Neighborhood: Saddle Butte

A neighborhood hidden in plain sight of downtown Jackson.

Neighborhood: Saddle Butte

A neighborhood hidden in plain sight of downtown Jackson.

By Mark Huffman / Photograph by Bradly J. Boner

Aerial of the town of Jackson.

If you’re standing in downtown Jackson, the Saddle Butte Subdivision is in plain view, though the geography of the butte and the layout of the houses on it hide most development. For many people it’s just a long ramp of roadway heading up the butte from where Mercill Avenue meets North Millward Street.

Maybe the difficulty seeing the neighborhood—and its slow start nearly six decades ago—has something to with how Teton County government was actually surprised when it finally became aware that something was going on up there.

When county officials did discover the subdivision, it was because of a lot of complaints. “Saddle Butte had a bad reputation,” resident Jean Ferguson said recently. “It had a bad water system, the road was dirt, and there were no guardrails. The drainage was poor.” And there was that thing about there being no official approval before people began building homes on the butte.

Jackson Hole resident George Hufsmith was the man who started the subdividing on the butte in the late 1960s. It was a simpler time: For a start, there was no county land plan.

In his day, Hufsmith was one of the valley’s best-known men. In the 1940s his father Robert, himself a third-generation Wyomingite, bought 500 acres in South Park that he ranched for years before it turned into the Shooting Iron subdivision. George served in the Army during World War II in a signal detachment that intercepted Japanese communications. He arrived in Jackson in 1951 after graduating from the Yale School of Music. Hufsmith sold insurance and real estate for 20 years; he was county attorney and served three terms in the Wyoming House. On the side, he was exalted ruler of the Elks Lodge and wrote history and classical music. His opera The Sweetwater Lynching was later transformed into the book The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889. As one of the people involved in creating the Grand Teton Music Festival, Hufsmith’s music was sometimes performed by the orchestra.

Harry E. Jones owned a bit more than 400 acres at the south end of East Gros Ventre Butte. Born here in 1909, Jones was the son of homesteaders who lived first up the Gros Ventre Valley and later in town, near where the Kudar Motel now stands. He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in botany then, in the 1930s, headed to Alaska to prospect and trap. During World War II, he served in the Army in Europe. His sister married into the Dornan family, which founded and still runs the Dornan’s compound in Moose. In 1967, Jones sold his land on East Gros Ventre Butte to the Hufsmiths. Where the sale is recorded in Teton County records, a second line notes a mortgage for $48,000.

Hufsmith began selling lots on the hillside, where builder Bill Hammer “engineered” the road by eyeball and four-wheel drive. Hammer’s goal was to get material up to what now is 750 Saddle Butte Drive, where he was building a log home for Hufsmith and his wife, Ellie.

Hammer started by cutting trees in Mosquito Creek. “Then he had to get them up here over a road that was barely one lane wide,” Ellie Hufsmith said in a story about her house in 1977. “If he couldn’t get his truck over the bridge, he’d just drive it through Flat Creek. If he couldn’t drive forwards up the road, he’d back up it. … There were times when this road was so muddy that Bill would have to take one truck to drag another one up here.”

Ellie Hufsmith said the trouble was worth it for the views. “The sunsets, oh, the sunsets!” she said in that same article. “Every one is different. … And when the moon comes up over the Sleeping Indian, it seems like it’s right above your head.” 

Jean Ferguson and her husband, Dick, agree the elevated location is a big part of the attraction. “It was all for the view,” she says. “We can see the Tetons on one side, and we see the town and the Elk Refuge and Cache Creek on the other.”

A nice view did little for early residents, though. By 1976 they were griping to the county about the road, that they had no dependable water, that there was flooding in the spring and fire danger in summer. County efforts to do anything were stalled because no plat had ever been filed subdividing the property and Hufsmith insisted that development predated the county plan.

Hank Phibbs, county attorney at the time, said then that he had “no idea of the boundaries or size” of the subdivision. Phibbs says that he couldn’t remember the details, but that the county did eventually take in the lower part of the butte, below the saddle. In early years nearly all the development was on 26 lots that encompassed 75 acres in that lower section.

Legal fighting continued over the upper part of the property until about 2002, when some Texas developers—Terry and Sharon Worrell and Sam Ware—bought it and wanted to divide the 189 acres into 17 home sites for a new area called Saddle Butte Heights. The entire upper parcel had been offered in 1998 for $2.8 million. When the lots went on the market in 2000 they were offered at prices ranging from $950,000 to $5 million.

As part of the deal, the Texas developers fixed the road—adding nearly a dozen sharp switchbacks—replaced the water system and the bridge over Flat Creek, and did a lot of other work. The deal also included keeping 120 acres as open space, adding to the 194 acres preserved on the lower part of the butte.

“The sunsets, oh, the sunsets! Every one is different, and when the moon comes up over the Sleeping Indian, it seems like it’s right above your head.”

[ Ellie Hufsmith  ]

When the Fergusons bought their lot in 1976 they paid $17,000, Jean says, though she added that people now don’t know “how hard it was to have $17,000 in those days.” She says George Hufsmith carried a note for her and her husband. She says they “just wanted an inexpensive lot to build a cabin.” By the time they built in the 1990s and moved in in 1997, the area was “too expensive for little cabins.”

As late as 1981 a house on the hill was advertised at $199,500. Today houses on Saddle Butte range as much in price as they do in elevation. (The butte’s saddle is 400 feet above town, and its summit is another 600 feet higher.) But if you want one, you’ll almost certainly have to wait and then take what’s available. At the start of 2020, only one was listed, and it was under contract: a 3,150-square-foot place built in 2011 on the butte’s high point with a view in every direction. The three-bedroom, four-bathroom house—one of those square buildings with lots of glass—had been on the market for $4.95 million. Just a couple of years ago, average prices were beginning to reach the high side of $3.5 million.

Over the years the hillside has been home to Roger and Barbara LaVake (Roger was a photographer); Anthony Wall, owner of the longtime restaurant Tony’s; and Ling Tung, the music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival. George Hufsmith died in 2002 at age 77; Ellie died in 2017 at 92.

For many years if you looked up “Hufsmith” in the phonebook it gave their address as “above Jackson.” Their house was torn down and replaced in 2016. 

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