BUFORD — Jason Hirsch has big dreams for the smallest town in America.
From behind the convenience store counter, he looks over the windblown 10 acres of Wyoming high prairie that he manages — the mailboxes, the gas pumps, the small house, the old school — and sees potential.
He wants to upgrade the RV spots, build a playground, add fire pits, install picnic tables. He wants to sell Wyoming crafts and art. Or put in a deli. He envisions the town as a must-see stop along Interstate 80 as tourists travel between Cheyenne and Laramie toward Yellowstone.
The town — owned by a Vietnamese businessman — is a nexus for truckers, travelers and cowboys. It’s a safe haven for truckers waiting out bad weather and a quirky roadside attraction for summer tourists. Sheriff’s deputies stop in the convenience store for a cup of coffee. Local ranchers in dirty jeans and big hats come by for cigarettes or a lotto ticket and stay to chat about the weather.
The problem? Buford, population one, is having money troubles.
“It’s a week by week thing right now,” said Hirsch, who works as the town manager, town sanitation team, town handyman, town spokesman and convenience store operator. “It depends on whether I can make the bills.”
Struggling to make ends meet
During Buford’s heyday, about 2,000 people lived in the town, which was established as a fort in the 1860s. But when the fort moved to Laramie, so did Buford’s population. By 2006, there was only one resident left: Don Sammons.
Sammons decided to sell the town in 2012 after more than 20 years as mayor, owner and manager. The new owner, Nguyen Dinh Pham, is famous in his native Vietnam for winning the auction and buying the town for $900,000. He now owns the gas pumps, the convenience store, a schoolhouse from 1905 that was converted into an office, a cell tower, a garage, a tool shed, a three-bedroom home and the town’s zip code.
Pham, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, bought the town so he could market his specialty coffee to Americans. Pham even unofficially renamed the town PhinDeli Town Buford in honor of the coffee brand, PhinDeli. The convenience store itself is a mishmash of cultures: art from local photographers sits on a long wood counter next to bags of the foreign coffee. Above the counter, an enormous, colorful mural shows Vietnamese women growing coffee beans and brewing it for eventual consumption by an American man sitting in a recliner watching CNN.
“While the town may be small, it touches a large amount of people and we hope it will happen that they will have Vietnamese coffee from PhinDeli,” Pham told the Star-Tribune in 2013.
Pham is known to wear a cowboy hat around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. People refer to him as the mayor. Hirsch said Pham is “rockstar famous” in Vietnam for owning Buford.
Hirsch started leasing the town from Pham in 2015 in the hopes of helping Buford reach its full potential.
His lease is up in December and, unless something changes, he’s probably not going to sign again. The lease requires Hirsch to run the town, complete all repair work and pay for all expenses out of the profits from the store and the gas pumps. It’s expensive to ship in the store’s inventory and the gas for the pumps. He pays about $800 a month to have the town’s trash removed.
In short, the agreement is not working out. Hirsch would like to renegotiate the lease and sign again for five more years. But Pham would have to agree to a different set of conditions that would relieve Hirsch of some of the financial obligations and allow him more leeway to make improvements.
“There’s a lot of things that could be done to make this a sustainable business,” he said. “Right now, it’s just not.”
Winter is the hardest for Buford. There are far fewer tourists spending money at the gas station, and upkeep of the facilities becomes more complicated and expensive. Fences fall over. Wells freeze. The wind, ripping across the plains, tears roofing off the tops of the town’s five buildings sandwiched between the interstate and some railroad tracks. A year ago, lightning struck the town’s cell tower, which cost Hirsch about $8,000 to repair.
On Tuesday, the store shelves were sparse. Hirsch, wearing a Murdoch’s vest bearing the town’s name and the state’s bucking horse, said he doesn’t quite have the money to restock yet.
What Buford really needs is an investor, Hirsch said — someone who can lend the money for the improvements.
“If I leave, he’s going to have a hard time finding someone else to run this place,” he said. “Living alone in Buford, Wyoming, is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea.”
But Hirsch is not actually Buford’s sole resident. That title belongs to Brandon Hoover, who lives rent-free in the modest green-roofed home a few hundred feet behind the gas station. In exchange for a place to stay and a small stipend, Hoover shares in the responsibility of taking care of the town and the store. Hirsch lives on a small ranch about 3 miles south of town.
It gets quiet in Buford, and it gets boring, Hirsch said. But it’s never lonely, even in the winter. Hirsch pulled out the guest log he created when he started running the town. He ran his finger down the long list of where his visitors came from: London, France, California, Texas. There are also a substantial number of people from the other Buford — Buford, Georgia — and Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese travelers come in and take lots of pictures but never really buy anything,” Hirsch said.
One trucker wandered into the store Tuesday looking for Wi-Fi, another amenity Hirsch would like but just can’t afford. After buying a pack of cigarettes, the trucker stepped back into the wind.
“Keep rocks in your pocket,” Hirsch called out as the door swung shut.
But it’s the locals who come in and sit on the cream-colored bar stools along the glass counter — filled with trinkets featuring pictures of the town’s semi-famous “POP 1” sign — who are the heart of the place. Hirsch loves the smallest-town lifestyle. He likes that there are no stoplights or even paved roads between his home and the town. Sometimes on sunny summer days he rides his paint horse, Sugar Pie, to work.
Hirsch makes almost no money off of the locals. But the locals are what compel him to keep the town running. He’s made Buford into a community center for the 100 or so people spread out over more than 100,000 acres of surrounding ranch land.
“They’re my base,” Hirsch said. “They try to support me as best they can.”
Buford hosted a Fourth of July party last summer, complete with music, barbecue and beer pong. A couple of hundred people from the area came in, along with a few travelers who mixed with the locals. They sat on hay bales and overturned washtubs and listened to the bands over the howl of the constant Wyoming wind. They called it the Buford Windstock.
The volunteer firefighters often meet in the schoolhouse-turned-office, and Hirsch has hosted a number of poker nights, whenever the weather permits.
Neighbors have just started to get to know each other by visiting at the store, said Victor Miller, a regular customer and friend who runs a ranch nearby. He comes to the store almost every day to chat and check his mailbox. Now, when a truck gets stuck in a snowdrift or there is some other emergency, neighbors have each other’s numbers.
Hirsch doesn’t know what he’d do if he couldn’t be Buford’s town manager. He doesn’t know how people will get their packages if the town closed. He doesn’t know who would host the poker games.
“It’s kind of sad,” Hirsch said. “I’m just starting to figure things out, and now the future is uncertain.”