An elegant mansion built by Wyoming’s sheep king still sits on the prairie | Wyoming News

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From afar, Lost Cabin appears to be little more than a cluster of trees.

To get there from Casper, you have to drive about an hour west on Highway 20/26, get off on Lysite Moneta Road and trek another 15 minutes northeast. The hills are dotted with clusters of enormous, industrial-looking cylinders. Something to do with the ConocoPhillips plant nearby, no doubt.

There are signs with Jolly Rogers on them and statements like “poison gas area” and “do not enter when lights are flashing” on the side of the road.

Get closer to this cluster of trees, and a big, blue, two-story house materializes behind them. Like it was spit out there by some accident of time and space.

The house is sort of Victorian, with ornate white pillars, a wrap-around porch and a lookout tower.

It’s guarded by a wrought-iron gate as wide as the road and at least 10 feet tall. There is artistry on display here: the metal bars coil into elegant swirls at the top. Each side of the gate is attached to two even taller concrete pillars that have white, orb-shaped lamps mounted on them.

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Lost Cabin

A mansion built by successful sheepman J.B. Okie in 1901 still stands in Lost Cabin. The house is owned by ConocoPhillips, which operates a gas plant in the area. Zane Fross was tapped by the energy company to look after the house.




Unlike the sandpaper plains on the horizon, the grass behind the gate is green. The sprinklers are on. Some clothes are out to dry on a laundry line.

Zane Fross, wearing a black cowboy hat and a neat button-down tucked into khakis, emerges from the house’s side door.

***

Lost Cabin isn’t the name of the mansion, but the settlement where it was built.

The land, located near Badwater Creek in Fremont County, was homesteaded by a man named J.B. Okie. He raised sheep, sold their wool, got rich and launched a chain of retail stores.

One local newspaper, the Wyoming Derrick, christened Okie the “sheep king,” according to an article by WyoHistory.org.

Lost Cabin became a bustling company town.







Lost Cabin

Zane Fross stands on the stairs in J.B. Okie’s mansion in Lost Cabin. The property is owned by energy company ConocoPhillips, but Fross has looked after the home with his family since 2009. In about four years, ConocoPhillips will transfer ownership to the Frosses.




Okie was known for his generosity — even throwing parties for his employees. Still, everyone was under his thumb: Okie was the chief employer, merchant and lender.

At the turn of the 20th century, Okie built his dream home. The property once boasted a roller skating rink, an aviary and a golf course.

Now, Fross and his wife, Ginger, live there.

The side door leads into an unexpectedly mid-century kitchen — the kind with starburst accents absolutely everywhere. The house got some cosmetic renovations in the ‘70s, Fross explains.

Requests for tours don’t bother Fross; the house is a treasure he doesn’t want to hoard.

Plus, guests give him new people to test out his puns on.

“So the giant finally gets a restraining order against Jack,” he starts, “And the judge says, ‘What’s this for exactly?’”







Lost Cabin

The sitting room in the mansion of J.B. Okie in Lost Cabin. Okie made his fortune in the sheep and retail businesses in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today, the house is cared for by Zane Fross and his family.




“‘Well, judge, Jack’s been stalking me.’”

Fross cradles a white coffee mug in his hands, from which he sips water while recounting the history of each room and practically everything in it.

“I call this the Smithsonian room,” Fross says, walking out of the kitchen and into a short, narrow hallway.

There’s a row of white cabinets to his right — where the Okies once kept their dishware, perhaps.

Today, it’s cluttered with many rusty, dusty artifacts Fross discovered around the property: horseshoes, tools, keys. A pair of old roller skates.

Fross grabs an old saw off the shelf. The handle is shaped funny, he points out. You can’t hold it comfortably in either hand.

He turns the handle around, now wielding it with a reverse grip. Oddly enough, it fits perfectly. He’s not sure what kinds of projects a saw like this would be good for.

The saw makes a tinny clunk when he sets it back down.

***

Past the short, narrow hallway is the dining room.

The jade green walls are original to the house, Fross says. It’s rice paper. The texture looks almost like snakeskin.

Above, there’s a charming wallpaper border depicting a woman in a prairie dress standing in a field with cows.







Lost Cabin

A painting of a western landscape in the dining room of J.B. Okie’s Lost Cabin mansion on Aug. 3. 




A fireplace with wine-colored tiles juts out of the near wall — one of several fireplaces in the mansion. Rumor has it they symbolize famous forests, Fross says. He thinks this one might be modeled off of the Black Forest in Germany.

Okie seemed fond of worldly luxuries: apparently, he used to have fashionable dresses from Paris on display in his Lost Cabin store, Fross said. Locals could try them on whenever they wanted to.







Lost Cabin Mansion

A portrait of John B. Okie, sheep magnate and creator of the mansion, hangs in the dining room on Aug. 3 in Lost Cabin.




“He knew they couldn’t afford it,” Fross said, “but that’s not what it was about.”

On the far wall, behind the dining room table, is a black-and-white portrait of Okie himself. One of Okie’s daughters gave it to the Frosses when she visited.

The man in the picture looks to be in his forties or fifties — bald, with a mustache that’s curled at the tips. He’s wearing a long sport coat over his dress shirt and tie.

He isn’t smiling, but there’s a sort of crinkle in his eyes. A hint of spunk, almost.

One time, an outlaw tried to rob Okie’s store in Lost Cabin, Fross says.

Okie stopped him at the door with his gun.

“Don’t you know who I am? I’m the bad man from the Stinking Water,” the thief said to him — referring to the old name for the Shoshone River.

“I’m the stinkin’ man from the Badwater,” Okie replied, not missing a beat.

***

Fross’s family doesn’t own the house; ConocoPhillips does.

A Wyoming ranching family, the Spratts, acquired Lost Cabin from the Okies in the 1940s, according to reporting at the time by the Casper Tribune-Herald.

Then energy company Louisiana Land and Exploration Co. purchased the land, which it used to develop a natural gas plant in the early 1990s.







Lost Cabin Mansion

A portal window points out to John B. Okie’s gravesite in the backyard on Aug. 3 in Lost Cabin. Okie died by accidentally falling into the reservoir and drowning while hunting with a friend in 1930.




Another oil and gas giant, Burlington Resources, bought them out in 1997. ConocoPhillips acquired Burlington Resources in 2006.

Fross, who already lived in Lost Cabin with his family, was tapped to be the home’s caretaker in 2009.

Fross and ConocoPhillips recently worked out a deal to transfer ownership of the mansion to his family. That will take effect in about four years, he says.

But it’ll never feel that way.

“How do you call this yours?” Fross says. “It kinda belongs to the state.”

***

There’s always work to do around the house: applying fresh coats of paint, replacing cracked windows, battling miller moth infestations.

But Fross seems to find joy in saving, preserving and restoring.







Lost Cabin

A wraparound porch located in the mansion of J.B. Okie, who raised sheep and launched a retail business in Lost Cabin over a hundred years ago. Zane Fross, who cares for the property on behalf of ConocoPhillips, keeps a a vintage sleigh he and his brother rescued and old cast-iron stove on the porch.




On the spacious wraparound porch, there’s an old cast-iron stove and a vintage sleigh. Fross bought the sleigh about five years ago. It was all tattered up at the time, so his brother had it refurbished.

The family has become intimately familiar with the house’s idiosyncrasies — some easy to explain, some, not so much.

Take the lamps mounted on the gates out front. Today, they’re completely solid on the inside, like stones. Some sort of black substance is visible underneath cracks in the glass. It looks like someone poured tar in there, Fross says, to keep the lamps from breaking.

There are five bedrooms on the second floor. Rumor has it that there was a red room, a yellow room, a blue room and a green room, in addition to the master bedroom, Fross says.

But the renovations back in the ‘70s made them difficult to distinguish. They all have the same kind of flowery kaleidoscope carpet, which is unusually clean and bright for its age.

He eventually deduced their true identities: when doing some repair work in one bedroom, Fross uncovered a patch of red wallpaper, for example. Later, he found a skeleton key labeled “green room,” which fit snugly in only one lock.







Lost Cabin

Zane Fross sits in the red bedroom in the mansion of former sheep herder and retail tycoon J.B. Okie in Lost Cabin. The upstairs bedrooms used to have color themes, according to Fross. There was also a green room, a blue room and a yellow room.




On the interior of each room, by the doorway, there are strange glass ornaments stuck to the walls.

They’re Red Comet brand fire extinguishers, and they contain a fire-smothering liquid called carbon tetrachloride. In the event of a fire, the labels say, throw this vessel at the burning area like a grenade.

Fross walks up to the upstairs bathroom, and points out a tiny hole in the door. Look through it, and you’ll discover it looks right at the toilet.







Lost Cabin

A tub in the master bathroom of business tycoon J.B. Okie’s 120-year-old mansion in Lost Cabin. While many changes have been made to the house over the years, the bathtub is original, says caretaker Zane Fross.




The work of some prankster? Or voyeur? Or normal wear-and-tear?

Fross isn’t sure. But he’s chosen to preserve this, too, just in case. (“It’s part of the house,” he says.) He stuck a piece of translucent tape on the back of the hole, so no one can see through it anymore.

A steep, narrow staircase draped in a slippery carpet connects the second floor to the attic. The steps squawk under Fross’ boots.

Tucked away in one corner, there’s a 1,600-gallon cistern. Someone had to hand-pump it full of water once upon a time.

The walls are textured with brown, furry clumps here and there. Cow hair, Fross guesses, used to bind the plaster together.

Farther back is the lookout tower (aka the cupola). The attic’s ceiling is sloped — it’s the roof, after all — so you have to duck to get there.

The octagon-shaped room has enough space for a few people. Right now, nothing’s in there, but the Frosses put a tree there every Christmas.

There are windows on all sides, which overlook the property: the green yard, the wrought-iron gate, and miles and miles of scrub.

Fross turns, about to head back downstairs.

But wait a minute — a couple of the floorboards in the cupola are wobbly. There’s a noticeable gap around them, unlike their peers, which look practically glued together.

Fross kneels down, removes a plank. A trapdoor.

There’s nothing of interest in there these days. But when Fross’s daughter discovered it years ago, she found an old letter from a Julio Osa.

Fross says he doesn’t know much about Osa. Might have been a rancher.

Homesteading laws were one way the United States incentivized people to participate in its westward expansion. If people settled land out west for certain number of years — and met a few other requirements, depending on what kind of land it was — they got to own it for free.







Lost Cabin

The former seat of J.B. Okie’s business dealings are visible from the lookout tower in his early 20th-century house. While the company building is now in disrepair, the house is still looked after by caretaker Zane Fross and his family.




The region wasn’t unoccupied, of course; indigenous nations had lived there for thousands of years prior. The U.S. sanctioned their removal to make room for settlers.

There was a limit to how much land could be claimed through homesteading. To get around this, landowners would pay people to homestead unclaimed land, then buy it from them.

Okie used this technique to grow his domain to over 50,000 acres. That may have been why Osa and Okie were corresponding, Fross guesses.

Okie was laid to rest in a patch of tall grass on the edge of his property. One of his sons and his brother are buried next to him.







Lost Cabin Mansion

John B. Okie’s grave in the backyard, where some of his children were buried as well, is seen on on Aug. 3 in Lost Cabin.




Fross wades out of the tall grass, walks back to the front yard and turns to look at the house. He’s quiet for a moment.

That’s his favorite part, he says. Just taking in the view.

Even though he’s lived here for over a decade, he still looks at Okie’s work with fresh eyes. Always marveling at how the man made it happen — how he built an empire out of the rocky, arid ground.

“It’s a little bit like Wyoming itself,” he says.

Fross walks up the steps to the side door and slips back inside.



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