Don’t forget the Dive Bars!
As we’ve traveled across the country seeking out new and enticing craft breweries (more and more frequently near a just-as-enticing mountain bike trail), we’ve discovered another love: Dive Bars!
We’ve always said that our love of craft beer stems from the community that blossoms around it. We are also drawn to the different styles and creative flavor combinations that brewers dream up, but the places that we truly fall in love with are because of the people.
I can’t tell you how many stories we have from simply sitting down in a brewery and saying hi to a stranger. That’s almost always enough to get the ball rolling, and usually it turns into some unique story about the brewery, its beer, or the town where it’s located. These are simply the types of people that a good brewery attracts.
Try as we might to always find a cool new brewery, there are some places that simply don’t have one. Believe it or not, we’ve found similar community around dive bars, particularly in small-town U.S.A.
Northside: Burwell, Nebraska Dive Bar
As a kid, you might sometimes feel excluded when arriving in smaller towns. That hasn’t proven to be the rule for us as we’ve frequently stopped at breweries in towns counting citizens by the hundreds not the hundreds of thousands.
My home town, for instance.
Burwell, Nebraska, officially one square-mile and home to roughly 1,200 people, is known for its annual “Nebraska’s Big Rodeo.” Not a single brewery in town, though there are two that are about 15 miles away in opposite directions.
When we rolled through Burwell en route to April’s dad’s farm in South Dakota, we moochdocked out back of my grandparent’s old house, which is eerily vacant.
It was early evening on a Tuesday when we arrived, so there wasn’t much for restaurants open. Then again, with the size of the town, there aren’t many restaurants, period.
We strolled into Northside, a bar and cafe, as well as the de facto rodeo museum with a smiling face behind the bar and just a handful of other patrons. No craft beer on hand (unless you count Blue Moon), but they had some old school beers that I thought had been erased from my memory.
That didn’t matter with a greeting that went something like this:
Us: Is it okay to sit at the bar?
Bartender: I don’t give a shit.
Feeling happy to be able to sit at the bar with our grilled burgers, we were down for going retro, so I ordered a Schlitz. Yep, it still exists. Well, except for on this night at the Northside.
Two “old dudes” in town love their Schlitz and quickly drink the Northside out of stock whenever it rolls in. So I went with Old Milwaukee… the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company’s bargain priced beer. Not bad when you’re tripping down Nostalgia Street. And hey, it’s actually a Great American Beer Festival gold medal winner. Who knew?!
The Northside has been on the Burwell tax rolls since 1910, according to current owner Scott Krause, who added that it’s not clear if or how long it had been in operation prior to that. The town itself came into being in 1883.
Nebraska’s Big Rodeo is nearly as old as the home to its museum… the Northside. Burwell started the rodeo as a community celebration in 1921, but it quickly evolved into a sizable event, at times swelling the town’s population to more than 20,000. Still going strong, it is one of the oldest rodeos in the United States.
That said, dating back to at least 1910, Northside has to be one of the oldest bars in the state and perhaps in the western half of the U.S. Although the honor for oldest goes to Glur’s Tavern in Columbus, Nebraska.
I can’t count that as one of my favorites though, as I’ve never been there. And, hey, it’s gonna be hard to beat my hometown watering hole.
Steve’s Bar & Grill: Trent, South Dakota Dive Bar
After staying a few days on the farm of April’s dad, we got to chatting about the bar in nearby Trent. Steve’s Bar has been going strong for more than 30 years, but Poppy (April’s dad) had rarely been there.
So we took a field trip.
As soon as we set foot inside, we knew we were gonna love this place. Seeing the outdoor bar as we pulled up, we already did. But walking in and seeing Sturgis signs all over the walls, an old electric guitar on the wall, hand drawings of famous musicians, and smiling faces all around, it just felt right.
It wasn’t quite Cheers, where everybody knows your name, but damn close. I’m sure it was exactly that for a lot of the folks inside, obviously regulars, as they bantered across the room.
Steve’s is housed in the former hardware store. It is not a craft beer bar by any means. We did, however, manage to spot a pseudo-craft beer on the list: Grain Belt Premium. I’d never heard of it, so I had to order it. Not bad. Sort of a cream ale type of beer, Grain Belt is a regional brew that stems from the pre-prohibition era. It has switched hands a few times, but is now made by craft brewer August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Minnesota.
As usual, the true draw to Steve’s was about more than the beer.
It was more that Poppy’s farm is about three miles from Steve’s front porch. And maybe the fact that he grew up in Trent and the surrounding area where he later met April’s mom when they were in their teens. Maybe also that the farm has been in the family in some form or fashion for well over 100 years. Or that April, her sister Melissa and her brother Brad, recall childhood memories of this farming community and the pond over by the river that served for years as the local swimming pool.
We returned a week or so later, Melissa, her husband, and Brad in tow, just to sit outside and enjoy the open air Grain Belt Bar, made true to the name – in an old grain bin!
Again, the laughter of small town America filled the air, and our new best friend Art (who we’d never met) bought everyone a round. Not just us, but everyone outside… to the tune of probably 20 or so people.
And just like the Northside in my hometown, a place like Steve’s, which has so many personal memories attached to April’s family, which has been my family too for about three decades now, has to be on the list of our favorite dives.
And just in case you’re wondering, a dive isn’t really a dive if people are offended by it being referred to as such. So don’t go thinking we’re dissing our peeps! Any dive bar worth its salt is proud of it.
St. Elmo Bar: Bisbee, Arizona Dive Bar
Okay, so as I write this, there appears to be a theme here. We like old shit!
Case in point, St. Elmo Bar in Bisbee, Arizona. Established in 1902, it is the oldest continuously operated bar in the state. See, I told you. Us + Old Shit = Favorites.
The second you set foot in St. Elmo, it wreaks of old. No, it doesn’t stink. There is just an amalgam of crazy trinkets, signs, and other, um, paraphernalia strewn about the place.
There’s also the fact that it is haunted. That’s not simply a rumor to attract people, ask any local, it is a fact. Period!
Speaking of locals, April happened to sit down at the bar and say hi to a stranger. He was a grizzled old gentleman that regaled her with not only interesting anecdotes about the area, but his full life story… warts and all. And that’s to put it mildly; I’ll spare you the details.
Right down the street from Old Bisbee Brewing Company, our primary target, St. Elmo is a must when you roll through Bisbee.
The walls alone tell numerous stories that span decades. And if you’re thirsty, heck, they actually have several craft handles as well, and any spirit you can think up. So, here, you can get your dive and your craft all rolled into one. They even had a few Old Bisbee beers.
Big Horn Bar: Ten Sleep, Wyoming Dive Bar
So you lucked out and found an awesome little farm brewery, in the middle of nowhere, tucked up on the edge of a glorious mountain range.
It’s Sunday night and said brewery (ahem, Ten Sleep Brewing Company) shutters at about 8 o’clock. But you were just getting to know some of the locals. What do you do now? Part and go your separate ways?
Brewery is closed. It’s time to go to the bar.
That’s pretty much how our story went. Parked outside Ten Sleep Brewing for the night (no Harvest Host required and tents allowed), we hitched a ride with said locals who were adamant that we weren’t about to call it a night so early on their watch.
I’m sure by now, you’re not surprised. This happens over and over again in small towns, whether it be at the brewery or the local dive or both. When you meet good people, it’s hard to let the night end.
I can’t really say that there is some hook to the Big Horn Bar. I don’t know that it’s haunted. Neither April nor I had ever been in the area, let alone spent any time in the bar or the town. There wasn’t a rodeo museum enshrined upon its walls.
But they had good, down home, honest to goodness, fun people to be around. And when one of the business partners in the brewery is amongst the crowd herding you over to the local dive, well, that says a lot. But it’s to be expected in a town of approximately 250 people.
As much as the local brewery is a community center, so can be the dive bar. And that’s what Big Horn is, a community center. Granted it’s a bit more adult oriented than the brewery, but it is a gathering place.
The Big Horn hosts pot luck nights, football pools during the season, an adults only Easter Egg Hunt, and a bunch of fun-loving folks that generally just want to shoot the shit, maybe some pool or dance the night away.
Born in 1969, the same year as me, I guess it still fits the bill for old, but not that old.
Platte River Saloon: Fairplay, Colorado Dive Bar
Moving on to new stuff, just to prove we aren’t as old as I make it sound, we give you the Platte River Saloon in Fairplay, Colorado.
We actually rented a small house (actually a couple of rooms with a kitchen) in Fairplay when our younger son Owen was on a snowboard team and we had to be in the mountains every weekend. It was cheaper than driving back and forth from Denver.
It’s just a good thing that Platte River Saloon wasn’t here at that time. We would have been there every weekend, instead of on the mountain.
As it is, we stumbled upon Platte River Saloon in 2018, on our maiden voyage as full-time RVers.
One night after dinner, we were planning to head to the brewery for a nightcap, but stumbled upon a local named Tigger (I kid you not; he’s a legend) and were ushered into the just-opened Platte River Saloon.
Several hours later… wait, that sounds familiar! But that’s how it goes.
We met the owner, a wonderful lady named Ellen, who worked her ass off to get the place going. And judging by the locals… and the fact that she’s still in business even after the world nearly imploded… her work ethic hasn’t slowed. Not to mention that she was a lot of fun. She and her friends in the bar immediately treated us as if we had spent much more than one winter several years ago in their sleepy little mountain town.
The Platter River Saloon is picturesque, befitting the mountain west styling of Front Street, where it is located. The interior and bar is laden with wood, handcrafted by a local (Anthony), who was on hand that night. The exterior looks like you stepped back in time, which is fitting, seeing as how the real world South Park is right up the street.
South Park Fun Fact:
South Park is not just a crass cartoon. It’s an actual area of Colorado, the South Park Valley, where Fairplay is located. It’s also a museum, the South Park City Museum, which is located at the end of Front Street… within stumbling distance of Platte River Saloon.
South Park City Museum is actually worth a mention, as it is an accurate reconstruction of a Gold Rush era mining town in Colorado. It consists of 35 or so actual 1800s buildings that were moved from other towns to its current location in Fairplay, reconstructed, and furnished with thousands of actual artifacts from the time period.
The museum is outdoors and only open from mid-May through mid-October. Venture into the area during the winter months and you’ll see why. But if you can be there during that time of year, it’s definitely worth checking out. And then you can stop by the Platte River Saloon down the street on your way out.
Take the Dive Bar Challenge!
We challenge you to take a dive into dive bars. Go a bit off the beaten path, into those small towns that appear to have nothing to give, yet you’ll probably leave with everything you didn’t know you needed. After all, when you find yourself jonesing for one of those ice-cold, easy-drinking big beers, AKA “the best worst beer,” you’ll find yourself recanting tales of days gone by from the coolest of places you never thought you’d want to go back to.
If you have a favorite Dive Bar or two, let us know in the comments below! We’re always looking for new wild and crazy places to check out.