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Unless you have been hiding under a rock since early March, you know that the ability to explore new bars and breweries is either extremely limited or in many locations, non-existent. Thus, Thebeerchaser, in a fit of maudlin retrospective, has harkened back to past trips to Montana (2004, 2016 and last summer) and the wonderful scenery and historic watering holes of the Big Sky State.
In a recent blog post, I remembered the great adventure we had last June when Janet and I embarked on a fifteen-day road trip through Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming before we returned to Oregon. We visited 49 great establishments in addition to our adventures in several memorable National Parks and Monuments we encountered on the 3,700 mile journey.
In the above post, I mentioned five bars – all in Montana which were my favorites and I want to continue the story on others since I didn’t write these up right after the trip.
https://thebeerchaser.com/2020/08/24/pondering-the-panemic-no-2/j All five have robust histories and great character as evident in the picture above.
Now one might wonder, “Why focus on Montana?” I’ve visited almost 400 bars and breweries in the last nine years since commencing my Beerchasing exploits – 125 in Portland, Oregon and the others throughout Oregon, various regions of the US and even a couple in Europe – talk about memorable!!
Well, perhaps I can answer that with a description from my most recent book:
Hanging the Sheriff – A Biography of Henry Plummer – a fascinating book about an iconic Montana ghost-town that I visited while on a sabbatical from my former law firm in 2004 road trip.
I spent about seven hours touring Bannack – including Hangman’s Gulch where Sheriff Plummer came to his untimely demise, and the cemetery in this photo I took. Men – both innocent and guilty were summarily tried, immediately hanged by the vigilantes, and left to “swing” so they could be a graphic example to others before they were laid to rest.
The book describes one notable saloon in “downtown” Bannack:
“…..the important role played by the saloons: They occupied a ‘large space in the social and public life of the camps to which nearly everyone was driven….’ Most were ‘hospitable, conducted by well-behaved attendants or proprietors, only a few of them contented to be known as bad.’
Of the ‘bad’ saloons, the one guaranteeing the most action was the Elkhorn, so named because of the pair of huge antlers the owner, Cyrus Skinner had purchased and tacked over the front door. Inside was a long, polished, dark wood bar, a few card tables and attached to one wall, two rows of bunks with grass-stuffed mattresses, usually occupied by customers.”
Indeed, besides the mattresses, the narrative above could describe a majority of the bars I visited on my trips to Montana as evidenced by this picture of the Montana Bar in Miles City which has been serving beer since 1908.
And while I love Oregon, Montana will continue to lure me back. I contemplated showing you a few stanzas of the Montana state song to convey that allure, but they are really boring. So I decided to illustrate with the song written by my new friend, Geoff, and to which I and several others were serenaded at the Yaak River Tavern after I bought him a beer on my trip last summer. (Besides, every song about the Big Sky State should also have the word “banana” in it.)
(I asked the bartender to credit his tab and let him collect the next day as he didn’t need another beer that evening……)
The Bulldog and the Blue Moon – Two Great Watering Holes
In the interest of brevity, I’ll only touch on two additional bars and save others for future posts. The Bulldog Saloon in Whitefish and the Blue Moon Saloon in Columbus Falls, right outside Kalispell.
I didn’t stay in Whitefish – just passed through on Highway 93 on a Sunday afternoon in between nights at Yaak River Lodge and the historic Grand Hotel in Kalispell, both of which I strongly recommend.
Author, Joan Melcher’s second book – Montana Watering Holes describes the Bulldog Saloon as:
“Sometimes there’s nothing better than a surprise. And the Bulldog is that…..A step in the door and you know you’re in a world unto itself. The walls and ceilings are black, providing a sharp relief to the hundreds of decoupage photos mounted on primal colors of wood and varnished to a glow…..School pennants hang from black ceiling tiles”
(I immediately noticed the Oregon State banner in one section of the ceiling – also occupied by the LA Dodgers and the SF Giants, the Hamilton Mont. High School Broncs and the Marquette University Golden Eagles…)
And I had a feeling of ambivalence as I drank a bottled Miller’s and talked in the dark environs of the saloon to the great young bartender – a college student on summer break from Montana State .
He filled me in on the bar’s history and told me about recent visits from sports stars, Stephen Curry, who owns a place on nearby Flathead Lake and his brother, Seth – also Jerry Rice and NBA star, Kevin Durant, who stopped in while vacationing.
Why the contradictory perceptions? Well in Portland, aside from Claudia’s Sports Pub and Grill – I reviewed in 2012 and was opened in 1959, none of the sports bars are historic. The Bulldog, is on the ground floor of a 1903 building, which housed doctors’ offices on the second floor, but a pool hall – the Pastime thrived on the first floor.
“In addition to pool, the Pastime was the place to go for card games such as poker, pinochle and pan. During the prohibition era, the Pastime survived selling everything from guns, fishing tackle, batteries, and work gloves, to tobacco and cigars. There was even a soda fountain for teenagers located in the basement during a short period following World War II.”
It eventually became The Bulldog Saloon in 1983, when the owners, Buck and Linda May, opened it and named the bar after the Whitefish High School mascot.
Most sports bars, I’ve visited in almost ten years of Beerchasing are not family-type bars, but that’s not true of the Bulldog. That said, there’s a slight dissonance, because both the men’s and women’s heads, have semi and fully nude photos from magazines decorating the walls along with additional sports memorabilia.
For example, on the photo at the right, you can see the Penthouse Pet of the Month’s photo right above an autographed photo of former New York Met pitching star, Ron Taylor (1967-71) thanking the Bulldog for its hospitality.
And aside from that, it’s pretty typical – scads of big screen TVs, video poker, local team photos, signed jerseys and memorabilia from college and pro sports stars.
But my favorite part and a lasting image of the Bulldog Saloon was ensconced in my memory as I was leaving the men’s head — the life-size, smiling visage of a younger, Boston Celtic great, Kevin McHale holding 60% of a basketball in his left hand and a full can of Miller Lite – only 96 calories and 4.2 ABV – in his right. He was rumored to favor the beer because it tasted great rather than being less filling….
The Blue Moon Saloon
After reading Joan Melcher’s effusive reviews in both her books about the history and the memorable owners, Dick and Charlotte Sapa, I absolutely had to stop at the Blue Moon – less than 25 minutes outside of Kalispell in an expansive building. Maybe that’s because the bar is over sixty feet long – one of the longest in the north western states.
There’s also a big dance floor and multiple glass-covered exhibits which house the largest display of taxidermy I saw on my trip. And as you will see from the picture shown below, they weren’t just native Montana species such as grizzly bear, moose, elk and antelope and the biggest big horn sheep brought down in Montana. That’s a polar bear which they bagged in northern Ontario, Canada.
When I walked in, sat down at the middle of the (very long) bar – which had a stuffed alligator hanging from the backbar – and ordered a beer, I asked the bartender if the Sapas still were the owners.
She nodded and pointed to her right and said, “That’s them sitting down at the end of the bar.” I took advantage, moved to the end of the bar and began an extended conversation with this amazing couple who were not hesitant to regale me with stories.
The Sapas opened the bar in 1947 and have owned it since. They were very friendly and among the questions I asked was whether the story about the cowboy patron who showed up shortly after the bar opened was true. They knew which one I meant!
As Joan Melcher relates:
“A young man was bragging about the horse he just acquired. He told Charlotte, he wanted to bring the horse over to show it off…..Sure enough, the guy goes and gets the horse and rides it into the bar.
He orders a ditch (a small glass filled with some ice and 2 oz. of whiskey and 2 oz. of water) for himself and a gin and tonic for horse. (Charlotte explains that they are supposed to like gin.)”
But as Charlotte explained to me while laughing, the story doesn’t end there:
“The cowboy rode right in front of the middle of the bar and his horse took a big dump! We spread saw dust on it until we could fully clean it up after the bar closed.”
What made the story even funnier was that while Charlotte was relating it, the song on the jukebox happened to be “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphy, about another pony, but this one in Nebraska. I still thought it was a funny coincidence….
Charlotte told me about their family and Dick talked about the rodeo they have at the adjacent arena which draws big crowds and professional riders every weekend during the summer.
Their son, Bill, who was drafted by the New York Yankees came in with his son – they were still tired after branding cattle on their 200 acre farm the day before.
After we talked awhile, he offered to take me up to the fabled upper rooms – “an honor not many outsiders get” . You walk behind the bar to almost a hidden door and then a stairway to the second floor – several rooms are completely filled with additional trophies from their big game hunts in Montana and all over the world
The Sapas are wonderful people – typical of the owners and regulars I met during the solo part of my trip, and later Janet and I encountered throughout the remainder. I could have stayed there and talked for several more hours but the dinner special at Moose’s Saloon in Kalispell beckoned.
Nevertheless, if you take a road trip to Montana, stop at the Blue Moon Saloon. It’s a rather non-descript building on the outside, but oozes character once you walk in and is a great example of why I have such an affinity for the bars in this beautiful state.