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Monday, September 14, 2015

#2395 - Exchange Tavern, Spanaway, WA - 1/12/2014

If you believe, as I do, that the most sensible way to calculate the age of a bar is to count the number of years that it has been a bar of a common name in the same building, then it is quite likely that this modest, little joint hidden two blocks off the highway in the unincorporated community of Spanaway is the oldest bar in the state of Washington.

Named for the nearby stop and turning point of the Lake Park Railway line between Spanaway and downtown Tacoma, the building that was once a rough loggers saloon is said to be one of only two structures -- and the only business -- that survived the 1922 fire that destroyed downtown Spanaway. Its lore includes a wooden wheelbarrow said to be used by wives to tote their drunken husbands home, a regular flow of moonshine during prohibition, and local character Will Fowler winning ownership of the bar in a poker game in 1890 then losing it in another game a week later. Today various photographs, newspaper stories and personal accounts in the bar itself attest to the protracted age of the place, with the founding date reported variously as 1890 or 1893. But former owner Jean Sensel has found evidence to suggest it is probably even a bit older:

The Exchange Tavern, Spanaway, WA
"The Exchange is in its original building on its original site. It has been called the Exchange from inception, except one of the oldest residents I interviewed, Henry Barna, (now long deceased) said it was originally the Exchange Saloon, then The Exchange Tavern, Irv’s Exchange Tavern, Spanway Exchange Tavern, then again just The Exchange Tavern. During prohibition, the Exchange “general store” ran the moonshine produced on the stills on the island in Spanaway Lake - so it never stopped serving liquor. Henry  told me that during prohibition he delivered “medicinal” moonshine from the Exchange as a child, making good money ..."

'My husband and I owned the Spanaway Exchange Tavern for 16 years. I became interested in the history and began research of the tavern, and this area. I found original sales documents for all the land east of Spanway Lake by a development company that platted the area as Lake Park. The parcel where the Exchange sits is the only one that was not in the sale, lending credence to the recollection of older residents that the tavern was in place when the Lake Park Land, Railway, and Improvement Company bought the properties around it in 1889. At the latest, when the railway was completed in 1890, the Exchange was in place. The 1893 date was on a painted bandsaw blade in the tavern, and was put there in the late 1970s. I asked the former owner where that date came from, and the response was he had no evidence whatever, that “It just had a ring to it.”'  (Sep 6, 2015, personnel correspondence)

As far as the oldest bar competition goes, the original owners of The Brick in Roslyn started a bar in 1889, but it was not in the current building nor named The Brick until 1898. (If one counts bars of other names or under contiguous ownership groups, several bars trace back even earlier than 1889.) Jules Maes in Seattle claims to have been established in 1888, but the building was not constructed until 1898, it did not host a saloon until 1907 and it was not leased to Jules Maes until 1936. The Oak Harbor Tavern is in a building that appears to have hosted a bar since the 1850s, but it has been run under various names over the decades. If one stipulates that a single bar must have run under a common name, then the only real competition in Seattle's Merchants Cafe, which was built over the remains of the great Seattle fire and hosted "Merchant's Cafe" since 1890. (For further details see my page on the Oldest Bars in Washington State.)

Today the Exchange retains a great deal of the pre-prohibition feel and small-town charm. Signs of suburban bar modernity speckle the decor, but it still clearly benefits from the devotion to history by Jean and her husband Irv. On this lazy Sunday afternoon it was populated by bartender Bobbie and three baseball cap wearing elderly gentlemen, who helpfully pointed out various artifacts and stories. At one point another man came in for a gallon of water and a book of matches. Patrons snack on peanuts and throw the shells on the ancient wood floor. Several of the locals have lent various antiques to the walls -- a scythe, ice tongs, cowbell, crampons, etc. etc.  Gone now is the "Wine Room," the structure once on the north side of the place, where women, legally prohibited from the bar, would sip wine and wait to haul their spouses safely home.

You won't stumble upon The Exchange by accident. It's been a long time since the street out front was the main route through town; and you won't glimpse it from the modern, strip-mall laden version of Pacific Avenue now two blocks east. But if you love old bars with a highly developed sense of time, or perhaps just an occasional tarriance in bygone times, it is well worth seeking out.


Older view of the Exchange Tavern (photo courtesy Jean Sensel)
16117 Park Ave S, Spanaway, WA 98387 - (253) 531-8833
Est. 1890 or earlier - Building constructed: 1890 or earlier
Previous bars in this location: None known
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