Slouching Through the Backwoods Taverns of Western Montana



Pool, Poker and Pilsner

So your parents bought you a plane ticket and six nights/seven days in Cancun for Spring Break. Great! Have a good time, and remember, drinking in the sun is different than imbibing in the shadows of a Montana winter, so drink plenty of (bottled) water.

But if you're the good, hard-working, all-American type who isn't blessed with a benefactor, I've got good news. There are many tiny oases of holiday-like fun branching out from Missoula in every direction. The beer is cheap, the juke boxes are packed with possibilities, and all kinds of recreational activities are available. What ever am I talking about? Why, small-town Montana bars, of course!

In order to explore the diversity of our local watering holes, I assembled an Independent Drinking Team, recruited mostly from the editorial department. Remember their unlikely yet haunting names: Red 5, Lance Manworthy and Kandy O'Banyon. In no way are the bars we visited representative of what the Treasure State, or even Western Montana, has to offer. But you can consider it a random sampling. And yes, at no time did we go without the services of a designated driver-you shouldn't either.

First, Some History

University of Montana history professor Harry Fritz says that this area, like most of the West, has historically been a hard-drinking one, due mainly to the prevalence of boozy professions, such as logging, railroading and mining. It seems those who worked in these alcoholic fraternities were the kind of salty dogs who liked their whiskey straight and their women pliant.

Of course, Fritz says, that was then. Now we're a typical hard-drinking college town, and though the alcohol still flows, where it's gushing has completely changed.

"When the railroad was the center of gravity, Woody Street used to be all bars," he says. "They were wild ones, too. The Depot used to be the Northern Bar. In the mid-'60s, it was the first place to feature female impersonators." Likewise, Fritz recalls, Front Street used to feature fewer upscale clothing stores and chi-chi galleries and more saloons and houses of ill repute.

Although he’s the owner and a bartender at the Stumble Inn, former pilot Lynn Payne hasn’t had a drink in nearly five years. “I’ve driven drunk people to Missoula ,” he says, “but then again, who are you gonna run into at two in the morning? Another drunk?”
Photo by Chad Harder

When he was a lad, Fritz says, the UM students drank downtown exclusively. That is, until one summer when Fritz returned from college and found its streets eerily empty. He asked a man passing by where all the kids had gone.

"Everybody was in the Heidelhaus," he remembers with a laugh. "They were having chugging contests. Mugs with people's names on them hung from the ceiling."

For his part, Fritz's personal favorite was the Flame Lounge, formerly on Main Street in the vicinity where Jay's currently sits. He describes it as a classy place where you could take a date for cocktails. Then, should your date not go to your liking, there was the rougher Cowboy Bar next door to provide solace.

Even in the six years that I've lived here, local bars have changed. No longer do people drag their dogs inside, and one of my favorite old haunts, the dank Connie's Lounge, has been stuccoed over into the swank Sean Kelly's. But a few characteristics still seem to exist in public houses across Montana-an abundance of wood paneling, cheap beer, the chance to win money playing Shake-a-Day dice against the bartender, and thoroughly workaday crowds.

Considering the rich tavern history right here in Missoula, the Independent Drinking Team began its magical journey close to home. So hang up your "Gone Drinkin'" sign and prepare to blast a few brain cells from your dome.

The Road South:
DartStars and Carpeted Ceilings

Out at the Wye, where I-90 meets U.S. 93 about seven miles west of town, there lies Marvin's-on the outside, fairly modern looking and bordered in neon, but on the inside, resembling a cozy log cabin. An old piano sits next to the dart machine and a bear skin hangs above it. Ancient-looking snowshoes make an X on another wall. Old photos of the owner, K.C. LaFlesch, and his family hang behind the bar.

The only real problem with Marvin's is that they don't have pitchers, a Drinking Team staple, but at $1 a glass, drafts of Bud Lite (the only beer on tap) were sufficient for our group. The juke box is less spectacular than some other places we visited, the selections being heavy on contemporary country, but one member of our party got pretty excited when "Boot-Scootin' Boogie" came on.

I recognized a bartender from Jay's Downstairs among the clientele, and I can assure you Marvin's is a blue-collar bar. So if you and your buddy Nugs are looking for a place to quaff some Olde Bongwater, this ain't it.

“Who’d ’ya think yar, takin’ pictures behind the bar?” said a local yokel at Harold’s Club. “If you don’t put dat camera away, I’m gonna shove it up yer fuckin’ ass!” Find this Western hospitality at Harold’s Club in Milltown.
Photo by Chad Harder

We played darts, at first in a very civilized fashion, but soon Manworthy was experimenting with style, standing way far back and then throwing underhanded. It seemed we had taken the game to its limits, and the in-house billiards mafia wasn't giving up anytime soon. So we split.

After Marvin's, we continued south on 93 until we reached the Rustic Hut in Florence. I walked in, and the place pretty much screamed class. I mean, there was carpeting on the ceiling! It felt a bit like being in a tricked-out Monte Carlo, but in my book, that's hardly a complaint. Red 5 was ecstatic because WWF Raw was on the big screen TV when we walked in.

Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday night-on the weekends, you see, the Rustic Hut morphs into a disco bar. There's a huge sunken dance floor, complete with glittering globes suspended from above and a catchy banner on the wall that reads, "Hot Sex-Get Some Tonight."

The team headed right to the pool tables, as we tend to enjoy the full leisure experience, and I noticed a cardboard cutout in the corner. It was a giant Bud Lite cowboy, complete with chaps, holding a beer with a cocked hip and a come-hither smile. Yikes!

The bartender was properly feisty, insisting on seeing all of our IDs because, she said, she didn't have "a man to support her," and therefore couldn't afford the fines if she got caught serving minors. In fact, all of the bars in the Ravalli Republic were stricter about ID than those in Missoula, leading me to believe there has been some sort of recent crackdown by Johnny Law.

Anyway, we shot a few games of pool and went a few rounds with Ms. Pac-Man before proceeding on. Lance Manworthy paused to jot this in my notebook: "The Rustic Hut had three [beer] taps; as you proceed south perhaps there will only be two, then one."

Happily, this was not the case. Our next stop was the Plum Loco in Stevensville. This was no dive, what with its new-looking wood paneled walls and spotless pool tables. Kandy O'Banyon reported the ladies' room as among the cleanest she had ever been in. The bartender, too, was a friendly chap, in his own way.

"Do you know any Mexicans?" he inexplicably asked a hesitant Manworthy.

"Uh, yeah."

"Well then, have some chips and salsa!"

It turns out his wife makes the salsa fresh, and it was darn good. The juke box was full of classics, including the rarely seen Miles Davis, and Red 5 was able to play his treasured Oasis songs while Manworthy "accidentally" ordered up the Righteous Brothers.

All along the way, we were joking about how long it would take for the locals in one of these bars to kick our asses. The closest we came to that on this arm of the out-of-town drinking expedition came at the Stumble-Inn in Victor, a small, long-standing place with nothing nearby.

We breezed through the front door and glimpsed a lone patron wearing a cowboy hat. It was like in the movies when the needle is yanked across the record player and everything stops. He swiveled around in his stool and gave us an uneven yet slightly menacing squint.

We nervously picked a table across the room. The bartender ambled over for our order. Again demands for ID were made. Manworthy, being the driveaphobic internationalist that he is, only has a passport. This temporarily gaffled the bartender and caused the cowboy to rush over to the table to witness such an oddity. They both seemed agitated that someone could survive without a driver's license.

We decided to soothe the savage breasts by punching up a selection of country classics on the juke box. It worked, and soon they forgot we were there and we were free to shoot some stick.

Any reasonable bunch of people would've called it quits after this. But we proceeded to the Ponderosa in Hamilton. The first thing I noticed there was that the keno and poker machines had placards stating their names. Bubba, Sissy, Lindilu and Kimmer's Play beep-booped a variety of songs, but the one that ended up in my head for the rest of the night was that "Under the Big Top" circus theme.

Behind the long bar was a sweeping Western mural and Christmas lights. The clientele in the Ponderosa was by far the youngest we had encountered. The team attempted darts, but many of the bleary shots were in vain and ended with the dart bouncing on the floor.

We had to concede it was time to return to Missoula, and not just because last call was announced. My assessment of the Bitterroot bars is that the pool and beer are cheap but the patrons are a mixed bag, so don't go down there and toss around a bunch of attitude. Still, the team did agree a good time was had by all.

The Road East:
Billiards and Barflies

After recovering from the epic drinking foray south of the border, the Indy Drinking Team reconvened for an evening east of Missoula. There was a creepy full moon darting through the clouds, and as we headed towards Ovando, that and the unearthly music on the radio made us all feel we might not survive the trip. It didn't help when Red 5 started rambling about convicted murderer Terry Langford's nearby country bloodbath and O'Banyon nearly broke into tears.

That was pure drama, however, and the historic Trixie's turned out to be a grand time. Owner Ray Francis explained that February was calving season, leaving local ranchers homebound, and therefore his slowest month. He pointed out memorabilia belonging to the former owner and namesake Trixie McCormick, who was an acclaimed rodeo trick rider. The bar had previously been in downtown Ovando, he explained, but was relocated to its present middle-of-nowhere locale in 1963.

Francis said the place gets packed during the summer, as it is a popular stop for tourists traveling between Yellowstone Park and Glacier Park. The night we were there, only a smattering of Ovandonites were perched on the stools.

Frequent good music and up-front band parking make the Evaro Bar a low-key hot spot less than 30 minutes north of Missoula.
Photo by Chad Harder

We ordered dinner off the surprisingly complete menu. Manworthy and Red 5 decided we should play girls-versus-boys pool. I'm pleased to say we gals kicked their asses every single time, sending the fellas drifting into a shame trance.

A couple of red dogs noticed the action and put their quarters up on the table. They were likable guys with good senses of humor. After a few bungling attempts where we won simply because they scratched on the eight ball, I began shooting some of the most triumphant billiards of my life. I couldn't miss if I wanted to!

"Man, she's awesome," one opponent, a construction worker from Texas, said.

Manworthy told the men he rented me out for parties, the ass.

Riding high on my victory, we jumped in the car and headed back to Missoula. But not without stopping at Clearwater Junction to have a night cap at a place whose sign simply read "Bar."

The tavern turned out to be called Looney's, and it certainly was. Four customers, two men and two women, sat up at the bar, screeching drunkenly. The decor was pleasant enough, with high-backed red vinyl chairs and a giant fireplace in the middle of the room, but the bartender seemed not to like our kind almost immediately. I should note he had on a cowboy hat with a peacock feather stuck on the side.

Red 5 ordered a pitcher of Black Star, for which we were charged an outlandish $8. We put our coin in the pool table and began racking 'em up, which is when our troubles began. One of the men sitting at the bar, clad in gray sweatpants, rose to his feet and lumbered over to observe the game.

"I'm drunk as a skunk, but I know I could spank you at pool!" he said, sounding not unlike Barney on The Simpsons.

With a sailorly gleam in his eye, he then tried unsuccessfully to correlate Red 5's sexual preference with his food choices. He was specifically interested in "tofu and pilaf."

I took out the company camera to snap some photos, and Sweatpants asked if I would take a picture of him.

"Sure," I answered, trying to humor him.

"Show her your weenie, honey!" a woman at the end of the bar screamed. "Show her your love handle!"

Thankfully, he didn't, and the group soon staggered out of Looney's, but not before the other man in their party forgot his jacket.

We breathed sighs of relief and finished our drinks, realizing we'd be happier in a more suitable environment.

Manworthy wandered up to the bar. Discovering that the bartender had left the TV remote on top of the counter while attending to something in the back, he picked it up and began flipping through the channels.

The bartender came running out. He was quite vexed. "You put that down!" he spat, snatching the remote from Manworthy. That was all we needed. As Manworthy fled, we slammed the rest of our beer and quickly did the same.

With Appetite for Destruction blaring from the car stereo, we hightailed it to Bonner, stopping to hurl big rocks off the suspended bridge near the old Blackfoot Tavern.

We rolled into Milltown's Harold's Club ready to wrap up the night in a building that has been around for about a hundred years. Instead of your usual refrigerators, the beer was kept behind the bar in large troughs full of ice. Two animal heads near the front door sat mounted under huge plastic bubbles. A hand-lettered sign near the pool tables declared, among other things, "We now have Hot Sex!"

Located just outside of Missoula and a former favorite hangout of poet Richard Hugo, Harold's is a fine place. They have pool, darts and the best damn juke box of any of the bars we visited. We played the hell out of Black Sabbath, AC/DC and John Cougar Mellencamp. Manworthy got particularly riled during "Jack and Diane," dropping his drawers and mooning our camera, which seemed to go unnoticed by our laid-back fellow patrons. Then young Red 5 developed a tummy ache, cutting our time at Harold's short.

Thus our tour of far-flung small town bars ended, just as suddenly and aimlessly as it began. So many saloons remained unexamined-like the Dixon Bar in Dixon, the 10,000 Silver Dollar Bar in Superior-but our corps of bar-crawlers had seen enough to wet its whistle. I've heard it said that Montana's ratio of bars to churches is higher than any other state in the nation-certainly, pub culture is far more wild and powerful around here than in other tamer, more health-conscious places. I've hung out in bars all over the world, but there is a certain frontier unpredictability to the ones in our nook of the West. So do yourself a favor-put down that warm can of Pabst and get out to experience some local flavor.

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