn’t necessarily their dream to open a restaurant, but as more and more venues continued to dry up for them on the road, they wanted to preserve the type of places they loved as kids.

Restoring this type of experience was their driving motivation, which also meant bringing Mer and his wife Margie over from South Dakota to help out. Along with their parents, they also bring in well-known bands from around the region. Lance and Lilly have also brought a lot of newcomers to the stage with their karaoke contests the first Friday of every month.

Ultimately, their goal is to provide a portal back in time where families gathered around the table in company and music. “Come for the fun, leave with their memories” remains their predominant motto. Their laidback personalities and mild-mannered kindness helps invoke this old-time spirit when life was much more simple and relaxed, at least when it came to entertainment.

So far it seems to be a winning combination.

By: Jen C. Kocher

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