(Welcome back to Thebeerchaser. If you are seeing this through an e-mail, please visit the blog to see all of the photos and read the story by clicking on the title above so the post is not clipped or shortened.)
Thebeerchaser’s exploration of new establishments during the pandemic has been limited (or basically non-existent) so on recent posts I’ve covered some miscellaneous topics such as reminiscing about Vortex 1 – the only state-sponsored rock concert in US history held near Estacada, Oregon in 1970. It’s a fascinating story: https://thebeerchaser.com/2020/07/16/beerchasing-miscellany-lockdown-version-ii/
In a number of posts, I’m also “revisiting,” in a manner of speaking, some of my favorite bars and breweries visited during the nine years I’ve pursued my idiosyncratic retirement hobby with the tally now at 375 establishments reviewed since August, 2011. This time I will focus on the Big Sky State.
In June 2019, my wife and I had a marvelous combined road trip of fourteen days from Oregon to the Dakotas and back.
I say “combined” because the first six days, I drove our 2015 Prius (without any gun rack) through Montana – solo before picking my wife up at the Billings, Montana Airport for the remainder of that trip.
If it weren’t for the weather from October to March, Montana, with its outstanding scenery, would be an ideal place to live.
We love road trips and miss them greatly. In the last six months, about the only road trip I’ve taken is into the next county to a store that was one of the few places that had Chlorox Wipes available. That 49 mile round-trip had none of the benefits I experienced in Montana other than picking up an all-beef Seven-Eleven Big Bite Hot Dog for only $1 on National Hot Dog Day on the way (unbeknownst to my wife…..).
My first two nights were in Yaak, in the far NW corner of Montana where I spent much of that time in the Dirty Shame Saloon with owner, John Runkle. The Shame was the most interesting and my favorite watering hole of the 375 in the nine years of Beerchasing and John, one of the most interesting personalities.
(Click on the links in the para above or below to see one of the four posts I did on this legendary saloon and put it on your bucket list — I mean Right Now!! https://thebeerchaser.com/2019/10/16/thebeerchasers-final-thoughts-on-the-dirty-shame-saloon/
Subsequent nights in Kalispell, Hamilton, Anaconda and Livingston increased my bar tally by 29 establishments. After I picked up Janet, we hit the road, visiting six National Parks and Monuments in addition to museums and, of course, bars and breweries in North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho before returning home.
The total of 3,700 miles on the combined trip saw us visit a total of forty-nine new establishments for my Beerchasing reviews.
One can go for for miles and miles without seeing anybody or even having to turn your steering wheel! Montana is known is the Big Sky State although it could easily be captioned as the long, straight road state as well. For road trippers, it’s superb.
If you want to see, the composite list of bars for that trip, check out the end of the following post: https://thebeerchaser.com/2019/07/05/big-sky-beerchasing-the-preface/
On those six days solo in Montana, I hit some of the most memorable bars and met the most colorful characters since I began Beerchasing and a sample is shown below. One common theme is taxidermy and Miller High Life. (I had the Time and the bars had the beer……..)
This picture of the Trappers’ Saloon on Highway 93 near Eureka, Montana is a great example and also very typical. Their slogan is “Where the West is Still Wild!” and they try to prove that in the horseshoe pit by the side of the bar each day.
And it’s not just in the bars where you will see mounted wildlife – birds, snakes, fish, beaver, deer and elk, bison and even an alligator and a polar bear (Blue Moon Saloon outside Kalispell) decorating the walls as evidenced by this picture of the lobby in the historic Murray Hotel on Main Street in Livingston.
Speaking of Taxidermy….
In going through old files from the law firm that I have kept for almost ten years since retirement, I came across this one from one of the Schwabe lawyers coincidentally related to this topic…..
For those uncomfortable with the end result of taxidermy, at least this actual case involved the more cuddly substitute. One of Schwabe’s female appellate lawyers sent this e-mail to the firm in April 2001:
“I need a small to medium sized stuffed squirrel for an oral argument at the Court of Appeals next Wednesday. No taxidermy please. I promise to return said squirrel safely after the argument.”
Well, she told me a few days ago in response to an e-mail that the case involved the golden mantle ground squirrel – a protected species in Oregon, but not Washington where it is a native species, but curiously not protected.
Unfortunately for our client – an Oregon rancher – one of the pesky critters had hopped a log raft and took a leisurely cruise across the Columbia River and “invaded” his Oregon property. The State wanted to shut his operation down. Schwabe was trying to get the case reversed after an unfavorable verdict in the lower court:
“The State had cutesy pictures of the little critters in its brief so I needed the stuffed squirrels for “live action” pictures.”
Did she get a stuffed squirrel for her court appearance?
“I ended up with ten stuffed squirrels from various firm members, I lined them up on counsel table. One of them fell off the table during my argument…I heard from a law clerk several years later that the three judges never stopped talking about it…and, I lost.”
But I Digress – Back to Montana
After two nights in Yaak, I spent a night in Kalispell and then Hamilton – a nice berg on the western border of Montana. Then I took a “rural” and roundabout route to my next stay in Anaconda, but only after stopping at four great bars in the boonies.
Having graduated from an aggie school – Oregon State University (in Corvallis, Oregon not Montana – see below) with a great forestry program – and given the history of the Oregon Timber Industry, I was very interested in another bar – the Saw Mill Saloon.
Darby is right on Highway 93 and has a population of only 720 (it gained 10 between the 2000 and 2010 census) and this watering hole was understandably not hopping on a weekday morning. Located in the historic State Bank of Darby building, the bartender showed me the two big vaults, one of which is now used to store kegs and cases of beer.
Darby was once a bustling timber, mining and transportation hub, but since the ’70’s has relied mostly on tourism. Town Marshall, Larry Rose (who is also a taxidermist… ) has been marshal for 36 years as chronicled in a fascinating 2014 article in the Billings Gazette:
“…..(Rose) once punched the town judge during a city council meeting before handcuffing him. (That made the late Paul Harvey’s news broadcast) In a town that celebrates Old West individualism, Rose has more law enforcement surveillance cameras monitoring his citizens than any other city in Montana.
…..Rose’s station house looks like a memorial to the town’s Old West heyday. It features an iron-barred jail cell in the corner, a gun rack full of lever-action Winchester rifles and mountain lion skins on the wall. The 71-year-old Rose flicks a button on his computer. A checkerboard of 16 little screens pops up.
They’re the surveillance cameras Rose has strategically positioned around town, on light poles and balconies, and even in flower planter barrels. The software spots vehicle license plates and automatically records the numbers.”
I wish Rose had been at the Saw Mill Saloon that morning since he was born only 22 miles up Highway 93 in Corvallis, Montana – only 675 miles from the OSU campus. We we could have regaled each other with Corvallis stories while raising a mug. Based on a call to Darby yesterday, they confirmed that Rose – now 76 – still holds the office.
For example there was the time in 1998 when he came into contact with the former host of the Late Night Show – “Town Marshal Lassoes Letterman”)
“David Letterman can’t escape traffic tickets even in a state noted for its high-speed highways. While Montana has no posted daytime speed limit on its highways, Letterman found out the same can’t be said of city speed limits.
He was stopped Saturday for driving 38 mph in a 25 mph zone and was pleasant as he paid a $50 fine, said Larry Rose, town marshal of Darby, population 800.”
If you look on Google, Rose’s tenure has been filled with internal political turmoil, he’s been in the middle of a town polarized on the issues and even involved in a 2005 incident, when Rose killed a man who tried to take away his firearm during a domestic disturbance. (He was exonerated after an inquest although the family of the victim was unsatisfied with the decision – so his Corvallis stories would probably be more interesting than mine…….)
And you would not believe the number of old chain saws and lumber mill saw blades hanging from the ceiling, which gives the Sawmill Saloon a great Montana ambiance.
Take a look at one perspective from a very recent (June, 2020) Yelp reviewer – also named Don, who I gleaned from his website, like Thebeerchaser, also a native New Yorker. This interesting fella wrote:
“one of the main reasons i love it is that liberals really hate sawmills, mining, coal, gas and everything that keeps our country moving forward. so i love the decor. hopefully this is not just some shallow statement from people who really oppose sawmills and blue collar workers who keep our country great.”
As an aside, Don on his website also stated that his wife is his “latest crush,” the last great book he read was “Books not written by liberals or wacko leftists” and his latest discovery is that “liberalism is a mental disorder.”
The bartender was a jovial, rather rotund guy, and I guess I missed a nice bartender – also named, Dawn, who a guy named Jonathan on Restaurant.com just this March, wrote:
“Great bartender, really cute, going to be a great mother,”
Of course, this raises many questions and unfortunately, Jonathan didn’t elaborate on his criteria for “great” parental skills…..
In a little less than an hour I got to Wisdom, Montana, where I met Bernie, the “head bartender and pizza maker” – their specialty which draws rave reviews – at the Antler Saloon. As you can see below, the taxidermy was not disappointing nor was my Miller High Life and I contemplated the beer’s 117 year history.
I sat at the bar next to a warm-blooded character, although not the best conversationalist. As I left, however, my new, but tight-lipped buddy, Fritz, waved a paw and I look forward to going back for heightened Wisdom. I’m confident that my canine friend will be sitting on the same bar stool.
Bernie did not tell me if Fritz was the enforcer for those who violated the admonition in the men’s (and possibly slightly modified in the women’s) restroom:
“Spit chew in the garbage not the urinal.”
Joan Melcher, in her outstanding book, Montana Watering Holes does point out that the Antler Saloon was previously named the Wisdom Inn which, in itself, had a fabled history.
The Wise River Club
Only 38 miles from Wisdom, through some stunningly exquisite scenery, I stopped in Wise River and had a Miller High Life and a great chat with Tom Davis at the Wise River Club.
Tom is the 75-year old owner and head bartender (also singer and guitarist for weekend live music based on his experience leading opening acts for Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and Papas and Paul Revere and the Raiders in the ‘60’s).
The cordial Scotchman also related the story about the guy who was murdered in the men’s room at the Club a number of years ago in this watering hole and hotel on the north edge of the Beaverhead National Forest. (Marshall Larry Rose was not involved….)
One other distinguishing characteristic of this historic bar – it had the only working pay-phone of any of the 49 watering holes on the trip. I guess you could call 911 in the event of a murder if you had a quarter or maybe it was just a dime…..
And the picture below may raise some questions which are answered, at least in theory, by author, Joan Melcher. You are looking at elk antlers:
“Nineteen sets – attached to the ceiling and extending from the front of the bar to the end and around a corner. They were all from one elk that was kept across the street, he says, in some sort of game farm. The elk lived for twenty three years.” (Page 31)
Perhaps it was the two bottles of Miller High Life – after all, it is the “Champagne of Bottled Beers” or perhaps it was the great bartenders and the history of the establishments, but after I left Wise River and then Wisdom, I just felt a bit more intelligent…..
The Dewey Bar in Wise River
Now, the Dewey Bar is only seven miles east of the Wise River Social Club on Highway 43 along the Big Hole River and you won’t find it in Joan Melcher’s book of classic Montana bars. Nor will you find a website for it and their Facebook page went mostly inactive since 2015. It’s just that it was a reunion stop for me.
In 2004, I was on a two-month firm sabbatical and for part of that time, Janet let me take a ten-day road trip through Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
I had no set itinerary (except to stop in Stanley, Idaho to visit the Stanley Rod and Gun Whitewater Saloon) and carried my mountain bike on the back of my Forester. I had not even thought of Beerchasing at that time because I was still a number of years from retirement.
But on about the sixth day out, I ended up at the Dewey Bar, in the late afternoon. It was the one night I was car camping in a nearby National Forest Campground and I saw the Budweiser signs on the exterior near the front entrance in a one-room building with wood plank siding and it was Happy Hour!
I sat down at the bar next to a somewhat grizzled guy drinking a Bourbon and Coke and found out he was a retired lawyer from Seattle who had settled nearby. About that time, there was some shouting at the other end of the bar – then occupied by about fifteen patrons – and two guys looked like they were going to square off.
The lawyer suddenly shouted, “If you guys sit down and shut up, I’ll buy everybody in the house a round!” They did – he did – and everyone toasted him. The bartender took our picture above and that was the last time I laid eyes on him. But I always vowed to go back.
(Fortunately I was not there in 2010 when the bar was fined $794 by the Montana Department of Environment Quality for failing to monitor the coliform bacteria in the bar’s water supply.)
But the bar looked exactly the same and I talked to the friendly bartender, Lori and had a beer with two great guys named Shawn and Steve who were on their day off from the Montana State Highway Division – also on their second round of Bloody Mary’s (and listening to CNN – one of the few times a bar didn’t have Fox News on in Montana).
They told the story about the day the bar opened fifteen years ago and some guy with a rifle shot off 64 rounds in the back area by the kitchen. A dog got wounded and went berserk and a Forest Service guy tackled the offender and told him he better switch from Budweiser to Gatorade. As a result of the damage done by the rifle fire, they had to totally remodel the kitchen and the back area.
Well, after that I rolled into a rough old mining town – Anaconda – with one of the rougher bars I’ve been to in my Beerchasing journey.
But the story on The Owl in Anaconda will have to wait for another post.