How discoveries from the old downtown red-light “restricted district” helped shape Missoula’s newest public house
With a vision to the future, an accidental trip to the past
“The waiting is the hardest part”
– Tom Petty
COVID-19 almost made Cranky Sam even crankier. The day that the County of Missoula was shutting everything down due to the pandemic at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the local Health Department representative checked in for the requisite inspection of the brand new Cranky Sam Brewing. After the fledgling brewery passed its inspection, documentation was expressed to the Montana Department of Revenue in Helena. Fortunately, staff at the state capitol worked promptly to process the application, and approved Cranky Sam Brewing to begin the production initial batches of beer starting the next day.
What may have delayed a planned May opening date became a blessing. Master brewer Timmy Evon was able to begin the brewing process, which depending on the recipe, can range between two weeks and two months. As it turned out, freshly inspired boutique-y Cranky Sam Brewing house brews became available to pour on exactly the May 15th date of opening the new Cranky Sam Public House in downtown Missoula.
Way Back When
There really was a Cranky Sam, long before the opening of the new namesake brewery and public house that sits between Main and Front Streets in downtown Missoula.
Cranky Sam, back in the day, was also known as the ‘Opium King’ – a local character notorious for his questionable moral shenanigans, and frequent run-ins with law enforcement during the early Missoula era of Chinese immigrants and brothels in the downtown area. When Cranky Sam arrived in Missoula is uncertain, but his 1910 epitaph reads, ““He was known to every frequenter of the restricted district as a man who knew no law and respected no person.”
Back to the Future
Joined by a group of visionaries from Montana, co-owners Jed and Jennifer Heggen saw great potential in one of the oldest buildings in Missoula. It turns out that removing layers of history for the renovation also revealed stories of times gone by. The group had heard any number of historical tales about how the Chinese immigrants were influential in the early Missoula economy. The “restricted district” was said to have housed brothels, red-light districts and a Chinese temple. Local lore told stories about hidden images and traces of previous lives. With all that in mind, they began preparing the property with curiosity and caution.
Updating the sewer system required tearing up old flooring and excavating down about eight feet below street level. It did not take long for treasures to begin to reveal themselves. Enough artifacts were unearthed that the University of Montana was called in to help sort and identify items of significance. Small medicinal bottles that possibly contained a ‘cure’ for venereal disease, game pieces, oyster shells, even opium tins were discovered in the excavation.
UM students removed several buckets of artifact pieces and returned with the trove of history back to campus to piece together documentation of the property’s past. When the articles are returned, they will be displayed in the public house area to continue telling the history of Cranky Sam Public House. The found bottles were the inspiration for the Cranky Sam Brewing logo. The smaller bottle is reminiscent of the ‘medicinal’ bottle, with a larger hand blown vintage beer bottle, followed by shape of a modern beer growler to depict the progression of change.
The walls’ renovation started with gently removing years of soot and smoke from the previous occupant, Reynold’s Radiator Repair Shop, using crushed walnut shells to preserve the fragile Missoula bricks below. The shared rock wall with the adjoining property, believed to be the oldest building in Missoula, was in severe need of repair. The original crude plaster was crumbling, and the large rocks it surrounded could fairly easily be dislodged. One of the partners, a mason, painstakingly restored the wall and a preserved section can be seen in the alcove room just off of the main Public House. This wall extends all the way out to the patio on Front Street; a preserved section and the original back door can still be seen from the outside area.
History and the Hidden Lady
As work continued on the interior walls and layers of history (lumber and plaster, paint and lathe) were removed, a hidden image soon revealed itself. The oft-heard rumors lost wall mural turned out to be correct. There she was, the Hidden Lady.
A locally well-known historical preservationist, Jeffrey McDonald, PhD., was called in to evaluate the painting. Through research, it was determined to have been painted on one of the walls somewhere between the mid-1930’s to mid-1940’s. The painting, no doubt considered quite racy in its day, harkens back to the original red-light district history of the area, and was deemed worthy to not only keep but restore and be prominently displayed in the new Cranky Sam Public House. Indeed, customers have already become hip to where one of the cool corners of the establishment is located, and often ask to be seated nearby – the Hidden Lady always encourages stimulating conversation.
(editor’s note: Watch for an upcoming story in more detail from The MUG about how the Hidden Lady was restored, and more details about her history with the Cranky Sam property and old Missoula…)
With the opening, Cranky Sam Public House uniquely has positioned its food options for customers to essentially be a ‘take-in’ establishment. They encourage patrons to take in food, and several nearby restaurants (Biga Pizza, Notorious P.I.G. and Tamarack, to name a few) are offering free delivery in to the public house. Be sure to ask your server for food options.
The partners made a wise addition by building in a dedicated parking bay adjacent to the patio on the Front Street side, for a rotating selection of popular local Missoula food trucks. Live music is also planned for summer months on the patio.
Cranky Sam Brewing, located next door to Cranky Sam Public House, is where the beer is produced. This enables the taproom to remain open until 11pm nightly. Plans are in the works to bust through the ‘rock’ wall to house a future kitchen to facilitate in-house Cranky Sam Public House food service.
Looking Ahead –
New fresh brews will be tapped soon for seasonal and small batch offerings. Follow Cranky Sam’s social media on Facebook and Instagram for current rotations, innovative new beverages and live patio music announcements.