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Manhattan saloon recalls bygone era in rural Nevada

MANHATTAN, Nev.

The bar regular known around these parts as Chicken Dave Sweetwood is telling a tale about his largesse of freshly laid eggs.


 

A few years back, the white-bearded high desert roustabout found himself out of a job at one of the Big Smoky Valley’s mines. With time on his hands, he bought a couple of chickens and, with his roost soon boasting 30 hens and counting, he did something that embodies the generosity and community spirit of the place called the Manhattan Bar:

He gave his eggs away.

Each morning, he would walk the town’s single main street in the western foothills of the Toquima Range, leaving cardboard boxes full of eggs for friends and neighbors. Often, he’d bring them into the bar and people would buy him drinks.

Manhattan, Nevada (Gabriel Utasi/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“I didn’t make any money,” says Chicken Dave, now 60. “But a lot of those same people often lent me a hand, bought me food, offered loans, when I was unemployed.”

Now, on a late spring afternoon, standing inside the historic old bar, Chicken Dave talks about how he eventually got his mining job back and sold off his poultry brood.

That’s when Sam Lauver, a big strapping miner and volunteer firefighter in a white T-shirt and red ball cap, swivels around on his bar stool, loaded with a one-liner.

THE CHICKENS ARE GONE

“Well,” the 24-year-old says, “now you’re Chickenless Dave, aren’t you?”

The drinkers all laugh — it’s more of a cackle, really, that once might have been heard inside Chicken Dave’s henhouse. Backs are slapped, and this tight-knit assemblage of boozers out in the middle of Nevada’s nowhere turns back to their beers.

All across the Silver State, old-time saloons such as the Manhattan Bar are stubborn holdouts from another era; many established a century or more ago in the region’s gold-and-silver boom days. Then, these tiny towns teemed with hundreds of hardy residents, each looking to strike a vein and get rich quick.

Nowadays, these places have regressed into near-ghost towns, the often-lonely domain of the independent few who prefer a rural life, living comparatively unfettered under big Western skies.

A GATHERING SPOT

For them, establishments such as the Manhattan Bar provide a sense of community, like a town hall or an urban barber shop, where blue-collar men and women can get a drink, revel in some gossip, buy a round, laugh, get drunk, maybe dance on the bar, sometimes fight, and realize that they’re not alone out here after all. Some regulars slouch at the bar nursing sodas, drawn not by the alcohol, but by the camaraderie.

On moonless nights, the neon beer ad in the bar’s window might be the only welcoming light for 50 miles. And the regulars, drawn like moths to a singular florescent bulb, return to this century-old wooden shack with its clapboard frontage reading “Emporium: Wet Goods for Dry People.”

They arrive in dirty pickup trucks, four-wheel drives, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, on foot and even on horseback. They’re miners, ranchers, retirees, and those not inclined toward work. They’re a life-hardened crew, with many faces furrowed with age lines; the men sporting cowcatcher beards and ponytails, wearing Napa Auto Parts caps, cigarettes and toothpicks dangling from their lips; the women often adorned in handmade jewelry, or none at all.

Many patrons have taken their turn as hired bartender because out here, where jobs are scarce, you do what you can just to survive another year. Dogs are also welcome, because almost everybody has one.

If not exactly barflies, these regulars are all bar birds-of-a-feather.

“This is it; this is what we do in Manhattan,” Lauver said. “If you live out here and don’t stop in to the Manhattan Bar, you’re either a hermit or you don’t like people.”

TWO BARS

There are actually two bars in Manhattan, about 50 miles north of Tonopah (year-round population is 45). The other is called the Miners Saloon, where owner Sharon Pauley — who has run the place for 26 years and is also the town’s postmistress — runs a tight ship. She quickly shushes anyone who cusses as she perches watchfully behind the bar, near the window, keeping an eye on her unattended post office across the street.

Many frequent both establishments but some say they prefer the Manhattan Bar, where the beers are supposedly served colder and where the management once staged a weekly Dirty Song Night, when patrons took turns playing jukebox ditties with naughty lyrics.

The Manhattan Bar is also the spot where they hooted and hollered over the Chicken Hit game. Regulars bought numbered squares inside a tiny coop, rooting for the bird to poop on their spot so they could take home the cash. It’s a bar where a former owner known as One-Eyed Fern would pocket your cash when you slunk away to the restroom and used to wash her underwear in the same sink where she rinsed the cocktail glasses.

Even though the chicken game is retired and Fern is long gone, the regulars still flock here to watch “Jeopardy!”on TV and practice their horseshoe tosses out back for the regular tournaments that take place in Manhattan and nearby Belmont.

At the Manhattan Bar, the humor is often as rough-edged as the decor. Along with the mementos and photographs of the town’s mining heyday, and the stuffed mountain lion that peers down at the pool table, the place bristles with a man-cave sensibility.

In the men’s room hangs a sign that reads: “Please do not throw cigarette butts in the urinal: It makes them soggy and hard to light.” On the front door, two signs beckon: “Please unload guns and remove ski mask before entering” and “Save a Flag: Burn a Protester.”

A visitor at the bar asks a regular, “What do you do?”

The local lights a cigarette and responds:

“I don’t.”

ROUGH-EDGED CLIENTELE

Ever since they discovered gold 110 years ago, Manhattan has remained a rough town, a realm of rowdy miners and drunken gamblers.

In 1906, Tom Logan, then the popular Nye County sheriff, came to a bad end in Manhattan. Logan, a silent partner in a local brothel, was asleep there one night when he was roused by the madam about a recalcitrant patron.

Dressed in a nightshirt, Logan challenged the man and was shot five times. He died after bleeding out from a leg wound when a doctor failed to use a tourniquet. Nightlife, it seemed, often came at a steep price.

In the early 1930s, settlers hauled in several pre-built buildings from surrounding towns, including those that house the Miners Saloon and Manhattan Bar, ensconcing them in view of an area so contested by mining companies and their lawyers that it earned the name Litigation Hill.

Over the decades, wild times ensued. If the mines were booming, the men had money. And when the men made more money, they drank and played that much harder.

Bobby Bottom is a Manhattan mainstay, unofficial mayor and official volunteer fire chief. He likes to tell colorful tales of when One-eyed Fern, whose full name was Fern Vetsera, ran and lived in the Manhattan Bar until her death in 1978.

One day, a customer spotted Fern washing her undies in the same bar sink in which she swabbed her highball glasses. “Nobody drank highballs after that,” Bottom says. “They all bought bottled beer.”

At 74, Bottom is himself a character who spent decades mining a claim outside town. Sitting inside the Miner’s Saloon with a can of Diet Dr Pepper, he pulls out a “pocket piece” that he says every bona fide miner carries. In Bottom’s case, it’s a 1¼ ounce gold nugget worth several thousand dollars.

These days, Bottom doesn’t frequent the Manhattan Bar. A ways back, he had words with a bartender there. In small towns like this one, personal grudges can die hard.

But the place has gone on without him. In 2001, Las Vegas car dealer Jim Marsh — at age 82 a longtime rural Nevada regular — bought the bar, adding a half-dozen motel rooms next door so people had a place to bed down if they drank too much.

A few years back, the town got a relay tower and Wi-Fi coverage, so drinkers no longer have to drive 7 miles down the mountain to talk on their cellphones.

Most nights, hijinks still ensue. One old-timer tells of the night a man rolled in from Louisiana — his last named was allegedly Turdwater — danced on the bar and got whacked unconscious by a ceiling fan.

On slow nights, Chicken Dave says, the regulars take bets on whether one heavy drinker leaving the joint will fall down before he gets to his four-wheel drive. “One day, he came in and I told him ‘Hey man, your quad’s running off.’ It was rolling down the street. He had to take off after it.”

These days, Tony Grimes works as an assistant at the town library, but in a previous incarnation he tended bar at the Manhattan. He recalled the night a regular nicknamed Bronco Billy rode into town and hitched his horse in front of the bar.

A few hours — and many drinks — later, Billy tried to mount his horse but fell off the other side.

Billy’s gone now, and Grimes jokes that he’s in the running to take his place. “I’d like to be the town drunk, but some people have more money than me,” he says. “So I have to settle for being the assistant town drunk.”

A BEER AND THE SCOOP

And he couldn’t think of a better place to hone his craft than the Manhattan Bar. “We’re like one big semi-dysfunctional family,” he says. “People come in to cash their checks and get the scoop. It’s a raucous mix of bank and social center.”

On Thanksgiving, locals throw a plywood board over the pool table and serve a turkey dinner for the town.

When patrons pass away, the bar’s regulars hold a ceremony with the drinker’s ashes at Boot Hill, the town cemetery, and then return to the Manhattan Bar to get drunk and celebrate the life of the deceased — the bar providing a rite of passage both in life and in death.

Bottom can’t stay mad at the place forever. But just in case, he’s built his own cozy bar called Tommy Knockers on a hill overlooking his home. The boys have had some doozy nights drinking up there at 7,200 feet, where the view stretches for a hundred miles.

“But most often, when I get mad at all the bartenders in town,” Bottom says, “I’ll go up there and drink all by myself and give the middle finger to everyone down below.”

It’s early June and the Manhattan Bar regulars are gearing up for the big horseshoe tournament in Belmont. There’s always something going on up in the hills.

The few dozen regulars travel a bar circuit of sorts, bouncing from bingo night at the Half Moon bar in Hadley, to Dirty Dicks in Belmont, or they might stop for a round at the bar in nearby Carvers, where fists are known to fly on Friday nights. There are favorite bars south in Tonopah or north in Austin, where they frequent Zack’s Lucky Spur Saloon.

All of them are beacons of light and sociability in the rural darkness. Sometimes, a local cowboy band featuring the mayor of nearby Bishop, California, plays the circuit and people dance — both with partners and by themselves.

On one afternoon, Manhattan bartender Sandy Crawford is serving drinks and stirring up nostalgia. At one point, she describes the famous flood that warped the bar so badly that patrons had to watch that their drinks didn’t slide away when they set them down.

But she’s not good on dates, so Crawford turns to the crowd.

“What year did that flood come through and the bar sagged so bad before it got fixed?”

Chicken Dave turns from his post at one of the three slot machines.

“They fixed it?” he said, sounding bewildered.

Now Chicken Dave is back working hard at the mine. He also sells art at his shop, the Manhattan Country Store.

One day, sitting outside, drinking a beer at 2 p.m., Dave admits he’s not going anywhere.

“I love it here,” he says wistfully. “I’m gonna die here.”

And when he does, his fellow drinkers, horseshoe-throwers and gossip-swappers will throw him a life-celebration party down at the Manhattan Bar.

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