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The Saloon Beat

Where the Action Is: Montana-Style Institutions

October 12, 1986|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

BUTTE, Mont. — Do you know what a ditch is? How about a sage? Ever tried a Missouri pie? Or a pastie? If you're drawing blanks, I know the reason: you've never discovered the delights of a Montana saloon.

So let me share a secret. Montana has the best saloons in the whole wide West. Walk into one of them, like, say, the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak or the Stockman in Miles City or the Livingston Bar & Grill--and you half expect to see Randolph Scott sitting at a back table, drawing to an inside straight. If the pickup trucks outside were horses, you'd swear nothing had changed in a hundred years.

All Day Long

For Montanans, saloons are as much an institution as they are a watering hole. It's where men start their day with a cup of coffee and end it with a few ditches (whiskey and water) or sages (whiskey, water and a dash of 7-Up), where the talk is of beef prices, new rifles and old fishing holes and the mood is one of congeniality and warmth.

I wouldn't have blinked twice had someone asked me, "Where'd you ride in from, stranger?"

Actually, it's impossible to remain a stranger for long in Montana. About the third round, the bartender will wander over and say, "This one's on me." I think the last time a bartender bought me a drink in Los Angeles or New York was sometime in the '70s. In Bozeman, the drought ended my first night in town, though I do wish that spittoons would make a comeback so cowboys didn't have to zing their tobacco juice into empty glasses on the bar.

Montana's bars are supposed to close at 2 a.m. but in a lot of places in Butte, the fabled old mining town that once prided itself on being the wildest town in America, if you're inside at closing time, you've got a home for the night.

Come dawn, when the doors are unlocked for official business again, an ungodly looking procession of bowlegged folks struggle out onto the street. Of course, their legs may have gotten that way from riding horses and not from overdoing a good thing.

The most famous saloon in Butte, the Atlantic, is gone now, along with many other of the city's businesses, as Butte fell on tough times when the copper mine closed in 1980. The Atlantic's bar stretched for a full city block and was staffed by 15 bartenders, which on a quiet night was enough to keep up with the orders.

The Missouri pies (gravy over bread) and pasties (potatoes and beef wrapped in dough) were said to be the best anywhere east of the Continental Divide.

In the absence of the Atlantic, I'd cast my vote for the M&M on Main Street as the most colorful saloon left in Butte. It's filled with a wonderful assortment of characters and in the back room, at the end of the bar, is a lively gambling parlor with poker, keno, pan and sports booking.

I asked a couple of people if this was legal. No one seemed to know. They said there had been gambling in the saloons for as long as anyone could remember, so what difference did it make whether it was legal or illegal?

Montana, though, is not really a state of cities. (The largest city, Billings, has a population of 63,000; the capital, Helena, has 24,000.) Rather, Montana is a collection of little ranching towns separated by vast distances, and in each, the saloon is the center of community life. In fact, when the settlements were established, the first thing the folks put up was the saloon. The post office and the general store came later.

Brisk Sunday Business

Over in the Big Hole--the Valley of 10,000 Haystacks--I walked into a fine establishment named the Antler's Saloon one Sunday morning. Business was brisk. Hank Williams Jr. was singing some mournful tune on the jukebox and the pine walls were covered by stuffed moose and elk heads and the skins of bears.

A 12-ounce rib-eye steak, with salad and a boulder-size potato, costs $12.50 at the Antler's; a ditch goes for $2. Tipping is not expected. This is a beer and whiskey place, with no call for those fancy city drinks. In fact the proprietors, Kay and Daryll Jacobson, don't even own a blender. When some misplaced soul once ordered a martini in the Antler's, Jacobson poured him a double shot of Old Grand Dad and said, "Here you go--a Montana martini."

The Big Hole is a valley of 730,000 acres populated by only 500 people, and after a couple of hours in the Antler's I felt as if I had met most of them, for the word had spread quickly that a fellow from Los Angeles was in town.

These were good, hard-working ranch people of the Old West and I liked their little community of Wisdom (population 100) so much that I decided to spend the night. I was directed to the four-room Nez Perce Motel up the road and told to ask for Jena, who ran the place.

Nowhere in Sight

Her car was out front, but the motel office was locked up and Jena was nowhere in sight. Two women stopped to assist, saying that Jena might be visiting her neighbor the next house over. So I walked over there. Still no Jena. The neighbor was kind enough to invite me in, and we called around town, looking for either the owner or a spare key to one of her rooms. Everyone said Jena would surely be back soon.

But it was getting late, so I decided to leave Wisdom, and I drove north toward Deer Lodge and Anaconda. Like every traveler in Montana, I had the solace of knowing that somewhere around the bend would be another good saloon where no man can be a stranger for long. The night and the road ahead no longer seemed lonely.

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