Cause of fire unknown, owner of community hub hopes another rebuilds | TSLN.com

Cause of fire unknown, owner of community hub hopes another rebuilds

Tamara Choat
for Tri-State Livestock News

It only takes a spark,

To get a fire going.

And soon all those around

Can warm within its glowing.

The fire that lit up the small town of Fallon, Mont., on July 17 took down a historic building, a business, a home and a community hub.

But the spark that created the real warmth started two years earlier, when Gwyn Davis came "back home" and opened Gwyn's Watering Hole in the building known mostly for the past 102 years as "the Fallon bar." She dove into revitalizing the space with her no-holds-barred approach, tackled cooking and bartending with no experience, and recognized quickly the significance of a gathering place in a rural, agricultural community like Fallon.

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"Gwyn was a very positive influence on the community," says Delite Dukart, whose family farms and ranches near Fallon. Her husband's uncle and grandfather at one time owned the bar. "She was never afraid to try something new to shake things up a bit, but at the same time, she would sit down and shoot the breeze with the older coffee crowd."

Fallon is an unincorporated village of 194 people in sparse Eastern Montana. Residents outside of "city limits" – some from as far as 20-30 miles away – who claim the address double the population. It's a typical snapshot of rural America. A place where it seems not much remains except the church and the bar, and attendance at one in no way implies aversion to the other.

A place where the cattle market, the price of corn, and most often – the weather, are the topics of conversation on the menu along with hamburgers, fries and a frosty drink.

A place where "going out," means going one place, the nucleus of a tight-knit community.

Davis grew up in nearby Terry, Mont., but her last 20 years took her to North Dakota, Alaska, Kansas, and Nevada. In 2014 she was teaching elementary school in Las Vegas when her mom, Jeanette Davis, mentioned during a visit that the bar in Fallon was for sale.

"We had a really romanticized idea of what it would be like to own a bar – we thought it would be kind of like Cheers, where 'everybody knows your name,'" says Davis. "We didn't realize we'd be working 12 hours a day, seven days a week."

With her parents, including dad Gene Davis, she reopened the business. Named after the landmark across the street – a historic watering trough that quenched livestock trailed in to load on railcars at the busy Fallon hub – she also made sure to include her name, "Just so people would know who was boss."

In an area already struggling with a declining work force, the idea of finding outside employees was soon dismissed and Davis realized she was "the employee."

"With self-employment you don't buy yourself a business – you buy yourself a job," she says. "You're not going to get fired, but you are going to work all the time."

That understanding likely aided Davis' quick immersion into the farming and ranching community that knows hard work.

"A lot of times we would have special events on Wednesday nights, and people would ask, 'Why are you doing that on a week night?' and I would tell them, 'Ranchers work every day. To this community, Wednesday night is the same as Saturday night.'

"It might not have been the way to get the most people to show up, but it's not about the most people – it's about the people who are always there."

Davis said the first few months were a blur. They were bringing the kitchen up to code, learning how to cook for a crowd, and literally trying to figure out how to turn on the lights. "The previous owners came down and showed us how things worked. This place had been added on to so many times, the switches were in really weird places," says Davis.

The contribution from the regulars didn't stop there. Davis was definitely the boss, but in many ways, the community maintained ownership. And it was appreciated.

"When we got busy and I couldn't keep up, the regulars would just go help themselves to their drink and write it down," says Davis. "While they were back there, they'd refill three or four other guys, then go sit down again. It was kind of like being at a friend's house.

"The first time it happened, I was like, 'What are you doing?' and the guy simply said, 'Well, I know where [the drinks] are. I'm helping you,' and that was it."

Over the past two years, announcements of a unique variety of activities at Gwyn's have splashed the ads in the local newspaper and on the bar's Facebook page. Human foosball tournaments, Bountiful Baskets pick-ups, fireworks, pinochle games, a life-sized Hungry Hippo competition, trunk or treating, toilet bowl races, sip and paint, Mary Kay parties, a bounce house for an end-of-school celebration … the list goes on. A list of entertainment – and gourmet food – very different from typical bars.

The difference was families.

"It's not so much a party place to be honest," says Davis, still speaking in the present tense of the location that is now just twisted metal and ashes; a few barely distinguishable bar stools still standing where they were left. "We had some really great parties but it wasn't where people came just to party – which is why people brought their families.

"More than once I taught kids to shoot napkin wrappers with a rubber band and knock paper cups off the bar."

The multiple additions to the building over the years included a game room and dining room. It made for a flow-through path that offered the opportunity for a certain patron to run in circles when the bar owner decided to try and put makeup on him. "That cowboy ended up running down the street after circling in here for over 15 minutes," says Davis. "I had to get back to serving, or I would have kept chasing him."

It was a fun place, Davis says, a place with a lot of memories and history. Her eyes got watery as she mentioned the last night before the fire, four generations of the same family were there for dinner: 92-year-old Dennis Hjorth, son Doug, grandson Buddy and two great-grandkids. "How fitting to have them here the last time," says Davis. "That's what this place was really about."

The cause of the fire is not known, but it is a complete loss. Davis has decided she will not be the one to rebuild, but feels strongly that someone will.

"It will change Fallon, but these people will come together. I don't know if it's because they choose to be, or are forced to be, but this is a tight-knit community."

There will be changes, but one thing will be constant.

"Whoever decides to [rebuild], I can tell you I don't think the community is going to let them down," she says. "The next place will not be the same at first, but after time it will be because the kindship will be the same; the people will be the same."

Because it turns out, if you're from Fallon, everybody there really does know your name.

A Gala for Gwyn

Gwyn’s Watering Hole was the community gathering spot, made unique by Gwyn herself. Now friends and neighbors are gathering to help Gwyn rebuild her life after losing all her belongings in the fire that took her business and apartment. On Aug. 19, the “Gala for Gwyn” will start at 6 p.m. with a community picnic at the Fallon Park. Live music will be provided by The Road Crew, a chicken roping will start at 7 p.m., and live and silent auctions of homemade and donated items will follow. For more information or to donate, contact Delite Dukart at 406-486-5505 or Bree Poppe at 605-639-0356.