Left, An early shot of Moe’sFrontier Bar on Broadway, not long after it opened in 1942; Middle, Bill Burfield pours a shot of 7-Up for his granddaughter Margie Gordon, 2, in 1962. Lorene Gordon said she and Alvin would take the kids to the movies at the Coliseum (now the Echoes gallery), but if Margie got fussy, then they’d run her across the street if her grandpa was tending bar; Right, Malcolm and Charlie Matthews stand behind the bar in the 1950s.

Memories of Moe’s before last call

By ANDREW CREMATA

“Moe’s is the first and last place you go in Skagway.”

Like many other experiences at Moe’s Frontier Bar, I can’t exactly remember the details of this conversation nor the person who said it. Still, it’s as true now as it was in the spring of 1996, when I arrived in Skagway for the first time.
Moe’s immediately struck me as a bar with personality and character developed over time. There was something appealing about the smoke-stained ceilings, the wood-grain paneling, and the odds and ends that littered the wall behind the bar. You could almost hear past revelries and late-night whispers seeping out of every crack and fissure, echoing through the space of time, defining it.
This was an active frontier bar, and a piece of history; a living artifact of a more romantic time, when Skagway, and Alaska, was an independent territory.
Opinions may differ on what is symbolically the heart and soul of this community, and maybe it’s beyond defining. After all, there are many husks of Skagway’s storied past peppered within our brand new Borough, now filled with fine jewelry and refrigerator magnets available for purchase at significant discount.
Now Skagway’s oldest operating bar will meet the same fate, the neon sign will flicker off, and the last call on Sept. 27, 2007 will truly be the last.
For the last few months the methodical dismantling of the bar, and its vigorous personality, has been disconcerting on many levels. The pictures and paintings were the first to go, leaving behind ghost-like borders of accumulated dust where they once hung. There was the painting of a reclining woman, disrobed, a late-night tease for an unlucky midnight cowboy, now a memory, yet another missing beat in a fading pulse.
Other things have disappeared too; an eight ball here, a photo there, until only a few relics remain.
But why?
Could it be some patrons wanted a little souvenir to remember something cherished that they knew was inevitably going away, some piece of that wild and untamed history that soon will be no more?

Malcolm and Mary Lou Moe, a famous sign honoring Moe for serving American whiskey, and more fun bar antics.

IITYWYBMAD – sign at bar
(If I tell you, will you buy me a drink)

When Malcolm Moe opened the doors of his Frontier Bar in 1942, the tides of WWII were changing in favor of the Allies. The U.S. military was recording its own chapter in Skagway’s history, and provided Moe with some of his first regular customers. The Army’s rationing of goods required Moe to travel to Juneau and fit what he could obtain inside a suitcase to sell at the bar.
Skagway had been a city for 42 years since the infamous days of ‘98. Moe himself operated a restaurant, The Royal Cafe, before Moe’s bar opened its doors for the first time.
Much of those early years are a faded blur of forgotten times. Moe, who died on March 31, 1998, was regarded first and foremost as a gentleman by those he knew, and he wanted his bar to represent the same spirit.
“Malcolm is the definition of a gentleman. When Moe’s was opened it was a gentleman’s bar,” said long-time bar manager Barb Moseley.
“(Moe’s) was a nice, decent, respectable place where all people could meet,” said Malcolm’s wife, Mary Lou, who met him on her first trip to Skagway in the summer of 1962.
Mary Lou said she came to Skagway “to make it big.” She married Malcolm in 1967 and was already, at that time, an integral part of the bar’s growing history.
“I always said Malcolm was the greatest man to walk this earth in the last 2000 years,” said Mary Lou, who remained with her husband until his death two days before their 31st anniversary. She now lives in Juneau, her health having taken her away from home.
Mary Lou, speaking by phone, said she remembers those early days with her new beau fondly. “Everything was different. Everything was so nice back then.” she said.
“Good Lord, Moe’s is half of Skagway’s history, time wise,” she said with a laugh.

Popular Moe’s jukebox query - “Hank, why do you drink?”
Traditional Moe’s response – “To get drunk!”

Moe’s has actually been part of Skagway’s history for more than half of its existence, 65 years to be exact. Over that time the face of Skagway, its favorite bar and its patrons, has changed considerably.
With the rebirth of Skagway’s cruise ship industry in the early 1980s, so came a whole new clientele to Moe’s bar, ship crew. More ships meant more potential consumers, creating the need for a multitude of summer workers and the influx of a newer, younger generation of bar regulars.
The exponentially growing tourism economy continued to change the face of the entire community as it entered the new millennium, with more visitors and more summer locals seeking to quench their thirst at a bona fide Alaskan bar. The songs on the jukebox changed along with the times; where once a country tune may have filled the dance floor, on more recent nights the thumping bass of a hip-hop song might initiate the same response.
From Hank Williams Sr. to Lynryd Skynyrd to Guns and Roses to Biggie Smalls, the years reverberate with the beats of their own generations.
Wild Bill Simon brought the bar back to its roots on Friday nights with old-school and modern country songs spilling onto Broadway. More than a few have danced, more than a few don’t remember dancing.
Since Malcolm mixed drinks behind the bar, there have been many who have donned this role. But for those of us who have been a part of this final chapter of Moe’s story, we will remember the faces of Barb, Joanne, Abby, Trippe, Shanna, Becky, Michelle, Monica, and the other familiar bartenders who passed us our drinks, or maybe decided it was best not to.
Moe’s Frontier Bar has been an active sponsor of bowling teams, softball teams, and supported many local charitable community functions.
Ani Drozdowska said one of her fondest memories of the bar was just after the 2006 Fourth of July softball tournament when the Moe’s team, who lost, still celebrated with song and dance and homemade Pabst Blue Ribbon can pom-poms, all the while voicing the slogan which has become the team’s motto, “Win or lose, we still booze.”

“If you can read this please put me back on my barstool.” – Moe’s upside down t-shirt

So the story comes to an end, but the spirits served on many forgotten cold winter nights will still haunt that space, and the community from which it sprang. Maybe another house of libations will become a Skagway institution, or maybe one day, all of the vestiges of Skagway’s storied past will surrender to the onslaught of retail, tourism, and the money it brings.
This is progress, and as Alaska’s frontier continues to fade into memory, so now will one of its oldest bars. Moe’s bar.
“It will be terribly missed by everyone,” said Mary Lou, and who could argue?
There will be nights this winter when the north wind will blow and within it you’ll swear you can hear the crowd at Moe’s singing along with Wild Bill during the last refrain on the slightly altered chorus of one of his most popular songs.
“Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, I love Moe’s bar.”
•••••

The current Moe’s crew celebrates a birthday. From left are Abby, Monica, Makayla, Becky, Trippe, Michelle, Barb, Joann, and Jeffrey.

The end of an era

For those of you who haven’t heard the news, Moe’s is closing its doors soon for the last time. We are not sure when or what it’s to become, but it’s a sad fact. I don’t know how most of you feel about the loss of Moe’s, but for me it’s like losing a close friend. Fourteen years ago, as a crew member on one of the Princess ships, I walked into Moe’s and behind the bar was Barb Moseley with a huge smile and a welcome demeanor, and I was hooked! Every year and every time we pulled into Skagway, Moe’s was where I couldn’t wait to be. In 2002 I quit the ships and headed straight to Moe’s.
Sixty-five years ago a man named Malcolm Moe opened a bar. Little did he know the legend he and his bar were to become. Since that time, people from all walks of life have been coming in, and coming back to Moe’s, and all with the feeling of coming home. I can’t tell you how many times during the summer season that first-time tourists or crew members come in and tell us they “have a bar just like this” at home, and leave thanking us for making them feel at home, and for the great time they had while there.
Let’s not forget the many locals and ex-locals who have depended on Moe’s to be there every time they leave Skagway and return to Skagway. We get phone calls all the time from people who have left town, or relatives of people in town, who know that if they want to talk to someone, or find someone, all they have to do is call Moe’s! How many of us have been out of town on vacation, and feeling a little homesick, and have called Moe’s to get the taste of home? It’s not the building that makes Moe’s the touchstone that it is, however, from the nicotine-stained walls to the tattered bar stools, Moe’s does have a character all its own and the people you meet there call it home.
It has seen and welcomed the likes of all kinds of people, sometimes putting up a fight, but sooner or later the barriers were broken and everyone came together, if only for an hour or two. Friendships have been bonded and broken, and unions forged and forgotten. If those walls could talk, the secrets they would tell!! Of course you could always come in during the afternoon hours and you would find an old-timer or long-time local to share some of those tales of yore!
I don’t mean to disparage the other businesses in Skagway, but for a lot of us, Moe’s and the friends we made there are like the lighthouse in the storm. It has guided us to Skagway and always leads us back. I, for one, would have never moved here, were it not for the welcome feeling of already being home that I get from the people of Moe’s. For those of you who think it’s only a bar, and only come in for the holidays or your birthday, it will sink in when those days come and there’s no Moe’s to go to. And for those of you who only see it as a burden and only see its worth in dollar signs, I feel sorry for you, for you will never experience its true value, and if you have, you have forgotten.
I know things must change and nothing ever stays the same, and we will carry on with our lives, but for now I can’t imagine a Skagway without Moe’s. So now that that light is growing dim and about to be extinguished, and with tears in my eyes and heart, and the theme song to “Cheers” playing in my head, I would like to thank Malcolm and Mary Lou Moe for creating such a place, and Barb and Joann for their years and years of dedicated and loyal hard work of keeping it a home for us all.
Good-bye old friend, you will be greatly missed. See you all at the wake! – M. DeLavallade

•••••

Special thanks to Barb Mosely and staff, Mike Moe, and Lorene and Alvin Gordon for contributing photos.