BUFORD — For the better part of 30 years, Don Sammons went unnoticed.
He made a home with his wife and son near the tiny town of Buford, a speck off Interstate 80 between Laramie and Cheyenne.
Sammons served as mayor, owner and operator of Buford for two decades. On most days, passers-by could find him inside the convenience store, working the cash register, stocking shelves, mopping the floor.
For the last six years, he lived there alone, the only resident of a place marketed as America’s smallest town.
When Sammons announced plans to sell Buford — and the auction company handling the sale built a Web page — the world looked Sammons’ way.
The BBC called. So did a radio station in Ireland. Then came CNN and TV stations in Denver and China Central Television — some 500 media inquiries in all. The Web page attracted 36,000 hits, and people from 110 countries contacted Oklahoma-based auction house Williams & Williams to ask about the sale.
But Thursday, Sammons’ last day as Buford’s sole resident, began like his mornings always had: quietly.
He woke early, checked his email and ate breakfast.
Sammons didn’t want the transition to be jarring — one day running Buford, the next day an anonymous guy with no work to do — so for months he slowly moved his things to his new house in Windsor, Colo.
For the last two weeks, he didn’t stay overnight in Buford at all.
Sammons dressed in a black suit, a diamond stud in his left ear, and drove 75 miles to Buford one last time to see who would bid and for how much.
In three hours, Buford wouldn’t be his anymore.
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The unincorporated town of Buford is five buildings big.
It has its own ZIP code, 82052.
On 10 acres of land in southeastern Wyoming, Buford is home to a cell tower, parking lot, U.S. Postal Service boxes, gas pumps, a convenience store, a modular home, a garage, a tool shed and a historic school house from 1905.
Buford wasn’t always home to a single resident. The town started as a fort in the 1860s, during construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. It boomed with 2,000 people.
Sammons, too, didn’t always live alone.
Sammons was born in St. Louis and lived in southern California with his wife. He served as an Army radio operator in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. Sammons and his wife had friends in Cheyenne and came to visit. They liked what they found: fewer people, cheaper land, no state income taxes. They moved to a home three miles south of Buford in 1980. From that short distance, Sammons admired the town.
“I saw a lot of potential there they weren’t tapping into,” he said.
The couple had a son, and Sammons’ wife died. In 1992, he bought Buford.
Sammons’ son grew up and moved away in 2006, making Sammons a one-man town.
In the summer, as many as 1,000 tourists passing through on vacation stopped in Sammons’ store daily, where they could buy T-shirts with his photo printed on them.
In the winter, Sammons got far fewer visitors, only 150 to 200 a day at best. Buford sits at 8,000 feet, on a notorious stretch of highway known for wind and blowing snow. It shuts down several times each winter.
“The wind is what wears on you,” Sammons said.
To occupy his time throughout the year, Sammons rode his motorcycle in the mountains or went to Cheyenne to watch the symphony.
He thought about selling for several years and hoped his son might take over. But Sammons realized Buford was his passion, not his son’s, and at age 61, Sammons felt ready for a change.
On New Year’s Eve, he worked his last day.
When Sammons pulled into town just after 9:30 a.m. Thursday, his phone was already ringing. Representatives from the auction company pulled him inside the convenience store to discuss the day. People inside wanted to shake his hand and tell him they saw him on TV the night before. They had more questions still, about the snowplow, the cell tower, how to turn the gas pumps on.
Pam McKissick, co-owner and CEO of the auction house, said potential bidders represented a range of people across the U.S., Europe and Asia, from the wealthy to local Wyoming residents.
“I think in this time when people are having trouble with gas prices, they can’t pay their mortgage, maybe they’re disgruntled about the economy or their jobs, this seems like a magical place where you can come to the great West and make a living and be in total control,” McKissick said. “I think there’s a romance about that.”
By 10 a.m., an announcement went over loudspeakers outside for potential buyers to register and pick up a yellow bidding card. For Sammons it was a constant stream of interviews and photos and TV microphones clipped to his lapel. Reporters wanted to know: What was the day like? (“Bittersweet. Buford’s not going to be me anymore.”) Was Buford really the smallest town? (“I’m the only one I know of with a ZIP code.”)
By 11 a.m., 33 cars, trucks and vans were parked in Buford’s lot.
In the next 30 minutes, 20 more arrived, and Sammons went live on CNN.
Just before noon — auction time — a crowd gathered near the gas pumps.
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It’s true Sammons was Buford’s only resident. But 125 people live close enough to get their mail there.
Lucy Williamson has lived near Buford for 35 years. Sammons is the third Buford owner she and her husband have known.
“Every owner has had a different take,” she said.
The first owners Williamson knew maintained a small Mexican restaurant in Buford, with a warm family environment that brought community closeness. The second family of owners ran a café with pool tables and a bar, and Sammons brought the modern gas station.
Gary Crawford, who grew up nearby and has lived close to Buford for 57 years, said he hoped the character of the town would stay much the same under new ownership.
“It’s a new chapter in the history of Buford,” he said.
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At noon, Williams & Williams auctioneer Sonny Booth called for bidders and onlookers to move in closer.
He asked if the crowd ever heard the phrase, “I own this town.”
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, you can own this town,” Booth said.
Sammons took a picture with his phone. A friend patted him on the back.
“Does anyone have any questions before we start the auction?” Booth asked. “If not, we’re going to start the bidding, ladies and gentleman, at 100,000.”
Ringmen, some on phones, scanned the crowd, pointed, jumped and shouted as bidders raised their yellow cards.
“Alright I got 100, thank you,” Booth said, lightning fast. “I got 100 here, I need 150 ...”
The price climbed, 200 to 300. Soon 600, 700.
Sammons stood to the side, watching the crowd. He was trying so hard to see who bid he didn’t even hear the numbers.
... 800 ... 825 ... 850 ...
“Anybody want to jump in?” asked Booth.
At 12:11 p.m., Buford sold for $900,000 to a bidder from Vietnam.
The man’s name remained anonymous, but Rozetta Weston of Cheyenne-based Al-Rose Auction & Realty, which represented the man, said he arrived in Wyoming earlier in the week to tour Cheyenne and Laramie, his first trip to the U.S.
“I think it’s the human dream,” Al-Rose agent Tonjah Andrews said of her client’s win. “You want to be part of something bigger.”
McKissick hugged Sammons.
“Congratulations, Don,” said Williamson.
How did Sammons feel?
“It’s really kind of weird,” he said. “Really kind of weird.”
He started to cry.
In the blur of the auction, there were papers to sign and windows to be boarded up.
The transfer of ownership to the winning bidder is expected to be completed in 30 days. Sammons said he plans to write a book about his 32 years in Buford.
In the early afternoon, it hadn’t yet hit him that his time in Buford was over. Maybe he would feel different, he said, on the car ride home, in the quietness.
“My life has changed,” Sammons said.