The Swellest Bar In The West


Set Em Up Pardner

Many interested in beer and whiskey history have gazed at old pictures of saloons and pubs and wondered what you could buy inside. Sometimes there are clues, a beer sign on the wall, a legible label on the backbar, a distiller’s name on a barrelhead.

Rarely has a document survived listing all the offerings. To be sure, numerous sites offer digitized, historic restaurant menus. Wine, beer and spirits lists often appear on these and this is helpful up to a point.

But of the saloon and pub seen in old images of English and American towns or cities, there is very little.

Hamms_SpecialLight_logoThe above menu is an exception. The full text can be seen herea full-page ad printed in the Wibaux Pioneer, Montana, on July 25, 1907. The building in which the saloon was located is today Wibaux’ library, and many features of the original construction have survived.

The menu of the Exchange Saloon is the counterpart of today’s online menus except it appeared in a newspaper. Given we are talking about Montana and a small locality, it made sense for the saloon to trumpet its wares this way. Inbound rail passengers would have picked up copies of the Pioneer left on the train by the outgoing salesmen, cowboys, miners. And just as today, it is one thing to see an establishment up close, another to know what they have to sell when you walk in.

And look at the offerings! There were six whiskeys available from the barrel. Five were straights and two blends. Of the straights, three appear to be ryes, and two bourbon. The prices listed are per gallon, so whiskey was available to take away as beer is today (again) in growlers.

The Exchange Saloon also functioned as an off-license or dealer, in other words. No less than 13 bottled brands of American whiskey were carried, most probably blends. Good old Canadian Club was available, and Seagram Canadian whisky – “Seegrains” was a misspelling. White Horse (“House” is probably an error) and Andrew Usher were (are) Scotch whiskies. Perhaps they were imported via Canada, and one hopes not made in Canada with a false label slapped on. In fact, by including these two in the Canada section, I wonder if Mr. Rucker was telling us something.

85386bfa1c91c0-1024x767 (1)

There were two kinds of gin: Hollands, the original Dutch genever, and a London dry gin, Gordon, still a big name. Bass Ale and Guinness Stout were the imported beers.

There was a Cognac, Hennessey, bigger than ever today, a California brandy, and a few fruit spirits.

For beer, Minnesota-based Hamm was name of the game, whether one kind or more on offer is not said. Hamm’s was a big brand in the 20th century in the Midwest and further west. A beer with that name is still sold. At the time, I’d suspect it had a vigorous taste from a goodly amount of malt and lots of hops – today, well I can’t say.

You can see that a boilermaker, or beer and a shot, was no trouble in this bar – or should I take that back.

The “lunch goods” were the famous free lunch of the old saloon, salty foods to whet the appetite for more drink and lure in the crowd. We have good detail on what was offered, there was sardines, potted (minced and spiced) meats, sausage, cheese and crackers, and a seeming outlier, lobster.

I suspect at this time lobster was not the gourmet dish it is now. Fishermen used to toss them back, they say… The shrimp were probably pickled, maybe the lobster too.


The brand or source names in the whiskey section, certainly for the straight and Canadian whiskeys, all denoted top goods, assuming what was in the barrel or bottle wasn’t diluted or otherwise adulterated. I suspect they weren’t though as the ad is careful to note compliance with the Pure Food law, an early consumer measure.

Gibson was a major rye distillery in Pennsylvania founded by an Ulster immigrant, John Gibson. Old Crow needs no introduction. Maryland rye was famous in its day, etc.

Finally, Beeretseq isn’t ignoring the wine list, for which the term eclectic is probably apposite.

Men then didn’t drink much wine, and the saloon was the preserve of men except for any dancing girls permitted on premises. Maybe the wines were consumed by them, courtesy their gentlemen friends.

Thus did Bacchus roam in old Montana, from Catawba to St-Julien.

Oh, but ain’t that America
For you and me
Ain’t that America
Something to see, baby

(From John Cougar Mellencamp’s Pink Houses (1983)).

Wibaux, Montana depot

Note re images: the menu of the Exchange Saloon was sourced from the digitized newspaper linked in the text above. The Hamm’s label is from MillerCoors’ website, here. The image of Wibaux’ Public Library, which formerly housed The Exchange Saloon, is from the Wibaux County genealogy website, hereThe Gibson whiskey label was sourced hereand the shot of Wibaux’ railroad depot, here. All images and trademarks belong to their respective owners or duly authorized licensees. Images are believed available for educational or historical use. All feedback welcomed.





2 thoughts on “The Swellest Bar In The West”

  1. I like that there’s a bar right next door today!

    Gibson was a major rye producer, as you note, and supposedly the largest rye distillery in the world at the time. Nice to see that it was appreciated so far from home. I have enjoyed rye from Gibson, and it was nectar.

Comments are closed.