A Wyoming lawmaker strolled into the restaurant flanked by two blondes, his arms linked with theirs.
Inside, a group of businessmen, lawmakers and education officials sat around a table, eating dinner and talking.
The trio interrupted the mineral committee meeting and the women introduced themselves as sisters. The serious conversation quickly ended, with all attention shifting to the newcomers.
“They had obviously had a lot of fun before they came to this meeting,” remembered Larry Wolfe, a lawyer who has worked in the energy industry in Wyoming since 1980. “They came in and it was just a hoot. They proceeded to disrupt all the pretensions of everybody who wanted to have a serious discussion.”
That’s the way things were at the Casper Petroleum Club. The meeting ground for politicians, industry leaders and businessmen was also their playground. The upscale restaurant operated for 67 years in the Oil City, serving as an evolving cultural center for industry, and later, for commerce and politics.
The good times are coming to an end. On Sept. 1, the club’s leaders announced the Casper institution would close by the end of the year due to declining membership.
“We still plan to be open as long as we can,” said Forrest Leff, the president of the club’s board. “Our goal is to get to the December deadline, the 31st.”
The days of blond sisters, business brunches and deals made over cocktails will soon be over. For those who visited the club, a piece of Casper’s history and identity as an oil town will disappear with it.
The club’s fate could easily be seen as a byproduct of Wyoming’s current bust, its death a symbol of the severe downturn in the price of oil. Two years ago, a barrel was trading at more than $100, but that price sank into the $50 range and eventually bottomed out around $30. Coal and gas operations experienced similar fates. Across the state, production has bottomed out and workers have lost their livelihoods as manufacturers, support services and industry firms have scaled back, faced bankruptcy or shut down.
But the Petroleum Club has survived downturns before.
In the early ’80s, Casper was the center of all things oil in the Rocky Mountain West. Being a member of the club was contingent on your affiliation with industry.
Business such as Mobil, Marathon and Shell all had offices in Casper, and those buildings were filled with workers — employees in suits who had lunch at the club, made deals in the bar and strategized on how to grow, how to expand, how to face hurdles as the commodity price skyrocketed.
Peter Wold was just joining his father’s business in 1980. The family has operated Wold Oil Properties in Casper for half a century and uses the club for business and family affairs. Wold is currently a member.
“It was a pretty robust time in 1980. Those were fun days,” he said. “But then things started to turn about ‘82.”
Oil tanked and businesses went bust. But the club survived. It bought its current building, a former supper club, in 1986, at the bottom of the oil downturn, Wold said.
“[The bust] started about ‘82 and trickled on in to ‘86, and ‘86 was when we bought the club,” he said. “You can understand the consternation of a lot of members who were saying, ‘Gee whiz. Why would we be buying something right now when oil and gas prices are at very rock bottom?’”
The club’s members held a meeting for their annual dinner. At that time they were based in an old warehouse downtown.
“I’ll never forget it,” Wold said. “One of the gentlemen stood up and introduced himself. He’d been the president of a drilling company and said, “I lost my drilling company, sold it 10 cents on the dollar. I would like to buy something 10 cents on the dollar.’ And that’s about what we did.”
The club rolled on, but Casper changed. By the late ‘90s, most of the oil companies had closed offices in the city, and the club’s board chose to open its membership to businessmen outside of industry and flush the ranks, Wold said.
Wolfe, the industry lawyer, remembers a visible difference in the city when he visited in late ‘90s.
Casper felt like a ghost town. The offices once buzzing with the business of oil were vacant.
“I remember going into what was the old J.C. Penny store on Second Avenue,” he said. “The entire building was about 6 inches deep in pigeon feathers. That wasn’t the only office building in Casper that had nobody in it except the birds that had taken roost.”
Casper has changed, as have the people who live here. The economy is stronger due to diversification. It no longer rests solely on the shoulders of oil and gas, Wold said.
But despite the gains, there is something to be said for what’s missing.
“I think the Petroleum Club just sort of ended up not having much of a marketplace to serve anymore,” Wolfe said.
These days, business isn’t done through clubs, he said.
“The culture has changed dramatically away from these kinds of community organizations. People just don’t belong to them anymore. They don’t think about joining them,” Wolfe said. “Young people have so many other outlets and ways to connect with people. It’s a cultural phenomenon.”
That’s true for the club. Membership has declined for 15 years, said Leff, the board president.
“The younger generation are not clubbers,” he said. “Private clubs all over the country are struggling … The membership dues are what keeps the club going.”
For many, the end of the club is painful. Though there are more restaurants in Casper today, there is nothing to replace it.
“It had this wonderful familiarity to it,” Wolfe said of the club. “It was always the same.”
When the club closes its doors, it will close an era where business was conducted around the dinner table.
The former supper club, bought for 10 cents on the dollar when oil was $10 a barrel, will be one more empty space — a remnant of an era in Casper when two blondes disrupted a minerals committee meeting and introduced themselves as sisters.