Although I’m one of the world’s worst cooks, I’m a pretty good eater and enjoy eating out. There are a few restaurants I’d like to try in my hometown of Helena and my current home in Deer Lodge, except they disappeared more than 100 years ago.

Gold was discovered in Helena in 1864, and it’s no secret that “mining the miners” was the best way to get rich in a gold camp. Lissner’s Fountain restaurant was up and running by 1865.

The Central Pacific Railroad was completed in Utah in 1869 and the Northern Pacific across Montana wasn’t completed until 1883. In the 1860s most goods had to be brought up from “the States” to Fort Benton by steamboat and over 130 miles by wagon or mule train to the gold camps.

Deer Lodge had a bit of a jump on Helena, having been founded as a ranching and trading area several years before the gold rush began. The Deer Lodge Hotel offered excellent accommodations with “first class fare provided and a large and commodious Feed Stable.” I’m not sure that sounds very tasty, although I suppose the oats might have been OK with some milk and raisins.

I used to theorize that there was a Wagon Wheel Café and a Stockman’s Bar in every Western town. Nowadays, of course, every town seems to have at least one fast food chain representative and a casino. During Montana’s gold rush there were plenty of “casinos,” but it seems to me the biggest gamble might have been at the Star Restaurant in Helena: They advertised Oysters and shell fish “in all styles.”

The Kan-Kan -- also in Helena -- was able to offer “fresh oysters from the Chesapeake” delivered daily. The Chesapeake is more than 2,300 miles from Helena. If they were actually fresh, those oysters must have been the original fast food.

Considering the distance from Helena to Deer Lodge (more than 50 miles), typical winter weather and the condition of the roads in December, it was also remarkable that the Helena paper reported in 1869 that “quite a number of persons in Deer Lodge are ordering from the Kan-Kan for their Christmas dinner. Enterprise will win. Their restaurant is the ne plus ultra of dining halls.” I wonder if anyone in Deer Lodge looked for ne plus ultra in the shipment.

“Shakespeare” was a popular name for Western eateries. I have read occasionally that even the roughest cowboys took pride in being able to quote a little Shakespeare. It would be interesting to know if they ever regaled a chuckwagon cook with the line from "Romeo and Juliet": “’tis an ill cook who cannot lick his own fingers.”

Deer Lodge in the 1860s boasted the Franco-American Restaurant, owned by Lebaucher & Complainville. I’d like to have sampled their international offerings. The closest I’m likely to get to producing Franco-American cuisine would be American cheese on French bread.

There appear to have been Star Restaurants in several towns, including Blackfoot City west of Helena. My casual research didn’t reveal if they were related. The Star in Helena was reported in 1867 to have hired the celebrated cook “Mohican,” though it failed to mention what he (or she) was celebrated for.

The odds are that Mohican was a man, but after following early 1870s news stories of a Deer Lodge restaurant called “Urgams,” I was surprised to learn that the proprietor was a lady. She offered “all the delicacies of the season,” and seating for ladies separate from the restaurant room.

Several restaurants provided separate entrances for ladies, and in the course of my snooping around for restaurant stories I ran across the surprising (but completely irrelevant) fact that part of Canada continued the practice well into the 20th century, and under Canadian law it was illegal for men and women to sit in the same section of a pub until the 1970s -- although it apparently was not strictly enforced.

Since 2018 will have arrived before the next “Open Range,” I’d like to offer you a New Year's toast right now, but French bread and American cheese would get pretty stale in the intervening days -- so I’ll just wish you a New Year of happiness, friendship and peace.

Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area. 

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