Bards at the bar

A beer-drinkers' guide to local literary traditions



Not to suggest "writer" is synonymous with "drinker," but western Montana's bars have played a significant role in the region's rich literary history. Whether it's mill workers, barflies or fishermen elbowing up to the taps, our region's scribes have found a flow of inspiration from our local watering holes.

Haunts, of course, change with tastes and time. Some of this town's best writers have come and gone, and new waves of authors frequent new establishments, making the web of Missoula's literary sites tough to map. But a few survive the test of time and continue to stand out. We offer this list, along with a disclaimer: You're as likely to meet an author in one local bar as you are the next.

The Dixon Bar

On Oct. 10, 1970, three Montana poems ran side-by-side in the New Yorker, all under the title "The Only Bar in Dixon." The story goes that Missoula writers Richard Hugo, James Welch and J.D. Reed once stopped at the Dixon Bar after ice fishing. Each agreed to write a poem about the place–the moon, the river, the redhead at the bar–and they sent the package to the magazine. Four years later, Welch published Winter in the Blood, a novel set on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. His 1986 novel Fools Crow is now a cornerstone of regional literature.

Aside from being the only bar in town, The Dixon Bar has the honor of holding the longest continuous liquor license in Montana. Hugo ended his poem by writing:

I want home full of grim permission.

You can go as out of business here

as rivers or the railroad station.

I knew it entering.

Five bourbons

and I'm in some other home.

Main Street, Highway 200, Dixon

Charlie B's

This stalwart could be called the poster boy for what visiting fans of Montana literature look for in a bar. There's no signage out front—just tinted windows and a big wooden door. The interior is smoke-filled and dark, the bartenders chatty. Some vestige of the bar has appeared off and on in locally spawned works, most notably The Last Good Kiss and other mysteries by Charlie's regular James Crumley, who died last year. A portrait of Crumley, along with his obituary, now hangs above the bar.

428 N. Higgins Ave., Missoula

The Depot

The death of James Crumley on Sept. 17, 2008, prompted friends and fans to erect small memorials at his former haunts in Missoula. Most obvious–and perhaps most visited–is Crumley's Corner at the Depot. A photo and sign mark the seat at the end of the bar that Crumley most often occupied.

201 W. Railroad Ave., Missoula

Trixi's Antler Saloon

Highway 200 stretches northeast from Missoula like a tentacle, dotted by the odd country bar. Hugo spoke of drinks at Trixi's and the sagebrush beyond the bar door in his poem "Ovando." On the sparsely populated road from Missoula to cities east–Great Falls, Helena, etc.–the solitary feel of Trixi's sitting on a flat valley floor left a mark on a number of Hugo's works.

Highway 200, Ovando

Diamond Jim's Eastgate Casino and Lounge

Bars are a long-standing social nucleus for communities in the American West. Eastgate Lounge was a particularly popular meeting place for writer William Kittredge during his tenure at UM's creative writing department. Students regularly met with writers over drinks after class, just across the Van Buren Street Footbridge, for more relaxed and informal lessons.

900 E. Broadway, Missoula

The Rhino

Some patrons at the Rhino show up for the beer–the establishment boasts 50 on tap. Others might flock for brief nods given by Jeff Hull in Missoula-based short stories or his 2005 fly-fishing novel Pale Morning Done. There's no mistaking the place as he writes it from his protagonist's eyes, that familiar bend in the bar and the pool table beyond.

158 Ryman St., Missoula

Harold's Club, or the Milltown Union Bar

Harold's isn't the same, not from when Hugo penned his poem "The Milltown Union Bar" in the 1960s. The painting of a Western hanging is gone, as are the crossed swords above the bar. Fat Tire's on tap now, as is Bayern Amber. The mill workers have left; the Stimson Lumber Company mill shut down. Ask the gals behind the bar and they'll tell you Harold's isn't what it used to be.

But some ghost of Hugo's muse lingers. You could still love here, as Hugo said in his poem. A few gray and crusty regulars chuckle loudly, flirting playfully with a cluster of younger women playing pool. Denise, the bartender, will chat you up, pour a stiff drink and sell you a pack of Marlboro Reds. And, most importantly, the stuffed mountain goat Hugo fixated on is still trapped in his plexiglass bubble by the door.

11 Main St., Milltown

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