Polson Museum showcases 150 years of artifacts from Montana’s influential brewing tradition

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Mandy Mohler
I n 1894, two German immigrant brothers, Charles and Henry Lindiahr, and Gust Gamer opened Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company on the corner of Fifth Avenue West and Center Street. The Lindlahrs later sold their shares to a man whose name should be familiar to beer drinkers: Frederick Pabst.

Pabst made the deal on behalf of his nephew, Christian Best, an heir to Phillip Best Brewing Co., the largest brewer in the U.S. in the 1870s. Best ran Kalispell Malting and Brewing Co., with its flagship Best Beer, until selling it in favor of helping the family run PBR. An insignia on PBR cans still contains a “B,” signifying Best Beer. For Kalispell, the “B” forever memorializes the town’s connections to America’s great beer titans, and its rightful place in the country’s brewing lore and history.

But Kalispell is only one of several Montana towns with global beer credentials. Look at a label from the Havre Brewing and Malting Company’s Braumeister brew from the early 1900s and you’ll see a striking resemblance to the red-and-white patterning of Budweiser. The same goes for the close similarities between the turn-of-the-20th-century High Life beer from Great Falls’ Capital Brewing Company and the modern Miller High Life logo with a woman perched on a quarter moon.

Then there’s Red Lodge Brewing Company’s Glacier Beer from 1906. The secret to its flavor? “It’s the water.” Apparently the water’s just as excellent in Washington, because Olympia Brewing Company co-opted the tagline and still uses it today.

Steve Lozar’s, of the Polson beer museum.

Steve Lozar of the Polson beer museum.

The likeness in each case is a reminder that Montana had beer advertising down to a science long before corporations like Budweiser and Miller got the bright idea to “borrow” the designs and copyright them. In fact, a tour through Steve Lozar’s Polson beer museum is full of evidence that Montana was a veritable brewing and beer marketing powerhouse at the beginning of its statehood, and even back when it was still a territory.

“It really is amazing when you start looking at all this,” Lozar says. “It’s absolutely in my heart. It’s a passion.”

For any enthusiastic collector who decides to share his trove with the public, there’s a fine line between a real museum and a hoarding problem. Lozar’s collection, housed in the back of his Total Screen Design business in Polson, is firmly the former. Like any good museum, you walk away buoyant from the thrill of discovery.

Lozar’s fascination with brewing essentially stems from birth, when he was born into a family with a history steeped in beer. His great-grandfather on his non-Indian side, a Slovenian immigrant named Josef Lozar, was an associate of Nick Kessler, who opened a brewery in Helena in 1864.

Beginning in the 1880s, Josef owned and operated multiple saloons, including the East Helena Saloon that opened in 1898. Though Josef would lose the saloon in a card game, he later regained it when the new owner didn’t pay his taxes. Steve’s grandfather took over the bar after Josef. When the VFW tore down the building in 2003, Lozar and his father dug through the rubble to recover family artifacts.

The Lozars were able to save some of the saloon’s key original features, including the door, bar and back bar, although the bar and back bar had been reduced to slabs and shards of smashed wood. Greg Funke, Lozar’s cousin, spent two years meticulously putting them back together, gluing and screwing piece by agonizing piece. Funke even mixed sawdust from the original boards into a paste that was squeegeed on and sanded down.

The bar and back bar are on display at Lozar’s museum, as is the door. The museum itself is modeled after the original saloon’s layout.

“It was a labor of love for Greg,” Lozar says. “And for us as well.”

Beer memorabilia covers the walls and ceiling.

Beer memorabilia covers the walls and ceiling.

Lozar, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is an anthropologist and has taught anthropology at Salish Kootenai College for 30 years. So it’s no surprise that he takes an academic’s scrupulous approach to collecting, sorting and categorizing. The vivid display of multi-colored cans and bottles and assorted memorabilia also speaks to his other love: art.

Lozar was a creative child and attended an art-focused high school. From a young age, he appreciated the attention to detail in the art and design of beer marketing.

“I had a developing sense of the beauty of all these old lithographs and advertising,” he says. “I also developed a good taste for beer.”

Lozar started gathering cans and bottles, and branched out into other areas of beer advertising. As people heard about his collection, he would get calls about random bottles or memorabilia sitting in a basement. Eventually, he had enough for a museum dedicated strictly to Montana breweries.

The museum proves that our country’s ubiquitous beer advertising is hardly a modern phenomenon. It might have actually been more in your face at the turn of the 20th century than it is now.

Lozar’s museum contains a multitude of items with brewery insignias: clocks, calendars with beautiful women, matchboxes, newspaper ads, belt buckles, knives, thermometers. A button to be pinned onto a shirt from the Great Falls Select brewery declares, “I’m Canned.” Baseball was popular across working-class Montana at the time, and a brush used by umpires to clear home plate is adorned with a beer emblem.

A display of beer at the museum.

A display of beer at the museum.

Lozar has a photo of a 1912 Model-T that is shaped like a giant beer. While it’s not advisable to drive after hitting the bottle, it’s apparently fine to drive inside the bottle.

“Anything that would get the name of the brewery out in the public and keep the name in front of the public all the time,” Lozar says.

Much of the advertising is beautiful, with designs, fonts and colors that often look decidedly modern. There’s even a certain artistic charm in the beer logo-covered shotgun shells.
“Alcohol and firearms: that’s totally Montana, isn’t it?” Lozar says.

Though Gilbert Brewery in Virginia City, which opened in 1863, is often touted as the state’s oldest brewery, Lozar’s research shows that Johnny Grant opened one in 1859 in Cottonwood City, now Deer Lodge. There were also two breweries in the town of Silver Bow that opened before 1863.

Lozar is often invited to lecture as an authority on brewing history. He was the keynote speaker at the Montana Brewers Association’s annual conference last fall and is scheduled to speak in September at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

His museum is open to the public. If you call a day or more ahead, you can arrange a tour with Lozar. In addition to the memorabilia on display, Lozar has shelves full of folders containing thousands of newspaper and magazine ads. They are portals into the cultural customs of a bygone era, with many insisting on the numerous physical, social and psychological benefits of beer. One ad suggests that beer is the medicinal cure for the daily burdens of being a housewife. Another boasts that beer “sharpens the wits” and improves “sociability.”

Lozar is thrilled by the proliferation of modern microbreweries, which he calls the “living history of Montana brewing,” and has incorporated them into his museum: 150 years of beer history separated by only a few feet. He invites you to stop by and drink it all in.