Courage Canyon, book 8 in my Redemption Mountain series, takes place in the fictional town of Splendor, Montana. The town has all the required businesses: general store, blacksmith, livery, boardinghouse, bank, millinery, and of course, at least one saloon. Splendor two prominent saloons, the Dixie and the Wild Rose. As with all of my historical books, I do quite a bit of research and thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about frontier saloons in a blog post.
In the mid-1800s the term “saloon” replaced what most people called a tavern or bar. Saloons were popular in areas with soldiers, cowboys, miners, and railroad workers. Life was rough, and after a hard day’s work, men liked to drink and chat at the local saloon.
Early western saloons were tents where a man could sit and have a drink of whiskey. However, as more people traveled west, saloons became grander. In wealthy towns, fancy establishments with mahogany wood, oil paintings, chandeliers, and posh carpets were built. Most important of all, many supplied a boundless supply of first-rate whiskey, champagne, cordials, rum, wine, and more.
In small towns, women could go into saloons without ruining their reputation, but that wasn’t the norm. Large saloons often had a small cigar concession near the entrance, so ladies and gentlemen could make purchases without entering the actual saloon’s bar and gambling area.
Every saloon had card table and many added the popular game of Far. Brag, three-card-monte, and dice games were also popular in old west saloons. Many towns like Deadwood, Leadville, and Tombstone were known for gunfights over card games. Professional gamblers sharpened their six-shooter skills as much as their gambling skills. Shoot first and ask questions later became part of a gambler’s code.
Early saloon food consisted mostly of biscuits, beans, beef, and bacon. Steaks were usually overcooked, and some saloons offered rattlesnake meat. Coffee was often the only non-alcoholic drink served.
Saloons in towns that could ship food in on steamboats, and later the railways, served better fare. Many saloons offered free lunches. The free lunches were epicurean buffets on narrow, twenty-foot-long tables covered in white linen and plates of meatballs, French cheeses, hickory-cured ham, cold cuts, beans, pretzels, rye bread, smoked herring, salted peanuts, peppery sausages, sauerkraut, kippers, potato chips, crisp celery and dill pickles. Some saloons featured daily free lunch specials like franks on Monday, roast beef on Saturday, baked fish on Friday, and so on.
The idea of the free lunch was hungry men were thirsty men, and a few shots increased a customer’s appetite. Food, especially salty food, produced a mighty thirst. So, free lunch customers usually spent a great deal on booze.
Most saloon regulars drank straight liquor—rye or bourbon. In the early days, the whiskey was 100 proof, though sometimes cut by the barkeep with turpentine, ammonia, gunpowder, or cayenne. They called this whiskey tarantula juice, red eye, coffin varnish, bottled courage, bug juice, coffin varnish, dynamite, joy juice, and snake pizen—the most popular term being firewater.
Cactus Wine, was also a popular saloon drink, made with tequila and peyote tea. Another was Mule Skinner, concocted from whiskey and blackberry liquor.
Saloons served beer at room temperature, and though the beer had a head, it wasn’t sudsy like it is today. Customers had to down their beer quickly before it got too warm or flat. But, that changed in the 1880s when Adolphus Busch brought artificial refrigeration and pasteurization to the U.S. brewing process. Some saloonkeepers set up a contract with a brewery to offer beer on tap instead of bottled only.
Saloons have become a big part of western lore. Some of the more famous ones are listed below.
- The Bull’s Head in Abilene, Kansas, opened by Ben Thompson and Phil Coe in 1871.
Coe painted an anatomically correct bull on the outside wall of his saloon. The marshal, Wild Bill Hickok, threatened to burn the saloon to the ground if Coe didn’t paint over the offending image. In a later encounter, Wild Bill killed Phil Coe.
- The Holy Moses in Creede, Colorado.
Bob Ford, who killed Jesse James, built and ran The Holy Moses Saloon. Ford was shot and killed by a miner in 1892.
- TheWhat Cheer House and Saloon in Columbia, California.
Considered one of the best saloons in the west, it was founded in 1857 and still serves drinks to this day.
- The Occidental Saloon opened in 1880 in Buffalo, Wyoming.
The adjoining hotel hosted well-known guests such as Theodore Roosevelt, Calamity Jane, Tom Horn, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Western novelist Owen Wister.
- The White Elephant in Fort Worth Texas.
It was known as one of the grandest combination of saloons, gambling houses, and restaurants.
- The Jersey Lilly, was owned Judge Roy Bean who was judge, jury and coroner in Langtry, Texas.
Bean once took a revolver and $40 as a fine off of the corpse of a man who had fallen to his death. Apparently, Bean said, “Just because this gentleman got it into his head to get killed, I don’t mean to let him offend the peace and dignity of Texas.”
- The Long Branch Saloon of “Gunsmoke” fame.
It really did exist in Dodge City, Kansas and served milk, tea, lemonade, sarsaparilla, alcohol, and beer. The original saloon burned down in 1885 but was resurrected as a tourist attraction featuring a reproduction bar with live entertainment.
- The Buckhorn Saloon opened in 1881 in San Antonio, Texas.
The owner, Albert Friedrich accepted horns and antlers in place of money from cashless cowhands. It is still open today as a museum.
- Desert John’s Saloonin Deer Lodge, Montana.
The Desert John’s Saloon was converted to a museum with an automated saloon keeper who tells visitors about the bar which was shipped up the Missouri River to Montana from St. Louis, Missouri. The saloon museum also features the most complete collection of shot glasses, jugs, kegs, flasks, and antique liquor bottles in the US.
- Tombstone’s Crystal Palace Saloon, which serves whiskey to this day.
It was originally named the Golden Eagle Brewing Company but it was renamed the Crystal Palace Saloon when the building was expanded into a fine dining location that also served cigars, wine, and liquor. It was one of the few saloons with a female faro dealer. The second-floor offices were home to legends of the 1880s, like U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp.
Courage Canyon, book 9, Redemption Mountain historical western romancer series is available in eBook and paperback.
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