Folk: The Roll Away Saloon

I lived in Kanab, Utah, for most of my childhood.

My maternal grandparents also lived in town and from time to time we’d pile into their big Plymouth sedan and drive about four to five miles south of Kanab to Fredonia, Arizonia, to eat at Nedra’s Café. I liked to order the Navajo tacos and because she knew my grandparents Nedra would often give us a free order of sopapillas — light, crunch-chewy pillows of fried bread dripping with honey. It was a great café and if you are ever in the area, you should check it out.

Right near the Utah-Arizona border, on the Arizona side, was a bar. I remember that often as we drove past it, one of my grandparents [probably my grandfather] would tell me about how back in the early part of the century, the bar was actually set on logs and when the people in Utah would come to shut it down, they’d roll it over across the border into Arizona — and vice versa.

That story stuck with me. Probably because living in a small Mormon Utah town anything having to do with alcohol was unusual. I’m sure that as we passed the bar [called the Buckskin Tavern if I remember correctly], I silently passed judgement on the owners of all the trucks lined up outside. But I think it was more memorable because it was a strange example of the power of borders and jurisdictions. Even though Fredonia was only five miles away and was also a small town filled with sagebrush Mormons, like other Kanabites [yep, that’s what they’re called] I felt that Fredonians were very different from us Utahns and that, frankly, they were inferior.

Now I could be wrong. It could have been my paternal grandparents who told me this story about the saloon, but I think I’m remembering correctly. An intriguing answer to the origin of this story cropped up recently when I was visiting the Morris grandparents at a time when they were trying to clear a portion of clutter from their house. I gladly took several books of Cowboy stories and poetry off their hands including one titled “The Roll Away Saloon: Cowboy Tales of the Arizona Strip.” Published in 1985 by Utah State University Press, the book collects stories told by Rowland W. Rider to his granddaughter Deirdre Murray Paulsen. The title story, of course, tells the same story my grandparents had told me, but with some important differences.

As Rider tells it, the cowboys of the Arizona Strip liked to drink alcohol and all the stores would sell out of it, so they [the cowboys, I guess] built a saloon right on the Arizona-Utah border [i.e. near the current location of the Buckskin Tavern].

Rider says:

“It wasn’t very large, maybe twelve by eighteen feet, but it created quite a bit of disturbance among the Mormon housewives of Fredonia and Kanab because their men would come staggering up home on their horses, too late for dinner, unable to take their saddles off”¦

Well, one day when the women in the Relief Society up to Kanab got together sewing and having a quilting bee, they decided among themselves that too many men were going down imbibing at this Roll Away Saloon. So they organized a posse to go and burn the thing down”¦So when the men all went out on the range or out in the fields or doing something, the women saddled up their horses, a lot of them rode, and some of them took their white-tops and they headed for the saloon.”(3)

The saloon keeper saw the women coming and took a crow bar and trundled the saloon along the logs over the border so “[t]he women got down there and were all ready to light their torches, they had their bundles ready, when the saloon keeper, said, ‘You can’t touch this business; it’s in Arizona. We don’t belong to Utah at all. There’s the line.'” (3-4).

According to Rider, the women from Fredonia did the same thing with the same end result and they went back and forth like this for years.

The two stories — the one I remember and the one Rider relates — bring up a couple of interesting questions about the transmission of folk narratives. Notice that in my grandparent’s story the agents that force the saloon to move are never explicitly stated — whereas in Rider we have a group of angry Mormon women. Rider also adds the details about the posse and the torches. I’m pretty sure I would have remembered those details if they had been included in the story I had heard.

Part of this may be Rider exaggerating things for effect — he is a cowboy storyteller, after all and some of the other stories have some pretty outrageous details. Or it may be that the story was edited or stripped down in how it was told to me — or how it had been originally told to my maternal grandparents.

This all leads to the question of provenance. Rider’s collection was published in 1985 [it was published under another name and by a different publishing house in 1979, but the version my paternal grandparents have is the 1985 edition] — a year after my family moved away from Kanab, and I know that this story was told to me several times while we were living in town. So it seems unlikely to me that the origin of the story I was told is the Rider collection. If it was, then a lot of stuff got left out.

If the story was told to me by my maternal grandparents, then my best guess is that they heard it from friends from Kanab [they moved their in the ’60s — well after the Roll Away Saloon story takes place]. What would be interesting to know is if the story they were told had the same details as Rider’s or if they were told the same stripped down version they told me.

Whatever the provenance, apparently the vivid detail of Mormon women forming a posse and getting ready to light torches was something that needed to be left out in the transmission of the narrative to me. Or was never there in the first place and was added by Rider.

But questions of provenance and censorship or exaggeration aside. Here’s what puzzles me about the Rider narrative:

I always took the story to mean that the Kanab Sheriff and his cronies or other town officials [or maybe even Prohibition-era revenuers — my sense of decades was rather fuzzy back then] were the ones who rode out to shut down the saloon. That’s why the whole border thing made sense — my knowledge of the power of state lines informed, of course, by that great ’80s television show “The Dukes of Hazard.” But why would a state line stop a posse of angry Mormon women? And even then, what kept the Kanab women from conspiring with the Fredonia women to do a simultaneous raid? [Maybe it was that whole Kanabite/Fredonian thing]. Perhaps it as simple as that posses comprised of angry Mormon women still feel bound to obey and sustain the law by honoring state lines.

There’s something to be said here about Rider’s narrative and gender dynamics in small-town Mormonism, but I don’t know enough about the topic to say it.

4 thoughts on “Folk: The Roll Away Saloon”

  1. I remember the story told slightly differently…the wives got some men to go lasso the logs the tavern was built on and drag it into Arizona. I am not sure what their motivation was suppose to be…to give Kanab a “cleaner” reputation because it now had no bar or to make it less convenient for their men folk to go get plastered.

    Well told Will.

  2. Will, you raise some interesting points about Rowland Rider’s stories. I began recording him for an undergraduate English class at BYU for a Western Lit class with Neal Lambert. I had heard Rowland’s stories my whole life when we came out every other summer from NJ to spend time with my maternal grandparents But it was Lambert who got me to see the academic value of the stories, so I began collecting them in earnest in 1968 for my Masters Thesis in American Lit. BYU first printed the collection as “Sixshooters and Sagebrush” because Ernest Wilkinson would not approve of a title published by BYU with “saloon” in it. When BYU stopped being a popular press, I bought up the remaindered copies and sold them to Utah/Arizona venues where BYU had oddly not marketed them in Kanab, Grand Canyon, Jacob’s Lake. Then Utah State University picked up the rights and published it as you note. The only difference between the two versions is that the “Sixshooters. . ” version has two more chapters, one on Spiritual Stories, one on Kanab. So, there’s more context. Of course the other difference is the name change back to my original, “Roll-Away Saloon.”

    As you regards the points you raise, I had always assumed that the women in Kanab included the sheriff in their “posse.” But that’s not stated in this story. I would have to go back and relisten to early tapes I made of this story to verify that.

    Regarding Rowland’s possible exaggerations — I must admit I totally thought he was exaggerating when I collected the stories. As a folklorist now, I realize that what’s important are the values that are being passed on. Nevertheless, I kept trying to “catch” Rowland in an exaggeration. I was certain I had with the story “Ground Owls,” when a ground owl’s head falls off as he watches a cowboy circling him. I held that belief until my thesis defense at BYU when one of the professors asked me if I believed that story to be true. I started to answer “no” when he stated emphatically that that was one story he knew was true because he had watched such a thing happen. So yes, storytellers have a gift of making a good story. . .but I must say I can’t document any lies.

    One other point of interest. . .a few years ago I was visiting a relative, Rowland Hinton, in Hurricane, Utah. He told me that I must talk to an older gentleman living behind him who lived as a young boy in the Roll-Away Saloon. So, at that time it was no longer a saloon. He said it was torn down after they lived there, but that the rollers were still there. Rowland claims the same, in fact took me there to see them. So, not sure the Buckskin Tavern has any connection, but it could have been rebuilt by the original owners.

    Thanks for your comments! Deirdre M. Paulsen

  3. Thanks for filling in some of the gaps, Deirdre. And wow — somehow I missed that Cam had commented. Very cool. Long-running internet conversation, indeed.

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