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Bars where Pete has had a drink

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

#4049 - Jersey Lilly, Ingomar, MT - 7/18/2020

Jersey Lilly, Ingomar, MT
The unincorporated community of Ingomar Montana is down a short dirt road off of Highway 12 and appears like a ghost town -- abandoned buildings, trailer homes, horses and mules wandering freely down the dirt roads. Classic tumbleweeds bounce down the roads, and the promised bison are nowhere in evidence. Ingomar was put on the map by the Milwaukee Railroad in 1910. Local history has it that in the 1910s it was either the largest sheep shearing and wool shipping center in the world, or one of the largest in the country, depending on your source. In any case, it was booming, with 46 businesses, 2,500 homesteading filings per year, and 2 million pounds of wool shipping out each season -- the largest commercial hub between the Missouri, Musselshell, and Yellowstone rivers.

Boots Kope, owner, Jersey Lilly, Ingomar, MT
But by the end of that first decade, the boom had already started to fade, and after several years of too little rain, a fire that burned much of the town down in 1921 hastened the long running decline. The high school closed in 1952, the wool warehouse shuttered in 1975, and rail service ended in 1980. In 1992 the elementary school, which had a total of 3 students the previous year, ceased operations and the historic school building shuttered. With the railroad gone, there were no more shipments of water, until several years later a spring system was built and piped into town. The population dwindled down to single digits.

Jersey Lilly Saloon, Ingomar, Montana
The first brick building in the community was the Wiley, Clark, and Greening Bank, which opened in October 1914. That went under in 1921. At the end of prohibition, Clyde Easterday opened the Oasis Bar there (1933). Easterday brought in a cherry wood bar from St. Louis, up the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. (I presume this was a Brunswick, but have not been able to confirm this.) The bar remains to this day. In 1948 Bob Seward, who had been a Rosebud County deputy sheriff, came into possession of the bar -- either by simply purchasing it or, as histories say, winning it in a poker game. Seward, a Texan, renamed it the "Jersey Lilly," after the famous saloon of Judge Roy Bean in his home state. He also introduced the signature bean soup that is a favorite to this day. Also remaining to this day are the outdoor outhouses -- the only public facilities in town, helpfully marked "Bull Pen" and "Heifer Pen," and with a slanted tin "cowboy rain gutter urinal" hanging inside the former. Back inside, under the pressed tin ceiling, the walls are lined with memorabilia and animal heads -- deer, antelope, elk, a moose, a buffalo, and, of course, a jackelope.

Ten years later, Bob turned the bar over to his son Bill, who had been a professional boxer in Chicago, winning 45 fights with 38 knockouts between 1939 and 1941 (hence the boxing memorabilia still in the bar today). Bill also opened up the dance hall portion, lining the walls around a wood burning furnace with wood from and old barn, a space which between the occasional dances and special events serves as additional dining space, with folding chairs and tables. Bill was a popular character, known as the unofficial mayor of Ingomar, and created the Lilly's other famous dish, it's "sheepherders' hors d'oeuvres," comprising saltines, onions, orange slices, and cheddar cheese. "You stick it in your mouth one bite, just like an old hound dog eating hot cakes," Seward explained. (atlasobscura).

Sheepherder's Hors d'Oeuvres, Jersey Lilly, MT
In 1995, Bill finally sold the bar to Jerry Brown, who'd been telling him on their hunting trips for many years that he would like to own the place. Brown was a burial vault magnate, who'd made a good living manufacturing and installing "concrete outer internment receptacles" in Milwaukee and elsewhere, in addition to owning livestock. In 2004, Boots Kope and June Nygren met at the bar, and where later married. Like the several previous owners of the place, Kope and Nygren valued the community center role of the bar, now the only remaining business in Ingomar. When they saw it starting to decline, they purchased the place themselves in 2010, and have run it ever since, most of the time with only the two of them, taking off only one or two weeks a year for vacation.

Ingomar, Montana
When I rolled up to the Jersey Lilly, the place was closed, with no vehicles in sight. There was a note in the window about how it would open late that day. I later learned this was due to a long drive to resupply the oranges for the sheepherders' hors d'oeuvres. I also learned that it was unwise to go to the Lilly without a reservation, and I was fortunate that they could slip in one extra if I was okay sitting at the bar (I am very much okay sitting at the bar). Boots brought me out a serving of their iconic appetizer, and explained as he no doubt has many hundreds of times that I should try them even if I don't like onions, as the oranges combine in an unexpected taste. He was right, of course.

Bull Pen and Heifer Pen outhouses at 
Jersey Lilly Saloon, Ingomar, MT
I had a good, local beef burger and fried potatoes, wandered the place taking pictures and reading the many newspaper clippings on the walls, returning to the bar to chat with Kope as June worked the kitchen. I felt fortunate to get in, and even more fortunate that people like Boots and June were around to preserve this great place. They have steady business from around the world -- there are precious few people living nearby and their guest book contains visitors from Switzerland, Mongolia, Germany, China, Tanzania, and many, many other far flung places from around the world and across the U.S. And yet the future of the Jersey Lilly is uncertain. The couple has had the place for sale for some time now, not due to lack of business, but from a desire to move closer to their kids and grandkids. They want very much to sell it to someone who will preserve and carry on the cherished traditions, but admit that eventually, if no buyer is found, they will simply shut it down. This would be sad indeed, so if you get a chance to go, you must take it (and make sure to call for a reservation!).

Est. 1948 - Building constructed: 1914
Previous bars in this location: The Oasis (1933-1948)
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Reviews: billingsgazette - atlasobscura - greatfallstribune - montana-mint - - onlyinyourstateyelp - tripadvisor - visitmt  

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