A Fort Peck landmark burned to the ground on Saturday. The Gateway Inn – “the best dam bar by a dam site” – was one of the few remaining traces of the boom towns that flourished around Fort Peck during the dam-building days in the 1930s.
Mike French, who owns the bar with his mother, Lavonne, suffered severe smoke inhalation. Authorities said he ran into the burning building to get car keys so nearby vehicles could be moved. He was flown out to a Billings hospital and placed in the ICU, where he stayed for a day. He was expected to be released from the hospital on Tuesday.
The fire was seen by an employee who went out the back door to smoke a cigarette and it was reported about 12:15 p.m. Fort Peck and Long Run fire departments responded, but the building was fully engulfed in flames. They doused grass fires before the high wind could spread them. The fire was contained about four hours later, but some firefighters remained on the scene until state fire marshal Jerry Smith arrived from Miles City on Sunday. He was expected to have a report on his investigation on Wednesday.
Long a favorite of locals, tourists, fishermen and hunters, the Gateway was built in 1933. It was one of scores of bars and hundreds of other businesses that sprang up to serve the 10,000 workers who flocked to northeast Montana for a job on the dam. They formed about 18 shanty towns whose names often referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: New Deal, Square Deal, Delano Heights.
The biggest, most notorious town was Wheeler, which is still marked by the Buckhorn Bar on Highway 24 South today. Wheeler sprawled down the road without any break right into Delano Heights and then came Lake View and Wilson, all flowing toward the dam. The Gateway was in Lake View. It and the Lakeridge Motel across the road are all that is left on that town site.
Gene and Donna Moore, who bought the Lakeridge Motel in 1993, are going to miss having the Gateway nearby.
“We kinda complemented each other,” Donna Moore said. “Our people knew they had a cabin here and they could go across the street and get a drink. They didn’t have to drive. It’s too bad because we really need something up here on this hill.”
She said seasonal customers have called from Wisconsin and Washington state to see if the sad news is true. They have reservations for her rooms but they are worried about where they are going to eat. The options have narrowed to the grill at the Fort Peck Marina and the Park Grove Bar and Cafe, which is a few miles away.
“I would sure hate to see this land just shoveled in and that’s it,” Moore said. “Somebody in to rebuild would be great.”
The bar has had several names, and a great many owners. Ivy Stebleton remembers some of its origins. She came to Wheeler as a 3-year-old and grew up collecting beer bottles for the bars and picking wild flowers to sell, to help her family scrape by. Her father, Martin McNulty, was a friend of one of the original owners of the bar, and he laid the hardwood dance floor for them.
A glass block was set in the middle of the dance floor and it was lit from underneath by a floodlight in the cellar. The light sparkled off a rotating mirrored ball hung from the ceiling, just like elegant dance clubs had at the time.
The men noticed that the light had interesting illuminating effects on women’s dresses when they danced over the glass block. Sometimes the management would give a free drink to the couple standing on the glass block when a musical number stopped.
Stebleton remembers the owners only as Bernie and Frank, and the place as the B&F. She said it was sold to a man in Fort Peck and called Ernie’s Place for a few years.
Her older sister, Marge McNulty, was an accomplished singer and jazz pianist, who often played in the clubs all night long. Once she played at the Gateway, whatever it was called then, with a group of black musicians traveling through on their way to Chicago. One of them was a very young saxophonist named Charlie Parker, destined to become a jazz giant in a few years.
Glasgow resident Marge Turner also grew up in Wheeler. She remembers this establishment being called The Spot by 1936.
“It was a very popular place. It was a bar, a tavern, not an eating place. I was a very young girl and didn’t frequent it. They had music.”
At some time, The Spot burned. According to a later owner, Johnny Johnson, the site was considered such a good location that another bar was needed there. The Gateway bar, originally built somewhere else in Lake View, was dragged to the burn site.
Local memory runs a little thin for the next 20 years or so. Harvey and Ethel Ost bought it in 1966 from Eugene Kuszmaul, who, Ethel Ost says, had owned it for 11 years before. She and her daughter would cook all day Saturday to put on a Sunday buffet of fried chicken and lots of salads for the boating crowd. They had a cook named Barny Barnett who used to be in the Army. He was good at everything, she said, but specialized in steaks.
Ethel Ost, who was from Hinsdale, said her older sister and her high school classmates would go out to the Gateway and dance on the weekends. After they bought it, Harvey and Ethel had dances and music to attract customers too, and they tried to remodel the place a little, but she said it was pretty run down. It was a “money-eater” and they didn’t do well in the winter, so they let it go back to the previous owner in 1968.
For a while it seemed that the bar struggled. A later owner, Burt Johnston, said he had counted six owners in five years.
Johnny Johnson bought the bar with a partner, his uncle Dick Goodsell, from Tim Kronebusch in 1985. He and his wife, Joy, had their wedding dance there. They added on quite a bit in 1994: a dining room, a large kitchen, a game room and a new roof over all the electrical work. In their renovations, they discovered the old footings of The Spot. They moved the bar from its high position back down to floor level and returned to using the higher area as a stage for musicians, but they kept the dance floor with the glass brick. He hooked the light up again and found a new disco ball.
It was hard to get big name musicians, but they hired good locals, like Bernie and the Sundowners, Joyce Holter Collins, Dudley and the Deadbeats, and the Buckleys, fiddlers from Roundup. Cap Holter said he played there many times.
Johnson said he got a reputation for using the actors from the Fort Peck Summer Theatre for karaoke, and they liked to sing and do routines.
“People began to hurry up after the play and run to the Gateway to see the kids,” Johnson said.
Johnson filled the walls with stuffed specimens of local fish and animals, like walleye, salmon, whitetail deer, buffalo, antelope and his trophy moose.
Johnson said they were the first ones to really promote the Gateway’s “best dam bar” motto.
They held a customer appreciation dinner every year in August that attracted more than 500 people.
Johnson is divorced now and delivering mail in Plentywood, but when he heard about the fire it made him sick.
“When I heard about it, it was like someone hit me in the stomach,” he said. “There sure needs to be something there.”
Burt Johnston and his wife, Bette, bought the Gateway in 1998. They filled the bar with three or four nights of music during the sumer. They loved having the summer theatre actors come in after the performances and sing with the band. A couple of them worked there during one winter, as cook and bartender.
A couple from Jordan used to drive over the frozen lake to entertain and party at the Gateway. Hoolie Edwards played and his wife, Billie, sang. They had an old black car with pink notes painted on it. Hoolie would lash big wooden poles on the front and back bumpers of the car so they wouldn’t go underwater if the ice broke, and they would set out from Haxby Point with people following them on the “Hoolie Trail.”
One of Hoolie’s stories was how when he was 8 years old, living at Fort Peck, he would drive intoxicated people home from a bar for a nickel, then run back to the bar for another fare.
The bar came with a piano from Ruby Smith’s establishment in Wheeler. One of the town’s first successful entrepreneurs in the early ‘30s, she started an eating place along the road, then branched out into night spots and became Wheeler’s preeminent madam. The Johnstons donated the piano to the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, where it sits in the old town display with a write-up of its colorful history.
The Johnstons’ addition to the bar was a large concrete outside deck, to replace a small wooden one that sagged under the weight of a crowd.
“It was kind of heartbreaking to see it burn,” Johnston said. “It had a lot of good memories.”
Scott Redstone took over the bar for a while, but it went back to the Johnstons until Mike French and Lavonne French bought it in 2007. They had the Gateway on the market this year.
This has been an extremely trying week for the French family. Lavonne underwent a leg amputation in Billings last week. Mike had only been back at the Gateway for a couple of days when the fire broke out.
An unconfirmed report from a family member on Facebook says that the Frenches are considering rebuilding the Gateway. That would be the best dam news to come out of this fire.