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Owner wants to reopen iconic Barber County saloon

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, August 14, 2012, at 7:44 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, August 15, 2012, at 6:15 a.m.

Buster’s is closed.

Again.

And the owner of the iconic Western saloon in Sun City doesn’t know when it will reopen.

Buster’s has been in flux for the past three and half years – ever since Bill St. James bought the idyllic slice of Americana at a sheriff’s auction. He paid $90,000 for the aging restaurant and several lots and houses in the small Barber County town.

Then, he said, he sank $400,000 in renovations to bring the restaurant and bar back to life. He paid for state-of-the-art restaurant equipment, put in restrooms and tried to keep the Old West feel in what made Buster’s such a great place to sit awhile, drink a beer and have a bite or two.

St. James said he did it because he likes the area and wants to give back to the community.

But it has been rough finding people who will stay on and keep the restaurant running. Sun City is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles of rugged Red Hills and prairie – the very thing that causes people to seek it out.

Part of Buster’s charm was that it felt like a throwback to the 1930s with its ceiling fans, booths with hardwood benches and hardwood floors worn smooth by thousands of work boots and cowboy boots

“Bottom line, I would like to put somebody in there,” said St. James, who has homes in Florida and California and owns a ranch two miles west of Sun City. The town is about 2½ hours west of Wichita.

“It was pretty much a nightmare when I bought it,” he said of Buster’s. “Right now, if somebody walked in, I’d sell it for $225,000.”

Buster’s was always a local watering spot for ranchers and cowboys, oilfield workers, baby boomers, birders, bikers, hunters and other Kansans looking for a cold beer. It was known for its frosty fishbowl schooners.

The place was named for Buster Hathaway and his wife, Alma, who owned it for more than half a century. Alma died on July 5, 1991, a day after she and Buster celebrated their 50th anniversary.

Buster died on March 8, 1996, a week after his 77th birthday. He locked the bar for the evening, took a few steps and fell dead next to his pickup.

The saloon and restaurant fell into disrepair after a new owner took over at Buster’s death but then left. Two years ago, Buster’s reopened after St. James renovated it.

It was managed until the first of this year by Gary and Sally Goldman from Orlando, Fla., who offered barbecue. New management took over a few months ago but closed a week ago Wednesday due to personal reasons, St. James said.

And now, Buster’s future is in question.

“There are people who don’t know it has been closed and drive there only to be disappointed,” St. James said. “There are so many opportunities.”

Barber County is one of the state’s counties currently experiencing a boom with oil exploration. Hunting season will start soon.

And the saloon and restaurant have become destination spots for motorcycle groups, birders and others exploring the back roads of Kansas.

“Buster’s has never been a financial burden for me; I just have been emotionally run through the mill on this,” St. James said. “Whoever takes over next has to absolutely convince me they can do it.

“Their proposal won’t fall on deaf ears, but I can’t take another hit. ”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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