Livingston’s Once and Future Mint Bar
History Has a Way of Repeating Itself
By Pat Hill
If Merlin Moss has his way, the Mint Bar will continue to be a mainstay of the Livingston downtown area for many years to come.
Main Street, Livingston (circa 1900), Hefferlin Building (far right), which would become the Mint Bar
Moss, 33, purchased the historic property in January. He said it wasn't something he'd really planned for, rather a chance oppor-tunity that he was able to capitalize upon.
“I got lucky,” Moss told the Pioneer. “I'd saved up enough money 12 years ago to put a down payment on a house. I sold that property for the money to buy this place.” Moss bought the house in Bozeman before real estate prices skyrocketed in southwest Montana, and sold it when the market was still hot.
“Definitely luck…,” Moss said. “Of course, that includes working five different jobs…I think I'm just a typical Montanan.” And the hardworking Moss is determined that the Mint will remain a typical Montana workingman's bar, the type of establishment Moss said is disappearing fast.
“This bar really belongs to my customers…I feel like I'm just the caretaker,” he said. “Many of my regulars have been coming here since before I was born. A few of them even have their own keys to the place. They've become like family to me.”
Moss said he is also determined to restore the Mint “to the way it was.” He said that much of the Mint's trappings from years past, such as old beer signs and neon lights, were still in the basement.
“I'm putting lots of the old stuff back up,” he said, but his restoration plans go beyond signs and lights. Moss wants to restore the bar to its former glory, which he sees as the era of the mid-20th century.
“My plans are sitting in the city office (for approval) right now,” he said on July 25.
The Mint Bar, 2008
The building that houses the Mint has been a part of Livingston history for more than a hundred years. Moss said the building at the corner of Callender and Main was first known as the Yellowstone Block Hotel, one of several downtown hotels built to accommodate Yellowstone Park tourists and other travelers riding the train, the railroad having been Livingston's economic backbone until the late 1980s, when the town's train terminal closed after the purchase of the Burlington Northern line by Montana Rail Link.
Moss said many of the rail passengers visiting Livingston in the early 1900s were wealthy Easterners headed for the Park, and an Easterner apparently purchased the hotel for a time, according to Moss (the faded words “New York Hotel” can still be seen painted on the north side of the Mint, on the wall above Chadz coffeehouse). Moss said he isn't sure who the owner of the New York Hotel was, or even how long the building had that handle, but by the '20s, the establishment had become the Hefferlin Brothers Mercantile Company.
Moss said that the Hefferlin brothers, William, John, and Orlando, were “an interesting lot” who even dabbled in the guide business in Yellowstone Park for a time. The Hefferlins kept the upstairs section of the mercantile operating as a hotel, and sold goods on the main floor. Staples like flour, coffee, dry goods and clothing, though, weren't all the brothers sold in the mercantile. Prohibition had become law in 1919, and Moss said that the Hefferlins started selling bootleg liquor at their place.
“A bootlegger named Tillie supplied the liquor,” Moss said, referring to Tillie Wallace of Square Butte, in Chouteau County. Tillie was the only woman in Montana prosecuted for running her own moonshine operation during Prohi-bition. Appearing in District Court in Great Falls in 1932, she received a $50 suspended fine and three years probation from a sympathetic judge.
“By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the mercantile already had an established clientele,” said Moss. That clientele continued to demand alcohol, and the “mercantile” received the first liquor license issued in the state of Montana.
“That was when the place first became the Mint Bar,” said Moss. “And it was like the Wild West in the Mint well into the '60s.” The excitement was generated for the most part by railroad workers who frequented the Mint after shift; the Northern Pacific Credit Union was even conveniently located near the back of the bar. But the NP Credit Union and other Livingston banks were not always open when the railroaders (especially the swing shift) got off work, so the Mint began to take up the slack.
“From the '40s through the early '70s, the Mint had more money on hand than any of the banks in town,” Moss said, “because the Mint was cashing all the railroad checks.”
Cash also found its way to the Mint through gambling.
“The Mint had the biggest poker games in Montana,” said Moss. “People would drive from surrounding states to play cards here…the games would go on for three or four days.” Moss said pots would total upwards of 30 or 40 grand, and that ranches were even lost at the poker table.
“It sounds like it was a pretty wild time,” he said. “I've got nine of those old poker tables in the basement right now.”
Some of those old poker tables may find their way back up from the basement. Moss said the hotel rooms upstairs are also intact, and that they too figure in his plans to restore the Mint to the condition of its bygone days. Moss said he's ready to begin the restoration as soon as he gets permission from the city.
“Basically you'll walk back into the mid-'40s,” he said of his vision for the Mint. “I want to restore the bar to original as much as possible. I want to restore the hotel to a saloon-style hotel—the barkeep gives you your room, and maybe a drink, too.”
Moss said he discusses his ideas for the restoration with the folks who count, the regulars coming to the Mint for many years who’ve now become his friends.
“I really feel it belongs to them,” he said. “I'm just keeping the ball rolling. Bars like this are becoming a lost thing. Livingston needs the Mint…and there's a little bit of Mint history all around town.”