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Montana taverns hang on to history as wooden bars and backbars jump in value

  • 6 min to read

If you've visited one of Montana's iconic old saloons, chances are that bar you rested your elbow on arrived in the state on a steamboat, or a horse-drawn wagon.

And after a century in service, some of those old hand-carved bars and backbars are highly valuable, and in some cases are worth more than the buildings that house them.

Watering hole history

At the turn of the 20th century, taverns popped up all across Montana, in every mining town, logging camp and ranching community. Beer quality varied, but the best bars served their swill on fine pieces of wood furniture imported mostly from the East and Midwest.

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Old Saloon bar company logo

The original Brunswick-Balke-Collender logo still shows on the bar at the Old Saloon near Livingston.

The Brunswick, Balke and Collender Co. produced the gold standard of front and backbars from the late 1800s, leading up to Prohibition. The molded and carved furniture replaced homemade counters and liquor cabinets in the frontier watering holes that could afford the upgrade.

Much of Brunswick’s history was lost in a fire in the company’s Chicago headquarters. Many Montana bar owners can trace their backbars to St. Louis, but the bars were built in several facilities across the United States. Once ubiquitous, they have since become increasingly hard to find as old taverns close, said Lou Marschak, an antique saloon furnishing dealer based in Dubois, Wyo.

“I like to think of them as western things with cowboys, but that’s not the case. They were everywhere,” Marschak said.

He said up to 90 percent of the bars he sells end up in private homes. He’s one of the few dealers of antique bar furniture and he fields inquiries from as far away as Europe.

Several companies built bar counters and backbars, but Marschak said most were cheap copies of Brunswicks. The company first produced poker tables, acquired competitors Balke and Collender, and, starting in about the 1870s, started building bar furniture.

Marschak said salesmen back in the day visited taverns toting scaled-down models of backbars. A wide range of models were offered and were available in several sizes to fit different buildings. Bar owners could also choose the type of wood the counter and backbar were carved from. In the early 20th century, the simpler of the bar sets could be had for a few hundred dollars and higher-end examples sold for closer to $1,000. Today Brunswick bars demand prices anywhere from $30,000 to $125,000 for fancier designs. 

Most of the bars were plain designs. Marschak deals mostly in ornate bar sets and although there’s 10 in his showroom he said they are not easy to find.

Often, he finds deals online. He said areas that enforce smoking bans have more bars going out of business and in turn are hot spots for backbars. He likes to check out old establishments while traveling and sometimes the exercise in curiosity turns into a business deal.

“I don’t drink, but I’ll open the door because I’m always curious about what they’re using for a backbar,” Marschak said.

Tiny towns, long histories

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Peps bar overview

Pep's Bar and Lanes in Big Sandy has an 1800s backbar.

Some of the most lavish backbars in Montana reside in the smallest towns. The Pep’s Bar and Lanes in Big Sandy is home to a Brunswick, Balke and Collender front and backbar set.

“Honestly, this is the most ornate one I’ve seen,” said Josh Danreuther, who bought the bar in 2008. “Usually, you have some pillars and some side pieces but not a full centerpiece.”

Danreuther recognizes its value and figures the backbar could be worth more than he paid for the entire tavern. He said when he first bought it, the wood was stained white but he had it stripped and restored.

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Old Saloon Bar union logo

A Woodworkers Union sticker still shows on the The Old Saloon bar near Livingston. 

The backbar’s arches were once decorated with acorn nut carvings, but a former owner didn’t care for the design and chiseled them off. The bar counter has also been decorated with the brands of local ranchers.

Otherwise the wooden furnishings haven’t changed much since the bar opened in 1920. Danreuther said he believes they are the originals and arrived in Big Sandy after traveling up the Missouri River on a steamboat landing at Ft. Benton.

That was a common route for bar sets originating in St. Louis.

In Emigrant, The Old Saloon’s counter and backbar set made the steamboat journey after the tavern had already been built in 1902. Over the next 100 years, the bar became a Paradise Valley landmark but also fell into disrepair.

“It was ready to burn down before we bought it,” owner Brett Evje said. “Part of the reason we picked it up is we wanted to save it and kind of bring some life back to it.”

When Evje purchased The Old Saloon in May of 2016 the matching bar set was listed as an asset in the business’s inventory. He had admired old backbars since he was kid sitting in the bar area of the Livingston Bar and Grille. He knew the Old Saloon’s backbar was a valuable part of the business and it was preserved when the building was restored last year.

The high value and demand for the antiques makes it difficult for taverns to retain their heritage when they hit the market.

The New Atlas Bar in Columbus is best known for housing more than 60 animal mounts, including century-old elk, a pair of golden eagles, a two-headed cow and an albino deer. But it also boasts not one but two Brunswick Balke Collender backbars.

The original front and backbar set was installed when the bar opened in 1916. The second came to Columbus after use in a Butte tavern and for years served patrons of the bowling lanes in the basement of The New Atlas.

The Columbus bar was owned by the same family for 80 years before it was sold in 2016.

“We’re the third family (to own the bar) in 100 years, which is kind of cool. It was kind of a package deal so they wanted it to stay that way,” said Gena Pluid, who owns The New Atlas with her husband, Shawn Pluid.

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New Atlas Bar detail

The New Atlas Bar in Columbus has two backbars dating from 1893 and 1896.

Keeping with the tavern’s wild motif, the main backbar features lions' heads carved into wooden arches. The bar has its original mirrors and spittoons still used by tobacco chewing locals. Most of what the Pluids know about the bar comes from barstool tales spun by patrons and history passed on from the previous owners, like the backstory behind the artwork on the backbar mirrors.

Gena Pluid said the mirrors have carried the words “Welcome Stranger” and a mural of a bronc busting cowboy since a patron running low on funds in the 1940s provided the paintings to work off his tab.

Pluid grew up in Columbus and she cherishes the bar’s place in the town’s history. The Pluids moved from Belgrade to take over the New Atlas and don’t plan to make any changes.

Salvaged shards

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Snag bar overview

Red Lodge's Snag Bar has a historic backbar.

Some of Montana’s bars haven’t benefited from the same commitment to preservation.

Polson resident Steve Lozar’s great-grandfather, Joseph Lozar, was a Slovenian immigrant and operated a bar in East Helena for decades despite losing the saloon in a 1909 card game. Joseph Lozar regained the business when the luckier gambler failed to pay $26 in city taxes.

Steve Lozar said his grandfather was a proud saloon operator and would brag about his tavern’s Brunswick bar.

“It was a big deal because it wasn’t homemade. It was actually bought by the company,” Lozar said.

The bar was eventually sold to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and except for the occasional Boy Scout meeting, the room sat empty for 50 years. Lozar thought his family had an understanding with the building’s owner that if the structure was sold or torn down they would remove the wooden bar set. So he was especially upset when excavators began demolition with the bar counter and backbar still inside.

“I went crazy when I got there,” Lozar said. “I got up on top of the rubble and wouldn’t leave.”

Police were called and removed him from the scene but were sympathetic and let him go a few blocks away. The next day he returned to the mostly destroyed building and salvaged what he could.

Lozar said the front bar had miraculously dropped into an underground opening and was mostly undamaged. The backbar, however, was shattered into many pieces. Lozar and his family collected what they could and retreated to Polson with the wooden shards.

The destroyed backbar was laid out in the attic of Lozar’s printing shop. A carpenter cousin spent the next two years gluing, screwing and pressing the pieces back together with a filler made of wood shavings and epoxy. Today, it’s hard to tell the bar has been touched since arriving in Montana in the late 1800s.

The bar set is still in the attic but makes up the centerpiece of a vast collection of Montana bar and brewing history that’s open to the public. Lozar, who is also a trained historical researcher and anthropologist, is committed to keeping the alcohol history of Montana in the state.

“Of these original Brunswick Balke Collenders, I can’t imagine there are more than 75 in the state in any condition,” he said. “The prices have gone so crazy, all of this stuff leaves the state and they’re true pieces of Montana history.”

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General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.