A few days before Christmas, my girlfriend and I headed to a place down south. When we arrived, everyone was there. We had a few beers with Warren and Ciara. We gave Bruce a hard time, much to the appreciation of his adorable, grandmotherly wife, Dottie. We watched John shoot a little pool while Dalyn fixed some burgers. We laughed as Wayne cracked his jokes and listened while Mr. Landy, one of the many regulars, regaled us all with tales of how it used to be. The night was typical, but we didn’t know it because we had never met these people before and we had never been to this place. And yet, in a way, we felt like longtime regulars.
Because somewhere among the rolling, forested hills of southwest Washington, between towns you’ve never heard of on a road you have no reason to drive down, is a family you never knew you had, and they’re drinking at your favorite bar, even though you never knew it existed. That bar is the Brooklyn Tavern.
A simple hand-painted wooden sign lets you know you’ve arrived. The entrance is one parking-spot length away from the road, and, aside from the big grass field next door where customers are encouraged to camp and stay in RVs overnight, there’s nothing else around but trees and silence. The familiar glow of neon beer signs beckons you inside. Walk through the parking lot, paved with more bottlecaps than actual stones, and up to the door plastered with a massive poster of a deer declaring “Welcome Hunters.” Push open that door and step back in time.
In 1927, the Saginaw Logging Company of Saginaw, Michigan, expanded its logging interests in Washington’s timber-rich southwestern hills. Loggers and equipment poured into the hills east of Oakville, rail lines were constructed, and soon a river of logs was rushing toward the mills and yards of Aberdeen. At the peak of this logging boom, the town of Brooklyn was a bustling hub. More than 2,000 people lived there and supported the industry, packed into one-story housing units that closely bordered the busy tracks that constantly rocked from the never-ending stream of log-laden train cars. At the end of the day, weary loggers would tramp up the wooden stairs to the Brooklyn Tavern for a few beers, a game of cards, and something to eat. The tavern was the spot to hear the news, catch up with friends, find out about new jobs. It was the heart of the community.
By the mid-’40s, all the lucrative logging was done; Saginaw left and the community started to move away. It’s a story that’s been told and heard and lived thousands of times: Booming logging town turns ghost town and is quickly forgotten. But Brooklyn refuses to die in large part because its heart, the Brooklyn Tavern, keeps beating.
Inside the tavern, the town’s history is clearly represented. It’s difficult to find a space on the walls or ceiling not covered with artifacts or photographs from that era. There are massive old pulleys, ancient saws, dusty oil lamps, and miscellaneous tools that could easily be mistaken for devices of torture. It’s the most striking blend of redneck kitsch and dive bar I have ever seen: bar stools upholstered with camouflage duct tape; a gumball machine loaded with cans of Miller High Life; bathrooms wallpapered in porn; a barrel woodstove pumping out the bar’s only heat; muddy-pawed puppies running around loose; pool tables; karaoke machines; and the most impressive feature: the local creek, diverted to enter the building and pass underneath the bar stools as a running-water spittoon, aptly named Snoose Creek. Everywhere you look is another tchotchke, another antique, another homemade country-boy joke implement. If Duck Dynasty were a religion, the Brooklyn Tavern would be St. Peter’s Basilica.
But the best thing—the absolute icing on the cake—is not something the Brooklyn Tavern has. Rather, it’s what it lacks: TV, wi-fi, and cell-phone reception. No one is Instagramming, checking in on Facebook, or texting friends. No zombie-like sports fans are staring at ESPN; no one’s writing a blog post in front of a glowing Apple. If you want to keep up on a game, they’ll probably have it on the radio, but at a low volume.
This forces people to talk, laugh, and enjoy each other—even strangers like myself who wander in knowing no one are instantly engaged in conversation and welcomed as part of the group. Every 10 minutes or so, a new face comes into the bar, and instantly follow the greetings: “Hey, John! Hi, Mr. Landy. Hey, Wayne!”
As the only person not recognized by the newcomers, I get noticed quickly. “What’s your name?” calls out an older gentleman from across the bar. He’s wearing black suspenders, dark jeans, and a trucker hat. After my own introduction, he tells me his name is Wayne Combs. “I’m Wayne, and this is my father, Bruce, and his wife, Dottie. Now, how about we buy you a sarsaparilla?” I hadn’t even told Bruce I was writing a story. His generosity was the simple kindness of a stranger.
Bruce Combs, Wayne’s father, is one of the Brooklyn Tavern’s oldest regulars, coming here for more than 35 years. He’s even got a reserved seat, designated by a small brass plaque attached to the counter in front of his favorite bar stool. “Do you like to fish or hunt?” he asks me. “This is one of the best places to fish and hunt anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s a sportsman’s paradise.”
The Combs, both father and son, were involved in the logging industry. Even after Saginaw left, logging still directly or indirectly employs most of the people around here, and as a result, most regulars have deep ties to the land; they’re campers, RVers, off-roaders, anglers, and hunters. But if you’re not one of those things, they’re more than happy to welcome you anyway. I can’t help but get swept up in their conversations about things completely unrelated to the tavern; it’s an addictive environment of conversation. “No matter who shows up, you’re welcome to be here,” Wayne Combs says. I think that’s largely because of the lack of technology—partially intentional, but mostly unavoidable, because the Brooklyn is arguably the most remote bar in the state.
In 1990 it burned to the ground—an electrical fire no doubt caused by ancient wiring, then more than 60 years old. Just four months earlier, a man named Ray Damitio had bought the place. In a way, Damitio was meant to own the tavern: Born the same year the Brooklyn was built, just a few miles north in Elma, he’d had a life full enough to rival Forrest Gump’s, joining the military at a young age, traveling the world, owning a car dealership and a restaurant. He had done it all, but always returned to the misty, forested hills of southwest Washington.
After the fire, Damitio immediately made plans to rebuild. Bolstered by community donations to replace the vast array of logging memorabilia, the new Brooklyn opened in 1991. Those who’ve seen both say the new tavern is a near-exact replica. Set just a few feet farther back from the road, the outside and interior are just as they always had been.
But everything around the bar changed. When it was built, the town of Brooklyn was joined to other, larger cities principally by rail lines. By the time major highways were coming to the area, Saginaw Logging Company was already leaving, so larger roads were routed to other cities. This left the Brooklyn in a no-man’s land, smack in the center of a huge loop bordered by SR-12, US-101, and SR-6. The nearest town takes 40 minutes to get to, and the road on which Brooklyn lies is a detour no matter what two towns you’re traveling between. In short, the only reason you’d ever wind up at the Brooklyn Tavern is if you lived here, got terribly lost, or wanted a beer and some grub at the storied spot like we did.
Sadly, Damitio passed away in 2011, but there’s no need to fear for the Brooklyn Tavern’s future. His son-in-law, Warren Brough, and Warren’s wife Ciara are now taking over. The young couple, bedecked in Seahawks gear, is native to the area, and as longtime regulars fully appreciate the importance of their new role. They happily tell me, “The Brooklyn Tavern is a real destination. We don’t plan on changing anything that would endanger that.”
They’ll keep the traditions alive, including the annual events like Saginaw Days, which pits amateur loggers against one another in good-natured and often hilarious competition. In short, they’re committed to keeping the bar, the history, and the regulars as engaging, friendly, and welcoming as always.
As we drove away, bouncing through the fog along forest service roads, I realized I was already planning my return. And while it’s frustrating when your favorite bar is two and a half hours away, it’s also comforting to know it’s so hidden, so perfectly preserved.