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

Pondering During the Pandemic – 1

Vortex 1 – Protesting in 1970…No tear gas, projectiles and violence – just sunburn!

(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.

Oh Montana!!

No gun rack, but Starbucks and Sirius satellite radio

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.

Lake Koocanusa near Eureka, Montana

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…..).

Only $1 on National Hot Dog Day

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/

John Runkle in front of the bar that reflects his personality

Thebeerchaser and John Runkle with the gift of Benedictine Beer from the monks at Mt. Angel, Oregon

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.

Visiting Badlands Natl. Park in South Dakota

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.

The Trapper – an exquisite example Where the West is Still Wild…

And the 205 taxidermists in Montana are ubiquitous.   All parts of the animal are used as can be seen from the lower left of this photo: 

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.”     

Cute and protected…..

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?

Just kidding – Counsel would have dressed her’s up in male outfits because it was an all-male panel in the Court of Appeals.

“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.

The Sawmill Saloon in Darby

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.

Obey the speed limit and watch for Larry’s surveillance cameras

…..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.

Don’t you go speedin through my town, Mr. Letterman!

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…….)

Not used for cash and bonds any more – just kegs and cases!

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:

Stihl in good operating condition…

“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…..

The Antler Saloon in Wisdom

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.

Bernie at the Antler

Fritz – soft spoken but friendly

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).

Tom Davis – bartender, storyteller, singer and guitarist

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)

Better than a draft – after all, it is the Champagne of Bottled Beers!

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.

Road trip sixteen years ago….

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.

Retired from Seattle

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.

Lori, Shawn and Steve

(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).

Jake Tapper rather than Sean Hannity – a refreshing change…….

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.

Cheers!

The Owl Bar in Anaconda