On a weeknight at Harold’s Club, the small gathering of customers all seem to be on a first-name basis with each other. Between serving up pints and bottles, bartender Patty Kocher steps out from behind the bar to take a shot at billiards. Overhead, a TV broadcasts a slightly blurred image of a baseball game while Tom Petty plays on the stereo.
“If I ask for another one of these, just put ice and water in it,” says a man wearing suspenders, gesturing to his tumbler of gin.
The legendary Harold's Club closes in September as its owner retires. Much of the decor has remained the same since legendary writer Richard Hugo hung out in the bar in the mid-20th century.
For half a century, time has stood still inside Harold’s Club, but soon its doors will be shut indefinitely. The historic Milltown bar’s liquor license has been sold to the Wilma Theatre, which is undergoing renovations. The sale is undergoing review by the state Department of Revenue and will likely go through by the end of September, according to Wilma owner Nick Checota. Checota says the Wilma’s renovation is currently on schedule for its sold-out Oct. 5 grand reopening show with My Morning Jacket.
As the Harold’s Club closing looms, the bar’s many longtime regulars have gathered to recount their memories. Roger Bogar stopped at the bar on his way home from work at the Roseburg Forest Products mill.
“I’m 51, and I’ve been coming here since I was 19,” Bogar says. When asked how the bar has changed since he started drinking there, he laughs. “It hasn’t.”
The building itself is at least 100 years old, according to the owner, Karen Keely. “Oh, it’s been many things,” she says. “It’s been a fly shop and a laundromat and all kinds of things.”
Sometime in the 1960s, it was converted into a working-class bar, and famously commemorated by poet and University of Montana professor Richard Hugo.
His poem “The Milltown Union Bar” includes the lines,
“You need never leave. Money or a story
brings booze. The elk head is grinning
and the goat says go so tenderly
you can hear him through the glass”
Two mountain goat heads are still mounted behind cloudy plexiglass bubbles on the wall.
Keely says that after 20 years of owning the bar, it was time for her to retire. “We definitely know it’s going to be closed by the end of September,” she says.
Keely declined to disclose how much the Harold’s liquor license cost, as did Checota, though he acknowledged that it was “expensive.” In the state of Montana, liquor licenses have recently sold for anywhere from $450,000 to $1 million, according to the Montana Department of Revenue Liquor Control Division.
The Harold’s Club building is also up for sale, and Keely is hopeful that someone else will purchase it and keep it going. “We’ll see what happens,” she says.
Post updated Aug. 18 at 4:57 PM.