The Totem Cafe……

July 2017

by JR Richardson

 

I thought with the discussion I see from time to time on the Totem Café in West Yellowstone when hunting the treasure, it may be of interest to seekers to know a bit more history on this business – many people have walked through its doors and perhaps something about it does hold a clue to the blaze… ☺

The Totem Café is no more, but the building still stands and parts of the original building are still in place. It is now Bullwinkle’s at 115 Canyon Street. The metal sign at the apex of the roof is the original sign from the Totem, it has just been repainted to say Bullwinkle’s. Jackie and Dennis LaFever purchased the building from Jim and Marcia Gray in 2006, it had been with the Grays since about 1976. Marcia originally acquired the Totem in 1972, when she was married to Jack Tremaine. Jack was killed in an accident in 1974 on Denny Creek Road and Marcia married Jim Gray a few years later.

When purchased in 1972, there were cabins next to the cafe’ that lined the alley (known as “B Pkwy” on maps) but Marcia used those for crew housing instead of rentals. They were eventually sold or torn down, with the exception of one that became a Rock Shop for Ken and Ione Guyse on the Totem property. The original Totem building at that time had attached living quarters behind it. Around 1973 or ’74 the living room of those quarters was turned into a game room for playing live poker and an entryway was cut out to allow access to it from the Totem Lounge at the rear of the building. Jack and Marcia had poker chips made with “Totem Club” embossed above the denominations. The rear outside access was changed also, with entry from the parking lot into the “Game room” via what used to be the entry to the living quarters. Because this door was not easily visible to the bartender in the lounge, a set of ‘jingle bells’ was attached so people entering the building could be heard. If you visited the Totem anytime from the mid-70’s for the next 30 years, and you came in through the back door, you probably came in through the “Jingle Bell door”.

Prior to 1972, the owners were Bill and Eulah Gray. Jim Gray, who married Marcia after Jack’s death, was their son. So it was still ‘in the Gray family’ so to speak after 1976.

Now I will do my best to recall what I can, but this history was before my time so might have some errors; I believe Bill and Eulah bought the Totem from Frosty and Ramona (Jochimsen) Tornes (maybe the same Frosty in Forrest story). I don’t know who they bought it from, or if they were the original builders. I understand the original building was constructed in 1937.

At some point in the late 40’s or early 50’s the building was moved to its current location from further South on Canyon St., I believe south of Madison Avenue. I have always thought it was located about mid-block on the same side of the street as it is now, in the vicinity of alley “A Pkwy” on West Yellowstone maps (that’s a guess).

Totem Cafe circa 1940- Photo by Chris Schlechten from the Museum of the Rockies Collection

There are 2 old photographs posted with Museum of the Rockies Photo Archive Online http://www.morphotoarchive.org/), you can do a search by location (on the left under Image Database Searches, By Location), select West Yellowstone and find the photographs there. The cabins, which I assumed moved with the building, can be made out in these photos. My hunch is this is how the Totem looked, and this was the location, that Forrest worked at, although I do not know that for sure.

I lived in West Yellowstone from the 1960’s to 1983, my mother was Marcia Gray. We lived for years behind the Totem, it was my second home literally. I went back in 2002 to 2005 and ran the business when my mother was living in Helena, MT. When TTOTC was published, I was stunned that Forrest had worked at the Totem, but so many of the stories Forrest told were up close and personal to me having lived in West Yellowstone for so many years.

The Totem changed names from time to time (not necessarily officially) over the years as new areas were added to the business. It started as Totem Café, had a game room later as the Totem Club. Then was known as Totem Restaurant and Lounge. You will also see Totem Restaurant and Deli, sometimes with “Liquor Store” added in. Later it was Totem Restaurant and Casino Bar. I have noted there are matchbook covers for sale from time to time on the internet from the Totem. While they all look very similar (my mother kept the original cover design pretty much the same as it was when she purchased the business), I can tell what “Totem era” the book was printed in by the words on the cover. If it says “Cabins” or has a 4 digit phone number, it’s old.

I have read some stories sent to Dal from searchers who feel the Totem is a key in the hunt for the treasure. Indeed, the streets of West Yellowstone have mystery names – there is a Canyon, a Madison, a Firehole, and other names that may lead a seeker to find a path to the blaze. If you are in West Yellowstone, and are curious about the Totem, stop in at Bullwinkle’s and have a beer or coke in the small lounge at the back of the restaurant in the original ‘A’ frame building. The wooden bar is one of the original parts left from the Totem. There is also a salad bar made of white rock against one wall – this was built by Jack around 1973 and hasn’t changed from its original construction that I know of. I haven’t been in there recently but would like to go this summer and see what a wonderful refurbishing that Jackie has done.

If you want some fun, tell Jackie you are curious about the ‘Spiderman room’. When I was living in the attached quarters around 1975, my room was a windowless square that adjoined the bathroom. I loved Spiderman (what teenager doesn’t), and to dispel the gloom of no window, I painted a life-sized caricature of him on my cinderblock wall. Every day was a good day to wake up and see Spidey slinging a web across the room. This picture was still remaining when Jackie bought the Totem. Sometime, (I am thinking about 2011), he had to be covered up finally to make way for renovations. She sent a picture to my mother just before he was painted over, with the painters hanging out next to him. He had been slinging the same web for over 35 years. His presence is only known to a few, as he was tucked away in a secret spot, like the treasure we all seek.

Good hunting, hope this was interesting for a few readers!

JR Richardson

 

Jonsey sent along these images from an early Totem Cafe menu in her vast collection of Forrest related artifacts.

Thanks Jonsey-