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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Last call at Bill’s

Bill's Tavern in Cheney has been in Fran Lee's, right, family for three generations. Dick Lee, left, has just sold the busniess. 
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jared Paben Staff writer

Twenty-three years ago, a Spokesman-Review reporter sat in Bill’s Tavern and recorded what he saw and heard: a big man munching chicken and Jo-Jos at the end of the bar, a man drinking beer and shooting pool in the back, country music emanating from the jukebox.

The tavern has been like that for the past 66 years.

But on Thursday, there were no customers and there was no music at the downtown Cheney icon. Stacks of old nail-filled lumber rested against a pool table. Strips of pink insulation lay against a brick wall. A scaffolding platform stood in the middle of the room.

A legacy has ended.

Since 1940 the tavern has belonged to the Lee family. It was started by William Lee, passed to his son, Fran, and then to his grandson, Dick. Fran and Dick believe they owned the oldest family-owned tavern in the state of Washington. Those men, and the Washington Liquor Control Board, admit that that claim is difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

On Tuesday, Dick sold the tavern, a decision that was largely out of his control.

The state’s smoking ban that went into effect in December cut his business in half, said Dick, who smoked four cigarettes within about an hour Thursday while moving between the remnants of his tavern and the local American Legion building, where he and his dad also enjoyed some beers.

Dick said he thinks he could have rescued the business by bringing in hard liquor, but that wouldn’t fit with the beer-drinking atmosphere.

“I was the last tavern in town because everyone else in town has hard liquor,” he said. “I’m just too old to go back to learning how to mix drinks again.”

“I’ve only got a couple of years and I’ll collect my Social Security anyway,” the 60-year-old man said. “So now’s as good a time as any to bail out.”

In 1983, the Spokesman-Review reporter stopped in when Fran turned 62 and handed the reins to Dick, marking the third generation to own the tavern. Fran, now 85, said on Thursday that that time marked his most memorable experience there: the Olympia Brewery and several distributors threw “a hummer” of a party for him at the tavern.

At that time, Dick told the paper it was possible that his then-5-year-old adopted son would someday take over the business.

But, decades later, neither his son nor his daughter had any interest in investing six or seven days a week to keep the tavern running, he said. So he sold it for $190,000 to a 29-year-old man who plans to try to attract more Eastern Washington University students at night while keeping with a den-like atmosphere to attract the old-timers during the day. A moose head already waits face down on the floor near a back pool table. They plan to sell the current 1920s-era pool tables and install modern coin-operated tables in the back room.

“With a few more bars to choose from, hopefully the kids won’t be running into Spokane as often,” said Josh Baldwin, who bought it and who owns the bar next door. Baldwin plans to remodel and open it as Wild Bill’s Longbar before the students return in September, he said.

Dick’s grandfather, William Lee, started Bill’s Tavern in 1940 after selling a meat market and grocery store he and his brother founded after moving to Cheney from Montana.

Chic Sale, 78, a 1950 EWU graduate who used to drink at Bill’s occasionally as a college student, remembers those days.

“The college kids when down there and played Euchre. It was a popular card game, and they’d go down there and play Euchre by the hours.”

He also remembered how EWU had a huge rivalry with Central Washington University, and “if things didn’t go right on the football field, they would meet down behind Bill’s and settle it.”

Sale, the father of Cheney’s current police chief, Jeff Sale, recently contacted his son and asked him about rumors it might sell.

He said Friday he was sad to hear the legacy end.

William Lee operated the tavern until Fran, fresh off his duty transporting planes and training pilots for the Army Air Corps in World War II, decided to jump on board. That was 1946.

Dick said he remembered “kind of growing up here on Sundays,” sweeping floors, cleaning spittoons and sorting bottles.

“There were times when business wasn’t real great and dad worked day and night,” he said. “We’d bring his dinner down to him.”

In December 2004, an electrical fire that started in a storage room destroyed much of the bar, causing about $70,000 worth of damage. Dick worked hard to repair and open the bar again by June 2005. It saddens him to see it sell little more than a year later, he said.

Baldwin has already torn a false ceiling out of the 2,300-square-foot tavern, revealing the original ceiling four feet higher. He also plans to open the boarded-up entrance at the back and the large windows in the back room, brightening the dimly lit space.

Dick and Fran said it would be a little bittersweet coming into the finished bar in the fall. But, Dick said, he would join his father for the fishing and hunting activities he’s put off for decades.

And, when asked whether the men would be honorary customers who get free beer, Baldwin smiled and said, “I could do that for them.”