By Emmett O’Connell
To track the early history of drinking establishments in Thurston County is to also track the laws governing them. The oldest bars in our area date back to the end of prohibition in the 1930s. Many of them, like what is now Charlie’s Bar & Grill (620 – 4th Ave East in downtown Olympia), are contained in buildings that predate the dry era, but later became bars.
Probably, the oldest bar operating bar in Thurston County is actually Charlie’s. The building was first opened in 1912 and became the Charles Goldberg Restaurant in 1931. Goldberg later changed the name of his establishment simply to “Charlie’s Hamburger” before he passed away in 1947.
Other early bars in Thurston County had a rough time, as state-level prohibition in 1916 closed bars and saloons across the state. Not until 1933 when prohibition fell nationwide did Thurston County bars and taverns again legally open.
The best known historic bar in Olympia is of course Spar Cafe (114 – 4th Ave East in downtown Olympia), and it originally opened in the post-Prohibition era. The Spar is now owned by McMenamins, a chain that highlights the historic nature of their properties.
Before the Spar, the Oxford Saloon sat on the site since 1914. That one spot on 4th Avenue between Washington and Capitol Way had been the site of a bar since the early days of the city in 1860.
The Spar itself opened in 1935, a modern art deco building, featuring an all male staff and ticker tape sports betting. Between 1945 and 2006 (when McMenamins bought the site) the Spar was owned by one family, the McWains. The Spar’s history, written by McMenamins, covers these early years:
…Olympia’s early days were largely defined by an economy of resource extraction and shipping activities in its busy port. The Spar’s early days were defined by these activities too; its proximity to the waterfront ensured that it was the workers’ favorite off-hours watering hole. McWain remembers some of these days from when he was a boy. “Back in the 20s, 30s and 40s, the Port of Olympia was all along here. This place was built as a rooming house … to cater to that crowd.” And McWain’s father did all he could to encourage it. “In fact,” he says with a laugh, “my dad would go to the bank on Fridays and get an extra ten grand to cash the paychecks.”
The last historic bar downtown to feature is what we now call The Brotherhood Lounge (119 Capitol Way North). The BroHo, as it’s affectionately known by locals, sits in a building built in 1887. The Woodruff Building has contained a music store, a stationary store and a post office. Throughout its history, it has also featured a second story meeting hall. The second story gathering space eventually became a downtown labor hall, and that union tradition is reflected in the name of its downstairs neighbor.
Outside of downtown Olympia, the largest cluster of historic bars in Thurston County is in Yelm. Three buildings that now contain bars built in the mid-to-late 1920s dot downtown Yelm. Bob’s Tavern (1924), Stop Inn (1924) and White Horse Tavern (1928) each were built after a fire levelled much of the town’s business district in 1924.
What is now the White Horse (earlier called Chiefs and the Green Lantern) is easily the most unique of these bars. The building with a unique tudor style peaked roof first opened as a restaurant, then quickly became a bar after prohibition ended in 1933.