10 Amazing Vintage Neon Signs To See On A Montana Road Trip
My obsession with vintage neon signs started with the Top Notch Lunch sign in Great Falls, Montana. And it wasn’t even lit. I strolled downtown and also found the Little’s Lanes sign. It blinked. Directly below was a couple who were firmly in the 21st, their sleeveless shirts sporting elaborate forearm tattoos.
When Little’s sign first appeared, I imagined a girl in bobby socks in a neat blouse and skirt and a boy in Levi’s with handcuffs and a white T-shirt chatting in the glow of the bowling pin Image borrowed from Happy Days.
But the times have changed. Modern signs are made with plexiglass boxes and light bulbs. Vintage neon signs have exposed glass tubes, all of which are hand sculpted over a nearly 1500 degree Fahrenheit flame. Their colors depend on the gas in the tubes. With fewer glass benders (neon tube manufacturers) and rising material costs, vintage neon signs are at risk.
I’ve spent many pleasant days road trips through central and eastern Montana, photographing old neon signs – some work, some don’t. Nevertheless, 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 WWII 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,” said Mayor Larry Bonderud, “it has always been here.”
So it stays. Its neon gold letters that spell “Alibi” fall over the entire length of the sign until they stop at the bright white “lounge”. The glowing star motif reminds me of one from an old toothpaste advertisement.
Speaking of alibis, the dog catcher who shot a dog owner and an innocent bystander in this bar in 1956 had none. But he had many witnesses. He was arrested moments later at the Mint Club across the street.
2. The girl in the glass, Chinook
Along the northernmost highway in Montana, US Highway 2, the Elk Bar sign is in a class of its own. After former students noticed the sign was missing at a class reunion, they began fundraising to save, renovate, and re-hang the 1948 sign.
The neon cowgirl called “Lass in the Glass” with long blond curls sits in a martini glass. She pulls up her heels as she tosses back a cocktail. The fixture is mounted in its original position, although the bar is gone and a vintage shop is taking up the space.
You have to go Mint bar on the corner when you are thirsty. The owners of the Mint Bar, Don and Jill Leo, light the Lass for special occasions – like the class reunions of all classes. The sign needs a lot of juice!
Speaking of mint bars, you’ll notice a lot of Montana bars with this name – a recent census has tallied 14 of them. I was told that they are called that because they are geared towards miners.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in wildlife, check out those Blaine County Wildlife Museum. To learn more about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce surrender, take a self-guided tour of the Bear paw battlefield 16 miles south of Chinook. The moderate dirt trail is 1.25 miles.
3. The first class cafe in Great Falls
The sign dates from 1938, the year of coffee shop open and has a gyro and the word “Notch” in neon. I fell in love with the contrast of the yellow, orange and red top that rests on a blue robin shield. Neon lights trace the notch, lunch, breakfast, dinner, and food on the sign.
It was never lit when I drove by at night. But with the contrasting colors against the backdrop of a cloudless, turquoise Montana sky, it’s high on my list of amazing vintage signs.
Pro tip: Stop for lunch. The owner, cook and waiter – a one-man operation – cooks delicious Sloppy Joes.
4. Little’s Lanes, Great Falls
Stop by and see those Little’s Lanes Sign with a bowling pin and the outline of a bowling ball ready to plow it down. Then go over to the Sip a dip Lounge only 0.2 miles away. This tiki lounge opened at the O’Hare Motor Inn in 1963 and became a local and tourist mecca when they converted their pool into a simulated lagoon with live music and mermaids. Before you question my judgment TravelExpected, GQ, and The New York Times agree that it is a must.
Pro tip: Great Falls was the home of Western artist Charles M. Russell. His museum shows a huge collection of his art and you can tour his house on the museum grounds. the Lewis and Clark Interpretation Center provides an in-depth look at the expedition that began in St. Louis and crossed Montana.
5. Beijing, Butte
To say Pekin noodle shop being an institution is an understatement. This family-run restaurant is the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the U.S. Although it may seem strange that a restaurant in San Francisco or New York should not claim this title, Butte had a large Chinese population in its early copper mining days.
The age and manufacturer of Beijing’s shield are unknown. But the first Montana sign company was Electric Products Corporation, founded in 1928. She likely made the intricate shield, which is shaped like a Chinese lantern with tassels. “Pekin” in red neon runs across the sign and “Chop Suey” runs vertically – advertising a menu favorite.
Pro tip: The restaurant is open for dinner. Head up the stairs and check out the mandarin cabins that make social distancing a breeze.
6. The Montana Tavern, Lewistown
the Montana tavern Sign shows a neon creek with a single fish swimming upstream. It’s a preview. Through a cutout in the floor, Spring Creek can be seen running under the bar.
The 1942 sign is a bit temperamental. Below the red “Montana” at the top of the sign, “Tavern” runs vertically in white neon letters on a blue background and continues as a stream with undulating blue neon tubes. Depending on the outside temperature and humidity, the blue neon does not light up. On some days the creek hardly runs. “Cross your fingers, it will continue to work,” said the manager. “The guy who used to fix it doesn’t do it anymore.”
Pro tip: If you are visiting in the summer, visit this Central Montana Museum which is full of exhibits that show life in Lewistown since prehistoric days. If you’re interested in Native American pictograms go to Bear Canyon 27 miles southeast of Lewistown for a pre-booked private tour.
7. The wooden bar, Big Timber
This hearty, ax-wielding lumberjack from the 1940s is outlined in blue. As expected, he is wearing a red and black checked wool hat and has felled a massive tree. The lettering on the shield is bright red.
The Timber Bar sign somehow survived a 1972 gas explosion at a hardware store across the street. Today there is a beer and a burger in the Wooden bar and grill.
Pro tip: For a picnic and spectacular scenery, take US Highway 289 south for 25 miles to the Natural Bridges State Park. A paved hiking trail offers waterfall views, which are particularly impressive in spring.
8. The rainbow, accounts
the Rainbow bars The first owner was a woman – not on paper, but in reality. Women couldn’t run a business when this bar started. The former owner’s granddaughter now owns the bar and says her grandmother bought the sign in the 1930s from a traveling salesman who sold signs from the back of his truck. He offered her two options – the Rainbow Bar or Silver Dollar Bar signs.
The brightly painted arched Rainbow Bar sign was renovated about 12 years ago. Although city ordinances prohibit signs from hanging over the pavement, this iconic sign was inaugurated with red neon letters “Grandmother”.
9. The Lariat Motel, Hardin
This sign from 1959 reminds me of Woody Toy story. The motel entrance sign was long gone, so the current owner, Waylon Fortune, had this sign relocated from a downtown building to the motel entrance.
It was obviously a colossal achievement. The sign is much bigger than it looks from the ground.
Pro tip: This family run motel is an excellent choice if you are planning a visit Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency, Montana. Do Lariat Motel Make reservations early if you are attending the Crow Fair Pow Wow in August.
10. Bison Bar, Miles City
This 1940s sign depicts a pink neon bison with tufts of grass at its feet. “Bison” in white letters contrasts with the green background, which reminds me of the color of a Coleman stove. “Bar” in white letters stands against red. Like the bison, pink neon outlines the letters.
The “Bison Bar” in red-green neon has its share of repairs by alcoholized bison riders. Climbing a nearby tree to help daredevils pounce on the bison’s back – something that was more common during the time Miles City’s Bucking Horse Sale in May.
Third-generation bar owner Mikki Jo McFarland says her regulars keep an eye on the sign and whistle for budding bison riders. Felling the tree nearby also helped.