LIVINGSTON – There’s a combination Milk-Bones dispenser and water dish on the sidewalk just up the way. Over on the corner a man is taking advantage of the spring sunshine for an educational session teaching his young shepherd to sit before crossing the street.
Parked nearby is an early 2000s Subaru Outback – in parts of Montana considered the unofficial state vehicle – with at least two stickers on a rear window professing the driver’s preference of canines over humans.
There’s no question, Livingston is a dog town. But starting last week one more place joined the list of spots where pups aren’t welcome, and some locals lament the change as another indicator their Montana way of life is dying.
Some even lob the blame for the change over the hill at Bozeman, their fast-growing, more urban neighbor. But, like almost all small-town gossip, there’s more to the story.
The Murray Bar is a landmark, attached to the legendary Murray Hotel. The neon signs out front are Montana icons. Through the nondescript door the bar collects cowboys and college students, rich out-of-staters here to fly-fish and locals who’ve never lived outside of Park County. For more than 100 years, it’s been a place people go to grab a cold beer and hear a good band.
On Saturday, that included Trish Lingle and Scott Johnson, but not their dog, who was waiting out in the car.
“Koda was looking at us going, ‘What? This is the bar I can go in,’” Lingle said.
A bartender at the Murray that afternoon explained the bar stopped letting dogs in after a couple from Bozeman sent a letter to the health department that described the bar as a kennel.
Since then it’s been the talk of the town and around the rectangular bar top.
“Everybody’s got something to say,” the bartender said. “I kind of loved that we let dogs in here, but it’s not going to last forever.”
Scott Carlstrom mourned the change. He’s lived here for 2 ½ years and came to Montana originally because it felt the same, culture-wise, as the Minnesota of his childhood.
“It’s just all sorts of folks, mixing together, getting along, and that’s what I like,” he said. Another thing he likes was dogs at the bar.
“I liked it. I liked it a lot. It was a part of the culture.”
Talking about dogs getting 86ed, it didn’t take long for Carlstrom to bring up Bozeman, the rapidly growing and far-more-urban college town of roughly 40,000 – to Livingston's some-7,000 – about 25 miles west of here up over the pass.
“We’re on different sides of the hill; it’s a different world” was an often-echoed sentiment.
Carlstrom’s companion at the bar put it more bluntly: “This ain’t Bozeman. And they can stay over there.”
But casting this as the "big city with shiny condos popping up downtown" versus "the river-and-railroad town where kids ride bikes in the streets" isn’t entirely fair, or accurate.
Canines were never “allowed” at the Murray, no matter where the patrons are from. It’s a violation of their retail food license, according to Craig Caes, the director of environmental health at the Park City-County Health Department.
For years a small percentage of people have brought their dogs to downtown bars and owners don’t want to turn away customers. The only dogs that can go into bars, per sanitation laws, are service animals. It’s a health code violation and also poses a danger because people could trip over a leash or get bitten.
Caes said it got to the point where the local paper ran a front-page story last year to help the public understand. Still, even people who know they shouldn’t bring their pets do. Caes hopes to get downtown establishments to all work together so the customers will adjust.
Tiffany Marxer, general manager of the Murray Bar and the attached Gil's Goods, plus the 2nd Street Bistro on the other side of the old Murray Hotel that anchors the corner of Park and Second, said it was always an unspoken policy: “As long as your dog was behaved and stayed out of Gil’s” it could come in.
Marxer has worked hard over the past few years to oversee major updates to the bar. It’s more open and light, far more welcoming to families looking for a place to have lunch.
“It’s not necessarily the dark bar where you go to drink all day anymore,” she said. “We put a lot of work and money into the bar.”
So when a couple came in, who happened to be from Bozeman, and dogs were fighting and jumping up on the bar and off leashes, they got upset. “And rightfully so,” Marxer said.
“For a long time we bent the rules because we were one of those local bars where you could have your dogs.”
But even ice is considered food, so dogs had to go. At first the bar posted an email explaining what happened below a sign announcing the ban, but locals got so out of hand over making it a Livingston-against-Bozeman issue she took the email down.
It’s easy while on social media or leaning on the corner of a bar to write off what happened as an us-versus-them tale, but the two towns need each other, Marxer said.
“The people who live in Bozeman are our friends, our family and a huge part of our economy,” she said. “It could have been anyone who complained. It’s important to remember. I have family over there, I have friends over there. They’re a big, huge part of our local economy.”
That proved true on this mid-March Saturday.
Lingle and Johnson, among several in the bar bummed out over the absence of dogs, both came over for the afternoon from Bozeman.
On the other side of the bar locals joined in bemoaning.
“It was nice when it was here,” said Shay Taylor, who lives in Livingston and has three dogs. “It adds character.”
A woman named Elizabeth who grew up here and once even worked at the Murray said allowing dogs in bars was one of the things she loved.
“These are the things that made this place special, the little charms.”
But on Facebook, where the news spread like an August wildfire, many posted that dogs were disruptive, dirty and didn’t belong.
Lingle, saying Livingston and Bozeman have always been dog-friendly, admitted “it got a little crazy in here sometimes.”
But if Koda was inside, Lingle said gesturing to the floor, “she’d just lay here.”
Johnson agreed not all dogs are created equal.
“Some people think their dog is great and it really isn’t. But unless Koda was overstimulated or other dogs were bugging her, she’d just curl up and lay at our feet.”
The couple was right in saying Bozeman is dog-friendly, listing breweries and restaurants in that city where dogs are welcome out on the patio. That same afternoon a big muddy golden and lovable black Lab with a thing for a green Frisbee could be found in one of the bars in the town called not-so-affectionately by some Bozeangeles.
Back over in the dog-free Murray Bar, Lingle and Johnson joked about a way to get some pet companionship while they enjoyed microbrews.
“We could start bringing a pet pig in here or having a pet cat,” Lingle said.
“Or," said Johnson, "maybe an iguana on a leash."