Like so much of the American West, Montana’s Pony Bar mixes fact and legend together with equal aplomb. That sort of thing happens with a 150-year-old saloon in a ghost town during the gold rush, the central watering hole in a place that only 100 or so residents call home.
As the story goes, gold was discovered across the rugged terrain of western Montana in the late 1850s, causing a fevered rush of get-rich-quick thrill seekers to head west in hopes of mining their way to glory.
While most didn’t end up rich enough to dive into their hordes of gold Scrooge McDuck-style, the rush inspired a fresh crop of rustic feed-and-seed towns, complete with sundry shops and, of course, a local watering hole. The town of Pony, Montana was built on the backs of this gold rush, with the hamlet’s namesake bar, The Pony Bar, erected in 1864.
A wooden, Lincoln Logs-looking saloon with a wide porch made for sleepy dogs and tuckered-out hunters, the Pony Bar has survived as a destination location for over 150 years. It might be the only game in town, but the bar has long been a haven for a diverse cross section of people. Day-to-day regulars saddle up next to railroaders, construction workers, and out-of-town visitors who have made the trek to swill beer at such an antiquated joint.
As Johnny famously tells Ponyboy in The Outsiders, nothing gold can stay. The gold boom in Pony soon went bust, and residents scrambled out of town in search of more stable work. But even as Pony stood on the verge of abandonment, the Pony Bar kept going strong.
“We’re the end of the road—you have to come here, turn around, and leave,” said owner Scottie Lambert, who bought the bar 13 years ago. “It’s up at the base of the mountain, and the road ends right here at the bar. People don’t just happen to drive by it, kiddo.”
Lambert is dedicated to preserving tradition and is a staunch supporter of one of Montana’s most curious drinking traditions—the wooden nickel. Long before Fernet coins spun bicoastal digestif nerds into a shot-taking tizzy, bars across Montana adopted a “wooden nickel” system in order to entice patrons to come back for another drink, on the house.
“Wooden nickels are good for one free drink! It’s a Montana thing. If someone orders a round for everyone but a person already has a drink in front of them, they get chips instead so their drink doesn’t get watered down. I just keep honoring the tradition. There are over 1,500 wooden nickels out there some place.”
Lambert is also so committed to having a convivial presence at Pony Bar that his house—a former “den of ill-repute” during the gold rush—is actually hooked onto the back.
“I’m always around the bar in the afternoons when the working guys get off. I buy drinks, make sure they feel at home, and go from there, man,” Lambert laughs. “It’s not just a drinking place—it’s a meeting place, you know? We do a lot of business. I had a horseshoe guy who came in once to shoe one of my horses, and he got like nine other jobs.”
The Pony is one of a fast-dying breed of bars in America that retains a distinct similarity to the saloons of yore, where business and pleasure met in news-swapping, liquor-fueled dealings.
“There’s always some work around the bar. It’s like old times,” Lambert paused thoughtfully. “And just like old times, we do plenty of drinking, too.”
The Pony Bar
108 Broadway Street, Pony, MT 59747