Historic Taverns in Great Falls

Taverns were gathering places and information exchanges in frontier Montana and they keep that niche in the Treasure State to this day. Their proprietors and barkeeps frequently are historians a couple of notches above amateur.

Unlike many western towns that “jest growed,” Great Falls was planned from the start with residential and business areas, streets crossed at right angles, railroad rights of way established and very large areas reserved for parks.

The makeup of settlers coming here also was unusual for a western town. Most of the men were young, well-educated and interested in making a home-not making a stake and moving on.

Even the cowpokes and sheepherders toting a year’s pay after roundup didn’t shoot up bars and brawl nonstop as you see in the movies. But they did live here. Many still do. There wasn’t much of a desperado quotient up here compared to, say, the legends of the lower Midwest or the Southwest. Some of the U.S. Army’s black buffalo soldiers stationed west of here at Fort Shaw caused a little excitement once in a while, just like the coal and silver miners did a little east of here, but not the stuff of which legends are made.

In Montana, people take cover in taverns during storms. Kids get off the school bus there. You can get directions from there to anywhere. They offer a cold drink on a hot day, or a hot one when it’s snowing. Nowadays you can place a bet there and some taverns outside the cities were convenience stores before they were called that, carrying snacks, toilet paper, .22 shells and the other necessities of life.

Visitors are always welcome and unlike taverns in bigger states, you’ll find fairly often that the owner is pouring your drink or fixing your food. Many of the taverns and their suppliers in this area have been in the same family for several generations and many of those families have intermarried.

You’ll find velvet and chrome in a few of the places and worn stools in others, but you’ll find some history in all of them, whether it’s the building, the clientele or the locale. The dress is casual in all of these taverns. The guy on the next stool could be a college graduate wheat farmer with thousands of acres whose bank accounts could buy and sell you many times over.

We have the 1868 Whoop-Up Trail that led into Canada, the Bootlegger Trail that led here from Canada, and a lot of happy trails between. You can still take the Prohibition-era Bootlegger north from here through the wheat fields to Canada, or you can take a drive up the Missouri River toward Helena to the make-believe Canadian border crossing near Hardy seen in the motion picture “The Untouchables,” starring Sean Connery.

City Bar & Casino
709 Central Avenue

Founder Charlie Watson was a man we would call entrepreneur in today’s business jargon. He already was his own boss, working as a barber, and he kept moving in that direction.

Shortly after the start of Prohibition in 1917, he was a partner in a cigars, confectionery, and billiards enterprise downtown. Right at the end of Prohibition in 1933, even though it was the depth of the Great Depression, he risked buying the first of his own bars, the Montana Bar, just down the avenue from this one.

He built his next venture, the City Bar, in 1939, the same year World War II broke out and “Gone With The Wind” was breaking box office records. Some people told Charlie his new bar would go broke because it was too far out of the core business district. Today’s Tenth Avenue South business strip was nothing more than sand hills back then.

The City Bar’s huge Brunswick back bar, a pre-Prohibition piece, was resurrected by Charlie from under an ash heap in the basement of the former Great Falls Hotel downtown.

Charlie, who hailed from California, and his Finn wife, Anna, who had moved here from Alberta, then ran both the Montana Bar and City Bar for five years. When Charlie passed away in 1943, the Montana was sold for $2,500 and the City was managed by one of Anna’s nephews until the Watson sons were ready to run it.

Bill and Bob Watson took over in 1955 when the City’s barkeeps still wore starched whites and the place was only half as large as it is now. It had a tile floor, Venetian blinds and chrome, and plastic tables and chairs. Additions in 1956 and 1976 brought it to the current 50-by-70-foot size.

The Radiant Estate nickel-plated wood-burning stove, installed during the latest addition, originally was a coal burner in a northeastern North Dakota hotel parlor in the late 1800s.

Bob succumbed to an unexpected heart attack in 1986 and the City Bar & Casino now is owned by Bill and his son, Brad. One of them is almost always there to answer questions.

Club Cigar Saloon & Eatery
208 Central Ave.

This tavern is in a very changed business block that was practically all bars only a few decades ago. People could easily read newspapers at night by the glare of all the neon signs.

The famous western artist Charlie Russell used to spend a lot of time in long-gone taverns on this block-mainly in Sid Willis’ Mint Saloon and Billy Rance’s Silver Dollar. And now Jon Tovson’s Club Cigar is the only old-time tavern left in the whole block.

Working girls in rooms near the rear of the Club Cigar made it a popular locale years ago. The pay-for-fun girls are gone, but the remodeled Club remains a popular nightspot for singles. Cosmopolitan magazine said so.

The Club has been a tavern in continuous operation at various addresses since 1914, under the management of some pretty colorful characters from time to time, including a madam.

It’s been at this location since 1931. But it didn’t look anything like it does now until Tovson bought it in 1978 and remodeled into gentility what had been more or less a rough-and-tumble barroom.

The largest item in the Club Cigar is the 14-by-30-foot Brunswick mirrored mahogany back bar. It is the largest of the Brunswick back bars in Great Falls and is highlighted in this setting by the wood wall wainscoting and other woods throughout the place in furniture, ceiling, divider, and other uses.

The stained glass windows, the ancient orangeade machine and some of the other older touches in decor were rescued from a heap in the basement where they had accumulated over the years.

Adaptive of a pretty casual atmosphere, today’s Club Cigar has lighters proclaiming: “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.”

The Club serves a great lunch featuring homemade soups, sandwiches, Mexican food, and daily specials. The newest addition is the 5¢ gambling parlor in the back room ideal for those who might be “feelin’ lucky”!

3D International
1825 Smelter Ave., Black Eagle

Tommy Grasseschi followed his father and grandfather as a worker at the nearby copper and zinc smelter, toiling in the works until he was 33 when he opened the door here the day before Independence Day in 1946.

This little bistro only had 10 tables in the bar and 10 in the dining room then. But Smelter Hill today doesn’t look anything like it did before demolition of the plant in the early 1980s either. The 506-foot smelter stack dominated the skyline and was a landmark for travelers approaching Great Falls from all directions.

The hill looks barren now but the block after block of small, neat houses in this former smelter town hasn’t changed a great deal. Life goes on here for the older families as if the steam whistles still blew at the smelter to start and end the shifts.

The main floor of the 3D originally was a butcher shop and the second story was a boarding house, both in a single-lot brick structure stretching back from Smelter Avenue. Today’s main dining room was the first addition, in 1948, Ten years after that, another addition enclosed the stage and dance floor. The landmark 3D neon sign (signifying drink, dine and dance) came in 1951 and serves as a handy beacon for travelers trying to find the place.

Today’s menu is truly international in theme and variety. The outstanding cuisine features specialties from Oriental (Cantonese, Szechwan, and Thai), as well as Italian and American menu favorites. A children’s menu is available, as is seating in either smoking or non-smoking areas. The 3D is handicapped accessible and accepts Master Card, Visa, and Discover cards. Enjoy the history of Black Eagle in the city’s only art-deco style surrounding.

Tommy and his wife, Dorothy, were big on live entertainment through the years and booked many of the top acts traveling between Chicago and Seattle. They even had a small ice rink built to accommodate a few of the ice revues.

Tommy is gone now but the caliber of service carries on under his son, Mark, who will be your maitre’d many nights of the week. The 3D opens nightly at 4:30 p.m.

Little Chicago Club
113 15th Street, Black Eagle

The small town of Black Eagle north of the Missouri River from Great Falls was called Little Chicago long ago because it existed in the actual shadow of the mighty copper and zinc smelters and refineries of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co.

It took its moniker from Chicago, Illinois, the American industrial colossus of the period.

The copper and zinc ores and concentrates were brought by rail from Butte and Anaconda, Montana, for processing, taking advantage of the cheap hydroelectric power produced by Black Eagle Dam at the foot of what was-and still is-Smelter Hill.

And, like its namesake, Little Chicago was heavily populated with immigrants who still give it a unique flavor with ethnic foods, games, and traditions exhibited on special occasions in the nearby Black Eagle Park.

They treasure their enclave’s independence too. They told the Great Falls city manager to take a hike recently when he suggested annexation.

The huge industrial complex was closed in 1980 by ARCO, its latest owner, and dismantled for salvage. The last step was blowing up the legendary 506-foot smokestack in the fall of 1982. It is difficult for visitors nowadays to imagine the extent of the works judging only by the few foundations left in place that they can see from scenic overlooks on the bluffs on the Great Falls side of the river.

“I kept the name ‘Little Chicago’ when I bought the place 18 years ago because it’s part of the past here,” says mustachioed owner Bill Lindsey. His tavern’s block used to have the Croatian Brotherhood Hall at one corner. “There’s a continuing mystique in the name too. It causes people to come here just to look, for gangsterism or something, I guess.”

It is amazing that shelf after shelf of pool-playing trophies doesn’t pull down the walls in this establishment. “Those are just the major ones I’ve kept from the teams I sponsor,” Lindsey says casually “We’ve given away 600 or 700 smaller ones.” Little Chicago is a mecca for serious pool players in this area. Lindsey wields a respectable cue himself and can show you how if you stop by.

Cowboy’s Bar & Museum
311 3rd St. NW

You can step into a slice of the Old West in this log-built place and sip your favorite dust cutter as you walk around a working cowhand’s museum.

Rodeo is spoken here (but not every minute) and if you appreciate fine old saddles and tack and neat old photographs of the nags that used to be under’em, this is the place for you to spend an hour or two.

There’s also a splendid collection of Indian artifacts donated over the years by the ranchers and cowboys who first obtained them.

Guns, branding irons, bedrolls, buffalo-hide coats and just about every kind of horseshoe in creation are among thousands of other items in nicely done displays that trace some of the history of north central Montana.

Children are welcome.

The Cowboy’s Bar is managed right well by Bill & Dee Davis but it’s always been owned by the Montana Cowboys Association founded in 1938. This spacious, twin-fireplace structure was built as a gathering place for cowboys and sympathizers by the federal Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s right across the street from the Montana State Fairgrounds.

The relics inside this cottonwood-shaded building are a tribute to the pioneer and later stockmen who battled disease, drought, blizzards, and two- and four-legged predators to create a stable industry that now is the biggest single agricultural moneymaker in Montana.

Cowboy film star Gene Autry has wet his whistle in here and most of today’s working rodeo cowboys who appear across the street in professional events also stop in regularly.

Electronic poker machines have replaced the one-armed bandits and you can either get your fill of live horse racing across the street at certain times of the year or relive the races in the Cowboy’s by watching the videotapes later in the day.

by Ralph Pomnichowski, Great Falls