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, 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-

41 thoughts on “The Totem Cafe……

    • It didn’t post my first comment.

      This is an interesting story, thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the story. I have a different twist on the clues, I went to SF this spring and my clues led to a small bottle, green tea shampoo, with a very neatly written letter on a 1/4 sheet of graph paper inside with important words in parenthesis. Close by was a piece of rebar, enough to make a horseshoe. There was also a writing about peace and another one added about being BRAVE. From there I was led to a CROWN writing, remember bottle cap collection, and crown means corona in Spanish. Celebrate with a six pack.
      I will be going back to go further this year, but I can suggest that Forrest did not go too far away, I believe he can keep an eye on the location from time to time, and he knows Spanish as he hinted the heck out of Spanish in school and he repeated color clues and bad language. Also remember he related his life’s journeys to clues to another location, like Catcher in the Rye if I’m not mistaking. All those clues pinpoint somewhere dear to Forrest, as the letter stated, my favorite place in the world.

  1. Wow! That was a lot of info. Thank you for sharing. Sorry your Spiderman was exterminated. 🙁

  2. Thank you so much for the information in regards to the Totem Café, JR Richardson. Enjoyed learning the history to it, as well as, the old photos shown.

  3. Very cool! Thank you for sharing JR. Almost looks like the Bullet in one of those pictures 🙂

  4. Very interesting, as totem.take it in the canyon down.The A frame cafe. Beginning. Is this the place he used to wash dishes in hot water and would make his hands white. It sure not warm waters,. Go in the canyon down.maybe down canyon street,so you have to drive.pull in below home brown.didn’t he get fired there by frosty,cold.he wasnt warm.eating pie,pi.under a pine tree.i can’t go to this place.but sure sounds interesting.

  5. Very interesting thank you very much and keep me in your web. I really hope there is a treasure and I hope somebody finds it good luck

  6. Super cool post! I love learning about the old lives of buildings. We’ll check it out next summer. Thank you for taking the time to share this. I can’t believe his name was really Frosty. I thought that was a joke.

  7. Thanks, JR Richardson, it was fun to read about The Totem. I like to think Spidey is still there in spirit.

  8. Ah, a marvel gaze. And here I thought it would be Thor not Spider-Man lol. Thanks JR.

  9. Much appreciated, JR. Good to hear about Spidey a long with the other great information shared!


  10. Nice research, JR — thank you for posting! Ah: the Totem Cafe — home of Brown (Gravy). 😉

  11. Loved this a cool piece of history thanks for sharing I wish it was still the totem cafe I’m not fond of bullwinkles food

  12. The Spanish word for brown is ‘café’ although all of the translation websites will tell you otherwise.

    • Randawg –

      I have explained tbis and no one cares. They just.say brown equals moreno.


    • This has always puzzled me. I asked 6 or 7 coworkers of Mexican descent and all of them said brown is ‘café’. Maybe the translation sites are referring to European or Castilian Spanish?

    • You know Copper since I wrote that I have wondered where the picture went that Jackie sent my mom. I am now on the hunt! I have tons of gobbledygook to wade through..boxes and boxes. But I will keep my eyes open and try to find it.

  13. JR –

    This is really fantastic!
    I love hearing family and building histories.
    The idea that I can have a slice of pie in a bkdg that has been in WY since the 30s is exciting.

    And as somone mentioned iys really neat to hear that Frosty was a real person.


    • Lug- frostys real first name was Conrad. If you’re interested in him or his ventures there’s some neat info on his history etc. On Ancestry dot com and some of the other sites. Fun pictures to place a face with the name as well 🙂

      • So Lugnutz and Jonesy maybe you can help me out if you have any history of Frosty and Ramona. Since we are talking about treasure stories maybe I can share some more tidbits.. The A frame at the Totem used to contain rooms that may have housed crew members. There were several makeshift rooms up there and a bathroom ( that was eventually disassembled). In the first photo above under the Totem Cafe sign on the roof you can see a smaller window jutting out on your right as you face the building, this was the bathroom. When I was a teen I used this upstairs as a hangout place, my mom was using the space for storage by then. The large window facing Canyon Street was great for people watching. But there was another upper attic above the upstairs right in the peak of the A frame. Nobody went up there.. It was dark and dusty and scary. The stairs for this upper attic came down in the middle of these upstairs rooms and I was afraid (especially at night) to look at them for fear I would see feet stepping down out of the attic above. One day I got the nerve to go up there. Lots of old wooden chairs were stacked up that must have been used long before (wish I would have kept some)! I was turning to leave when I saw something tucked way back in a dark corner…a wooden box with a hinged lid. Inside were many items that were once Ramona Jochimsens… Including her 1923 graduation announcement. I had no clue who this person was and we had no internet so I just drug these items around for 40 years… And I still have most of it. Some of these things have no meaning for me but may be something her family or heirs would appreciate. I believe Ramona and Frosty are gone now, and I think Ramona may have been married before but I cannot determine if she had any children. I haven’t subscribed to Ancestry and don’t get much computer time, any clues if she had kids?

        • Sure!
          And there are lots of great internet explorers here that can track info down!


        • Hi JR –
          I came across a story from a guy in ID that worked for Frosty for a summer in the 1950’s I think. If you do a search for Frosty and Totem Café, you will likely find it.

        • I read the history of the Totem Café with great interest. Thank you!
          I’m the one who has researched Frosty Tornes on Frosty was my great-uncle.

          He was born October 8th, 1906 in Norway in the municipality of Fraena, County of “More og Romsdal”. He was baptized Ole Konrad Iversen Tornes, but in the US, he was mostly known as Conrad Tornes. His mother, Inga Karoline Tornes, was a servant at farm Kjorsvik (close to the farm of her birth – Tornes) when she became pregnant with Iver Kjorsvik from the neighboring farm, but Iver had other plans regarding marriage. In 1910, Iver’s father pays for Inga and Conrad’s passage to the US. They went to live on Inga’s brother’s farm in Nutley, Day County, South Dakota. All 4 of Inga’s siblings had emigrated to this area. Conrad’s father married in 1912 and had 9 children, there amongst my grandmother.

          Conrad grew up in the farming community of Nutley, having close relations to his uncles, aunts and cousins. He has been described as an intelligent and sensitive boy. He went to high school in Sisseton, where he excelled, and then did two years of theology at college. It is said that he wanted to become a minister, but when it was discovered that he was an “illegitimate child”, he was denied his exam diplomas.

          Around the same time, Conrad’s mother starts a relationship with a man whom she later married. Being used to having his mother to himself, it is likely that Conrad did not approve of this.

          After all this adversity, Conrad disappears in 1926. His mother never saw or heard from him again. She kept his clothes hanging in the closet for as long as she lived. She died in Nutley in 1965, aged 82.

          Conrad’s cousins; brothers Harald, Oscar and Arthur Tornes; searched for Conrad through the Salvation Army for many years. But it was through rumours they heard that he lived somewhere in Arizona. Finally they found him in 1968.

          The brothers’ first meeting with Conrad – in Las Vegas – was not easy. For instance, he did not want them to meet his wife, and he had said “Why not leave a stray dog in peace”. But gradually they established a good relationship, and they met him a few more times. They’ve said he had a good wife, and that they had run a café together. She had a daughter from an earlier relation. Apart from this, it remained more or less unknown to them what Conrad had been doing and where he had been all these years.

          So, this is where genealogical tools and online documents come in:

          In 1927 he engaged on vessel “Sumanco” of the Transmarine Lines – an intercostal cargo service going from New York via the Panama Canal to San Francisco. Conrad is listed as a “Utility” under the Steward and Cook. He worked at the “Sumanco” for at least two years.

          In 1935 he is registered as resident in Norristown, Montgomery, Pennsylvania.
          He worked as a cook at “Green’s Café” in Butte, Silver Bow, Montana in 1939 and 1940.

          Conrad enlists in the army in July 1942. He works in the Signal corps (military communications) in the American Airforce, and is stationed in Iceland. He returns to the US on Aug 31 in 1945.

          In 1949, Conrad marries Ramona H Jochimsen in Virginia City, Madison, Montana.
          Ramona was born on June 17, 1905 in Hilbert, Calumet, Wisconsin. Of German heritage. She attended the La Crosse State Teachers’s College before she married Carlton Edgar Potter (1896-1964) in 1934. They had one daughter, Sally Kathrin Potter, born in Bozeman, Gallatin, Montana on Feb 11, 1937. Ramona and Carlton divorced in 1944.

          Conrad and Ramona ran the Totem Café in West Yellowstone, at least from 1949-1967. During his time in West Yellowstone, Conrad was known under the nickname “Frosty”. I have the impression it has to do with his personality – cold and distant maybe. It could be that he was given this name by his colleagues, or regular customers at the Totem Café. Or maybe it comes from his time in the army. Anyhow, he must have embraced his nickname, because he is at several occasions listed in the phonebook as Frosty Tornes.

          On August 28, 1966, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that Conrad Tornes, of Gallatin Gateway, escaped a deadly traffic accident. He was a passenger in a pickup truck. One person in the other car was killed.

          In about 1967/68, Conrad and Ramona decide to retire and move south for their golden years. Until 1975, they lived in Bullhead City, Mohave, Arizona. Then in Boulder City, Clark, Nevada about 1975-1988 (Ramona until about 1995).
          Conrad died on Feb 4 1989 and Ramona on Aug 14 1996 – both at “The Gardens at Park Balboa”, an assisted living facility in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. The reason why they came here, I think was because Ramona’s daughter lived there. As far as I can tell, Sally Kathrin Potter (now Levine) still lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband of husband of 55 years, Robert S Levine. I have tried to contact Sally and Robert, but without success.

          David Moen
          Tromso, Norway

  14. Very nice history lesson regarding a place / building Forrest made famous through his memoirs. Thank you for sharing this. Total bummer your Spiderman was covered up. My wall covering is a FatBoy of Peyton Manning…and he’s going with me!

  15. Hi JR! Thanks for sharing this 🙂 I’ve collected old fenn-era ephemera for quite awhile and on my quest for a Totem menu from Fs time (I eventually found one and sent pics to Dal in case he’d like to add on to your post) but I also ended up acquiring Bill and Eulahs Menu as well from one mislabeled on time period in the ad. Their names and signature are embossed on it so I’m sure its theirs. If your family doesnt have one and would like it for scrapbooks or whatever Id be glad to send it your way.

    • Wow Jonesy….. I can’t even date that menu and I thought I had seen them all! The logo is most interesting and seems to be the model for Totem matchbooks which I know were produced early in the Cafes history. I always wondered about those antenna like things 🙂 and now I have finally seen a clear picture of what they really were! Thank you so much for sharing and thanks to Dal for putting my note out there. I bet you have quite a collection! Your menu brought a smile to my face seeing those hand written prices. I can recall many a spring gathering of crew members and family to work on writing in the prices before the summer season in the 70s. It was a pain! I don’t think we had ‘white out’ for mistakes back then. I remember mom keeping small white labels so we put them over old prices or mistakes and wrote on top. She didn’t want to buy new menus, so we had to reuse them as much as possible. I can’t remember how many we did but there was both breakfast and dinner to do so it was like writing numbers into infinity and beyond…. I had forgotten all about that. Thanks again it was fun seeing that! JR

  16. Jones sent along some cool images to add to the Totem Cafe story. I added them at the end of the story…
    Thanks Jonsey-

  17. Thanks JR and Jonsey! Awesome history and pics! I love West Yellowstone and would like to know more about it as it looked a long time ago.

  18. Thanks Jonsey for the extra pictures they are great.

    Lets see, I’ll have the Spanish omelette and a cup of coffee. Looks like that will cost me a dollar bill even.

    I was going to twist off and order the jelly omelette but I chickened out.

  19. I have two matchbooks from the Totem Cafe, one black and one red. If you want to add them to your collection let me know.

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