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New owners of historic Kelly’s Bar in Newport will honor the establishment’s colorful past

By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

NEWPORT, Wash. – For 124 years, people have gathered at Kelly’s Restaurant and Bar to conduct business, drown their sorrows, celebrate, fill their stomachs and, at one time, wrestle with a bear.

And all but the bear wrestling will continue because three area residents have recently taken over and committed to keep this piece of Americana going.

“You don’t own (Kelly’s), you are a caretaker,” said Mark Clark, 55, who is an electrician.

His wife Clare, 50, a part-time art teacher said, “Kind of like a stewardship.”

It’s definitely the oldest continuously operating bar in Newport – it’s actually now the only bar. It might be the oldest building in town, but that isn’t documented.

There is also debate about it’s place in Washington state bar history; some arbitrary bar history rules have it as the second-oldest, while others contest the limited data. Because there are so many ways to define a bar’s history including the variation of name, location, operation and more, it is impossible to compare one bar to another, according to those concerned with this issue.

It’s without a doubt at the top of the list of the first bars still operating, and that is an accomplishment since bars were usually the first businesses in a pioneer town. It was built in 1894 and changed owners but never stopped operating; this alone puts it in the unique, top echelons of old bars in Washington.

The new owners say with a smile that it’s at least the oldest bar in the state that hosts trivia-game tournaments each week.

The third partner, Ken Arthur, 40, who owns a cabinet shop, summed up what finally got these busy people to buy the building and a business none of them had experience in.

He said they heard one potential buyer was hoping to make changes to the historic building and business. Arthur didn’t want to see that happen to a place they frequented and loved, so they bought it in November.

“Obviously, it’s a business opportunity, but that’s second,” Mark Clark said. They have since painted, added some historic pictures and renovated the kitchen. The owners don’t plan to work regularly in the bar but will guide the staff and the vision.

The interior isn’t a recently built western facade. It still has the bones of the original interior with wainscoted walls, stamped-tin ceilings and wood floor. There is a feeling that this space is from another time and many people have came and gone; if the walls could speak, what stories would they tell?

At the center of this aura is the ornate back bar. It spans a full 24 feet and is nearly 12 feet high. An arch of leaded stained glass frames mirrors that run the length of it.

More bar folklore says it was built in Philadelphia in the late 1800s by the Brunswick-Balke-Collendar Co. and shipped around the Cape of Good Hope to San Francisco. It was sent to Newport on a three-month wagon trip.

“That bar has been sitting there unmoved for 123 years,” Arthur said. “I think there are some intriguing things behind it.”

It has always been an after-work bar, Arthur said. A group of his high school friends stayed in the area after graduating, and worked in mills or other businesses. After work, they’d all meet at Kelly’s.

“It’s a working man’s bar,” Arthur said. But now he brings his family there, too; they recently hosted a party for one of his children there.

Arthur said some people don’t realize they can bring family in. They sell about half food and half alcohol. The bar is visible but separated from the dining area.

He said they usually close at 10 p.m., unless there is a special event, and noted Kelly’s isn’t a 2 a.m. closing bar. They open at 11 a.m. for the lunch crowd.

“Business has really been up since taking over in November,” Arthur said.

Robin Clemons and Kevin Pentilla sold the building and business to the three after more than 20 years.

Pentilla said they are happy they sold to this group because they have the same goals to maintain the historic business.

There have been a handful of owners and managers since opening in 1894 and from newspaper accounts a lot of local history started here. This is still a fact.

“I bet more business was conducted here than any place in Newport,” said Mark Clark.

Arthur said the opponents to the proposed HiTest Silicon’s $325 million silicon refining facility south of Newport recently had an organizing meeting at Kelly’s. And he also noted HiTest officials have had lunch meetings there, as well.

They are continuing this recognition of area history by adding more pictures on the walls under sconces. They work with the Pend Oreille County Historic Society, which has a museum across the street.

Along with pictures of men wearing bowler hats and smoking big cigars around the iconic bar is an image of a bear and a man. They look like they are embracing, not actually wrestling like most people like to tell the story.

When John Koch established the bar in 1894, he kept a live bear in the area where the kitchen is now.

In a Newport Miner interview on the bar’s 100th birthday, Earl Waring, who owned Kelly’s the longest from 1946 to 1981, confirmed the bear story. He said it was a tame bear.

“If somebody got the notion that he could wrestle a bear, he’d be put in there with the bear to do it,” Waring said.

If a customer had a little too much to drink, he would be thrown in with the bear to sober up. The bear was an attraction off and on until the 1940s.

The bear wasn’t the only rough-and-tumble story. Waring said a few customers had come in on horseback and motorcycles.

According to local historians, John Koch and his partner Max Weinkoph built Kelly’s in 1894. The building was built across the street from where it stands now, on the other side of the railroad tracks in the Idaho Territory. They later moved it to its current location in Washington Territory. This was five years before Washington was admitted into the union.

Koch bought out his partner and named it the Newport Club saloon. But people knew it as Koch’s Saloon. It was connected to a bathhouse and icehouse, which he also owned.

For a time, women weren’t permitted inside. Patrons were mostly businessmen, cowboys, miners and loggers.

The bar changed hands numerous times but remained open with few structural changes until 20 years ago. It has survived fires, burglaries and prohibition.

There is a basement accessed through a trap door still visible in the floor that some believed stored illegal liquor supplies. The spot that the wood stove sat on for decades is still visible.

Another part of the bar’s history – the origin of its name – is an unconfirmed story.

Some newspaper accounts say that in 1935, Ed Kelly bought it and put his name on it. This has been a green landmark for Newport streets ever since.

Although his name never shows up in county property ownership records, newspaper stories indicate he owned it. His older brother Tom J. (T.J.) Kelly was a successful businessman in town and the first mayor in 1903. He owned the store next door.

Clare Clark said they plan to renovate the outdoor dining area this year and will have live entertainment during the year.

Along with their popular burgers and sandwiches, they have dinner specials including prime rib, meat loaf and lasagna.