History of Denver's Oldest Restaurant The Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant
DENVER -- Denver's most historic eating and drinking establishment was founded in 1893 by Henry H. "Shorty Scout" Zietz, one of the most colorful figures of the Old West.
In 1875, at age 10, wide-eyed Zietz met Col. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and by age 12 was a full-fledged member of his hard-riding, straight-shooting band of scouts. During those years, the great Indian leader, Chief Sitting Bull, dubbed Zietz "Shorty Scout," in reference to his diminutive stature.
Zietz, Sitting Bull and Cody became lifelong friends and by the time Zietz died in July 1949, the last of Cody's famous scout band was gone. But the memories and legends from those early days linger today at 1000 Osage St. where the Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant keeps the spirit of the Old West alive.
From the day it opened its doors in November 1893, the Buckhorn Exchange has chronicled the robust days of early Colorado. It drew cattlemen miners, silver barons and railroadmen who built the West. Indian chiefs, roustabouts, gamblers and businessmen dropped in to imbibe and dine on the West's finest offerings, many still on the menu today.
The Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant derives its name from the Rio Grande Railroad yards that were directly across Osage Street and the second-story Buckhorn Lodge that housed railroaders for the night.
Each Friday, the railroaders scrambled across Osage Street to exchange their paychecks for gold. In return, Zietz handed each man a token good for free lunch and a beer. After all, who ever heard of a railroad man stopping after downing only one beer?
President Theodore Roosevelt was among early visitors when in 1905 his Presidential Express train pulled up in the Rio Grande yards. Roosevelt strutted in in presidential style, asked Zietz to be his guide and hunting partner, and after dinner and drinks, the pair took off by train to hunt big game on Colorado's Western Slope.
Today a photo of the train and a flag from its engine are among hundreds of pieces of museum-quality memorabilia on display in the Buckhorn Exchange which today is as much a museum as a restaurant and bar.
Another historic moment and most incredible scene was recorded in 1938 when Sitting Bull's nephew, Chief Red Cloud, and a delegation of 30 Sioux Blackfeet Indians rode slowly down Osage Street in full battle regalia, and ceremoniously turned over to "Shorty Scout" Zietz the military saber taken from the vanquished General George Custer in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The sword remains in the Zietz family today.
The Buckhorn Exchange brims with historic artifacts, legends and historic moments. Four presidents -- Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan dined at the Buckhorn. Among Hollywood legends who dined here were Bob Hope, Jimmy Cagney and Charleton Heston. And men who reached for the stars, astronauts Scott Carpenter and Jack Swigert dined here; as did Roy Rogers, Will Rogers and Great Britain's Princess Anne.
The Buckhorn Exchange even survived Prohibition implemented in Colorado in 1916 -- three years before the rest of the nation. To stay in business, Zietz converted the front of the restaurant and saloon into a grocery. Legend has it that Zietz would hollow out a loaf of pumpernickel bread and shove a bottle of bootleg whiskey in the cavity to sell to his customers. There are tales of a hidden passageway to the second floor that drinking patrons used to avoid police raids. And the hollow end baluster on the stairway allegedly was used to conceal bootleg whiskey.
Upon Prohibition's repeal, the restaurant and "bar" -- no longer a saloon -- reopened as Zietz' Buckhorn Restaurant and Bar and was issued Colorado Liquor License #1 which is still on display today.
Henry H. "Shorty Scout" Zietz died in 1949. Zietz' son, Henry Jr., acquired the restaurant perpetuating its rich history and decor, adding many animal displays from his own hunting expeditions along with other memorabilia. Zietz' failing health forced the Zietz family to sell the restaurant in 1978 to a group of local investors known as Buckhorn Associates, headed by Roi Davis and Steve Knowlton.
Under the direction of designer Lanny Garland, the new owners took great care to preserve the important memorabilia including the 500 taxidermy pieces. Special care was taken to preserve the basic exterior which was designated an historic landmark by the City and County of Denver in 1972.
The walls of Buckhorn detail its 105-year-old history, including a rare 500-piece collection of game -- deer and moose; giant buffalo and mountain sheep; dozens of indigenous fowl; even a two-headed calf and jackalope.
The 125-piece gun collection includes Colt .45s, Winchesters, Derringers, a Sharp's sporting rifle dating to 1889 and rare palm pistol dating to 1891 and the Minneapolis Firearm Co.
The Buckhorn's ornate white-oak bar and back-bar, made in Essen Germany in 1857, and brought here by the Zietz family, was relocated to the second floor where it anchors the Buckhorn's Victorian lounge. A roofgarten, heated year-round, was added to serve the restaurant and its patrons -- a perfect place for private parties, family reunions, rehearsal dinners, or simply to take in the ambiance of the Old West.