A Fake Montanan in the Pony Bar

Dianne Stuart  |   Thursday May. 1st, 2014

I should admit up front that I am a Texan...from East Texas, the Land of the Tall Girls and the Virgin Pines. I moved to Bozeman last Spring and from what I’ve been told just survived the coldest winter in 40 years. But, No winter getaways for me....Nope. No long, hazy days on the lounge chair gazing out over hot sands, turquoise waters at the brilliant orangey pinky sunset. Not for me...I stuck it out....even went ice fishing for God’s sake! So, I should be earning some serious street cred here, right? Even bought a drift boat and an SUV and have taken to wearing shirt sleeves in 30 degree weather. (Hell, I was a fake cowgirl in Texas...I can fake rugged outdoorsman here. My belief?... It’s all in the costuming).
Now, I love snow and fireplaces. However, the advent of the infamous valley rain/snow mix dampened my spirits a bit and put me out on the road searching for new adventure far away from the hot chocolate and marshmallows of winter.

My long, meandering drives wound through rounded meadows littered with clumps of dark livestock and weathered red barns, silently overseen by brooding, snow-topped peaks in the background. Ribbons of two lane highway loosely strung together tiny communities...main streets of mostly empty buildings with one surprising and welcoming exception....the town watering hole, in pulsing, boisterous contrast to the eerily vacant facades surrounding it.

My destination? Pony, Montana. I suppose all local bars have a tangible common denominator....the neon signs, creaky wooden dance floors, pool tables and smell of old beer..all putting me immediately at ease entering the Cowboy Bar. In fact, I’m sure there must be a Pony, Texas somewhere....maybe even a replica of the bar. But the Cowboy Bar in Pony, Montana is truly the real deal.

The bar’s location is listed as Uptown Pony, directions provided if you get lost. Pony, (population 100) Pony is located southwest of Harrison (Harrison is adjacent to Hwy. 287). The town of Pony was established in 1865, and flourished as a gold mining camp until the 1900’s. The building that houses the bar was built in 1877 and named McKittrick Hall originally used as a town meeting hall and boarding house. After that time it became a house of ill repute until it was purchased by a woman, Bert Welch, who opened Bert’s Pony Bar, which opened at 8:00 am every morning and promptly closed at 6:00 pm nightly no matter how many patrons were in the bar.

Scott Lambert purchased the bar in 2002 and lives in the boarding room area of the building ten feet from the bar. Since the 130 year old building is the only surviving business in Pony, it currently serves as town hall, veteran’s lodge, restaurant, senior center, and leading employer. Lambert’s management philosophy is much more consumer friendly than Ms.Welch’s. Winter hours are 1:00 pm until closing 7 days a week, 365 days a year to provide a place for lonely people during the holidays.

Scott Lambert is a hulk of a man, sporting a mustache and cowboy hat and boots (not the fake, plastic kind that I wear. The boots were mud caked and the hat’s folds were as set by time as the lines around his eyes) and when I sat down beside him at the bar and asked if he was the owner, he squinted at me skeptically and asked who wants to know? While hearing me out, he sized me up and apparently decided I was okay since upon leaving I discovered all my drinks had been on him. When I asked if this would be a good time to talk to him he said, “Well, this is as good a time as any. I’ve had two drinks and just come in from a week of staying up all night helping a neighbor “calve” so you better talk fast.”

Scott raised twin boys alone from the age of two with much help from the community who took turns babysitting while Scott ran the bar and did shift work at the cement plant. The effect of raising his sons here is still evident in the practice that came naturally to him of welcoming school children whose parents were working to hang out in the bar until their parents picked them up. He emphasized that homework had to be finished first and then there were coloring books and toys in the back....his attempt at paying back the community that had helped him in his time of need.

Proving his point, the two small boys that I had passed walking beside the Pony road toward town showed up at the bar and while standing on the foot rail hanging their arms over the edge of the bar, were asked to move over to give “our guest” room. Scott enforces a strict no smoking policy inside the bar because of the children.

Lambert also allows regulars to start bar tabs and pay them once a month when they get paid. Scott’s Pony Bar doesn’t have an elaborate advertising budget. He visits local bars around the area and meets people and buys a round of drinks for everyone and invites them to come see him in Pony because “that’s how they did it in the old days. “

The walls are covered in memorabilia, black and white photographs, faded mining claims, neon beer signs and an homage to the bar’s past life a painting of scantily clad prostitutes posing provocatively in front of a horse drawn wagon. One sign reads “What happens in Pony Stays in Pony.” Lambert’s 17 year old Australian Sheperd, Buddy, limps aimlessly around the room having long since forgotten the glory days of a cow dog,  impatiently awaiting another in a long string of closing times.

Behind the bar “Hillbilly Evan” or Frodo, as Lambert calls him, makes his rounds asking customers if they want “the regular” and passes the dice around for their attempts to win the bar pot by rolling five of a kind. The pot is always going in case one of the families in the community has a need for financial help. Evan hitchhiked to Pony from Arkansas and was permitted by Lambert to sleep in the beer room at the bar until he could find a place to live. That was 10 years ago. Michelle, another long time bartender has moved on, married, has children and skates in the Roller Derby.

When asked if they served food, Lambert laughed , “if Butch shows up.” Butch Anderson is the “cook”. According to Lambert, “hand him a sack of flour and he can cook anything!” Butch did arrive and after ominously referencing various conspiracy theories hatched by the federal government involving chem trails, etc. broken only by occasional half-hearted references to “kids these days”, the kind hearted curmudgeon made me a hamburger and fries.

Shortly a long, white stretch limousine pulled up in front of the bar and a band of young women spilled out, a bachelorette party from Bozeman, each bedecked by shaming signs, one reading, “I get drunk and throw up in cars”. The party had obviously started much earlier. They had a few drinks, turned up the volume on the juke box and ceremoniously festooned all males in the bar with brightly colored leis. Waving as they loudly professed their love for the entire world, they scrambled noisily like a pile of puppies back behind the darkened glass of the limousine and pulled away.

In order to create their own homegrown brand of excitement, Scott, et.all create local events such as a “Cabin Fever” party or the following Saturday night’s event”The Prom You Never Had” complete with prom dresses, photo booth and live DJ. The prom theme was Tropical Paradise and the bar was already sporting bright pink Flamingoes, plastic leis and a bikini clad, life sized doll lounging above the bar in a deck chair.

Promising I would try to return for Prom Night, I begrudgingly headed out the door. I was admonished by “Hillbilly Evan” to watch for deer on the road and sent on my way with a boisterous wave from Scott from the other side of the room where he was regaling a group of admirers with loud stories. As I looked back in the dusk at the bar from my car, I felt a part of it all. Within the span of one afternoon I was adopted into the Pony family. As such, I will gladly return down the thread of two lane highway on any night of the 365 that I find myself feeling a little bit lonely.