By Scott Gerdes
Loyal locals know the Bull O’ the Woods Saloon is the place to go when they are in need of company. They find themselves wrapped in history, pieces of the originally milled wood, an Old West vibe and familiar faces. It has been this way since the doors opened 1939.
“When I first walked in, I noticed how at home everyone was in this bar,” said Marisa Nimon, Bull O’ the Woods social media and marketing director. “I think people come to Bull O’ the Woods when they’re lonely and want to see people and friends. It’s a place where people feel comfortable and can be themselves.”
This time-tested watering hole on Red River’s main drag is celebrating its 80th birthday this summer. It has been a landmark and hub of activity throughout its years. It has seen weddings, engagements, fantasy football meetings, dancing and lots of concerts. Someone even rode a horse into the bar once, so the story goes.
Its standing as a fixture in town hasn’t wavered, but it has changed hands several times.
Nimon felt compelled to investigate the property’s history. Through talking with “loyal bar flies that hold court with us every afternoon” to gathering old newspaper clippings and legal documents, she’s starting to see how the Bull O’ the Woods came to be. And it wasn’t always rosy.
As a matter of fact, she said the creator of the bar was “a little shady.” His name was Dan Zehna. He came to Red River from Trinidad, Colorado.
There was a bar and gambling spot on Main Street named Tony’s Liquors, owned and operated by Tony and Tillie Simion — a respected couple to this day. It still stands as The Motherlode Saloon. The Simions’ home was right across the street from where the Bull O’ the Woods beer garden is today. A lot next to the Simion home was owned by general store owner Bing Abbott. For unknown reasons, with a little bit of hearsay thrown in, Nimon said it’s believed the Simions’ thought the lot “was up for grabs.”
“Zehna got wind of that,” Nimon said. He got to Abbott before the Simions did and acquired the warranty deed.
In 1937, Zehna bought the property from the Simions for $1 and “other valuable considerations,” according to a copy of the March 1937 deed in Nimon’s possession. The carpenter and sawmill owner thus began building a place he wanted to compete with Tony’s Liquors. Two years later, he opened the Silver Spruce Tavern.
Why only $1? Nimon said no one really knows for sure but, “We have our suspicions.”
Not only did the well-liked Simions now have competition, but the instant rowdiness of the new joint disrupted their home life.
“The Simions lived next door to the Silver Spruce,” explained Nimon. While sleeping, they could hear the loud dancing and music. “It was definitely a conflict of interest. From what I can tell, Zehna and Abbott were not exactly the most upstanding citizens. Zehna had a checkered past for sure.”
Curiously, Zehna turned around and sold the establishment for the same pittance.
“I think Dan [Zehna] got into some financial trouble and had to do some moving and shaking to fix his money situation,” Nimon shared. At some point, Zehna sold half of the business to Omer Reed, who then sold that half back to Zehna and his then wife, Opal, for the sum of “$1 and other valuable considerations,” in June 1946.
Zehna built a trap door that led to a secret room installed after gambling became illegal. The story is that when tipped off to a raid, they carried the slot machines down into the hidden space. The door to the secret room remains. There’s a crawl space leading from it that goes under the building for reasons unknown.
Zehna later sold the establishment to Martha and Albert “Swede” Culbertson in 1955. They kept the name, but added a curio shop.
Over the years it changed hands and names several times.
“We’ve been McCormick’s Bar & Lounge (1960-1972), Doggone Saloon (1972-1973), Kate & Gary’s (1974-1988), and finally Bull O’ the Woods Saloon (1989 to present),” Nimon reflected. “Each of the owners, in their time, brought something to the table, whether it be a new name, a tradition, a notorious dog that begged for beer or truly great music. They all contributed something that changed the way we moved forward. I believe it was their audacity to dream big, to swing for the fences, whether they were successful or not, that has made us the legendary saloon we are today.”
The layout has changed over the years and of course some things have been modernized, such as the restrooms and kitchen. But some of Zehna’s original milled wood is still in the bar.
Nimon confesses that the history of Bull O’ the Woods is still developing.
After noted former owners Kate and Gary Eichhorn purchased the bar, they changed the name to Kate & Gary’s and she set off to drum up more summer business for the establishment. Kate Eichhorn went to Ruidoso, New Mexico, and talked some bikers into trying out Kate & Gary’s. They obliged and before the Eichhorns knew it, Kate & Gary’s had become the unofficial Hogs’ hangout. She is credited with pioneering the now famous Memorial Day Motorcycle Rally. More than 20,000 rumbling cycles congregate in Red River every Memorial Day weekend. Live concerts happen day and night during the entire event. It’s the celebration’s 37th year.
The rally wasn’t initially met with open arms; the town wasn’t instantly thrilled about the idea.
“But they realized what the event would bring to the town,” said Nimon.
After Gary Eichhorn died in 1989, Kate sold it to Charlie and Margo Stanton. They intended to keep the name intact in honor of Kate, but an unforeseen force of nature that winter changed their minds. One of those gale-force, ripping-through-the-mountains New Mexico snowstorms blew off the building’s false front. After that, the Stantons decided to name their establishment after an area peak — Bull O’ the Woods. The name has graced the front ever since.
Current owners David and Tammy Maschino bought the property on Jan. 1, 2015.
While the Bull O’ the Woods is still a local favorite, visitors will find it to be a very family-friendly place (until 8 p.m.) with great food, a shuffleboard table from Zehna’s time, a new outdoor stage, pet-friendly patio and expanded outdoor area where kids can run around the picnic tables and play games, such as cornhole.
The Summer Concert Series presents live music every Friday and Saturday night (bullothewoods.com).
While Nimon is busy with scheduling bands, she still finds time to keep digging into the Bull O’ the Woods history. She has a feeling there’s more colorful tales and characters to unearth.
Bull O’ the Woods 80th Anniversary Celebrations
(575) 224-2897, bullothewoods.com
Memorial Day, May 27: Past owners will be honored in a re-creation of one of the first Motorcycle Rally T-shirts.
July 12: 80th Anniversary Bash featuring the traditional Western music of Syd Masters at 8:30 p.m. Masters is the author and recording artist of the Official State Cowboy Song of New Mexico and was recognized by The Academy of Western Artists as The Male Vocalist of the Year, twice. Also, there will be a giveaway and the special appearance of some of the bar’s past owners and others whom Bull O’ the Woods meant a lot to.
July 13: 80th Anniversary Bash featuring John McDonough at 2 p.m.