50 Years of Sawdust & Peanuts

By Beacon Staff

There are a handful of attractions that make the Flathead Valley world-renowned: Flathead Lake, Glacier Park, Big Mountain and, perhaps its most beautiful, Moose’s Saloon. This summer, the iconic bar, which has become synonymous with the Flathead, celebrates its 50th Anniversary.

The saloon occupies an incongruous place in the life of downtown Kalispell – a family-friendly pizza joint that resembles the roughest of roadhouses, where young children play arcade games beneath burlesque paintings of topless women. Most customers enter the Kalispell saloon through the rear entrance, although Wild-West themed swinging doors greet anyone who comes in along Main Street. Once their eyes adjust to the darkness, customers must shuffle through the piles of peanuts and sawdust that litter the floor. Red glass mutes the few lights in the almost windowless building. Names carved into timber line the thick walls and tables; it is nearly impossible to find a spot where someone hasn’t etched their initials.

“We have become a destination,” said Wallis Bianchi, the saloon’s current owner.

That is what Bianchi’s father, David “Moose” Miller, was striving for when he opened the saloon in 1957. David had an outstanding career playing football for the Montana Grizzlies in the early 1950s. While at UM he met his wife Shirley, whose father owned the bar that would become Moose’s. When Shirley’s father died, the couple decided to come to Kalispell to take the bar over. With help from a few friends Miller remodeled the bar in a Wild-West theme – Moose’s Saloon was born.

Throughout its 50 years Moose’s has evolved and faced challenges, like Miller’s losing a battle with cancer in 1999. Shirley Bianchi, who had worked beside her father since she was 13, was up to the challenge of running her father’s bar and keeping both his dream and memory alive.

“Dad wanted everyone who came in here to feel like a local,” Bianchi said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you are welcome at Moose’s.”

Bob Hendricks of Bozeman makes Moose’s his meeting place when he is in town.

“We come back here because it is different,” Hendricks said. “It isn’t that … cookie cutter crap you can find anywhere,” he added. “It’s different, just cold beer and great pizza.”

Moose’s famous pizza came to the saloon after Miller bought recipes and hired cooks from a pizza joint going out of business at the time. Barney’s Corner, the kitchen area of the saloon, is named in honor of its long-time pizza chef.

Over the years this unique establishment has seen its fair share of shenanigans. Long-time kitchen staffer Josephine Dopp remembers when Miller played a practical joke on her and a co-worker by serving up an unexpected delicacy.

“Moose snuck up behind us with paper plates covered in mayonnaise and put them all over our faces,” Dopp said. Miller helped the other worker wash up from the prank by washing her face off under a beer tap.

Wallis remembers a large Canadian woman who used get up on the bar and tap dance with beer caps between her toes.

Moose’s patron and part-time custodian Steve Yeomans recalls football players back-flipping off the bar causing the floor to cave in. There was also a time when customers would trap women in the restroom with the saloon’s giant anvil. “There is tradition here that is unsurpassed,” Yeomans said. “I know that I carved in here in a few places.”

The saloon’s most infamous tradition was outlawed nearly five years ago when an unsuspecting customer failed to find it amusing. Bartenders told new patrons they would be given a free drink if they could produce a sound from a U-shaped horn that once hung in the bar. The instrument never produced a note. It would, however, provide the unsuspecting horn blower a face full of powder.

Moose’s isn’t just known for its cold beer and crazy nights, it is also a major contributor to the community, winning an award from the National Restaurant Association for community service in 2003.

And what would Moose’s be without the large moose head mounted between the saloon’s two small windows? With a tattered nose and ears looking as if it has been in its own share of drunken brawls, the moose has borne witness to decades of rowdy nights.

But there is another moose presiding over the saloon. An old picture of Moose Miller hangs nearby, sporting his signature old-fashioned moustache and smiling as he tends the bar behind the same antique cash register still there. Bianchi believes her father would have been humble upon reaching the saloon’s 50-year mark.

“He would thank everybody,” Bianchi said. “He wanted the best bar in the West and he got it.”

Moose’s plans to officially celebrate its 50th Anniversary with free beer and pizza Aug. 14.