Family memory doesn’t stretch back far enough to explain why an Italian immigrant and railroad worker opened a bar on Woody Street in late 1935.
Benjamin Martello purchased one of the county’s early liquor licenses after Prohibition and set up shop less than a block from the Northern Pacific tracks, in what's now a parking lot between the red-brick Brunswick Building and the Missoula Public Defenders building.
It was the last year the Peace Dollar was minted in the U.S. Martello called his new establishment the Silver Dollar Bar.
After World War II, he and son Domenic moved the business across Woody Street and just down the block to 307 W. Railroad St. There the “Dollar” has remained and so have the Martellos.
Ben sold the bar to Domenic in 1960. When Domenic died of a heart attack at age 50 in 1974, ownership went to his wife Mary and their three children.
“We inherited it and my mother said, ‘Why don’t we just sell it?’ ” said Ben Martello, their only son and a Missoula optician at the time. “I said, ‘Let me try it for a while and at least make it to 50 years.’
"That (1985) was my goal then. Now we’ve been here 80. I’ve surpassed my goal.”
Martello turns 70 this month, 10 years after making sons Kevin, Scott and Benji partners in the Silver Dollar. Kevin, 49, is the bar’s manager and only full-time worker. Scott, 46, helps with the banking and morning chores while running his own shirt printing and embroidery store next door. Benji, 39, is a sales executive for Payne West Insurance, but pulls a couple of night shifts at the bar each week.
“It’s kind of a badge of honor, just seeing how our great-grandfather started it, our grandfather took it over, our father took it over, and now all three of us are involved,” Benji said Wednesday morning.
The Martellos are throwing an 80th anniversary bash at the Silver Dollar at 2 p.m. Saturday, with food, fun and music by Zeppo Blues. They’re accomplished at these parties, Ben the Dad said.
“We’ve had everything from a funeral to wedding parties, fundraisers and everything in between,” he said.
The Silver Dollar Bar is also known for its vast array of sponsorships of youth and adult teams in sports ranging from soccer and kickball to pool, Little League baseball, softball, and trap and skeet.
Ben remembers bowling for a team his father sponsored when Domenic ran the bar. He took it to another level as his own boys grew up.
“We’ve always been, you might say, youth-oriented, sponsoring Little League teams and stuff like that,” said Martello, “and we just grew into those other things as the kids grew up and are now playing other games.”
In the 40-plus years he’s run the Silver Dollar, Ben Martello has made only one major improvement. Some years ago, he had half the interior wall the bar shared with Scott’s store removed and added a wing in back with bathrooms and two pool tables.
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Ben remembers when booths sat along the wall across from the bar, where a row of gaming machines are today. He can still conjure up the image from the 1960s of his grandfather, retired from the business, perched in one of the booths.
“He’s got his own little booth over there where he’d sit and kind of oversee things and drink a little bit of Walker’s Deluxe all day long,” Ben said.
The years haven’t always been good to the “Silver Buck.”
“When I came in ’74 things were really booming down on this end of town,” Ben said. “Then when the mall opened up on the southside everything down here just went the other way. This end of town was pretty quiet.”
The bar struggled and Martello again considered selling it. But then the Legislature legalized gaming machines in 1985.
“That was a little shot in the arm that kind of got us over the hump,” Ben said. The statewide smoking ban in bars and stricter drunken driving laws notwithstanding, business at the Silver Dollar has been steady for “quite a number of years.”
Eighty years later, the Silver Dollar remains a neighborhood bar with broader appeal.
“Good people go there. It’s not your dive bar where you have to be fighting all the time,” said Dean Meuchel, who grew up a few blocks away from the Silver Dollar and remembers shoveling its sidewalks when he was 6 years old.
“You get the rich businessman and the richer rich man and the Joe Worker dude. You even get your few homeless people there to buy a bottle once in awhile.”
The Martello brothers have presented Ben and his wife Shirley with six grandchildren, the oldest of them girls in their late teens.
“So the next generation of the Silver Dollar might be run by women,” Ben said with a chuckle.
But its his lone grandson, 13-year-old Nic, who has indicated an interest in following in the footsteps of his father Benji, grandfather Ben, great-grandfather Domenic and great-great-grandfather Ben.
“Nic has talked about taking it over. He’ll say, ‘When I come in, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that,’ ” Grandpa Ben said. “He also wants to be a professional baseball player and a professional golfer.”
Meantime, older Martellos don’t plan on straying far from their family heirloom.
“It’s been a part of our lives for four generations, and as far as Missoula is concerned I don’t know many other businesses that have the longevity that we’ve had and been supported by the Missoula community for all those years,” said Ben.
“I’m proud to say that I work at the Silver Dollar and I work with my brothers,” Benji said. “Like I say, it’s more or less a badge of honor.”