Visitors to the Upper Geyser Basin, be they veterans or neophytes, would do well to check out the General Store located on the way to Castle Geyser.
It’s worthwhile for new visitors, for instance, to see the store (and its famous “Knotty Porch,” covered in knobby burls), maybe buy a shirt or enjoy a burger from the lunch counter. And it behooves longtime visitors and residents, since the store is nearly as old as the Park.
Alas, for many visitors post-2002, the building’s long history may be especially lost . Luckily, there’s a good clue, molded right into the building. You’re not stepping into any old building when you cross the threshold of the Knotty Porch: you’re stepping into a Hamilton store.
In fact, this store was the start of Charles A. Hamilton’s concessions empire. Not related to that other Hamilton, for all you Broadway fans. But in the Park, the name still carries power, although it has faded somewhat. Nonetheless, if we’re talking venerability, Hamilton is one of the oldest names associated with the Park.
Hamilton didn’t originally own the basin store. Indeed, what became Hamilton’s lower basin store had been operating nearly 20 years before it changed hands. Before it was Hamilton’s Store, it was Klamer’s Curio Shop.
According to historian Robert V. Goss, Klamer (born in 1858) had a long history in the Park. He worked under Superintendent Philetus W. Norris, for instance, building roads in the Park. He even applied to be assistant superintendent in 1882, but was declined.
Thereafter, he became involved in various Park ventures (building up the Firehole Hotel, managing beef for one John Harvat) and became intimately involved with the Henderson family. Rather intimately. Besides working with George G. Henderson on the Firehole Hotel, Klamer married the daughter of George L. Henderson, Mary, in 1892. Klamer and Mary established the Old Faithful store in 1897.
Klamer’s Curio Shop
Klamer’s Curio Shop became a popular destination for visitors, offering them all sorts of Old West trinkets—Indian goods, “curios,” pelts—and general supplies. According to Goss, Klamer was rather canny, building to keep up with demand. In 1899, for instance, he and Mary built bathing facilities for guests. When the Old Faithful Inn was built and opened between 1903 and 1904, Klamer’s Curio Shop went rustic, with crews adding wood pillars, log braces, and other rustic touches to make the shop match the Inn. Fittingly, Klamer asked the Inn’s architect, Robert Reamer, to design the rustic additions to his store. You can see a reproduction of Reamer’s blueprint, as well as a photo of the upgraded store, below, courtesy of Ruth Quinn’s biography of Reamer, Weaver of Dreams.
One of the shop’s biggest fans was outfitter and guide Reau Campbell, who wrote glowingly about the shop (which he sometimes called “Klamer’s Cottage”) in his Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of the Yellowstone Park.
It’s worth noting: Klamer owned the copyright to Campbell’s new revised Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of the Yellowstone Park. Further, he published and sold it.
Campbell also gives Klamer a charming write-up as one of the Park’s “personalities,” as it were, saying “H.E. Klamer has been in the Park many years and is well and favorably known as the proprietor of the beautiful curio store near Old Faithful Inn at the Upper Basin.”
Klamer died suddenly August 12, 1914, according to Goss, in the midst of expanding his store once more. The store did not stay in the Klamer (or the Henderson) family long after Henry passed away. According to Goss, Hamilton bought the store with financial backing from Yellowstone Park Association president Harry Child in 1915.
As an interesting side note, it took a while for the changes to manifest in Campbell’s guide. In the revised third edition, for instance, Mr. Klamer’s posthumous state is not referenced—nor is the fact that the store changed hands in 1915. Only in the fourth edition (published in 1923) did Campbell note Mr. Klamer’s passing, as well as the passing of the store onto Hamilton.
Accordingly, Campbell kept the description of the stores (Klamer’s Cottage and Hamilton’s Store) identical. With the death of Klamer, one E.M. Campbell of Chicago assumed copyright.
The Start of an Empire
Shortly after assuming ownership of the curio shop, the Hamilton name became almost synonymous with Yellowstone concessions, especially from the 1920s onward, when Hamilton and Child began investing in and purchasing other ventures. Indeed, Hamilton became the oldest concession name in the Park, until it was purchased in 2002 by Delaware North.
Hamilton’s successes were not unprecedented. Indeed, historian Richard A. Bartlett, in Yellowstone: A Wilderness Besieged, described the years 1892 to 1929 as “the Golden Age of Park Concessionaires.” What was unprecedented was the fact that the Hamilton name, by the middle of the 20th century, outpaced both the Henderson and Haynes names, as far as ownership of Park concessions went.
Paul Schullery echoed this sentiment in Searching for Yellowstone, where he remarks upon the almost dynastic interactions between the major Yellowstone companies—and associated families:
Some concessioners became multigeneration institutions, their employees part of the Yellowstone family. The most notable, perhaps, was the Haynes photo shops, which were established by pioneer park photographer F.J. Haynes in 1880s and thrived under family ownership until bought out by the equally venerable Hamilton Stores in 1968. Marriages between the children of concession executives and National Park Service officials suggest a kind of “administrative inbreeding” that may not have been desirable from a regulatory standpoint but that were all but unavoidable in a place like Yellowstone. Socializing between these groups is more than acceptable; it is essential. Besides being a national park, an international symbol, and a great regional cash factory, Yellowstone has also long been a very small, very isolated human community.
Accordingly, at the same time he and Child were buying up serviced in Yellowstone, Hamilton decided to expand the lower store even further between 1924 and 1925, adding the distinctive “knotty porch” that today complements (and in some ways, eclipses) Reamer’s original “rustic” addition. You can see a picture of Hamilton above, standing by his porch, as well as a photo of the store circa 2000. And below, you can see a photo of the plaque commemorating the porch’s apparent designer.
The Store Today
Today, although under new management, and with many additions, the store is very much the same one that rose to meet demand in 1897, the same store that transformed from curio shop into icon.