The New Atlas Bar has been featured in Outdoor Life, filmed for a pilot of “Bars Across America,” and was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But for the clientele who frequent the bar on Pike Avenue in Columbus, it’s always been a place where you can cut loose and be yourself. Ronnie Rothwell, a Stillwater Mine employee, said he’s seen everything from motorcycles to horses in the New Atlas. A sign on the door says dogs are not allowed, but Rothwell points out that it doesn’t say anything about horses.
When Columbus business owners Linda and Hank Davis were killed in a motorcycle accident a few years back, the locals had a motorcycle parade and The Davis' son Dusty did a burnout on the hardwood floor in the New Atlas. You can still see the dark tracks embedded in the floor, a standing memorial to the Davises.
“The history here is a big thing,” Rothwell said.
Scott Purdum, a Big Timber rancher and Stillwater Mine employee, said the New Atlas is the kind of place where you don’t have to get dressed up to grab a beer.
“It’s a common people place,” Purdum said. “It don’t matter if I’m dirty or greasy from work, it don’t matter what you’re wearing when you come in here."
Whiskey and beer for nearly a century
The New Atlas, which turns 100 years old in 2016, is probably the most well-known bar in Montana, historian Jon Axline said in 2011. Tourists flock to the bar to see the 60-some mounted animals that fill the walls and some of the floor space. Owner Lars Swanson said that in addition to the bar’s signature collection of 15 elk mounts is the two-headed calf, which legend has it lived three weeks back in 1961.
“My best friend’s mom said she bottle-fed the calf,” Swanson said. “She had to use two bottles at once because if she didn’t, the milk would pour out the other head.”
Swanson’s personal favorite mount is the snowy owl near the entrance of the bar, because it is so lifelike. The shaggy brown wolf mount in the center of the bar was killed by the aunt of one of the original owners, J.O. Miller.
“The story goes that it was the last legally killed wolf in the 1930s,” Swanson said. “She roped it from horseback and choked it to death. She was a tough woman.”
The story behind the albino fawn mount is that two neighboring landowners were feuding.
“One of the gentlemen thought he saw his neighbor’s goat and shot the fawn by accident,” Swanson said.
Swanson, who purchased the bar in 1997 with his sister, Dana, graduated from Columbus High School in 1980.
“It takes a special breed to be in the bar business,” Swanson said.
Since Dana and her husband have been working in the Bakken oil field, Swanson said he’s been running the place by himself. And it’s taken its toll. He recently put it up for sale for $700,000.
Dead animal zoo
Swanson said he allows tourists and the locals to bring their children into the bar until 8 p.m., which is what Swanson calls the “witching hour.” He remembers coming to the bar long before he turned 21, tagging along with his folks to play pool or eat beef jerky with his two older sisters.
“People say, ‘If you go to Columbus, you’ve got to go to the New Atlas,’” Swanson said.
His customers pitched in to buy a sign in honor of his mother, Mickey Riley, when she died in December 2011. Because the sign reads, “Mickey’s Pub,” newcomers often wonder if that was the original name of the bar.
Started as the Headquarters Bar
The original name of the bar was the Headquarters Bar, when it opened in the 1880s with owners Tom Mulvehill and J.O. Miller. Mulvehill’s son, T.P., eventually took ownership, and the bar was still owned by Mulvehill’s descendents when Swanson bought it. The bar has served as a community gathering point more than once since Swanson took ownership.
“The moral majority looks down on bars, but I don’t know a single business that reaches out like this. Not just my bar, but the Montana Tavern Association, does so much to help people. We have potlucks to help people get back on their feet, we bought presents for Project Hope last year, and I can’t tell you how many Girl Scout cookies I’ve bought over the years.”
Thorval “Tuffy” Krone, a 70-year-old Reed Point man, said he’s been walking through the front doors of the New Atlas Bar since he learned to walk. He’s been in fights at the bar, but doesn’t remember if he won them or what they were even over. He was once pictured in a magazine spread on the bar, but they didn’t get his name.
While the bar’s rowdy days are mostly over and the magazine shoots are scarce, Krone still enjoys walking into the New Atlas a couple of days a week to see that not much has changed.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the Yellowstone Valley, especially in Billings where I never go any more,” Krone said. “This place is always the same.”