Century old Liberty Club bar holds forgotten history

Most people who have ordered a drink from the Hotel Nevada bar know the bartender Willy Cazier. He’s worked for the hotel longer than any other active employee, having started in 1989. Having been around so long, Cazier knows a thing or two about the history of bars in Ely. From his hobby of metal detecting, Cazier has found decades old tokens to bars that shut down years ago, some of which his patrons don’t even remember.

But Cazier didn’t realize that one of the most storied, history-filled bars in town was one that he actually serves drinks at when he’s not at the Hotel Nevada. That bar is the Liberty Club, one of the few remaining drinking establishments from before the Hotel Nevada was even built.

Cazier started bar tending at the Liberty Club over 20 years into his career. When he started, he said he could feel a difference right away from working the hotel’s bar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“It was like your local bar. You don’t get that too much anymore,” Cazier said of his first impressions working behind a different bar after two decades serving drinks in the hotel.

“It was a place for old timers to hang out.”

But it wasn’t until he started asking one of those “old-timers” that he started to unravel the stories of the old Liberty Club, or as some called it back in their time, The Ely Mercantile.

Completely different from the modern Ely Mercantile in every way except for its name, the Mercantile

Courtesy photo A from the 1920’s shows Aultman Street as a bustling center of activity in downtown Ely. Right in the middle of the commotion was a popular bar, The Ely Mercantile, later known as the Liberty Club.

Courtesy photo
A from the 1920’s shows Aultman Street as a bustling center of activity in downtown Ely. Right in the middle of the commotion was a popular bar, The Ely Mercantile, later known as the Liberty Club.

was one of dozens of bars that filled Ely back in its early days. According to one of the bar’s previous owners Bruce Carlson, the narrow Ely Mercantile stretched back through where the parking lot currently sits for the Bristlecone Convention Center. It’s difficult to find a picture of the once much longer bar as the back half burned to the ground sometime between 1908 and the 1920’s. According to Carlson, the burned down section was never rebuilt, though pieces of scorched wood still remain in the bar’s walls.

Cazier has searched the bar for any evidence of the fire or wood bearing burn marks, but hasn’t been able to find any yet.

After the fire, the bar remain largely unchanged for years, bearing some resemblance to the way it is set up today, with a few notable exceptions.

The upstairs portion served as a brothel, then later, a place for down on their luck drinkers with no money to stay for the night when they had no where else to go. The area directly to the left of the bar’s entrance used to be walled off, with a barbershop occupying the space that now offers booth seating. As Cazier dug up more information about the bar’s past, bits and pieces of information started to trigger childhood memories, including the barbershop.

“It was like my grandfather was standing right behind me pointing to the spot in the bar telling me that was where I used to get my hair cut. I just started to remember little things like how there was no bathroom in the barbershop, so you’d have to walk into and past the bar to use the restroom,” Cazier said.

Though it may be hard to believe by today’s standards, the narrow space between the wall dividing the barbershop from the bar and the actual barstools, which is about three or four feet, served as a dance floor for locals who wanted to take in some live music. Looking at the small amount of space afforded them, Cazier laughed trying to imagine a crowd dancing.

“I have no idea how they fit, it must have been so cramped,” he said.

Eventually the bar changed ownership and later changed names to The Liberty Club, but it never lost it’s spirit as an original Ely bar.

“I just think the history of it is interesting. It’s really cool with the Liberty,” Cazier said, zooming in on a photograph on his phone of Ely’s downtown area from 1907, trying to spot the longer building before the fire.

“There’s bars from that time that no one remembers these days, but the Liberty is still here, still standing where it was 100 years ago. Not many places can say that.”

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