John Runkle is a burly, outgoing guy who radiates energy and charisma – one reason he has a loyal and diverse customer base in his Yaak Montana bar – the Dirty Shame Saloon.
A number of long-term customers, most notably hunters and bikers, also stay at his other business – the Yaak River Lodge – about a mile down the road from the “center” of this small unincorporated burg in the upper Northwest corner of Montana.
It sits on 7.5 acres of beautiful Montana land fronting the Yaak River with llamas and horses.
In fact, during hunting season and other busy months, he runs a shuttle between the bar and the lodge so his customers don’t jeopardize not only their own safety, but that of the other approximately 250 residents of Yaak.
While some think the community was named after the “yak” – a long-haired domesticated clove-footed mammal similar to the bison, the village’s name was derived from the Native American term for “arrow.”
The yak in the photo below – in the dining room of the Lodge, was purchased at a yard sale for $350 according to John!
And Yaak – only 61 miles from the nearest Canadian border crossing – is where I spent the first two nights of what was a combined fourteen-day 3,700-mile June road trip through Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming. I was ensconced in the Moose Room – comfortable and spacious with rustic charm.
The first six days of the trip,I drove our Prius solo, marveling at the Big Sky scenery and rocking out to various Sirius Satellite Radio channels – my favorite being channel 70 – “Yacht Rock Radio.”
I heard Christopher Cross sing “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing” one too many times on Yacht Rock.
So I switched to BB King’s “Bluesville” #74 and “Big Band Forties Junction” #73 spinning my favorite Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller classics.
Subsequent nights in Montana’s Kalispell, Hamilton, Anaconda and Livingston before picking up my spouse at the Billings Airport, gave me the opportunity to explore thirty Montana watering holes – many of them historic dive bars.
These establishments supplemented the nineteen bars and breweries, Janet and I visited in the final eight days of the trip – a journey that was also highlighted by three National Parks, two National Monuments, the incredible Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
For an overview of the entire trip, see the first two posts on Thebeerchaser with the links below:
I first talked John Runkle three years ago after Tara, a bartender at the Moose Saloon in Coeur d’Alene, told me that my blog hobby should definitely include a review of the World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak where she used to bartend.
After reading about the infamous bar and an extended phone conversation with John, I told him that my bucket list now included a future visit to his bar.
Of course, John was not impressed when he learned that two other items on my bucket list were:
1. Visiting Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
2. Sitting on the 50-yard line when the Oregon State Beavers win the College Football National Championship (while the Beavs are still in Division 1….)
Why the Dirty Shame?
The Dirty Shame has a long and fabled history. Let’s get some insight on that from an acclaimed expert on Montana bars – Joan Melcher– she has authored two wonderful books on Montana Watering Holes.
In her first book (1983), Joan stated:
“….the same wood-planked front porch, the same deer rack used as a door handle, the battered pool table, the loose bathroom door, the grotesque graffiti inside, the loggers, ranchers receptionists, Forest Service people using the bar like a third leg….
The Dirty Shame is the fresh, sharp smell of pine, and the dank odor of dirt-laden, beer-splashed floors, wild nights of revelry and mornings of shared pain.” (Page 88)
According to one local legend, the original Dirty Shame was built in 1951 by airmen in the United States Army Air Corps.
They erected it so that they would have their own place to dine and drink. The original bar, with only a dirt floor, burned down and was rebuilt.
The author laments the “deterioration” of this historic and iconic bar in her second book written in 2009. She was pessimistic about the perpetuation of the Dirty Shame’s tradition after a female – a former Wall Street stockbroker and her husband, moved from Maryland and bought the bar in 2006.
I say “deterioration” because they tried to “clean it up.” (Perhaps they should have recognized that as being counterintuitive – given the name of the bar!)
“What I learn is the that the Dirty Shame died a typically raucous death and has been reborn as a law-abiding establishment, that is really more coffeehouse then bar. Sacrilege!…..Besides a piano and set-up for musicians….she also has book readings and draws many people who aren’t close enough to Yaak to be miffed about what happened to its legendary bar.
The Dirty Shame is dead. Long live the Dirty Shame.” (Pages 54-7,9)
Well, ironically, the stockbroker’s plans were permanently shelved in 2011 when her 82-year old husband, Glen, was taken out of the bar in handcuffs and extradited to Maryland after he pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of two female minors according to a story in the Montana newspaper The Ravelli Republic.
John Runkle who had purchased the Yaak River Lodge in 2004 and operated it since that time, knew he had to do something:
“It was a matter of self-preservation. I started getting cancellations because hunters and bikers wanted to hit the Dirty Shame when they stayed in Yaak.
I was the only one who showed up at the foreclosure sale. I paid cash and was now the owner of another business that I didn’t know anything about how to operate.”
He and his army buddy, Ray Falconer, purchased it out of foreclosure in 2013 and the rest is history. (John’ partner, Ray, bailed about a year later after going through one Montana winter. (“It was the coldest in 15 years at one point hitting 32 degrees below zero.”)
The rest is history and as you will read below and in the following posts, Dirty Shame regulars no longer have to worry about the original “ambiance” of their bar sliding up to book club decorum. And that’s because this wonderful saloon reflects the magnetic personality of its owner. No, neither the Dirty Shame or John Runkle is anywhere close to being deceased…….
Now before getting into the details, let me state that examining photos John has sent and those on Facebook, the most frequent shot is somebody posing with him – Runkle inevitably is in a two-thumbs up posture reflecting his outlook on life.
Alternatively, the photo shows John and his visitors with the Donald Trump life-size cut-out – it’s now gone, but not forgotten after being “kidnapped” last year. (Stories on the Trump escapade and John’s politics in the next post.)John Runkle’s background reflects some of the same fascinating interludes as his bar. He was born in Orange County and graduated from LaQuinta High School in Westminster, CA – that was only after a brief period where he even attended Rex Putnam HS in Portland (about seven miles from my current residence) when he “ran away” to Oregon with his then girlfriend!
He joined the Army in 1980 and was ordered to Jump School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“I was pretty big for a paratrooper, but I did what they told me… and that first jump is the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve had besides getting married…”
He became a Paratrooper with the 509th Airborne Combat Team, was shipped to Europe and graduated from the French Commando School. He also earned Spanish Jump Wings. The big guy made a total of 53 jumps.
He was then stationed in Italy and a member of SETAF – an Army Service component command of United States Africa Command , which although based in Italy, primarily operates in Africa.
In 1983, the Army surprised him with new orders – this time to be a jump school instructor at Fort Benning:
“Italy was great. To be honest, I probably would have made the Army a career, but there is a lot of difference between Vincenza, Italy and Fort Benning.”
Upon leaving the Army, he used the GI Bill and ultimately graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a BS in Business Administration – a degree he has used extensively along with his natural propensity for sales and marketing.
Pictures of John from his days in the Army reveal why there have been some great reunions of his military buddies at the Dirty Shame Saloon in recent years.
Runkle is an entrepreneur and a natural leader. His sales acumen led him into the real estate business and he formed his own company in 1988. In the twenty years he managed it, he successfully expanded the business to seven states with 300 realtors.
He became a well known force in the industry while garnering awards such as Realtor of the Year and Outstanding Performer. (He still does some real estate work in and around Yaak.)
John also had successful stints in the mining equipment and banking areas including time in Queensland, Australia for several years after he bought Yaak River Lodge and before the Dirty Shame.
If one looks at his resume, one can see an emphasis on staff development and motivating a team – it was still evident even with the small group at the Dirty Shame.
According to John, after growing his real estate business, “I reached my limit one day in 1998 while on a vacation to Glacier National Park. I threw my cell phone out the window and knew if I didn’t escape the grind, I was heading for a heart attack.” He fell in love with Montana and when the Lodge came up for sale, “I bought it on the spot — although it was a mess….”
And it’s understandable why someone who wants to escape the tyranny of the urgent and appreciate nature’s wonder in the West would gravitate to Montana.
If you look at one of his recent Facebook posts, one can see the ambivalence that owning a small business(es) sometime creates – very typical in the hospitality and lodging businesses where balancing the job and family becomes a major challenge:
“Ever since I was 21 years old, it seems like I have always been in charge no matter where I end up. At my age I keep thinking of the movie ‘American Beauty’ where he quits his job as an executive and goes to work at Burger King. His exact words to the interviewer were ‘I want the job with the least amount of responsibility.’ Does anyone else ever feel like that too?”
That said, I can’t see John being in a subservient role very long – partly because of his own personality and because those around him look up to him and seek inspiration from his leadership. As the quote below shows, after some frustration, reality and the pursuit of excellence return for overachievers:
“As another summer approaches, I think of how much whining I do as it become overwhelming busy at the Dirty Shame. I have to continuously remind myself that I own a hunting lodge and a wild west bar. Life just doesn’t get any better – truthfully.”
Before we leave this part of the story, we need to talk about family. He met Dallas Wilson when she applied for a bartender job three and one-half years ago.
She had studied at Arizona State and while working, she is completing work on her Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis.
A testament to her abilities as a teacher and tutor is this shown from this Facebook post from John.
They married and were blessed with their first child – an outrageously cute little girl who is now two and one-half. And Dallas was about nine months pregnant when I was there in June so……..
Now there is plenty more to share about the Dirty Shame and the Yaak River Lodge, so stay tuned for the next post of Thebeerchaser.
You won’t want to miss the stories of this legendary bar and see how the Runkle marketing talents and creativity have continued to make the Dirty Shame Saloon a popular destination.
John is one of the most fascinating people I’ve met in 7 1/2 years of Beerchasing and joins a select group of authors, war heroes, athletes, academicians, lawyers and just plain interesting individuals and groups who have been named the Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter. (Although none may have liked Halloween as well….)
The Dirty Shame Saloon
29453 Yaak River Road, Troy Montana
very interesting…its like a movie… you really took time to compose this beautifully with pictures, and arrange it in somewhat of a motion-picture form, very entertaining… I am already attracted to the character and charisma of the owner of the…Saloon… I wish I could have beer there; I do have a couple of beers at times, even though I’m not Stone Cold Steve Austin😄
Thanks for the wonderful comment which from a skilled and learned blogger like yourself is a real compliment. Yes, you would like John Runkle who not only has charisma but is a very motivated guy – that you would identify with. And as far as beer, you will have to come to Oregon and join me at the Mt. Angel Monastery where the Benedictine monks own and operate the brewery dating back to the tradition they started in the 7th century.
you’re welcome… and yes, I would have to join you there; I thought deeply about that today, and know it’s a possibility…I only hope it happens much earlier when I start travelling in the near future, the way I would like to…travelling is fun and a very educative endeavor…I plan to go to US or Canada to read creative writing and anything related… this will pave more ways for me to tour entertaining places whenever I’m less engaged in school