By Ruffin Prevost
LIVINGSTON, MONT. — A downtown fixture for the past century, the Mint Bar in Livingston, Mont. got its name because it was where railroad workers coming off the late shift often cashed their paychecks — and then quickly began drinking their way through that cash. Livingston’s Northern Pacific rail hub closed decades ago, but the bar continues to thrive.
During the height of the railroad era, around the mid 20th century, the Mint was rumored to have had more cash on hand than most local banks. Nowadays, it trades in an even more elusive currency: authentic Western historical experiences.
Walking into the Mint Bar and Theater for the first time, it’s difficult to tell where the original history ends and the modern-day upgrades begin.
That was the whole idea behind a painstaking restoration that began in 2009, said Myra Stein, a friend of the bar’s owner, during a recent tour of the property.
Current owner Merlin Moss bought The Mint Bar in Livingston in 2008 and overhauled the historic building, bringing in details like belt-driven ceiling fans and salvaged church benches that are now used for booth seats. The result is new but familiar twist on an old place, offering a timeless feeling that’s true to the bar’s historic roots without sacrificing modern gloss and comfort.
An ice-filled trough lit from below by a mint-green glow runs the length of the main bar, offering an easy way for patrons to keep their drinks cold on a hot summer day.
A 120-year-old Brunswick back bar is the focal point of the main room. The antique showpiece draws admiring remarks and curious questions from visitors, said bartender Tasha Iglinski.
The renovation involved saving historic elements where possible, like portions of the original metal ceiling tiles, while adding up-to-date touches that don’t look out of place, Iglinski said.
The Mint Bar in Livingston is just one of many “Mints.” Many Western towns have a bar called the Mint, Iglinski said, because it was a common name used to attract railroad workers and others who didn’t do regular business with a bank.
Livingston’s railroad history is on full display in The Mint, where photos from the Doris Whithorn collection show many aspects of town life through the years. Local patrons often notice familiar faces in the historic shots, Iglinski said.
It was the railroad that brought early Yellowstone tourists to Livingston, where they stayed in the building that now houses the Mint Bar in Livingston, then known as the Yellowstone Block Hotel. Well-heeled easterners would travel by train to embark on a grand tour of Yellowstone National Park.
By the prohibition era, the building had been bought by John, William and Orlando Hefferlin, brothers who set up a mercantile business on the ground floor. They also ran a brisk business in bootleg liquor, earning enough regular drinkers to convince two railroad conductors to retire and buy the business, converting it to a bar when prohibition ended. The Mint was issued the first liquor license in the state after prohibition was repealed.
Beneath the bar is a sprawling basement that still holds historic mementos and other treasures from the bar’s early days. Many items have been restored and returned to the public portions of the building. A massive bank vault door was hauled upstairs and installed on the ground floor. The building’s boiler is a hulking, iron beast with a 100-year warranty, and the original manufacturer is still in business, Stein said.
Concrete walls in the basement are up to six feet thick, and underground tunnels run beneath the streets of downtown Livingston, Stein said, connecting to other historic businesses via unseen passages. There is speculation that portions of the tunnels and basements may have been used as opium dens in the town’s early days, Stein said. Graffiti from as far back as 1903 is still visible on The Mint’s basement walls.
Upstairs and behind the main bar is a theater where bands and other live acts perform regularly. The theater also hosts a wide range of movies, from classic black-and-white films to cult comedies to documentaries and other works by local filmmakers.
There are also plans in the works to add a kitchen, Stein said.
The Mint Bar in Livingston once hosted regular poker games, with up to 15 tables going at once and at least one game going at any given time, day or night. But you’re more likely now to witness a lively game of pool. And even your mom is sure to find a suitable song or two on the well-curated list of tunes in the Mint jukebox.
So even if bars aren’t your thing — or your mom’s favorite — there’s still something of interest for everyone at The Mint Bar and Theater. Even if mom has to think of it as having a drink at a historic property of cultural significance.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]