Reflections on Western Towns and Cities – Part 1

I’ve mentioned in prior posts, our September 2019, fifteen-day 3,700-mile road trip through six western states.

And those who follow Thebeerchaser know that besides touring a number of fantastic National Parks and Monuments as well as the impressive Custer State Park, we visited wonderful bars and breweries – 29 of which I hit on my first six days (23 bars and 6 breweries).   After my first two nights in the village of Yaak, I stayed in scenic Montana cities of Kalispell, Hamilton, Anaconda and Livingston.

A field at the city limits of Hamilton

The idea for this road journey emanated from the ten-day solo road trip I took through Eastern Oregon, Idaho and Montana in 2004 during part of a law firm sabbatical.  In that 2,600-mile journey in which I carried my Trek bicycle on our Subaru Forester and essentially had no planned itinerary except to explore and discover – also to escape my Blackberry….

Oh, to be 56 again — my 2004 Road Trip

A number of those miles were on gravel Forest Service roads – including the challenging Trail Creek Road out of Ketchum, Idaho shown in the photo with the cattle I saw along the way.

After staying at Oregon’s beautiful Wallowa Lake, and lodging for two nights nights in Stanley, Idaho,I stayed in Salmon, Idaho – right on the west border of Montana – and joined  a lot of folk rocking out to a country-western group at the Lantern Bar on Saturday night.

There was no room except one seat at the bar and I started talking to a construction worker about where I should head.   He was very helpful and I asked him if I could buy him a drink.  He responded “No.  But you can dance with my girlfriend.”  (Sitting next to him.)  She then made a valiant effort to teach me how to do the Cowboy Two Step.  (I was about the only guy in the bar without cowboy boots…)

The next morning I attended church at Salmon’s United Methodist Church where I enjoyed the sermon and talking with friendly members of the congregation at the coffee-hour afterwards. 

I then headed for Butte and marveled at the Big Sky Country and camped near Wisdom before staying my last night in Missoula.

Historical sites such as the Big Hole National Battlefield and the Historic Montana State Prison and Auto Museum at Deer Lodge took an entire day to adequately appreciate.

Of course, I also hit several of the “ghost towns” – all of which were fascinating, especially Bannack, Bonanza – home of the now restored Yankee Fork Dredge and nearby Custer, which has many of the historic structures preserved – founded in 1879 by a Harvard Law School graduate who gave up his law career to become a prospector.

Looking down from Boot Hill in Bannack

The seeds of Thebeerchaser Tour of Bars and Taverns which commenced upon retirement seven years later, were sown on that 2004 trip based on my initial visit to the legendary Rod and Gun Whitewater Saloon in Stanley, Idaho and the the Dewey Bar in Wise River, Montana..

The Dewey Bar in Wise River, Montana

The narrative on those two bars can be viewed at:

https://thebeerchaser.com/2016/09/08/beerchasing-in-idaho-part-ii-stanley-and-the-sawtooths/

and

https://thebeerchaser.com/2020/08/19/pondering-during-the-pandemic-1/

Downtown Stanley

The Rod and Gun was operated from 1971 until his death in 1990, by the singer and songwriter Cassanova Jack.  It’s located just east of the corner of Ace of Diamonds and Wall Streets in Stanley.

Located in Custer County, the town has a population of a little less than 100 and winter temperatures that made it once, the coldest place in North America. It’s in the heart of the wonderous Sawtooth Mountains and the gateway to the Idaho backcountry.

I returned – this time with my wife in 2016, and Cassanova Jack’s brother and fellow musician, Jonny Ray, was an engaging host and full of stories on their days touring and captivating bar stories.

Jack’s band was named the Stardusters and Jonny Ray (who still is known as the “Singing Bartender“) subsequent band was named JR & Cheap-N-Easy

Johnny Ray at the Rod and Gun in 2016

The Dewey Bar, is really in a remote area – in Wise River, Montana, along the Big Hole River.  I camped that night in a Forest Service Campground.   I naively walked into what came close to being the first bar fight I witnessed.

Due to the mediating skill of a retired attorney from Seattle, the fracas was avoided when he admonished the two guys on the brink of fisticuffs in a commanding voice, “If you two will sit down and shut up, I’ll buy everybody in the house a drink.” 

This was followed by rousing cheers and a fairly hefty bar bill which he gladly dispatched.  I then spent the next hour sharing lawyer stories and a few drinks with this former counselor, which was the last time I’ve ever seen him. (I checked with the regulars to see if he was still around when I went back in 2019.)

Telling law firm stories in 2004

Just as in the fall 2019 trip, in my earlier road journey, besides the magnificent scenery, I was captivated by the rich history and most notably, the character and heritage of some of the smaller cities such as Stanley and Salmon, Idaho; Darby and Missoula, Montana; and Joseph and Baker Oregon. 

American Historian

This journey reaffirmed Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”:

“….the American character was decisively shaped by conditions on the frontier, in particular the abundance of free land, the settling of which engendered such traits as self-reliance, individualism, inventiveness, restless energy, mobility, materialism, and optimism.” (Britannica.com)

The Sawtooth Range from the outskirts of Stanley

On the 2019 trip, I also discovered that Turner’s premise shapes the political philosophy of Montana residents but more about that in Part II.

My trip in 2004 was ten unforgettable days of adventure and gaining an appreciation for the rustic western countryside.

Janet – “Don’t Even Think About It!”

Runkle – An invitation for a bucket list item….

When we discussed the 2019 proposed route for our trip, my wonderful spouse of 40 years, informed me in unequivocal terms that she was not going to take a several hundred mile side trip to the far NW corner of Montana so I could visit the World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak.

This storied bar had been a bucket list item since shortly after I started this blog in 2011 and had talked to the owner, John Runkle.  He  extended an invitation to visit him and stay in Yaak.  I was therefore downcast with the ultimatum….

But through the negotiating process, refined over those four decades, she then generously agreed to my spending the first six days sans companion and picking her up when she flew into Billings, Montana to complete the rest of our trek.  Now you know why I honored Janet with Thebeerchaser-of-the-Year title in 2015.

In South Dakota’s Badlands National Park

So like a little kid on Christmas Eve, I drove the 520 miles from our residence in West Linn – a burb of Portland – to Yaak where I stayed for two nights in the Wolf Room of the Yaak River Lodge – it’s also owned by John Runkle – and about a mile down the highway from his saloon.

Yaak, with a year-round population of about 250 is an unincorporated community with minimal commercial operations and on which the “Welcome To” and “Come Again” signs could theoretically be placed on the same telephone pole.  It’s thirty miles west of Route 2 in the heart of the Kootenai National Forest on the Yaak River Road.

The Yaak River

But it was a wonderful start to the trip.  John was an outstanding host and I loved the people I met those two days on which I will expand in my next blog post.

On the remaining four days before I picked up Janet, I drove our Prius (sans gun rack) while being enthralled with the sights from Flathead Lake to the 585 foot Anaconda Smelter Stack.   My companion, of sorts, was Sirius Satellite Radio and I rotated through the channels from Jazz, to classical to Big Band, while always returning to Classic Country.

A plethora of styles on Sirius

That’s because these tunes helped capture the mood while visiting bars such as the historic Montana Bar in Miles City – serving folk since 1908 – shown below.  Each watering hole was filled with friendly bartenders and regulars, wild animal trophies, spittoons (a few) and juke boxes.

And they didn’t play the new pseudo country rock tunes – but the old-time vocalists I love, most notably, George Jones, Don Williams, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and more recent crooners like Alan Jackson and Dan Seals.

Unfortunately, I never heard the tune I longed for “She Was a Bootlegger’s Daughter and I Loved Her Still.” 

(Maybe that one was a figment of my imagination and I made up the title while downing a Miller High Life at the Antlers Saloon in Wisdom.

The Champagne of Bottled Beers

Now with the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, I’ve had a lot more time to reflect – rather than visit new bars.  And what brought back the best memories were some of the towns and smaller cities which just seemed like great communities to live, work and raise a family.

I’ll talk about that in my next post, but since I mentioned Dan Seals, it’s fitting – at least in my view – to end with some of the lyrics of his song, “God Must be a Cowboy at Heart” which perfectly captures the sentiment engrained on that trip.

Sleepin’ in the moonlight
A blanket for my bed
Leaves a peaceful feelin’ in my mind…
Wakin’ up in the mornin’
With an eagle overhead
Makes me want to fly away before my time

And I think God must be a cowboy at heart
He made wide open spaces from the start…
He made grass and trees and mountains
And a horse to be a friend
And trails to lead old cowboys home a-gain…

Along Montana Highway 43 near Wisdom

Montana Bars – The Continuing Saga – Kalispell

Since I started recounting my adventures on our 2019 Montana (and more…..) road trip – 3,700 miles in fifteen days – in the last two blog posts, I’m on a roll of sorts.  So I’ll tell you about a few more of the 29 I hit in the six days I drove solo before I picked up my wife in Billings, for the remaining nine days of our trip.

The Blue Moon’s bar – plenty of room for bellying up…

In my last post –  “Two Montana Classics,” I told you about the Bulldog Saloon in Whitefish and the Blue Moon Saloon in Columbus Falls.

The Antler Saloon

And before that in “Pondering the Pandemic – No. 1”, it was the Saw Mill Saloon in Darby, the Wise River Club in Wise River, the Antler Saloon in Wisdom and the Dewey Bar – also in Wisdom.

All of these had great people – bartenders and regulars, great historic ambiance and the “watering hole character” which the forward to author, Joan Melcher’s first book Watering Holes – A User’s Guide to Montana Bars:sums up:

“…..the role of the western saloon remains what it has always been.  As an institution of importance it has always had its detractors — indeed it has always been been venomously attacked by the pious and the righteous. 

The attacks have never really mattered to the  keepers of the institutions nor to the patrons.  The western saloon is simply too important a social, economic and political instrument of western society to be turned aside from its predestined course.” 

(K. Ross Toole – Hammond Professor of History, University of Montana) 

Although the bars discussed below are not historic, they still fit that mold.  And Moose’s Saloon is another shining example of Montana culture – this time as part of the bustling city of Kalispell.

Moose’s Saloon

I rolled in late on a Sunday afternoon after driving from Yaak with stops in Whitefish and Columbus Falls – only about 125 miles and through beautiful Big Sky scenery.

I checked into the historic Kalispell Grand Hotel right in the center of town.  It dates back to 1912 – the bars aren’t the only vestibules of frontier history – and it still has an outstanding old-fashioned elevator and a pipe organ in the lobby.

The lobby of the Grand Kalispell

Then a dinner – only a few blocks away – in a former blacksmith shop – now called The Forge which houses the Desoto Grill and a superb barbecued rib dinner.

Then I moved onto Moose’s Saloon on Main Street and the west end of town.  Since it was a Sunday evening, I expected somewhat of a staid environment – not what Joan Melcher described on most other nights:

“The first time I described Moose’s Saloon, I said walking into it was ‘like opening the door to an eighth grade study hall….Both times I drop by during the summer of 2008, the place is wild.”

Moose’s is not real impressive on the outside – kind of a tacky wooden false front – and the building doesn’t seem to be historic – evidently it was called the Corral Bar before it was transformed to Moose’s in 1957 by a guy who played tackle for the Montana Grizzly Football Team.

Moose and his wife built a thriving establishment and never looked back. (He died in 1999 and it’s now owned by his daughter according to my friendly bartender, Frank.)

Friendly Frank

Frank is from Pittsburgh and has worked there eight years although he called himself “the new boy” compared to the tenures of his co-wokers.

But Frank gives a great rundown of the 24 beers on tap.  I was inclined to get an MGD on tap, but thought “Dirt, (That’s me as you can see from the header at the top of the screen.) this is Montana,” so I had a pint of Moose Drool from Big Sky Brewing.

Although the room adjacent to the space housing the large rectangular bar, filled with big wooden booths and picnic tables, was hopping, the bar had only a few people seated.  That changed quickly and by the time I finished my mug, it was pretty much filled.  Moose’s has a lot of ongoing events and specials which draw customers as you can see by this sign. 

I had a great conversation with a guy and his wife who drove their RV out from the east coast for a conference in Great Falls. Since meeting new people is one of the joys of Beerchasing, I soon found out that the guy’s name was Huck, the conference was the Beer Now Conference and his avocation is of all things – a blog called “Huck’s Beer Buzz.”

What’s that you ask – as did Thebeerchaser!  It’s summed up in the home page of his blog and as you might suspect, Dirt and Huck had a fairly robust conversation about our favorite topic – bars and beers!

“Huck hails from Blacksburg Virginia in the Roanoke Valley. With the help of “Huckette,” his lovely wife, Huck writes about craft beer and various related topics.

Huck travels for work in his ‘real’ job which allows him to travel and sample beer at various locales. Huck  tries to document the places so that others can find the good places and be forewarned about the bad!”

Huck and The Huckette

We traded cards and then went on our separate ways.

Moose is known for it’s great pizza and I was almost sorry that I had eaten (although I still had some ribs in the mini-fridge in my hotel room that I would gobble down the next day – or maybe when I got back that night since Janet wasn’t with me…..)

The pizzas were flying and everybody at the bar was consuming loads of unshelled peanuts – a gob of them for only $1.50 – many of which landed on the sawdust floor. (They’re in the plastic bag in the photo below.)

While Joan’s recommendation was enough for me, if in doubt, check out the comments on social media, almost all of which mention the great quality of the pizza:

“If you like an old fashioned country atmosphere, then this place is for you! Sawdust on the floor, beer flowing, and country music accompany the best pizza in town! Don’t miss out on this if you are visiting the Kalispell area. (Trip Advisor, November 24, 2019)

And they also usually mention the atmosphere like this one:
“Just what the title says! This is probably the most unique place in Northwest Montana! EXCELLENT pizza!”  (Trip Advisor , January 1 , 2020)

The VFW Bar 

I had seen that in Montana a number of the VFW Posts open their bars to the public and curiosity got the better of me as I was leaving Kalispell late the next morning, so I stopped in at one – again only a few blocks from the hotel and on 1st Street.   It was the Glacier Park Chapter.

It would be just a nice place to grab a beer, play some pool or have a card game and interact with some wonderful people, most of whom were veterans who had served their country.  I sat at the end of a long bar and talked to a grizzled regular former Army guy who talked about the good old days in Kalispell:

“There were thirteen bars within several blocks on Main Street.  We had a Friday night ritual – we’d start with a shot of Galliano (43.2% ABV!) and then start having a beer at each bar to see how many we could get before one guy would pass out.”

The bartender, a veteran, was friendly and when I told him about my blog he introduced me to Jonathan who was an officer in the Chapter and had recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan where he was an electronic aviation technician.   He and the bartender let me tour the Chapter museum which was in a spacious locked room adjacent to the bar.  It was interesting and humbling to see the magnitude of the military service of the members.

Del’s Bar in Somers Montana

After the great visit at the VFW, I drove about ten miles and stopped at Somers – on the north shore of Flathead Lake.   There was one more bar – not anything historic, but the reviews made it look like it was an interesting community bar — and it was.

Del’s Bar from the outside, would not pique your imagination or make one inclined to explore further, but I’m Thebeerchaser.

At 11:00 AM on a Monday morning, however, it was just the young female bartender, Kylee and a nice guy named Tom who was a painting contractor who was a Montana State grad in the place.

Now Del’s is spacious inside besides having a nice sized bar and it appeared to be a community-oriented watering hole which is a cherished spots for the regulars, who come for Bingo Night every Wednesday.  But the reactions from some others is somewhat tepid – at least that’s the cursory impression one would get looking at some of the Yelp reviews: https://www.yelp.com/biz/dels-somers

That said, the pizza gets great reviews and I wish I had been there to partake of some of their daily dinner specials such as the Buffalo Stew, which if you look at their Facebook Page is supplemented on other nights with chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, elk chili, spaghetti with sausage and mini corndogs – enough variety to keep you happy throughout the week, but lead to an early coronary if you are a regular.

Del’s also has a nice patio and a spacious outdoor area which in the months in Montana one can be outside, gets heavy use as you can see from this picture taken on one of their summer Bingo Nights – voted Best in Flathead in 2019:

Bingo Night – check out the reviews on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10157464601228316&set=

And to give you a better idea of the regular vs. tourist opinion to which I earlier alluded, check out the link on the picture above where a tourist commented:

“The woman bartender calling the numbers, used the “F” word all the time on the microphone. Very inappropriate. We won’t be back. Surprised the manager is not saying something to control her language.”

This comment garnered fifteen responses suggesting that they hoped the lady was serious about her threat not to return.  Every comment was along the sentiments below – most with profanity interlaced, including one guy who sarcastically agreed with the lady in a comment that had twelve uses of the F-word in one long paragraph:

“Don’t like it?? You don’t have to come, there’s plenty of other bingo’s to attend! Have at ‘er bud!!!  The bingo caller makes bingo at Dels worth going to. People come hours in advance to get a seat. Welcome to the bar and the best bingo in town.”

I finished my bottle of MGD – the first time during the trip I had a morning beer, but it was Monday……, bade farewell to Kylee and Tom and traveled south along beautiful Flathead Lake where I stopped and had my lunch (the rest of the ribs from the night before) at a picnic table.

Nice picnic spot

Then a drive through Missoula for about 160 miles and three hours to my next night stop in Hamilton – a wonderful Montana community on the west border of the state with great bars and breweries.   Stay tuned for more Beerchasing adventures…..

Cheers

Image by Pam Williams