Whiskey River, Take My Mind

From rodeo cowboys to disco dancers, the Stagecoach Bar has provided a good time for generations.

By Jim Stanford

Seventy years of history at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson can be distilled into eleven letters: IWTUIUWBMAD. Etched in wood, the cryptic sign has hung over the bar at the roadside watering hole since rodeo cowboys rode bucking broncs out back. Ranch dudes, passing motorists, hippies, hipsters, musicians, skiers, rednecks and real estate moguls have been confounded by its meaning, while smirking bartenders pop open another beer and pour whiskey over ice.

Like the bar itself, the sign is crudely made yet beautiful in its simplicity. The carved letters form a riddle best solved over a game of pool. I could tell you what it means, but you’d probably have to buy me a drink first.

For that’s been the story of the Stagecoach since Billy Thompson built the place at the base of Teton Pass, back when Franklin Roosevelt was president, John Wayne had just filmed “Wyoming Outlaw” and instead of tree huggers Wilson had a sawmill. Over three generations the ‘Coach has brought together people of all stripes, while enough whiskey has flowed through the bar to fill Fish Creek. Patrons have come on horses and tractors and danced atop the bar in jubilation. That the one-story wooden building is still standing is remarkable, let alone its continuing endearment to a community that unlike the bar has changed much over the years.

“Whether you are a ranch hand, tourist or movie star, it’s just a great, great place,” Cle Clark, who owned the bar from 1962 to ’73, told the Jackson Hole News in 1984. Wally Johnson, who worked there from 1959 to ’64, added in the same retrospective, “If a stranger walked in, everybody would shake his hand and buy him a drink.”

The bar’s role as a melting pot drew the attention of filmmaker Jennifer Tennican, who with the Jackson Hole Historical Society has made a documentary, “The Stagecoach Bar: An American Crossroads,” due out this summer (see sidebar). The tradition lives on today, whether with the older crowd at Sunday night “church,” two-stepping to the country music of the Stagecoach Band, or the latest hatch of youngsters bumping and grinding at Thursday’s Disco Night.

“That’s what I love about this place,” says Wayne Johnson, Wally’s son, who manages the bar and has worked there for ten years. “It’s a mystery. You can have a die-hard biker, a rich, snotty lady, a hippie, a cowboy, and by the end of the night they’re the best of friends, buying each other drinks. Somehow for seventy years this building has repeated it.”

The Stagecoach wasn’t a rip-roaring party at its inception. Lee Lundy first acquired the liquor license from the state for $150 around 1940. He operated the bar across the street in the log cabin that later became Blake’s Saw Shop. During World War II, when liquor was rationed, Lundy moved to California to work in a factory. He entrusted the bar to Thompson, who parked a Yellowstone stagecoach outside, giving the place its name.

A few years later, Thompson, known as “Hamburger Billy,” moved the bar to its current location on the north side of the road, where he operated a cafe and ice cream stand. The site had been the second home of Jackson forefather Mike Yokel, but it burned in a fire. Thompson and his wife, Blanche, bought the two-acre property in 1940. According to the Teton County Historic Preservation Board, the Stagecoach was built in 1942. By 1944, Thompson sold the place, including Lundy’s liquor license, to Walt Callahan for $6,000.

A diminutive man who had spent time in New York, Maryland and San Diego riding and training thoroughbreds, Callahan started the Wilson rodeo behind the bar, and business took off. He bought bucking horses from Idaho Falls, and cowboys came from all over to ride. Dude ranches would bring their guests to watch the action every Saturday night, while Callahan served drinks from a window.

Realtor Rob Cheek was about fifteen years old in 1953 when he bought his first drink at the rodeo, a “ditch,” house bourbon and water. He and his brother, then working at the Circle H Ranch in Moose, tried to act like cowboys, standing around the chutes. The dude ranchers, too, tried to play the part. “Most of them had to have two or three drinks to get the courage to get up on a bucking horse,” Cheek says. He recalls walking up to the bar window, at five-foot-five, trying to look older and putting down his fifty cents.

Gamblers from the Wort Hotel also were part of the clientele. On some of the more uproarious nights, Wally Johnson and others rode their horses into the bar and even shot pool from the steeds, posing for photos for tourists. The rodeo lasted about twenty years, until Clark bought the bar from Callahan. A veteran of the advertising business from Detroit, Clark sold the stock to Billy Saunders, manager of Fish Creek Ranch, who brought the rodeo to Jackson.

As was customary in those days, the ‘Coach used to hold an open house around Christmas with free drinks for all. Residents would get together for potluck dinners, and the Johnson family (no relation to Wally) from Red Top Meadows would play music and sing. The piano would be brought over from the Wilson schoolhouse, and the kids would join their mother, Clarice, on guitars, fiddle, accordions and harmonica. A musical tradition was born.

In the late 1960s, bars in Jackson Hole developed a rough-and-tumble reputation, as hippies moved in and caused friction with the old-timers. The ‘Coach was no exception. Sometimes fights started as a diversion, a contest of toughness to break the monotony of cabin fever. During the tenure of Jay Hess, a local who bought the bar from Clark in 1973 and ran it until ’84, the fisticuffs eventually gave way to dancing. Music would bridge the cultural divide and soothe the atmosphere.

On a Sunday evening in February 1969, the picking and strumming began as a recipe to stave off boredom when Ron Scott, who worked for the Forest Service, organized an impromptu gig. Two weeks later, Bill Briggs, the Snow King Ski School director, joined with his banjo, followed soon after by John Sidle on guitar, and the Stagecoach Band was born. “At first it was just a wild thing to do,” says Briggs, who in 1971 became the first person to ski the Grand Teton. “It was not something I expected would last.”

The band has performed every Sunday night since — excluding Christmas Day — for forty-three years, a string of 2,250 performances as of Memorial Day weekend. Briggs, at eighty years old, remains the godfather of the group, which has seen dozens of players rotate through the lineup. At the height of the band’s popularity, the crowd would spill out into the parking lot and listen to the music through the open windows. George Green, a regular, got up on the bar and danced with young ladies, gaining enough recognition to have his own bumper sticker and be featured on the TV show “Real People.” Before he passed in the late 1980s, he danced atop the bar with his great-granddaughter Ilene.

Sunday night patrons no longer get as rowdy. “If we’ve survived into our sixties, it’s perhaps because we don’t drink like we used to,” says Sidle, who played in the band for sixteen years. “We’ve all seen a lot of hard-drinking friends who just checked out early.” Christine Langdon, who has strummed the bass since 1985, says the shuffle of boots and sandals keeps her coming back. “I still love the clientele we get out there,” she says. “As an older musician, it’s probably the only bar I still feel comfortable in.”

Starting in the early 1990s, the DJ-powered Disco Night on Thursday took over as the bar’s biggest party, as revelers donned wigs, sequins and leather and boogied to the sounds of the ’70s. A younger crowd, including twenty-somethings whose parents met at the ‘Coach, adopted the place as their own. “That’s what keeps the bar open,” says Wayne Johnson. “Every summer and winter season, there’s a brand-new group of kids. It regenerates itself every year.”

DJ Andre Castagnoli, who started as a doorman, has spun tunes like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Brick House” for the better part of the last fifteen years. He has watched the same sort of integration that played out with cowboys and hippies, only this time the dance music has drawn the Latino community. Around the holidays, when tourists are in town and natives are back visiting family, “It really can be a bizarre mix,” he says. “Who would have expected that at the foot of Teton Pass, there’s a little juke joint where disco music is played?”

As the bar has changed hands between various partnerships since the 1980s, the ‘Coach has expanded, adding space for the band and DJs to play on the west side and more room for the grill to the east. The fireplace and chimney were removed. Bike racks have replaced the hitching rail. In 2000, the bar itself was shifted east, creating more room on the dance floor. The notoriously low ceiling was raised. Smoking, which had stained the white wall tiles yellow, was banned. Old wood paneling, seared with ranch brands, now is the surface of the bar. The exterior, originally white, has been red for many years. Photos of cowboys on bucking broncs continue to hang on the walls.

Despite the changes, the look and feel of the ‘Coach have remained oddly the same. While the actor Harrison Ford, NFL star Peyton Manning and members of the rock band Phish are among the celebrities to have visited, Walt Callahan or Cle Clark still might feel at home. “The place has barely changed since the first time I set foot in it,” says Cheek, who occasionally comes to dance on Sundays. “It feels like a home or a church, you might say. You always feel comfortable.”

As the sign over the bar suggests, I could go on and on with stories of some of the hijinks that have occurred within those walls. But you’d probably have to buy me another drink.