The rental chugged to a stop in front of the Stoneville Saloon. The driver cut the engine. He could tell there would be no standing in line at this authentic Western watering hole. Not at 4 in the afternoon with most ranchers on the range tending cattle, riding fences and roping strays.
Only two chestnut horses stood tied to a hitching post this time of day, the only clue that somebody was bellied up to the bar inside.
“Guess we’ll find out soon enough,” said the driver, who had carted his friends 95 miles from the Rapid City (South Dakota) Regional Airport, and brought them here to buy hunting licenses. The idea seemed good at the time and still did.
The pancake grass of the prairie, where one could see for miles in an endless spread of space, seemed a world away from South Carolina. Grass and fences, farm buildings and four-legged animals—really big ones that made huge slabs of steak—weren’t foreign at all. But in this place, at this moment, grown men lost themselves in a real-life painting with all that grass, prickly pears in full bloom, stone-faced cattle and the bold reds of the outbuildings in this tiny town.
And here they were about to waltz into one of Montana’s oldest saloons, three miles shy of the Wyoming border, to become bona fide hunters in these parts. They immediately drew their cameras to shoot this “hysterical, historic” landmark.
“Yippee-ky-yay. Ya’ll ready for this?” one of the guys said, as he kicked at the dry prairie dirt. Jay Jordan just smiled. Several months earlier from a sparsely decorated third-floor office back home, he’d found the Stoneville Saloon on a list of license providers for the state of Montana. Always one to surprise his turkey hunting guests with some offbeat side trip, he figured the Stoneville Saloon fit the bill for something quirky. His Southern friends called it “kwur.” Now they’d have pictures to prove it. Time to step inside.
They found themselves amid images of the American West, old and new. An 1800s back bar and collection of local antiques blended with modern conveniences like gambling machines and billiard tables.
The old saloon is steeped in history. In Alzada’s early days, cattle rustlers and the horse thieves operated at will, much to the exasperation of ranchers. The most notorious and boldest outlaws were the Exelby Gang. Starting in 1877, the gang rustled for several years. Their dastardly career ended with the 1884 Shootout at Stoneville after a series of events including arrests and a gunfight that included Billy the Kid.
Located: in Carter County
Elevation: 3,445 feet
Side trips: 163 miles east of The Little Bighorn Battlefield; 40 miles north of Devil's Tower National Monument on the edge of the Northern Black Hills; 36 miles west of Belle Fourche, S.D.; and 80 miles south of Medicine Rocks Park.
If you hunt there: Ask permission to hunt on all private land. While orange paint and No Trespassing signs indicate that the land is private, they do not necessarily mean no hunting is allowed. Ask first, and the gate may open. Plan ahead and secure permission before your actual hunt date. Provide complete information about yourself and your hunting companions, including vehicle descriptions and license numbers. Explain what you want to hunt and ask questions that will help clarify the conditions of access.
From the outside, Stoneville Saloon looks much like it did in 1877, when Lou Stone, Alzada’s first settler, built its boarded facade and wooden front porch. Pioneers who wanted to raise cattle on the banks of the Little Missouri River kept the saloon busy. A warm shot of whiskey helped wash down prairie grit, and still does.
Diane Turko owns the bar now, and she’s far from the typical saloon girl in a ruffled skirt and lace stockings. But odds are she tucks a pistol in her boot top to keep boisterous cowboys in line.
“What can I get ya’ll,” she yelled behind the bar when the strangers pushed open the door.
“Hunting licenses,” Jordan said.
“Anything you want as long as you order a beer.”
They drank from bottles and contemplated sampling some “nitro” chili while the barkeep printed their licenses. The hunters passed on the chili, figuring Ekalaka, 71 miles across dirt and gravel, buttes and sage was too far a ride for five men who had just gassed up on beer and insanely hot hamburger meat.
“Never wiped with sage, and don’t think I want to,” someone said.
“Doesn’t seem right eating chili with that two-headed calf gawkin’ at us either.”
The calf was just another novelty of the Stoneville Saloon.
Across the Great Plains, lots of folks collect double-headed farm animals. At the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, there’s a ewe and a calf with two heads, another at the Rogues Art Gallery in Hullet, Wyo., and a sheep in Hill City, S.D.
Each head has its own brain and shares control of organs and limbs, explained Jordan, who suddenly switched to biologist mode, his paid profession. Animals often move in a dizzy fashion, with the brains "arguing" with each other. “They kinda zig-zag without getting anywhere.”
The bartender is a novelty, too.
Originally from Huntington Beach, Calif., Turko was among a group of four—two couples—who rode north on their bikes for the 1990 Sturgis rally.
“One of the idiots said, ‘Wouldn't it be cool to live here?' ” and the four decided that’s what they’d do. They bought the Alzada Bar, renamed it, and opened on April Fool's Day, 1992.
“It was one of the few arguments I lost,” says Turko, who probably has more tattoos than anyone in Alzada, including a permanent blue necklace. “I wanted to call it the ‘He Ain't Here Saloon.' You know, so we could answer the phone, ‘He ain't here.' But my old man read a lot of books and found out Alzada used to be called Stoneville.”
The other couple gave up on the Stoneville Saloon and Alzada after a year and a half, and her “old man” died in February 2001. “Now it's just me,” she said.
“December, January, February, March and April, I really don't need to be here, but it has its times. Tourists and hunters stop in, but the rally is killer.”
By July, “Welcome Biker” paraphernalia, including a cardboard cutout of a woman on a Harley, will replace signs that usually greet fisherman and hunters. Less than an hour from Sturgis, S.D., this watering hole sees bikers by the thousands roll down U.S. Highway 212 in the days during and surrounding the Black Hills Motorcycle Rally each August.
Turko, a tattoo artist, figures she has 13 seconds to get them to stop. The sign declaring cheap drinks and lousy food usually does. “It's the only time of year I have employees,” Turko says. During the 10 days of the rally, she makes as much money as she does the rest of the year combined.
About 88 people usually live in Alzada, which has two bars, a mechanic shop, a gas station and a post office. Most of the residents are ranchers who live outside of the town itself. To the north is Albion, a ghost town of which nothing remains but an abandoned school and the foundations of a few demolished buildings.
This place on the extreme southeast corner of Montana is literally “no man’s land,” and that is part of its appeal to sportsmen who come here to hunt speed goats, deer, turkeys and upland birds. It calls to mind a time when men and women were self-sufficient and still have to be.
“It kinda grows on you,” said a cowboy wearing dark indigo jeans. His faced looked dark and ruddy in the dim light, and his voice rattled like pea gravel swooshing around in a 5-gallon bucket. “Pretty historic, too.”
Alzada is considered Custer country. Or Sitting Bull’s, depending on whose side you stand. This was the territory where 1,400 mounted troops were sent in to mop up the remaining Indians after Col. George Armstrong Custer failed. They soon learned the land couldn’t support feed and water for so many horses and men, so when the first snows fell, they admitted defeat after killing some 20 Indians and losing as many soldiers.
Eventually, ranching took hold and these days Carter County raises mainly cattle and fodder for them like alfalfa and warm-season hay. Unlike nearby Fallon County to the north, there’s no oil exploration so Carter County relies heavily on cattle.
Hunting is big business, too. Montana’s 23,000 property holders own nearly 60 million acres, which offers some of the best hunting opportunities. Many of these private lands border national forests and other public property, so to access these places it’s sometimes necessary to cross private land.
Not so long ago, that could’ve been done with a smile and a handshake. It was just understood that if given permission to hunt or cross boundaries, gates would be closed, the land respected and the cattle unharmed.
Some farmers and ranchers have closed off their lands because they don’t like the way residents and tourists have treated it. Some lease out their land to family or friends, or to outfitters and guides who bring in paying clients. Others, who believe Montana’s wildlife is a public resource, have joined the state’s Block Management Program, in which property owners are reimbursed by the state for allowing access onto their land. In Montana, most of the Block Management funding comes from nonresident big game licenses. Properties enrolled in these access programs offer everything from pheasant hunting to opportunities to hunt white-tailed and mule deer, elk and antelope.
In some cases, hunter numbers are limited to allow participants a trophy experience. In others, hunting pressure exceeds the game population.
Montana’s Block Management is the oldest and largest access program in the West. Each region is managed differently, so check the rules and regs while planning your hunt.
It seemed like the perfect place for one of Jay Jordan’s treks.
“If you’re hunting ‘round here, get ready to walk,” the gravely voice said. “These mountains ain’t no place for sissies. Gets kinda steep, and the turkeys can travel four or five miles a day, no problem.
“It’s big country, so if you’re not used to it, you might wanna stick to the river bottoms. Not as pretty, but it’s easier on the body. Be prepared for anything. Baking heat, wind, rain and snow all in the same day.”
He turned on his boot heel, pushed back his hat and swallowed the last of his draft beer.
“Good luck boys. Probably see ya’ll next year.”
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