Never a dull moment: Great Northern bartender reflects on 27-year career

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Allen “Al” Tays has been a bartender at the Great Northern Bar for 27 years. He’ll retire on May 18. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

“If you can imagine it, I’ve probably seen it.”

Allen “Al” Tays grins as he says this from a back table at his haunt for the past 27 years — the Great Northern Bar.

Tays has been slinging drinks at the Whitefish institution for nearly three decades, but on May 18, he’ll step behind the bar for his final shift.

“Somebody told me years ago, when it’s your time to retire, you will know,” Tays said. “And about three or four months ago, it dawned on me.”

At 64, he decided he was too old to be throwing people out of the bar anymore, too old to break up the occasional brawl, too old to keep up with the physical rigors of bending, reaching and lifting demanded by each shift.

And while he’s ready to begin the next chapter of his life, and make the transition from vampire to day-walker, Tays is leaving with nothing but love in his heart for the bar and the customers he’s come to know and care for.

Tays originally hails from Tennessee — Bugg Hollow, if anyone asks — and got his first taste of Montana life in the late ‘70s, when he worked as a wrangler and packer in Glacier National Park. To stay in the area, Tays signed on at Big Mountain — flipping burgers, cleaning up, doing whatever needed to be done. After his shift, he’d head downtown and pony up to his favorite watering hole, the Great Northern.

“I said, if I ever could get a job here, I would never leave it,” Tays recalled.

Be careful what you wish for, he followed jokingly, but that’s exactly what happened.

He started out as a bouncer before moving up to bar back and finally, bartender in the early 90s.

“It’s never boring. There’s no rhyme or reason and it can change in a heartbeat,” Tays said. “It’s like watching a television series for 27 years — you never know what the next episode will be like.”

Over the years he’s seen the good, the bad and ugly. The good being lasting friendships, funny moments and incredible shows.

“I remember when we had Bruce Springsteen. He was in town for his sound guy’s wedding and he got up and played on stage. And he played for about 45 minutes to an hour,” Tays recalled. “This has been over 20 years ago. I remember that night, there was maybe 150 people still here at like 1 o’clock on a Saturday morning. He asked the band if they would mind if he played. He just came up there and played a set with them. It was not scheduled, it was just impulse.”

Topping the list of things he’ll miss are the people.

On any given day, Tays might scan the row of customers 20 or 30and know each and every one by name.

“That’s the great thing about the Great Northern — it’s a community bar. I’ve been waiting on the same guys for 27 years,” he said, grinning. “I know where they’re going to sit, what they’re going to drink and what they’re going to put on the TV.”

And he’d be remiss without mentioning the wild nights — some more unsavory than others.

A few highlights include a couple fornicating in a smoking tent on New Year’s Eve, and a man running around naked on Halloween after his costume — a diaper fashioned out of toilet paper — had been set aflame.

“I’ve seen people dancing on the tables and I have to run them off of them, I’ve seen women throw their tops off, I’ve seen guys get naked running around,” he said. “A lot of this stuff you just can’t repeat.”

Despite the things he’s seen that can’t be unseen, Tays said his work has taught him to appreciate people.

“Almost everybody that comes to this bar are nice people. We’ve sat there and yelled at each other, but that’s because we’ve become friends over time,” Tays said. “They have a job too and they may not have had the best day either. I’ve learned to appreciate people more. I don’t show it, but I do … Some of these people I actually love.”

Tays will bid them farewell, at least as their neighborhood bartender, starting at 8 p.m. on May 18.

“I’ve had my time here and it has been fantastic. If I had to, I would do it all over again. It’s never been dull,” he said. “I’ve had a good life and a lot of it’s cuz of this bar — I can’t deny it.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or

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