By Nakeshia Diop
The Chilkat Valley News
Patrons stepping into the Pioneer Bar in Haines on Friday and Saturday night were transported to the 1950s, as the establishment celebrated 70 years in business. The walls of the bar were adorned with 45s from the artists that defined what many consider the Golden Age of America. Even though the jukebox was no longer in service, the music of Elvis Presley, Pat Boone and Bobby Darin boomed through the bar.
The bartenders and waitresses wore chiffon dresses, full skirts and polka-dot prints. Christy Tengs Fowler, owner of the Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room, sported a blonde wig and pink jacket on Friday as she played trivia with her friends. Despite owning the bar with her husband, Bob Fowler, since 1991, this was her first time playing trivia at the establishment.
Festivities over the weekend also included music from Skagway rock and roll band New Twin and an enormous cake that said, “The Pioneer Bar, Cheers to 70 years!” Patrons also enjoyed ‘50s gastronomy such as tuna salad sandwiches, Swedish meatballs, Jello molds and ham roll ups.
“It was really great, I was really happy with it. And I was glad that we went back to the 50s, because 50s music is so happy, and everybody just really enjoys themselves,” said Fowler.
On Saturday night, Fowler performed a song that she had written a week prior about her life story, which is deeply intertwined with the history of the bar itself. The song is titled, “Doin’ Life Behind Bars,” which provides a glimpse into the love-hate relationship Fowler has developed with the place she considers home.
Amidst the laughter and conversation, one could strain to hear the lyrics: “Born into this life, I’m a product of alcohol/Mama claimed I was conceived on whiskey sours after all/Raised on pepperoni sticks and pickled eggs in jars/I’ve been doin’ life behind bars.”
Fowler’s father Marty Tengs had come to Haines in 1952 as a steelworker to work on the Lutak Dock. He met Christy’s mother Helen Bergstrand, who came to Alaska to be a teacher, at the Harbor Bar, and the two married in 1953.
That same year, Tengs became co-owner of the bar with his friend Ole Lillegraven, and by the following year he was the sole owner. The place the Bamboo Room now stands used to be a liquor store and card room until Fran Fox leased the space in 1956 and separated the bar from the restaurant with a bamboo curtain.
Fowler’s family lived in an apartment above the bar, where music would often seep through the floors. “This was part of my home, always,” said Fowler, looking across the bar. “It was a crazy place to grow up.”
The story unfolds as Fowler sings on, “Daddy made me do my schoolwork/Sittin’ in the Bamboo Room/Feel like I’m at home when I smell gin and cheap perfume/Oh, rollin’ quarters washin’ dish rags and sweepin’ up cigars/I’ve been doin’ life behind bars.”
Fowler started bartending when she was 19. “I remembered drinks even better than people’s names sometimes,” said Fowler. When she had her two sons, Marty and Chevy, the boys also grew up working at the Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room. “These boys both waited tables and cooked here and worked from when they were like seven years old.”
Speaking of her and her husband Bob Fowler, she said, “We’re still pouring coffee, Bob’s still cooking, and I’m still waiting tables.”
Even though it was a lot of hard work, Fowler said growing up, “my dad made great money, so it was worth it.” Then she paused. “But there were a lot of hard times with his drinking, you know. And then there would be boom and bust, boom and bust all the time.”
The song ends with the verse, “Won’t you buy this place/Put a smile upon my face and serve me drinks in my cabana on island time.”
Fowler said she’s ready to sell the business, even though letting it go would be hard. “I really want somebody to buy it who keeps the spirit of the place.”
Her love for the Pioneer Bar and characterization of its spirit is encapsulated in another song she wrote, titled “Crossing the Bar.” New Twin played the song Saturday night.
“Come for the spirit of friends who have gone,” they sang. “Come for a taste of the love that lives on. Come for the poets who speak through these walls. And tell us to dance ‘til we hear that last call.”
The celebration of 70 years of the Pioneer Bar ended with the band singing “Cause our time is measured, we don’t get another shot. Cause our time is measured, hey let’s have another shot!” Then Fowler rang the bar bell and everyone took a shot in honor of the Pioneer Bar, the Bamboo Room, the Fowlers, and all that they have meant to the Haines community for the past seven decades.