Idaho History: Billiard saloons flourished until ProhibitionIdaho History

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANSeptember 15, 2013 

The Monarch billiard table.JPG

The Monarch billiard table was the most elegant of its time.

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John Lemp’s billiard parlors were located at 716 and 718 Main St. An ad published in the Idaho Statesman on New Year’s Day, 1893, called his place “The finest billiard parlors and beer hall in the state. Wholesale and retail wines, liquors and cigars. Domestic and St. Louis beer on draft at 5 cents per glass. Free Lunch at all Times.”

It is perhaps surprising that John Lemp, who had been brewing beer in Boise for nearly 30 years, should be importing kegs of beer from St. Louis, probably from Anheuser-Busch. He must have found it profitable to cater to his clients’ tastes in beer, as well as in the cigars he imported. The Brunswick Monarch billiard tables he had bought in 1881 were the most elegant ever made to that time. Brunswick, a Chicago company, bought out two of its competitors to become Brunswick-Balke-Collender, and by 1884, was the largest billiard equipment maker in the world.

We know from an 1889 item in the Daily Herald of Helena, Mont., that Brunswick sent traveling representatives with its shipments to Western towns: “Eric Schelin, representing the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., is in the city. He has come to set up two carloads of fixtures for Marks’ new saloon, in Dave Morris’ building.”

If there were two carloads in the shipment, there must have been a bar and back bar in addition to billiard tables. Back bars were equipped with large plate glass mirrors and a humidor section for keeping cigars at the proper degree of humidity — a must in the arid West.

A fine example of a Brunswick-Balke-Collender saloon can be seen at the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park. There was at least one other example of an antique bar by that company in Boise at 1010 Main Street.

With the passage of national Prohibition in 1920, the Brunswick company had to turn to products other than saloon fixtures. One of the first it produced was wooden phonograph cabinets — not a bad choice at a time when most American families either had a phonograph or were thinking of buying one. Bowling equipment became a major line as Brunswick continued to expand into pleasure boat manufacturing and a host of other products sold internationally.

In early Idaho, however, it was elegant billiard tables, cue racks, bars and back bars for which the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company was known. The enormous number of billiard saloons in Idaho, before Prohibition closed many of them, is impressive. In June 1902, the Statesman was told by State Auditor E.W. Jones that Shoshone County alone had 45 licensed billiard tables and 75 licensed saloons. The paper quipped of the residents of that county: “They are evidently playing billiards to make themselves thirsty.”

Polk’s Idaho Directory for 1916 lists an astonishing total of 271 billiard parlors. It is hard to imagine how some of the smaller towns could support so many, but it had to be the fact that they were also saloons.

When Idaho went dry in that very year of 1916, and liquor could no longer be served in billiard and pool halls, many of those listed went out of business.

An interesting feature of those years was the number of Japanese-run billiard parlors. Sada Sakai owned one at 110 N. 7th St. in 1909, and H.T. Yashimoto had one at 615 W. Idaho in 1916. Without the help of liquor sales, (legal ones at least), Boise and surrounding towns still had nine billiard halls in 1918.

Kuna and Meridian each had a pool hall in 1918. Neither town has one today.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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