The Swellest bar in the West


Set ’em up, Pardner

Many interested in beer and whiskey history gaze at old pictures of saloons and pubs and wonder, what could you buy inside? Sometimes there’s a clue, a beer sign on the wall, a readable label on the backbar, a distiller’s name on a barrelhead.

Rarely has a document survived listing all the offerings. Numerous sites offer digitized, historic restaurant menus. Wine, beer and spirits brands often appear on these. It’s helpful up to a point, but few pertain to old saloons and pubs in British and American towns, there is very little.



The menu above is an exception. Its full text can be seen herea full-page ad in the Wibaux Pioneer of Montana, July 25, 1907. The building where the saloon was located is today Wibaux’ library. Many features of the original construction survive.

The menu of the Exchange Saloon is the counterpart to 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 the Pioneer as they left the train.

The same for departing salesmen, cowboys, and miners. And just as today, it is one thing to see an establishment up close, another to know what you can buy when you walk in.

And look at the offerings: six whiskeys available from the barrel. Five straights and two blends. Of the straights, three appear to be ryes, and two bourbon. The prices  are per gallon, so whiskey was available to take away, as beer is again today 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. Canadian Club was available as well, and Seagram Canadian whisky – “Seegrains” was a misspelling.

White Horse (“House” is probably an error) and Andrew Usher were, still are, Scotch whiskies. Perhaps they were imported through Canada – 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.


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

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

For beer, Minnesota-based Hamm was the name of the game, whether one kind or more was on offer is not stated. Hamm’s was a major brand in the 20th century Midwest, and further west. A beer of the name is still sold.

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

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

I suspect at this time lobster was not the high echelon 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. This is assuming the whiskeys weren’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 to those who know whiskey. Maryland rye was famous in its day, etc.

Finally, there is the wine list, for which the word eclectic comes to mind.

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.


Wibaux, Montana depot


Note re images: the menu of the Exchange Saloon was sourced from the digitized newspaper linked in the text. The Hamm’s label is from the MillerCoors’ website, here. The image of Wibaux’ Public Library, that formerly housed The Exchange Saloon, is from the Wibaux County genealogy website, hereThe Gibson whiskey label was sourced at Pinterest hereand Wibaux’ railroad depot, here. All images and trademarks belong solely to their respective owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. 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.

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