Barry Barnes is unmistakable.
His style belies the two worlds he straddles, vintage pieces mixed with classic Western mainstays. He can pull off what others can’t — bold gold rings, a red Ortega vest with multiple denim pieces and sheepskin sneakers. He’s worn footwear ranging from cowboy boots to platform shoes over the course of his life.
Now in his 60s, he grew up in Jackson in the 1950s and 1960s having been born on a trip through Casper. As many children do, he left to get an education and pursue bigger city opportunities before returning to the place quiet enough that snowmobiles were ridden through Town Square.
His mother, Betty Jo Barnes, went to high school with Cliff Poindexter, who later went on to own the Cowboy Bar with Ron Schultz and Bud Jensen. She was a teacher and business owner. His father, Cloyde Harlan “Barney” Barnes, had an outfitting business near the Yellowtail Dam in south-central Montana. The couple had famous friends in the rodeo community like the cowboy, rodeo performer and actor Casey Tibbs, and Ben Johnson, a stuntman, rodeo cowboy and actor.
“They all partied at The Cowboy Bar and rodeo behind The Stagecoach Bar,” Barnes said. “Their life and their legacy is still a lot of Jackson.”
Even back then, tourists were a little befuddled about Wyoming’s wildlife. Barnes remembers eating dinner with his parents at The Virginian Lodge and overhearing a conversation.
“They said, ‘Oh, last night we were coming into Jackson and we saw a jackalope,’” Barnes said. “My mom and dad would smile and say, ‘Oh boy.’”
A love for memorabilia
Barnes studied art, design and fashion in college at Kinman Business University in Spokane, Washington and Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, before returning to Wyoming.
With an interest in stage and set design, he fit in well working at places like Dirty Jack’s Wild West Theater, now the Jackson Hole Playhouse. In 1979 he opened a thrift store called Orville’s, where he met his first interior design client, actor Harrison Ford. After years of freelance interior design work Barnes opened his own business, called the Purple Cowboy Emporium.
With his line of work, Barnes can be found scouring estate sales, garage sales and thrift stores for antique Western memorabilia and rare finds. A grandfather clock that stands several feet taller than him, discovered at the Habitat for Humanity Restore, ended up sparking a project that commemorates the region’s history
He originally intended to refurbish it and resell it, but with the 80th anniversary of the Cowboy Bar in 2017, he decided to gift it instead.
“I took this painted clock and I transformed it into a funky Western clock,” Barnes said. “I made it kind of a piece of art.”
It took him two years of collecting tokens — silver dollars, belt buckles, printed pennies, rhinestone cowgirls — to decorate the clock. There’s even a piece of burlwood, the same kind that’s in the bar, on the clock itself. It took him six months to assemble it all.
“It’s not something you just whip together,” he said.
Barnes loves telling the story of unveiling the clock. With employees’ help he snuck it into the bar when he knew former owners Art and Carol Andersen would be around.
“When I dropped the drape, their jaws dropped,” he said.
It now sits in the manager’s office upstairs. Barnes hopes a case might be built around it down on the floor of the bar, closer to the action. It’s a fitting place — at The Cowboy and The Wort in the days of yesteryear he used to watch his parents dance the two-step and the jitterbug, with his mom dancing through his dad’s legs and being flipped up on his shoulders.
“They would dance for hours like that,” he said. “It was just amazing.”
Western memorabilia used for the clock are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the artifacts and gems Barnes has accumulated. Another notable item is the 28-foot-long mural of Town Square that Barnes bought at the Teton Steakhouse auction in 2012.
Western on the big screen and in life
Barnes’ parents weren’t strangers to the silver screen. His mother body-doubled for actress Donna Reed in the 1940s and ’50s — once riding bareback across the Snake River near Dornan’s Chuckwagon. His father helped producers with livestock on set and doubled for Charles Bronson in “Breakheart Pass.”
In 1977 the whole family appeared in the Western film “Mountain Men.” His dad and brother also appeared in “Any Which Way You Can,” starring Clint Eastwood with a scene on the Town Square.
“They had quite a life,” Barnes said.
Barnes didn’t just watch Hollywood cowboys ride, he did so himself. A bullfighter and rodeo clown for nearly a quarter century, Barnes was a founding member of the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association. It later developed into the International Gay Rodeo Association.
Witness to change
Barnes and his husband, David, who married when Wyoming legalized same-sex marriage in 2014, are semiretired now, splitting their time between Wyoming and Montana. Reflecting on what the valley used to be makes Barnes emotional when he’s in Jackson.
He loved his childhood in Jackson. But a warning from his father still sticks with him.
“My dad said, ‘You wait and watch. Jackson is going to become a major ski resort and tourist mecca,’” Barnes said. “It’s all changed now.”
He’s proud to have grown up here but hates seeing his hometown turn into what he sees as a commercialized playground for the rich and the famous.
“That’s the hard part about it,” he said.
The traffic. Confrontations over “stupid and ludicrous” things — like a fight he saw break out over a Louis Vuitton purse at a local thrift shop. Some of the changes are a thorn in his side.
But he knows the Jackson he grew up in and today’s Jackson will never look the same.
“It won’t revert back to the ‘good ol’ days,’” he said.
But all of that clears away when he’s taken aback by the beauty and serenity that’s left off the beaten path. The view of the Tetons, a breath of fresh mountain air — “that awe-inspiring spirituality,” he said, “that’s the thing I never want to lose.”
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Barry Barnes father's name. — Eds.