Established in 1893 by one of the members of Buffalo Bill’s gang, the Buckhorn Exchange is Denver’s oldest restaurant. Located in Downtown Denver, the restaurant continues to serve a very different kind of clientele than those that frequented it in the Old West of the late nineteenth century. It became a designated historic landmark in 1972.
Buckhorn Exchange was founded on November 17th, 1893, by Henry H.
Zietz. Known to his friends and colleagues as “Shorty Scout”, Henry Zietz was a
cowboy and scout that worked alongside Col. William F. Cody (better known as
Buffalo Bill), during which time he received his nickname from Chief Sitting
Bull. He later served as a bodyguard for Horace Austin Warner Tabor, the
so-called “Bonanza King of Leadville” who had made his millions as a silver
prospector in Colorado. Zietz passed away in July 1949 as the last surviving
member of Buffalo Bill’s gang.
building was extremely popular amongst the laborers of the nearby Rio Grande
Railroad yards, who would cross the street each evening to give their paychecks
to Henry Zietz in exchange for gold and a free lunch and beer (a tradition that
gave the restaurant its name). These were not its only patrons, and during its
time the restaurant served clients of many different social situations and
backgrounds, from cattlemen to miners, railroad laborers to Native American
chiefs, dock workers to gamblers. Five U.S. Presidents have visited the
Buckhorn; Zietz even served as a hunting guide for President Theodore
Roosevelt, who visited the restaurant in 1905 by a private train that arrived
along the Rio Grande Railroad.
restaurant has a fascinating biography. In December 1900 the restaurant was the
setting of most exciting afternoon, when the patrons were held up by a masked
robber wielding a .45, who collected all of their money and valuables before
attempting to ride away. However, the quick-thinking customers of the Buckthorn
rode after him, and gunned him down in a nearby meadow with their rifles. A
close friend of Chief Sitting Bull, in 1938 Henry Zietz found the Buckhorn
surrounded by a band of Sioux and Blackfoot horsemen led by Chief Red Cloud
(nephew of Sitting Bull). The Native American leader handed over the sword of
General George Custer that had been taken by his uncle at the Battle of Little
Big Horn (1876). During Prohibition, which started in Colorado in 1916, the
Buckhorn building was used as a grocery store. It was reopened as Zietz's
Buckhorn Restaurant and Bar and issued with the first liquor license in the
state after the Prohibition was repealed in September 1933.
distinctive two-story redbrick building is simple in architectural style; the
brickwork laid in a stretcher bond, a
flat roof that slopes to the rear, with access via a double-leaf door topped by
a striking red awning. The first floor is decorated with murals purportedly
made by visiting Native Americans. These are found only on the northern and
eastern sides of the building, and depict landscape settings, animals including
an elk and bear, and a Native American chief. Inside, the Buckhorn features a
bar counter and back-bar of white oak that was imported by the Zietz family
from Essen, Germany, in 1857. The interior ceiling is made of decorative
metalwork, and the floor is made of hardwood planks.
operated for well over a century, the Buckhorn Exchange continues to serve food
and drink in an immaculately preserved environment, filled with memorabilia of
its long and exciting history. Of particular note are the walls covered in more
than five hundred items of taxidermy, including deer, moose, buffalo, fowl, and
even a jackalope! It also exhibits a collection of one hundred and twenty five
historic guns, including a particularly fine palm pistol made by the Minneapolis
Firearm Co. in 1891. The building left the Zietz family in 1978, when it was
sold to the local Buckhorn Associates. The structure was subject to some
renovations that year, during which time a heated roof garden was installed, but
it remains in excellent condition to this day.