Pony Bar

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Southwest Montana's Real Western Bar

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BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE ARTICLE

Sunday, September 19, 2004
Pony Bar is the beating heart of a ghost town
By ERIN NICHOLES Chronicle Staff Writer

PONY ~ Michelle Smith rolled into town in the dead of winter, driving a Jeep with no windows. She scanned the empty, red brick buildings for life signs among the ghostly remnants of a once-booming mining camp. At the west end of Main Street, she found a beating heart: The Pony Bar.
Bar owner Scott Lambert won't forget the sight of Smith that day, standing in the old saloon's doorway wearing a stocking cap. "I felt sorry for her," Lambert said. "He took me in," said Smith, 26.
Lambert immediately hired Smith, originally from New York state, as a bartender. A year-and-a-half later, she's still in tiny Pony, six miles west of Harrison off of Highway 287. "I like it here," she said. "The people around here are kind of like family. We fight like family and we love each other."
If Pony's 100 residents are one big family, the Pony Bar is their living room. It's where ranchers gather after branding. It's where football fans watch Monday night games. It's where veterans' groups meet and hunting buddies tell stories. And the bar has a reputation for welcoming outsiders from all walks of life.
On Saturday nights, pickup trucks line an otherwise empty Main Street. Inside the 130-year-old building, people from three counties crowd the bar, their laughter and music breathing life into an otherwise dead town.
"It's a real Montana bar," said Lambert, hooking the heels of his dirty cowboy boots on the rung of a bar stool. "That's what the draw is."

The last best bar

The Pony Bar is all that is left of once-thriving local commerce. "Its the only business that survived; it was always kind of a miners' bar," said bartender Bruce Flesch, who is a living portrait of an Old-West barkeep in his black vest over a white shirt, finished with an arm garter and bolo tie.
Pony was born in 1875 as a gold miners' camp. Thousands of people lived here and there were schools, banks, Chinese laundries and saloons, according to visitmt.com.
The Pony Bar originally was McKittrick Hall, built in 1877 as a town meeting hall and boarding house, and later, was a house of ill repute, Flesch said. After Pony went belly-up in the early 1900s, a salty woman named Bert Welch bought the hall and opened Bert's Pony Bar. She had a reputation for opening promptly at 8 a.m., and closed promptly 10 hours later. "She didn't care if the bar was packed full, she closed at 6 p.m.," said Dave Halvorson, a longtime resident and bar regular.
After Welch died, the bar changed hands a few times until Lambert took over two years ago, when he was living in Harrison and spending spare time at the saloon.
"The guy who owned it asked me to buy it a few years ago," said Lambert, 47. "I said 'no.' Then I thought, you only live once, so what the hell." He, his girlfriend and his twin teenage boys now live in part of the building formerly used as a boarding house. "My bed's about 10 yards from the bar," he said.

Rough and ready

The Pony Bar serves as the town hall, veterans' lodge, restaurant, senior center and leading employer. "This is the gathering place," Halvorson said, as he drained a Rainier with his wife after work one recent afternoon. "If you want to see somebody, you come to the Pony Bar."
Miners, loggers, ranchers and bikers are the most regular customers here. "I cater to them," Lambert said.
He sells cheap drinks and opens tabs because he knows many customers only get paid once a month. He serves free food on Monday nights and stays open 365 days a year so lonely people always have a place to spend holidays.
And the decor reflects Pony's tough-going mining and ranching roots.
Antique taxidermy, old mining-claim signs, black-and-white photographs, saddles and horse tack line the brick walls. A painting of scantily clad prostitutes posing in front of a horse-draw wagon always seems to have at least one onlooker. A collection of raw-humored bumper stickers sits above the bar, including one that says, "My Montana has an East infection."
Halvorson has been coming here for years to drink beer and tell stories about things that happen, "only in Pony."
He recalled a cold day one hunting season when a herd of cow elk trotted down the street past the bar, which sits just a few miles from access to the Tobacco Root Mountains. "Everybody sitting here said, 'Anybody got a cow elk tag?'," Halvorson said. "But everybody who did was up on top of the mountain and the elk just walked right through town."

Open hearts

The Pony Bar, with its creaky hardwood floors and musky beer scent, is unique because although it caters to people like Halvorson, it welcomes everyone. "We don't judge people," Lambert said. "You can't judge people by how they look, but we'll sit around a while and see how they act."
On Saturday nights, people from Pony, Harrison, Whitehall, Cardwell, Three Forks and even Bozeman fill the bar to dance, to eat burgers and ribs, laugh over drinks and listen to live music, should someone happen to show up to play.
"Locals will pick up their guitars and start playing," Smith said. "Everybody's open to everyone. The strangest people come in and people end up talking to them."
Last year, a man known only as "Hillbilly Evan" hitchhiked here from Arkansas with a guitar, thick glasses and long, curly hair. Lambert let Hillbilly sleep in the beer room and designated him the night watchman. A few months later, the community embraced him.
"Around Christmas time, everybody pitched in and bought him a guitar," Smith said. Hillbilly now rents a cabin and works odd jobs around the area. Every Saturday night, he is with his friends at the bar. The way the community rallied for Hillbilly is typical of Pony, Halvorson said. "If you need any help with anything you're doing, everybody in town shows up to help," he said.

Bucking trends

Like all of Montana, Pony draws more tourists every year. Some come to the nearby Potosi Hot Springs and others have just heard of the town and want to poke around the old buildings. Many stop in the bar to ask about the town's history, and Flesch can deliver information.
Lambert knows he could tap the tourism industry, but he's not interested. "If something's working, don't change it," he said, holding a cigarette between thick, meaty fingers.
Even his advertising is old-school. He regularly visits other bars in the area and buys the house a round of drinks to spread the word about the Pony Bar. "That's how they used to do it in the old days," he said.
The only major improvement he's making is restoring the boarding rooms to rent out in the future. He wants the Pony Bar to continue serving locals, as it has for decades after riding out economic turbulence and evolving society. And he wants the bar to continue serving as Pony's first embrace for newcomers like Smith, who said she may leave here someday, but she's content for now. "Time will tell," Smith said.

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Scott Lambert Proprietor 406-685-3386
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Paula Wilson Manager
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Calendar of Events
Pony Bar Music Calendar
Friday Nites Sunday Nites Dates Time
Pony Unplugged Montana Rose most Sundays Sept. 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th 6:00-9:30
Any instrument or no instrument is fine! Special guests always welcome!    
       
       
       
       
       
       
       
       

Annual Events

Live Music Friday & Sunday Nites

 

March 17th St Paddy's Day ~ Corned Beef & Cabbage Feed

Pony Prom ~ March 29th

 

The Duck Races ~ This was the last. A very heart felt reminder to drink responsibly. Thanks anyway.

 

August Rockin' the Rivers
We cater the bars, say hey to our bartenders!

 

October 19th 2013~ Pink in Pony -

  • 2011 Benefit for Penny Shorten King

  • 2012 Benefit for Laura Lee Sheehan

  • 2013 Breast & Cervical Cancer Treatment Fund, Butte

  • Thanks for your contributions

Halloween Costume Party October

Costume judging 9:00

Night before Thanksgiving Dinner November 27, 2013
Smoked turkey with all the fixin's

 

December 31st ~ New Years Eve Party

Butch's Cook Wagon

Bar Hours
Pontiac

1:00 til closing Mon - Fri
Noon til closing on weekends

Live Music Friday & Sunday Evenings
Free Wi-Fi!
Cash gladly accepted
ATM available

Coming Up!

Friday Sept, 19th

Sam Platts & the Kootenai Three