My obsession with vintage neon signs started with the Top Notch Lunch sign in Great Falls, Montana. And it wasn’t even lit. I wandered around the downtown area and found the Little’s Lanes sign, too. It blinked on. Right below, a couple firmly ensconced in the 21st century stood side by side, texting rather than talking. Their sleeveless shirts showcased ornate forearm tattoos.
When Little’s sign first went up, I imagined a bobby socks-wearing girl in a tidy blouse and skirt and a boy in cuffed Levi’s and a white t-shirt chatting under the glow of the bowling pin — an image borrowed from Happy Days.
But times have changed. Modern signs are made with plexiglass boxes and light bulbs. Vintage neon signs have exposed glass tubes that were all shaped by hand over a nearly 1500-degree Fahrenheit flame. Their colors depend upon the gas within the tubes. With fewer glass benders (neon tube makers) and the mounting cost of supplies, vintage neon signs are becoming endangered.
I’ve spent many pleasant days taking road trips through central and eastern Montana photographing vintage neon signs — some working, some not. Nonetheless, all are state treasures.
Here are 10 amazing vintage neon signs I’d like to share:
1. The Alibi Lounge, Shelby
The Alibi Lounge, a sports bar and restaurant, has a World War II-era sign. When the bar changed hands and the new owners wanted to rename the business, they got a call from the mayor. “Please don’t,” Mayor Larry Bonderud said, “It’s always been here.”
So it remains. Its neon gold letters spelling “Alibi” cascade down the length of the sign until they stop at the stark white “Lounge.” The shining star motif reminds me of one you’d see on an old toothpaste commercial.
Speaking of alibis, the dog catcher who shot a dog owner and innocent bystander dead in this bar in 1956 didn’t have one. But he did have plenty of witnesses. He was arrested in the Mint Club across the street moments later.
2. The Lass In The Glass, Chinook
Along the northernmost highway in Montana, U.S. Highway 2, the Elk Bar sign is in a class all its own. After former students noticed the sign was missing at a class reunion, they began raising funds to salvage, refurbish, and rehang the 1948 sign.
Called the “Lass in the Glass,” the neon cowgirl with long blond curls sits in a martini glass. She kicks up her heels as she throws back a cocktail. The light is mounted in its original position even though the bar is gone and a vintage shop occupies the space.
You’ll need to head to the Mint Bar on the corner if you’re thirsty. The Mint Bar’s owners, Don and Jill Leo, light the Lass for special occasions — like the all-class high school reunions. The sign takes a lot of juice!
Speaking of Mint Bars, you’ll notice a lot of Montana bars with this name — a recent count tallied 14 of them. I’m told they’re named so because they catered to miners.
Pro Tip: If you’re interested in wildlife, check out the Blaine County Wildlife Museum. To learn about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce’s surrender, take a self-guided tour of the Bear Paw Battlefield 16 miles south of Chinook. The moderately difficult unpaved trail is 1.25 miles long.
3. The Top Notch Cafe, Great Falls
The sign dates to 1938, the year the cafe opened, and features a spinning top and the word “notch” outlined in neon. I fell in love with the contrast of the yellow, orange, and red top resting on a robin’s egg blue sign below. Neon tubes trace the notch, lunch, breakfast, dinner, and catering on the sign.
It’s never been lit when I’ve driven by at night. But with the contrasting colors against the backdrop of a cloudless, turquoise Montana sky, it ranks near the top of my list of amazing vintage signs.
Pro Tip: Stop in for lunch. The owner, cook, and waiter — a one-man operation — cooks up delicious Sloppy Joes.
4. Little’s Lanes, Great Falls
Swing by and see the Little’s Lanes sign with a bowling pin and the outline of a bowling ball ready to plow it down. Then head over to the Sip ‘n Dip lounge just 0.2 miles away. This tiki lounge opened in 1963 in the O’Hare Motor Inn and became a local and tourist mecca when it added live music and mermaids to its pool which was converted into a simulated lagoon. Before you question my judgment, TravelAwaits, GQ, and The New York Times agree that it’s a must-see.
Pro Tip: Great Falls was home to Western artist Charles M. Russell. His museum displays a huge collection of his art and you can tour his home on the museum grounds. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center offers an in-depth look at the expedition that began in St. Louis and traversed Montana.
5. Pekin, Butte
To say Pekin Noodle Parlor is an institution is an understatement. This family-run restaurant is the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the U.S. While it may seem odd that a restaurant in San Francisco or New York doesn’t claim this title, Butte had a large Chinese population in its early copper mining days.
The age and maker of Pekin’s sign aren’t known. But the earliest sign-making company in Montana was Electric Products Corporation, which started in 1928. It likely made the intricate sign that’s shaped like a Chinese lantern complete with tassels. “Pekin” in red neon runs across the top of the sign and “Chop Suey” runs vertically — advertising a menu favorite.
Pro Tip: The restaurant is open for dinner. Climb the stairs and check out the tangerine cubicles that make social distancing a piece of cake.
6. The Montana Tavern, Lewistown
The Montana Tavern sign features a neon creek with a single fish swimming upstream. It’s a preview. You can see Spring Creek running under the bar through a cut-out in the floor.
The 1942 sign is somewhat temperamental. Below the red “Montana” at the top of the sign, “Tavern” in white neon letters against a blue background runs vertically and continues as a creek with wavy blue neon tubes. The blue neon fails to light depending on the outside temperature and humidity. Some days the creek barely runs. “Fingers crossed it keeps working,” the manager said. “The guy who used to fix it doesn’t do it anymore.”
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting during the summer, stop by the Central Montana Museum which is chock full of exhibits that show life in Lewistown from prehistoric days on. If you’re interested in Native American pictographs, head to Bear Gulch 27 miles southeast of Lewistown for a private tour with advance reservations.
7. The Timber Bar, Big Timber
This 1940s hearty, ax-wielding lumberjack is outlined in blue. As you might expect, he wears a red and black plaid wool cap and has felled a massive tree. The sign’s lettering is a brilliant red.
The Timber Bar sign somehow survived a 1972 gas explosion in a hardware store across the street. Today, you can grab a beer and burger at the Timber Bar and Grill.
Pro Tip: If a picnic and spectacular scenery are more to your liking, take U.S. Highway 289 south for 25 miles to the Natural Bridges State Park. A paved walking trail offers waterfall views that are especially impressive in the spring.
8. The Rainbow, Billings
The Rainbow Bar’s first owner was a woman — not on paper, but in reality. Women couldn’t own a business when this bar started. The former owner’s granddaughter owns the bar now and says her grandmother bought the sign in the 1930s from a traveling salesman who sold signs out of the back of his truck. He offered her two choices — the Rainbow Bar or Silver Dollar bar signs.
The brightly-painted arched Rainbow Bar sign was refurbished about 12 years ago. Although city ordinances prohibit signs hanging over the sidewalk, this iconic sign with red neon letters was “grandmothered” in.
Pro Tip: The home of the 2016 World Burger Champion, “I’m Your Huckleberry” burger is nearby at the Burger Dive. For dessert, sample the handmade candies at Brockel’s Chocolates located in downtown Billings.
9. The Lariat Motel, Hardin
This 1959 sign reminds me of Woody from Toy Story. The motel’s entrance sign was long gone so current owner Waylon Fortune had this sign moved from on top of a downtown building to the motel entrance.
It apparently was a colossal feat. The sign is a lot bigger than it looks from the ground.
Pro Tip: This family-run motel is an excellent choice if you plan on visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency, Montana. Make Lariat Motel reservations early if you’re attending the Crow Fair Pow Wow in August.
10. Bison Bar, Miles City
This 1940s sign features a bison outlined in hot pink neon with tufts of grass at his feet. “Bison” spelled out in white letters contrasts with the green background that reminds me of the color of a Coleman stove. “Bar” in white letters is against red. Like the bison, hot pink neon outlines the letters.
The “Bison Bar” in red and green neon has had its share of repairs due to alcohol-fueled bison riders. Climbing a nearby tree used to help daredevils launch themselves on the bison’s back — something that was more common during Miles City’s Bucking Horse Sale in May.
The 3rd generation bar owner, Mikki Jo McFarland, says her regular patrons keep an eye on the sign and blow the whistle on would-be bison riders. Cutting down the tree nearby has helped, too.