A Century at the Northern

For 100 years, the Great Northern Bar and Grill has been a favorite watering hole in Whitefish for locals and famous visitors alike

By Justin Franz
The Great Northern Bar and Grill in downtown Whitefish on Nov. 7, 2019. The bar is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Eight hours after last call and the evidence of the previous night’s party is still dangling from the ceiling.

It’s the morning after Halloween in Whitefish and general manager Scott Larkin is pulling down fake cobwebs from one of the dozens of old signs that line the walls of the Great Northern Bar and Grill. Behind the bar, Scott’s parents, Doug Rommereim and Kathy McGrath, are organizing liquor bottles and preparing for the parade of regulars that will file into the bar when it opens again at 11 a.m. In the office, Scott’s sister, business manager Katie Rommereim, goes through paperwork and receipts.

Running the Great Northern Bar and Grill is a family affair. It’s been that way since Rommereim and McGrath purchased it back in 1987, but the history of the bar goes back much further.

This month, “The Northern,” as locals call it, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In the century since it opened, it has moved, expanded and cemented itself as a cornerstone of the Whitefish community, akin to Big Mountain and the 10 p.m. curfew siren above City Hall. It has also played host to well-known music acts — both planned and unplanned — and countless other surprise visitors who have come through the door to grab a beer or a burger.

But more than anything, it’s just been a good bar.

Victor Farr plays pool at the Great Northern Bar and Grill in downtown Whitefish on Nov. 7, 2019. The bar is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I’ve been coming to the Northern for 40 years,” says Dave Kellogg, a longtime regular who also bartended there in the 1980s. “It’s the best bar in town.”

The Northern opened up in 1919 on the north side of Second Street between Baker and Lupfer avenues, where Glacier Cyclery & Nordic is today. At the time, it mostly served workers from the town’s primary employer, the Great Northern Railway, which is where the bar got its name. It stayed on Second Street until the mid-1950s, when it moved to its present location on Central Avenue. At the time, owner Jane Mathias lived in an apartment above the bar. Mathias stayed in the apartment even after she sold it. In the early 1980s, Dick Peterson purchased the bar. While the owners changed, the clientele generally remained the same, Kellogg says.

“It was mostly just railroaders and kids from the hill back then,” he says, adding that if people wanted to get rowdy, they would usually go to the Palm, now the Remington, or the Blue Moon. “No one ever had enough money to be rowdy here.”

Kellogg says back then a bartender nicknamed “Large Marge” often worked behind the bar and would challenge locals to arm wrestling contests. She almost always won.

At the time, a small stage was set up near the main bar and musicians like Doug Rommereim would play there. Rommereim and McGrath had met in California and came to Whitefish to visit her brother, who was a ski patroller. Like so many people, they fell in love with the area and decided to stay.

From left, owner Doug Rommereim, general manager Scott Larkin, office manager Katie Rommereim, and owner Kathy McGrath of the Great Northern Bar and Grill are pictured behind the bar on Nov. 1, 2019. The historic downtown Whitefish bar celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A few years later, Rommereim and McGrath learned that they were expecting a child, which led him to get a full-time job as a bartender at the Northern.

“Kathy got pregnant with Katie and suddenly the $75 a night I was making playing music wasn’t cutting it, so I became a bartender,” he says.

It turns out Rommereim was pretty good at the bar business, and in 1987, he and McGrath purchased part of the Northern.

In the late 1980s, the Northern expanded with the purchase of an old taxidermy shop next door. Rommereim and McGrath opened up the back wall in two spots and put the stage into the new space. The expansion also allowed for the construction of a patio, which for a few years had mini golf and horseshoes. The horseshoes were phased out, Rommereim says, after it became clear that drunk people and steel horseshoes were not an ideal combination. “I thought it was a good idea at the time,” Rommereim says.

With the expansion of the stage, the Northern started to book more musical acts, which in turn brought more people through the door. Allen Tays, who was hired in 1991 as a bouncer and eventually became a bartender, says the early 1990s were an exciting time for the bar.

“It seemed a little bit wilder back then,” he says. “Or maybe it seemed a little bit wilder because I was young and I was a little wilder myself.”

A variety of stickers decorate the surfaces behind the bar at the Great Northern Bar and Grill in Whitefish on Nov. 1, 2019. The historic bar celebrates its 100th anniversary this month. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Tays worked at the Northern for 27 years before retiring in 2018. He says in that quarter-century he saw everything from a woman riding a horse across the back patio to a young couple intimately ringing in the New Year in the smoker’s tent. “That was particularly memorable,” Tays says.

Over the years, a number of celebrities have stopped by the Northern, including Julia Roberts, Shaquille O’Neal and Kiefer Sutherland. But perhaps no celebrity visit was as memorable as rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen in August 1996. “The Boss” was in Whitefish for the wedding of Toby Scott, his longtime soundman, and came to the Northern on a Friday night to listen to the house band, the Fanatics. It didn’t take long for Springsteen to be spotted and coerced on stage.

“Someone came up to me and said, ‘The Boss is on stage,’” Scott Larkin, who was bartending that night, recalls. “I thought he was talking about my dad and I said, ‘No, he’s not. He’s at home.’ And then he said, ‘No, no, no, The Boss.’ That’s when it clicked.”

Larkin climbed on top of the bar to watch the show.

Springsteen played two songs, “Mustang Sally” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” before last call. The head bartender told Larkin that asking Springsteen to get off the stage for closing time was one of the hardest things he ever had to do. The impromptu Springsteen show made headlines across the country a few days later. News clippings from the event still hang on the wall of the bar today.

A Whitefish Pilot newspaper clipping from Aug. 15 1996 about Bruce Springsteen’s surprise performance at the Great Northern Bar and Grill in Whitefish as seen above the bar on Nov. 7, 2019. The bar is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Also on the wall at the Northern are dozens of old signs that Doug Rommereim has collected over the years, a collection that some have likened to a graveyard of shuttered local businesses. The first came from when Rommereim was walking to work one day and spotted a neon sign that read “Groceries.” The sign had been hanging on an old corner store that had closed. The owner wanted $200 for it, but Rommereim declined because he thought it was too steep. A few months later, the sign was still there, so he went back and offered $20 for it. The owner accepted, and Rommereim hung it on the wall near the kitchen.

Since then, countless signs have joined it on the walls, including one from the short-lived “Mom’s Hall of Fame,” established in 1989. For a small fee, you could have your mom included in the hall of fame. Rommereim says the downtown business closed after a few months.

Rommereim says that aside from the many new signs and the hole in the wall leading to the new addition, the Northern looks much the same as it did when he first arrived in the early 1980s. Today, he and McGrath (who are now separated) own the entire bar and plan on eventually handing over control to their children. The family says it doesn’t plan to make any drastic changes in the future.

The Northern will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Nov. 16 with a daylong party. Moonshine Mountain, Smart Alex and a number of special guests are expected to perform. Rommereim said no one has formally asked Springsteen to perform for the anniversary party, but that “he’s always welcome back.”

Regulars and old bartenders will likely make an appearance at the party, including Tays, who says, “Whitefish wouldn’t be Whitefish without the Northern.”

“It’s sort of like seeing the Statue of Liberty in New York City or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. If you come to Whitefish, you’ve got to go to the Northern,” he says.

“Bars come and go, but the Northern has always been Whitefish’s bar.”

The Last Revel performs at the Great Northern Bar and Grill in downtown Whitefish on Nov. 7, 2019. The bar is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon