GREAT FALLS — Paul Snyder has spent a lot of time in bars over the last few years. Rather than raising a glass, however, he’s raising his camera to capture intricate and historic details of some of Montana's oldest watering holes.
“They are to me the icon of the development of Montana,” said Snyder.
He’s put together images and stories of 40 backbars, built in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, into a book titled “Make Mine a Ditch: Beautiful Backbars Under the Big Sky” - a reference to the early days of drinking in Montana.
“They mixed bourbon – whiskey - which wasn’t very good bourbon and whiskey in the first place with water, and the water was often not very good water, so they called it 'ditch water' and shortened that to ditch,” explained Snyder.
Snyder drove 9,500 miles in three years, spanning the state. He estimates there’s only about 50 to 55 of these special backbars left in the state.
He’s captured 40 of them in his book. “I can’t play favorites, but there are a number of them that are quite impressive,” Snyder said.
His appreciation for the ornate designs came from a childhood fascination of woodworking.
"The first one I saw was in Malta when I was a kid. Peeked in through the bar door and saw this huge bar very much like this one (Club Cigar in Great Falls), the Smokehouse Bar in Malta, and it grabbed me because the immensity of it and the detail in the woodworking," he explained. "So that’s always been in the back of my mind.”
The design may have originally caught his eye, but the story each bar tells has kept him clicking his camera.
He said, “When Prohibition came, the bars were hidden, they were put in basements, they were repurposed as showcases for a grocery store or whatever. They went out of circulation. Then in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, suddenly they became interested in these old bars again and they came up out of basements or wherever and were reutilized.”
Along with Prohibition, Snyder learned a lot about the development of the railroad in Montana, as well as the factories that originally built some of the backbars in the state. He noted, "To realize the work it put to put these things together. To realize the history that’s behind why they were built in the first place. To appreciate the fact that we still have them as examples of our past.”
Snyder hopes people will not only enjoy the images in his book but read the stories and history of the bars and towns in which they’re found.
The book, published by Farcountry Press is available now; you can buy it on the website of the Montana Historical Society. In Great Falls, “Make Mine a Ditch!” can be bought at the History Museum and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.
The book can also be bought directly from Snyder. He can be reached at 406-750-1999.