Dan Danner and Alice Infelise sat a table at the Blue Moon Nite Club last week. On their plates were sausage made from venison and elk, fish nuggets of northern pike, venison roast, a smoked salmon dip, and yep, even a sliver of mountain lion.
“It’s all good,” Danner said when asked which was his favorite.
About 200 people were in Columbia Falls landmark grill, bar and casino for its annual free wild game dinner, cooked up by Bill Sapa and the kitchen staff at the grill.
This was about the 10th year of the free feed, which showcases fish and game taken through the year, Bill Sapa said.
The establishment is a Columbia Falls landmark.
The Sapas will have it owned it 47 years come April 1, said Charlotte Sapa. Charlotte and Dick Sapa bought the bar from Lily Brash in 1972. It was built in 1947, one of many watering holes that sprung up as the Hungry Horse Dam was being built. Old 1940s advertisements for the club in the Hungry Horse News touted “orchestra music.”
There’s no orchestras today, but live bands are still a staple at the club.
The Sapas moved here from North Dakota. “God’s country,” Charlotte Sapa calls it.
Dick was an avid guitar player — he was the lead singer of a rock band at the time, “Richie Wynn and the Tornadoes.” He was also an avid hunter and fisherman. He wanted to raise his kids here, not sell insurance like he was doing.
“He wanted to grow a beard and move to Montana,” Charlotte recalled with a laugh. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
So they packed up their belongings and headed west. Their kids were just tots. Bill was 3, Charlene was 5 and Jimmy was 6.
Jimmy died tragically in 1984 along with friend and fellow baseball player Ray Johnsrud when their car collided with a train. The Sapa-Johnsrud baseball fields in Columbia Falls are named after them.
Those early years were not easy. The front door was a piece of plywood with a padlock on it.
“There was nothing that went with (the bar),” Charlotte recalled.
They lived in a little apartment behind the bar that was accessed by a very narrow hallway. A true hole in the wall if there ever was one.
They spent years fixing the place up. They’d work all day and clean all night and well into the next morning. The kids grew up and played sports and hunted and fished. As an adult, Bill spent several years working various jobs in Alaska and Dick would go up with him in the winters, hunting and trapping for months at a time.
Today a big trophy case features Boone and Crockett mounts from their hunting excursions — massive grizzly bears and the coup de grace — an even larger polar bear taken in Canada. The polar bear stands on top of a walrus, half sunk in the snow.
Dick also took two wolverines while in Alaska. One he shot, the other he caught in a trap.
Not all the hunting was done in Alaska. On a trip to Florida, Bill and Dick took an 11-foot long alligator. Alligators are actually caught with a stout pole and a thick line and hook at night, Dick explained. Once they’re brought to the boat, they’re dispatched with a bang stick — a stick that shoots off a bullet — usually a .38 or .357 caliber into the critter.
But the guide said he forgot his bang stick and they’d have to let the gator go. The Sapas were having none of that, so they wrangled the gator to the boat, taped its mouth shut and dragged it some 25 miles back to where they could shoot it proper.
The gator hangs above the bar today.
The club continues to be a family affair. On this night, Bill is cooking the wild game and Charlene is out on the floor and Hailey and Katie, two of the Sapa’s six grandchildren, are bartending. Charlotte and Dick keep an eye on things from the end of the bar.
The bar is known for its live music all year long and in the summer months, its rodeo series. It’s even survived a crash or two — a few years back, someone drove right into the front door. The Blue Moon Intersection at Highways 2 and 40 is noted not only for its bar, but for its wrecks.
The secret to success is not a secret, Charlotte notes.
“Go to work and don’t quit,” she said.