Decades at the Tavern

By Beacon Staff

HUNGRY HORSE – It’s just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday at the Dam Town Tavern and bartender Laura Djonne is on the phone as a couple of patrons sit at the bar with their coffee cups and the newspaper.

There’s not much chatter, but everyone makes sure to say goodbye as they head out the door.

“Thanks Laura,” one customer says as he leaves.

“You bet,” Djonne answers, still on the phone.

Another man walks into the tavern and sits at the very end of the bar. Djonne walks over to him, phone still crooked between her cheek and her shoulder, and pops open a light beer for him without saying a word.

“Most of them are coffee drinkers,” she says later of the morning regulars.

Most towns in Montana have a church, a post office and at least one bar. Separately, they serve as social hubs for residents.

In Hungry Horse, the Dam Town Tavern is just that. And every morning, Djonne, 65, works as the opening bartender. She says October will mark her 40th year at the tavern.

Born and raised in Columbia Falls, Djonne said she started working at the bar about a year after her brother, Larry Green, purchased it in 1971. When Green passed away, his wife, Lynnette Green, took over the tavern’s liquor license.

In the time she’s known her sister-in-law, Green said Djonne rarely takes a day off. And since she opens the bar seven days a week, Djonne has become a constant presence for regular customers.

“She doesn’t like to take a vacation,” Green said. “She’s just got that wonderful attitude that if they need me, I’ll be here.”

Djonne and her husband Buck have two kids, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. None of them work at the tavern, and Djonne said she encouraged her kids to find their own paths in life.

But for herself, Djonne said she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

“I love it. I like the people; they treat me really well. It’s been a good living,” Djonne said. “And there’s the respect. [Bar patrons] know that there’s no nonsense going on.”

Djonne credits the tavern’s solid bartending staff for maintaining its faithful clientele. They have seen the town boom and bust, she said, and the bar is a local meeting place for many of the patrons.

“If somebody don’t show up here within a couple of days, you check around,” Djonne said.

Green said Djonne knows the patrons well and lends a hand to anyone with a need, including helping with food or rent or running errands for those who can’t make it into Columbia Falls.

“They’re so kind to her, too; they’ll give her little gifts,” Green said. “I’m so fortunate that I have her up there. I think it’s just become a lifestyle for her now because she’s done it for so many years.”

A driver pilots his motorcycle past the Dam Town Tavern in Hungry Horse.

Djonne’s reputation extends beyond the tavern’s aging walls. As the driving force behind the Canyon Kids Christmas Fund, she is also known as the woman who has a direct line to Santa Claus.

The Canyon Kids Christmas Fund pays for gifts and candy for the children of Badrock Canyon, and Santa delivers the bounty every year via helicopter. Djonne said the holiday tradition began with simple tree decorations in 1980 and has grown since then.

“A lot of them kids, that’s their big thing,” Djonne said. “I would hate to see it die out.”

The annual Cabin Fever Days and the Lion Lake fishing derby are major fundraisers for the project, and Djonne said none of it would be possible without the many volunteers who help give local kids a better Christmas experience.

Stephanie Dahl, who runs the Dam Canyon Shop and helps organize Cabin Fever Days, said Djonne is known for her quiet generosity.

“She’s part of the community and a big part of it,” Dahl said. “She is a staple in Hungry Horse and the whole canyon.”

Hanging in the tavern is a gift Djonne received in 2008, and is perhaps the most succinct example of her relationship with the community.

It’s a painting on a circular saw featuring the dam, the tavern and Djonne, with the message, “A special thanks from the ‘Canyon People’ for being there for the kids and all those in need. You are a ‘friend.’ To the best woman in this Dam town.”