Posted: Jun 15, 2013 5:11 PM by Dustin Klemann - MTN News
COLUMBUS - While history is rich in the town of Columbus, it isn't a large town to lose yourself in. When I traveled to Stillwater County to focus on the (officially recognized) historic New Atlas Bar, I didn't know what to expect.
While I've lived in Montana for years, I don't frequently wear a cowboy hat or boots, and didn't do my city slicker self any favors by wearing faux-Raybans.
But after passing the grand entrance of the bar, I was welcomed by a group of regulars with a few hello's and nods. The bartender was attentive and friendly.
Owner of the bar, Lars Swanson along with his bushy beard, approached with a sincere smile and enthusiastic hello. I felt at ease.
I no longer felt as an outsider, rather, a part of the history.
If you've heard of the bar, you already know it's calling card is the mounted animals along the walls; most notably the two-headed calf.
And Swanson isn't short on his knowledge of the past. He admits to being "old-timey" and sees himself more as the curator for the history the bar contains rather than the owner.
"I don't really own the place, I just run it for the town of Columbus," he said.
When he purchased the bar in June '97 for $250,000, Swanson understood the task of maintaining the bar, and still has yet to close a day in his 16 year tenure.
He dropped thousands upon thousands of dollars updating the bar that was in a state of disrepair; $40,000 in the basement, $16,000 for a new roof, $70,000 for a decent walk-in cooler, and the list goes on.
As we talked over beers, Swanson was interrupted several times by patrons of the bar. Each one friendlier than the last, making sure they shook my hand to welcome me.
I was amazed at the breadth and unique stories assigned to each animal mount. He pointed out that some people contend the veracity of his stories, but he assured their accuracy.
Besides the New Atlas' archived interior, the feel of the bar is one from the turn of the 20th century.
Even the layout of the bar is maintained from its early days. The women's bathroom is in the front of the building to be made more accessible when the gambling room was used as the women's parlor.
From it's hole-in-the-wall look from the outside, New Atlas' size is somewhat deceptive as the actual bar is only one-sixth the size of the building.
Wildlife lines the walls and shelves, also positioned to look after the antiques, spittoons, and cowboy hats.
"The little pieces that have been added, all through the years is what really makes it," said Swanson.
He shared a few ghost stories and pulled out a old sing-a-long booklet bar patrons used from the early 1900s.
People from around the nation, and world, find themselves intrigued by the tales woven from the New Atlas.
"Even the out-of-staters get to come and see what they won't shoot," Swanson laughed.
During the summer, different events draw large, friendly crowds. But the kind of crowd, Swanson says, not afraid to party between the four walls of the bar.
But among those party-goers and bar regulars, Lars is vigilante in his responsibility for getting home safely.
He's implementing a new program that encourages designated drivers who can accrue points for driving people home safely. Those with the most points for being DD, Swanson will buy a trip to Chico.
And he invests in the people who sit down at the bar. He's a conversationalist who understands the importance of people around town that is heavily populated with Stillwater miners.
"You get to meet a lot of people. You get a lot of people who come in and are awestruck by when they've never been in here before. And that's pretty cool knowing I'm a part of something that's just awe-inspiring. People come in and they'll absolutely fall in love with it, the ambiance, the aspect of a western bar," he said.
But he knows his time as curator is coming to an end. Swanson is the father of three and he wants to spend more time with his family.
Now the New Atlas Bar is up for sale; $700,000 will gain you access to the 97 years of history,
"It's been a roller coaster ride. It's been fun. It's been up, we've had our downs. You get a lot of everything."