There's nunn' ordinary about it. | Vanita Salisbury
There's nunn' ordinary about it. | Vanita Salisbury

This Unassuming Patch of Flyover Country Hides a Sky-High Past

Welcome to Bar Nunn, a former airfield humming with small town charm.

Despite its name, there are actually two bars in Bar Nunn, and they’ll tell you all you need to know about the antelope-beset Great Plains enclave of 2,981, just 10 minutes outside of Casper. Choose the squat Chatters, and be charmed by $2 pint specials and Sunday all-day breakfast. If you’re short on time and can’t go in, that’s fine—there’s a drive-thru around back.

In a room with two pool tables, a dart board, and thick blanket of smoke (“We’re the smoking bar,” says a new friend at the counter), gossipy local stalwarts—some who have lived in Bar Nunn since not too long after it was incorporated in 1982—will jump to inform you both that the John Wayne film Hellfighters was filmed right here in town, and about the tourists that lingered too long after the KOA down the street closed for the season last October. Inquire about what there is to do in the area and they’ll hit you with, “Have you seen the tumbleweeds in the park?” (they’re not joking). Ask if they ever go to the massive establishment next door, the other bar-slash-restaurant, and you’ll get a definitive “No. This is our spot.”

Go Pokes! | Vanita Salisbury

But you will check out the massive establishment next door. Family-friendly, with bounce houses, a killer burger menu, gambling machines, and a bartender who will let you sample fancy tequila, insist you order the pie and then forget to charge you for it, there’s plenty going in its favor. But you’re there for the décor. And the history.

A small blue biplane hangs from the arched ceiling; the menu will tell you it was once flown by James C. Good, who used to fly for Amoco Oil in Casper. A large propeller separates seating areas, and a profusion of aviation paraphernalia line the walls. It includes but is not limited to photos of the building’s past. Today, this bar-slash-restaurant is called The Hangar, and it turns out it’s for a pretty good reason. It was once an actual airplane hangar. And the town of Bar Nunn? Well, that was once a wide-open airfield.

This hangar has seen some things. | Vanita Salisbury

Bar Nunn's high-flying past

It’s inevitable in this age of aviation: The rise of larger, shinier airports means their smaller predecessors are often left by the wayside. Economic downturns, structural damage, or simply no longer being needed after the end of a war also contribute to desertions. The little guys never stood a chance.

One website devoted to abandoned airfield lists no less than 2,643 such examples spanning 50 states and Puerto Rico. Some exist as permanent indentations of runways in grass (did you know anyone can just make their own airstrip?). And some, like Bar Nunn, have found new purpose in their second lives. Denver’s Stapleton International Airport is now a mixed-use urban community. Internationally, Hong Kong’s Kai Tak is now a cruise terminal, and Berlin’s Tempelhof, now Tempelhofer Feld, is perhaps the best example of airfield adaptive reuse that preserves its past: It lives on as a lush, vast public park with 10 entrances, studded with both community gardens and Cold War-era airplanes.

The 640-acre former airfield now called Bar Nunn was conceived in 1927 as the port for Wyoming’s Natrona County. Two years later, it was officially christened Wardwell Field, after Major Doyen P. Wardwell, an aviation pioneer whose plane went into a tailspin in 1929 and crashed nearby. The field cost $125,000 to build, featured a sturdy brick and steel hangar, and, according to newspaper clippings, opened up a new airmail route from Billings, Montana to Denver, Colorado via Casper.

With three paved runways and an additional unpaved option, it saw some good times—like a dedication in 1934, complete with an over-the-top air show attracting government officials and thousands of onlookers. And visits by a Boeing Monomail mail plane, one of only two ever built. Wardwell Field served as the county’s airport until 1952, when operations were moved to the former Casper Army Airfield. And for the next two years, there it sat, unused.

Don't forget to look up when you're in The Hangar. | Vanita Salisbury

A man, a plan, an abandoned airfield

It’s here that the story of Bar Nunn pivots to one of a man with a dream. The man? Cowboy businessman and jack of all trades (including, amazingly, water divining), Romie Nunn, out of Casper. The dream: To take the abandoned Wardwell Field and transform it into an internationally renowned “horse center of the Rockies.” In 1954, Nunn, who already had a partial stake in Wardwell, paid $20,500 for the land to fulfill his vision. In it, the already- built roads would be lined with lots. Every lot would have a ranch-style home. And every ranch-style home, its very own horse.

He subdivided the area, calling it the Bar-Nunn Ranch Subdivision, allotted space for a church, school, and businesses, and built the social community by sponsoring square dances, drag races, and at least one rodeo a week in the indoor hangar-turned-arena. Horse activities were aplenty: There was a half-mile race track, an outdoor riding arena, and four miles of bridle path. He also got creative with those wide streets. In 1956, they played host to the National Road Race, and other car races soon followed suit. A 1959 article in the Denver Post Empire Magazine dubbed Nunn “The Runway Rancher.”

But though the population rapidly grew, Nunn’s ranch-style dream never came to fruition. In 1972, he sold off all but 10 lots. Later that decade, area homeowners voted to incorporate as a municipality in order to improve services related to snow removal and street repairs. And in 1982, the town officially became Bar Nunn.

Plenty of room for... whatever. | Vanita Salisbury

Plane and simple

Drive around modern-day Bar Nunn and you’ll be catch glimpses of its aeronautical past (check out this drone footage to get the full lay of the land). It begins with the town logo—what looks like an abstract scribble at its center is actually a map of the airfield’s former angular runway layout, stamped with its date of incorporation. (Another town sign features the region’s ever-prominent pronghorn antelope, which even gets its own eponymous street in town).

And you’ll feel the history in the streets, quite literally. Though now carved up, the former runways are still comically oversized for car traffic. One slopes upward (a characteristic of runways to allow for runoff), with a built-in U-turn. Another seems bent on launching you into the sunset, flanked by Casper Mountain. And on another, the girth is so wide and the yellow dividing line so awkwardly off-center that a driver could have an existential crisis deciding whether to stick close to the line or roam luxuriously within the broad lane.

A visit would require either staying overnight in Casper or reserving a spot at the KOA, which takes reservations beginning April 1. Or you could buy your own spot—as people flock to places like Jackson, there’s still plenty of room in these parts. And while there’s not that much to do in Bar Nunn proper, Casper offers year-round activities. There are hiking trails and skiing at the Hogadon Basin Ski Area on Casper Mountain, copious breweries, contemporary art at the Nicolaysen Art Museum, and even more history—both prehistoric, with dinosaur bones at the Tate Geological Museum at Casper College, and more recent, at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, where you’ll learn that Casper has the distinction of being the only place the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express trails intersect.

But if you’d rather just hang in Bar Nunn to hop back and forth between bars and zig zag your vehicle across the wide streets—advisedly not in that exact order—that could be entertaining as well. Just remember to watch out for the tumbleweeds.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She loves both bars equally.