SUN CITY — Buster's is back. Pull up alongside all the pickups in front of one of the most iconic saloons in western Kansas, let the red dust settle and stare eyeball to eyeball with a mountain lion — albeit stuffed — poised in the front window.
Make no mistake, there have been changes. New management came in and re-did the place.
Had to, explains Brad Goldman, who helped oversee the renovations.
In the 13 years since Buster and Alma Hathaway owned the idyllic slice of Americana, former owners sold off or let go of many of the features that made Buster's great: the 24-ounce fishbowls for beer; the iron cash register; the 1930s-era ceiling fans and all the odds and ends that Buster — the eccentric and often cantankerous World War II veteran with the wooden leg — collected through the years.
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The new owners were able to salvage a handful of high-backed swivel bar stools, the bar, a couple of wooden booths that line the west wall, and a pair of Buster's stuffed bobcats that he bagged himself.
After that, much of the building was gutted and rebuilt, financed by Bill St. James, a local investor who has homes in Florida and Colorado and owns a ranch two miles west of Sun City. The town is about 2 1/2 hours west of Wichita.
"I just wanted to give back to the community at large," he said. "It was really, truly a charity thing. Buster's used to be fun and it has been a gathering place for a long time. It's nice to see it back on top."
It took nearly $400,000 in renovations — along with the purchase of other buildings in Sun City — to bring the restaurant and bar back to life, St. James said.
"We tried to maintain the integrity by keeping the same type of feel," St. James said.
It is the main business in the town of 40-some residents. The closest grocery store is in Medicine Lodge, 20 miles to the east.
The restaurant offers daily barbecue specials, except when both it and the bar are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Meals cost from $7 to $10 for lunch and $10 to $20 for dinner.
It is still a local watering spot for ranchers and cowboys, oilfield workers, aging baby boomers, birders, hunters and any other Kansan looking for a cold beer.
The fishbowl schooners are newer and smaller — the old ones aren't made anymore.
"It's a good hangout for us old-timers," said Kent Marsh, who lives south of town. He said his grandparents, Pearl and Relie Kramer, owned the bar before Buster bought it in 1946.
It was always a step back in time to walk through Buster's doors.
Buster and his wife, Alma, lived and worked in Sun City for more than half a century.
Their plain white building faced south and allowed sunlight to stream through giant windows as the locals gathered for stories and beer.
During World War II, Buster was a member of Darby's Rangers, America's first commando unit, and among the first to see combat in the European theater. Buster came home from the war with a wooden leg.
He and Alma were married on Independence Day in 1941. As patrons would open the squeaky front door, Alma would welcome them from the rocking chair she kept near the front of the bar.
Buster would pull a frosty 24-ounce schooner of beer from behind the bar and stories would begin.
"Buster used to have the old bank building where he'd keep two to three barrels over there," said Jim Cooper, a local who remembers as a child going with his dad to the bar. "He'd have these 55-gallon barrels and they'd have five to a dozen rattlesnakes in them. He'd kick that sucker with his wooden leg and that barrel would go 'zzzzz-ssss-zzz.' He'd collect those snakes and take them down to Waynoka for the big snake hunt and sell them."
When patrons needed to answer the call of nature, they'd go out behind the bar where Buster had two outhouses. The remodel includes indoor restrooms.
Alma died on July 5, 1991, —a day after she and Buster celebrated their 50th anniversary.
He died on March 8, 1996, a week after his 77th birthday. He'd locked the bar for the evening, took a few steps and fell dead next to his pickup.
The hardwood floors are still worn smooth by the thousands of pairs of work boots and cowboy boots that have scuffed and stepped on them through the decades.
And the sun still shines through the windows, marking the progression of the day.
Gary and Sally Goldman left the suburbs near Orlando, Fla., to run Buster's restaurant. Their 24-year-old son, Graham, manages the bar. Brad and Gary Goldman are brothers.
"When we first came in here we thought this is a new deal; we are tired of all this old Buster's stuff," Gary Goldman said. "But that is the lore.
"We are glad that we left the emphasis. Buster's belongs to the community. We are going to take care of it and make it a little nicer than it has been. It's a come-to-feel-good type of place."
Gary Goldman, 54, has spent much of his career in construction.
"We chose this to do as a different lifestyle and escape the life we had," he said.
Graham and his dog, Moose, live in an apartment at the back of the bar. He's scheduling the bar to feature live music from local musicians at least twice a month, beginning Sept. 4, and will sell T-shirts and other merchandise with Buster's trademark logo.
But it is still the locals who gather that make the flavor of conversations at Buster's unmistakable.
There are jokes that can't be repeated in the newspaper. There is unmerciful ribbing of patrons.
As he nurses a beer, Marsh talks about how he's hoping one of his children comes back to Barber County to take over his ranching operation.
"I'm out there by myself, and I'm kind of looking for some old cowgirl," he said.
"We're not running an ad for you," says Graham Goldman as he hands Marsh another beer.
"I thought I'd put my two cents in. It never hurts to advertise," Marsh said.