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Revisiting the traditions at Utah's oldest bar

Published January 30, 2013 11:56 am

Bar exam • The Star Burger plus live and dead mascots are just a couple of reasons to visit Shooting Star.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Huntsville • You might expect Utah's oldest bar to be in a bustling part of Salt Lake City or Ogden, not on a hard-to-find back road in a quiet farm town not far from the home where the late Mormon prophet David O. McKay was born.

Since 1879, the bar now called the Shooting Star Saloon (formerly Holkin's Bar and Clarence's) has operated in Huntsville. Each of its seven owners has left a mark or two on the tavern with the distinctive, historic vibe. Owner Leslie Sutter said she has seen some claims on the Internet that the Shooting Star Saloon may be the oldest continuously operating bar west of the Mississippi.

The bar earned its current name many years ago when a local character named Whiskey Joe was asked to leave. "They got into a good debate and Grandpa kicked him out of the bar," said Val Stoker, a retired UDOT employee and third-generation Huntsville resident who manages the bar. "It was named Holkin's Bar at the time. The sign that said Holkin's Bar had a star on it. Whiskey Joe got his gun and started shooting the star. So they changed the name to the Shooting Star."

Whiskey Joe also figures into another major tradition, that of the saloon's ceiling being covered with signed dollar bills. It seems old Joe was running a tab before getting drafted, so somebody at the bar, a bartender or a patron, decided to place a dollar on the ceiling to save it for Whiskey Joe's tab after he returned from military duty. The dollar still hung there when Joe came home.

On an frigid weekday morning an hour before the Shooting Star's noon opening, Sutter and Stoker told stories about the establishment as they prepared for another day of work. Sutter's dog, Scout, wandered around the back.

"She's our live mascot," Sutter said. "We've got the dead one. She has her own Facebook page. She gets more calls than we do."

As for "the dead one," that would be the stuffed head of a St. Bernard dog, named Buck, that hangs prominently over a popular booth.

As the story goes, this dog weighed 298 pounds. For years, the dog wandered around West Yellowstone, Mont., and became the town's mascot. When the animal died in 1958, its sad owner took the dog to a taxidermist who used a grizzly bear mount to preserve the St. Bernard.

Apparently, the man's wife said the dog wasn't allowed in the house alive and wouldn't be allowed in dead, either. So he carried the stuffed body around in the back of his truck. Local lore has it that the man ran up a tab at the Shooting Star and gave the dog mount to the barkeep to cover his bill.

Many patrons come to Huntsville just to savor the bar's signature Star Burger, made from two ground-beef patties, two slices of cheese with a grilled knackwurst Polish sausage in the middle. It comes with sautéed onions, mild seasoning, mustard, ketchup, pickles, lettuce, tomato and chips. (The bar doesn't serve fries or nachos. Don't ask.)

And, as is the case with most things at the Shooting Star, the origins of the Star Burger come with a story.

Stoker said that years ago the knackwurst was boiled in beer inside a crockpot that stood on the back counter. He said there was a sliding window to the outside of the saloon where kids could knock and buy a candy bar or a knackwurst with mustard for a quarter.

But after the state's health code changed, sausages were no longer allowed to simmer for any length of time before being served. So, instead of throwing out the knackwurst, the sausage was placed on a burger. Thus the tradition began.

The ancient jukebox that still plays 45-rpm vinyl records is another Shooting Star classic. Sutter inherited that and about 2,000 records when she bought the bar a little over two years ago. Tex Ritter's "Blood on the Saddle," Roger Miller's "King of the Road" and a ribald drinking song that only locals know about remain the most popular.

The jukebox, a single pool table and a couple of new flat-screen televisions provide entertainment. There's also a National Cash Register on the back of the bar that dates back to the pre-1900s and, much to the amazement of even the National folks, it still operates perfectly, a good thing in a bar that only takes cash. There's only one problem with it: The top amount it can ring up is $2.99.

Restroom walls are covered with decades of graffiti. Sutter still dispenses Borax brand hand soap, but says the gritty powder can be difficult to find.

Decorating the bar area are historic relics, including an old rifle, a boot, lanterns and a teapot, along with a photo of the original owner. A stuffed jackalope guards part of the back bar, adorned with a pair of reading glasses Sutter said employees sometimes borrow.

Also displayed are a patch collection from law-enforcement officers, signed memorabilia from the 2002 Winter Olympics and dozens of beer promotional items. One wall features business cards from patrons and faded stories written by national magazines and newspapers about the Shooting Star. Sutter is particularly proud that hers is the only Utah bar listed in an Esquire magazine roundup of the top bars in the U.S.

Then there are a half-dozen or so funny signs, some of which can be shared in a family newspaper.

"Shoes and shirts required, bras and panties optional," reads one. "Max occupancy 222 people or 20 moose," reads another.

"Due to the recent budget cuts, the high cost of electricity and gas and the current state of the economy, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off," reads still another.

Despite its remote location, tourists manage to find the Shooting Star, which is hugely popular with motorcycle riders in the summer. In the winter, skiers from three nearby Ogden Valley resorts enjoy an après-ski burger and beer. And there are a host of regulars, including nondrinkers who come to sip the cold root beer and munch on a Star Burger.

Sutter grew up in Southern California but has lived in Ogden Valley for 12 years — "I found this place the third day I was here." She plans only a few subtle changes. She has applied for a full liquor license but, given the sparse nature of such things in Utah, that might take a while to get.

Until then, patrons will just have to savor the cold 3.2 beer, the fun atmosphere, the delicious Star Burger and years of traditions at Utah's oldest bar.

wharton@sltrib.com