1870's Montana Saloon Question

Let’s say I wanted to open an authentic 1870’s saloon for tourists as it would have actually appeared in Montana or some other western US territory. I realize that saloons weren’t all identical, but let’s say I wanted to build a “composite” with the features that most saloons of the day had. I also realize that the depictions of saloons in the movies and on TV aren’t necessarily accurate, so I am going to rely mainly on historical information and photographs from the era.

I have built my composite saloon and now need to provide food and drink since I assume that’s why most people stopped by. Yes, I know that many had women and gambling too but that’s going to be harder to get a license for. So what kind of food was typical? Are there recipes that still exist that would describe exactly the kind of fare that would have been common during those times? And what about drink? Can one purchase the same type of alcohol that would have been commonly served back then, no matter how unhealthful or awful it might have tasted?

In other words, how difficult would it be to accurately recreate what a real saloon would have looked, smelled and been like during a particular time in history? Someone once told me it would be impossible but I find that hard to believe given it wasn’t that long ago and there are presumably records somewhere with this kind of information…

Bad rye whiskey is easy enough to find. Flat beer can also be had without too much trouble. Serve both in dirty glasses.

Pile some horse manure under the floors to get that “All horses, all the time” smell I’m sure was everywhere.

Here is a photo of the bar in the Gem Saloon in HBO’s Deadwood. Time period and location are right, 1870’s Dakota Territory. You can assume that the production designers did their research and got it right, or pretty close.

I can’t read the bill of fare on the wall, but I don’t remember that the Gem served much food. We saw them eating breakfast – eggs and some kind of meat – so there was a kitchen of sorts. There might have been a pot of stew simmering on a wood stove, and maybe hunks of buffalo or venison to slice up and serve with bread. But mostly people ate at the hotel or they cooked over a campfire, or in Wu’s alley where we saw ducks hanging.

The hotel served food – biscuits (with bugs), big cuts of meat and some vegetables.

Google Books will be your friend here. I’ve only used the terms “Montana” “saloon” and “food” to get this. You can tweak it and get more. I’ll do it and post if I have time.

About halfway down on the page, where it starts “Now, the drinking saloons…”

Not much about the food. But, it’s a start.

I think you if you’re really looking for an “authentic” re-creation, you may have to be more specific as to time and place. The West changed at a very rapid pace, and a flimsy wooden shack saloon in a mining camp might have been replaced by a more upscale hotel and restaurant of stone in a very few years (if the camp was successful and became a respectable town), or it might have fallen in and blown away (if the ore dried up). So true “frontier” town, rough-and-tumble mining-camp, no streets, little law-and-order, saloons are stereotypical, but they represent only a small moment in time in a very transient and rapidly changing world.

But anyway, here’s a book that looks pretty interesting: Boomtown Saloons.

Thanks everyone. So it sounds like it’s possible, but I would have to narrow down what type of saloon I was interested in recreating. I was thinking about the mining town type of saloon versus the Grand Hotel kind of saloon but it sounds like I need to do some reading first…

BTW, I loved the show Deadwood but I didn’t know how typical the Gem Saloon was compared to the other saloons in Deadwood, let alone in other parts of Montana.

I once read a blurb from that old trivia master, LM Boyd, that those swinging saloon doors were a Hollywood invention, that actual saloons had regular doors. But I’ve never read that anywhere else and have been doubtful. Can anyone confirm or deny that?

Especially in S3 when we discovered the door between the Gem and the newspaper office. :smiley:

And what Jodi said. There were a lot of differences between the Gem, the Bella Union, and the No. 10.

There are photos of the real Gem’s interior on the Deadwood, S.D. website.

This site has some photos of Old West saloons, but later than the period asked for.

The other thing to point out, FWIW, is that the authentic experience of the West has been to a very large extent co-opted by the American 1930s through 1960s entertainment idea of the West – cowboys ‘n’ Indians; git along little dogies; Roy Rogers; Gun Smoke; spaghetti westerns – and the stereotyped “sets” of the same – the campfire; the circled covered wagons with Indians attacking; the tepees; the dusty main street where the gunfight duel will occur. And, of course, the saloon.

So it is IMO difficult to create a Western experience that says “this is authentic!” instead of “this is cheesy fake Western!” because the two really can look quite a lot alike. In many cases, the details that would make the experience authentic are things you probably don’t want anyway. Like dirt, and bad food, and bathrooms out back. IMO the problem for a person considering an authentic frontier western bar in Montana, is that if there’s one thing that people in the West despise as a style or effect, it’s cheesy fake Western. So there’s a very fine line that has to be walked, if such an establishment were to be successful. IMO, and not to be Captain Bringdown. :slight_smile:

I can use Google Books to find a description of a saloon in Indiana in 1865 with swinging doors. So, not hard to believe they existed in the West.

Ah ha! Just as I suspected. Thanks.

I liked LM Boyd, but I wasn’t always convinced he had his facts straight.

Don’t have screens on the windows-lots of flies were part of the western Experience (accounts for all those yellow fever/typhus epidemics).

Tell us about the yellow fever epidemics in Montana and the Dakotas. Typhus from flies?

This building was courthouse and saloon

The book you want is, “Saloons of the Old West.” Here’s a link to my blog post about it, follow that link to the book on Amazon:


It wouldn’t be that difficult to make a saloon that looked like the old saloons - there are still a few left in Montana. I’ve been drinking in Montana for 30 years and for the last 20 years I’ve had jobs that had me traveling the entire state. Some bars that wouldn’t look that out of place (except for having coolers and poker machines instead of poker tables) for someone from the 1870s are:

The Montana Bar in Miles City - probably the most authentic
The Shamrock in Wibaux
The Montana Club in Helena
The Missoula Club in Missoula
One of the bars in Broadus
The Oasis in Glendive
The bar at the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton
The Jersey Lilly in Ingomar - it still has outhouses instead of toilets. August is not the best time to visit.
And probably about half of the Mint Bars, though not the ones in Belgrade or Livingston.

Many of the small towns that have bars have old bars, especially those along highway 2 in the northern part of the state between North Dakota and Glacier National Park.

If you ever want to drink, fish, float or camp in Montana, I’ll tell you where to go.


Yep, you didn’t get yellow jack from flies-you needed mosquitos (plentiful in 1870’s Montana). Man, I can imagine what bthe kitchen of such a place looked like!

There are old cookbooks on Google Books, so you can get a good idea of what food would have been like back then.

OP = “I was thinking about the mining town type of saloon versus the Grand Hotel kind of saloon.”

Up until about 10 years ago, just after you crossed the Missouri river going south from Culbertson, as you started to climb up the hill there was a dirt road going to the right. There was an old, small farmhouse and next to it a “soddie” cabin that was probably built in the early 1900s. You would pull in and an old lady would let you into the soddie where she had one cooler with a couple of cases of beer in it. I don’t remember if the floor was wooden or dirt, but there were a couple of tables. She really didn’t want you hanging out and drinking long unless she was lonely but it was a spot to wet your whistle.

A friend just reminded me of another old bar, the “Bale of Hay” in Virginia City. Virginia City makes it’s living being “authentic.” I was in there two weeks ago with a date and there was an “authentic” cowboy just down the bar from us having a beer. (He was one of the actors in a play, but she didn’t know that.) She asked him if he was a real cowboy and he said, “Yes.” and then said, “That reminds me. Barkeep, can I have my gun back? I need to go.”

The bartender passed him over a hogleg in a holster. Authentic cowboy strapped it on and left. The date never did figure it out.

whistlepig, who has been in Montana bars when somebody rode a horse in, somebody rode a Harley in and several times when the bartender asked someone to check their gun.

If you ever get the chance to go to Bannock, MT, you MUST! It’s now a state park, but was occupied from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. One of the last folks to deed their property to the state did so with the clause that it must be kept authentic, and “not like Virginia City.”

In my travels out West this summer, I made a random turn to Bannock, and my one and only regret from my 10,000 mile trip was not staying longer.

Here’s an overview of Bannock. Go to the next shot to see an old house showing its life from Log-Cabin, to expansion, to linoleum on the floor. The one after that is a poor attempt of mine to make a “ghost” picture in a ghost town. Ignore the dubious photgraphy of a “ghost” and look around the saloon. (Which never seemed to get as renovated as the nearby hotel did.)