A Final Round at Sawbuck

By Beacon Staff

Phil Helean has been around these parts for a long time, but not nearly as long as the Sawbuck building.

For the past 11 years, Helean has managed the Sawbuck Saloon and Casino. But the building itself has been in its location at 1301 South Main Street since the 1940s. It once stood mostly alone. Then, as other businesses sprouted up around it, the sturdy wood structure held its ground, even growing with age. The current 15,000-square-foot behemoth dwarfs the original bar.

But soon, bulldozers will level the building to make room for a Montana Club restaurant. It’s a bittersweet moment for Helean. On one hand, he’s happy to see Kalispell bringing in a new business and providing 100 jobs. On the other hand, he hates to see the old building fall.

A farewell bash will be held at the Sawbuck on April 18 at 4 p.m., with food, live music and plenty of beverages. Helean said after that it’s only a matter of time before the bulldozers and backhoes show up, though not at least until May 1.

“I have some real mixed emotions about this getting torn down,” Helean said.

When the bar was built in the 1940s, it was initially called the Skylark. Al Cohenour recalls bartending there in the late 1960s and says it was an upscale cocktail lounge. The Skylark eventually became the Hindquarter, then Pancho Magoo, and finally the Sawbuck in 1998.

Though Cohenour never worked at the Hindquarter or Pancho Magoo, he found himself back at the Sawbuck beginning several years ago, serving drinks just like he did in the 1960s.

“It’s what you call going full circle, I guess,” Cohenour said. “I was at the Skylark and now I’ll be here when it’s demolished. I’ll be sad to see it go.”

The Sawbuck has been good to its owners, Grant and Ladd Lincoln. The Lincolns, who are brothers, will also be partners in the Montana Club, along with Bob Powell and Nick Alonzo. Helean said the Sawbuck has been hugely profitable, bringing in $50 million since 1998. Half of that has come from gambling.

On top of the revenue made from its gambling machines, the Sawbuck also held horse betting, which was extremely popular, Helean said. The horse racing activities will now be moved to Scotty’s down the street. The Sawbuck has also long been the city’s central bus depot. The depot has now moved across the street on First Avenue and Helean will continue to manage that, though he’s not sure exactly what his role will be at the Montana Club.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served daily at the Sawbuck. Helean recalls one day, during the Northwest Montana Fair, when his restaurant dished out 524 breakfasts in one morning. At its peak, the Sawbuck employed 50 people.

“You look at the outside of it and it doesn’t look like it could do all this, but it’s a cash cow,” Helean said.

Furthermore, Helean said the Sawbuck’s location is ideal for attracting passersby on the highway.

“This is probably the best location in town,” he said.

The Sawbuck is essentially three buildings in one: a casino up front, a sports bar in the back and the horse betting area next to it. For years, there was also a poker room for live games. The building is deceptively big. From the outside, looking at the cedar-covered exterior, it’s hard to believe that 15,000 square feet are in there.

In the decades after the Skylark was built, subsequent owners added on space to the building, leaving the original structure in place. You can see the layers of eras on the walls. Some walls still show off the original larch and fir, while others are covered with a light-colored stucco from the Pancho Magoo period. When the walls fall at the Sawbuck, piles of salvageable wood will be available, ranging from cedar to larch.

Then there’s the car ramp. The owner of the Hindquarter constructed a heavy-duty ramp with a steel base leading from the outside into the bar. He would drive cars right into the middle of the casino and raffle them off to bar patrons.

But all of this will be no more by summer. Helean will be there to watch the historical building’s last day.

“They’ll take a couple backhoes and dozers and this thing will be gone in a couple of days,” Helean said. “I’ve got so many customers that don’t know where to go.”

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