Chugwater Stampede Saloon aspires to create national vision

Merwin, Margie, Lilly and Lance Nilson are the proprietors of the Stampede Saloon in Chugwater, Wyoming. The family that sings together works together. In the family business everyone lends a hand to make things run smoothly. They have live music every Thursday – Saturday night from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.

CHUGWATER – Just the name alone is quaint, quirky and makes people want to ask, “what water?” That’s chug. Water.

Legend has it that the sound, “chug” is a Native American term for the sound of buffalo hitting the ground after being driven off the cliffs during the annual hunt. And the water is close.

The combination formed the town name and it caught on and has been spoken ever since.

There is another name that Merwyn Nilson, co-owner of the Chugwater Stampede Saloon & Eatery would like to introduce and it comes with a great vision. A vision to put Chugwater on the map and to be on the lips of people all over the world.

Nilson, an octogenarian purchased the bar and restaurant in 2016 and when they ushered in the new year of 2017, the New Year’s Eve party was also the grand reopening of a place that had been shut down for almost six years.

The remodeled and refurbished saloon and eatery was not only purchased by the Nilson family, but is primarily run by them as well. Merwyn, or “Myr” as most people call him, Margie, his wife, Lance his son and Lilly, Lance’s wife are all equal owners of the business according the patriarchal Nilson.

“I goof off as much as I possibly can,” Myr said with half a smile. “I do the marketing and a lot of that type of thing, but I make them do most of the work. There’s always something to do that you haven’t done yet, and there’s always something new to come along, although I probably won’t live long enough to do everything I want to do.”

For those who have tossed back a beer with Myr or had a dinner with the man, you would soon know that he speaks in fluent “understatement.” His plans and his visions for Chugwater are enormous, but his faith and persistence are relentless and if anybody can do what he is about to tackle, this man can.

His marketing plan is thorough and thought out and his fully typed “manual for the mission” is 364 typed pages, each one encased in a plastic sleeve and all contained in a huge white ring binder. On the outside the bound notebook the title simply reads, “Chugwater Jamboree.”

Upon further examination, the first page begins with, “Description of and demand for product” and the description of the vision begins. It’s certainly not “light reading” but as you get into it, you begin to feel a man’s passion for accomplishing the impossible. Detailing how the dream is going to turn into a reality, what it’s going to take to make it happen and troubleshooting every question you may have dealing with the work it’s going to take to get it done, the equipment it’s going to take and the personnel it’s going to take.

In simple layman’s terms and because some people may not want to spend a week reading the “vision manual,” the concept is quite simple and unique and it’s something that has been done before. Myr wants to create something called the Chugwater Jamboree which is similar to what you see on PBS called “Austin City Limits,” and would feature the wealth of talent of musicians and singer/songwriters that Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado have to offer.

In the manual, it is described as follows: “The Chugwater Jamboree will be a one to two hour online AM, FM, audio and streaming video program emanating from the state of the Stampede Saloon & Eatery in Chugwater, Wyoming.

Now, this whole shootin’ match may be a stretch if the talent included one crazy uncle that got drunk and drug his guitar which was missing one or two strings to the stage. He would then begin his rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams and have to stop to cry halfway through because it reminds him of his wife that left him for another man.

Anyway, you get the picture.

But this is different. The Nilsons bought themselves a gold mine in 2016 and the wealth of talent that comes out week after week to entertain is simply amazing. From guitar players to keyboard masters to mandolins, banjos, harmonicas and occasionally a random auto harp. 

And they are good. You will find yourself eating a homecooked meal by Myr’s son, Lance, who is a culinary genius, the food will be placed on the plates by Myr’s wife, Margie and his daughter-in-law, Lilly, will bring your plate out with food that will make you remember your childhood at the dining room table with the family.  Add to the magic two incredible volunteers in Fran Hammeren, though some call her “Frannie Oakley” and her niece Tiffany Duncan. When the place opened, they came in and said, “we just want to help.”

The food is not only good, but it’s very inexpensive. The music is top-notch and the performers booked by Lilly have to be good or they just don’t get a nod. Lilly and her husband Lance have been in the music business for 37 years and they have produced some quality CDs. Lance who has run his own recording studio has a natural talent for good music and cooking good food.

It’s a place where people pack the place on most nights. The hometown atmosphere, the smell of dinner cooking on the stove and live music playing while people eat and fellowship is a winning combination. It’s almost magical. People wanting to work there for free, musicians who come in every Thursday night to the weekly jam session and some who come to record the music. Because again. It’s that good.

The next step for the Nilson family is to perhaps find someone to champion the vision. Talk has been kicked around to develop a program that would air on the national network RFD-TV. People traveling out west to Yellowstone or the Tetons would drive past Chugwater and see the sign, “Chugwater Jamboree” and have to stop for a meal and the music.

Each week, the Chugwater Jamboree would feature a different flavor and a different special on the food menu. Thursday nights would be “Jam Night.” Other nights would be dedicated to things such as “Cowboy/Western” music, “Folk” music, “Bluegrass,” and “Comedy and Novelty nights.”  Other possibilities include tribute shows or 50s and 60s nights.

The vision also includes booking outside concerts, developing music festivals and purchasing more buildings to house all that would encompass this grand vision. From general stores to recording studio to different stages set up around town. Perhaps a bakery. Perhaps an old-fashioned filling station. The possibilities are endless.

With the railroad running out the back window of the Stampede Saloon, perhaps a concert from the boxcar stage would be in the future plans and the indoor “Depot” which would house the crowds during inclement weather.

This national vision is too big for one man. It’s too big for one family. And it’s too big for one community. But the Nilsons have the courage to dream big dreams to turn Chugwater into the music capital of Wyoming and all the components are coming together. The draw is the food, the music, the availability to camp, the chance to sit on the front porch with down-home folk and take a break from the rat race and the incredible scenery of a pristine untouched Wyoming.

If they build it, will people come? I wouldn’t bet against Merwyn Nilson and his incredible family and community that has begun to run with his vision. This Old West saloon may just surprise some naysayers.

The full interview with the Nilson Family can be seen on an upcoming episode of “Homespun” which is our weekly web-based television show. For more information about our program and our newspapers, visit us at:

For information, hours and menu for the Chugwater Stampede Saloon & Eatery, please visit them at their website: and for reservations or more information on how to be a performer at the Steamboat Stage, call Lilly Nilson at (307) 422-3200.

If people will travel thousands of miles to see a building made of corn, then the question begged to be asked is, “why not the Chugwater Jamboree?”


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