NINEMILE – There are new old shotguns hanging on the wall, and a vintage Hamms Beer sign that greets you from the far wall, though it’s not the one with the scrolling lake and waterfall.
But want to know what first permeates the senses when you walk in the door of the newest iteration of the venerable Nine Mile House? It smells just like the old one did.
It’s that essence of wood stove and fryer, of knotty pine walls and prom dates in the 1970s that 25-year-old Shawna McWatters and her dad, Scott, have rekindled.
He was a cop in Southern California who ran a food catering service on weekends before retiring to western Montana nine years ago.
She grew up in that food service environment, showed cutting horses in Montana after high school, but returned to those roots and found her place.
“This,” Shawna said one morning last week before opening time, “just fits the bill.”
They bought the venerable Nine Mile House out of bankruptcy last April and set about major rehabilitation efforts on a 65-year-old landmark that had sat vacant for four years. The result, in essence, is a new restaurant and bar wrapped in the same aesthetics that generations grew up with.
“It was just kind of a landmark around here. It’s been around forever,” Shawna McWatters said. “I meet a ton of people who are super old and say they worked here in high school. People come in and say they proposed to their wives here, went to their prom dinner here. So it’s been really fun.”
Maybe you missed it because of the Super Bowl hype, though not many in the greater Ninemile region did. But Scott McWatters prepared and the new 9 Mile Roadhouse served its first heapin’ helping of prime rib sandwich on that first Sunday of February.
Two months in, “it’s been going better than I expected,” said Shawna. “Our opening day we thought it would be really quiet and there were people showing up 10 minutes before we opened. We were packed for lunch and packed for dinner and people stayed until closing time.”
The “House” was set Saturday to add a full dinner menu – big cuts of prime rib, fried shrimp and broasted half chicken, and the owners are anxious to see what the summer outdoor season will bring.
They’ve installed new septic and water systems, purchased an all-beverage liquor license and added a few new twists to the menu, including fresh-cut fries that have commanded a lot of attention.
The old wooden bar was twisted and warped while the building sat vacant in bankruptcy. It’s been replaced by a shiny copper-plated one, though it still commands a place of honor back in the pool room.
It’s the touch of old – say, Scott’s vintage shrimp cocktails in goblets salvaged from an old Montana hotel – that has helped win over the Nine Mile House diehards.
“It’s just homey,” said Dave Cyr. “It’s local. It’s nice people running it, and it’s nice to have it open.”
Cyr, who lives just down the road, figures he’s on his third or fourth owner of the Nine Mile House. His parents, John and Irene, once lived in the original Nine Mile House that started out in 1893 as a two-story hotel, restaurant and dance hall.
George Brown built that one across Old Highway 10 from the current one, and his son – George “Nine Mile” Brown – ran it after he died until the 1930s. This one was built in 1946-’47 and has had two long-time operators since – Max and Sue Hough (1948-68), and Barb and Doug Gaut (1971-2007).
The Gauts still live behind their old restaurant and were big helps to the McWatters in getting it up and going again. But then so was almost everybody.
That old J.P. Stevens shotgun hanging upside down from a knotty pine beam alongside two other hunting guns? Cyr donated it to the cause.
Another neighbor came in with a crosscut saw to display on the same beam. It looks rusty but “it’s still got an edge on it,” Scott McWatters said. “When I was hanging it I drew a little blood.”
The same neighbor inspired the biggest sandwich. He told McWatters that back in the day he could eat a burger and a prime rib sandwich together. The 9 Mile Roadhouse now has the Timber Beast: an 8-ounce patty, four strips of bacon, two slices of cheese and 8 ounces of prime rib.
“One guy who showed up – he must be in his 70s – brought in his granddad’s ice saw, so we hung that up,” Scott said.
The Frenchtown Fire Department has been great to work with and a good customer. Same’s true with the folks from the ranger station up the road, he said.
The coppered bar and back wall were installed in January by Jonathan Jennings of Epic Steel in Missoula. He and a colleague spent 2 1/2 days doing it.
“I tried to pay him,” the elder McWatters said, “and he said, ‘You know what? Me and my dad used to hunt up here. You guys just get this place open.’ He walked out the door and didn’t charge us a dime. You want to talk about community?”
Bill Queen, who lives just up the road, built a “history case” for the Gauts. It traces the development of the roadhouse and the valley, and the new owners have moved it to a more prominent wall.
“I’ve known Bill for years,” Scott said. “He even offered money if we ran short.”
Shawna is in the process of buying a shuttered general store on an adjacent lot and has a tenant in mind who’s interested in reopening it and putting in a fly shop. The new owners are teaming up with the Ninemile Community Center to put up a new sign to promote the valley’s and the roadhouse’s charms.
Shawna, a website designer, has a “9 Mile Roadhouse” Facebook page, and the place has a new phone number – 626-2546. It’s not a bar but a restaurant with a bar, Scott McWatters emphasized. It closes at 10 p.m. and doesn’t open on Tuesdays.
“We’re trying to get a little life back in this corner,” he said. “This isn’t a one-man band out here. It’s kind of like the whole valley’s involved in one way or another, which is nice.”