If you take a left on 4th street in downtown Northport, and head a block past Tony’s market, you will find a tall gray building, sided in crumbling asphalt shingles, with a slight Northwestern lean. This is Kuk’s Tavern, and in addition to being the only place you can drink a cold beer in town right now, it’s also a little piece of Washington State History. Staking their claim as the oldest licensed tavern in Washington State, operating since 1889, Kuk’s has yet to face a contender for the title. Over a century of scandal and intrigue are watered down inside these walls with the daily gossip of a sleepy little town populated by the descendants of the original settlers. This place has seen it all – from the boomtown ladies of the night to the stray bullet from a careless bystander. Felons and philanthropists grace the memories of the tavern, along with every imaginable traveler by train, steamship, automobile and even airplane.
Kuk’s Tavern, then Skrobian’s, was founded in 1889, the same year that the town of Northport was incorporated and Washington became a state. It was constructed on the lower level of Northport, now Columbia Avenue, which used to be called Front Street and was the main business thoroughfare along the railroad tracks facing the river during Northport’s boomtown days. The building was moved to the present location on the corner of Summit and 4th Street in an effort to avoid floods. In 1889, Northport wasn’t the same little map dot that you will find today, but instead a bustling industrial community with a busy shipbuilding yard, an operating smelter and brisk international commercial traffic by rail and water. With a peaking population nearing 2000 souls, Skrobian’s Bar answered the call for another tavern in the midst of a sudden upswell of hotels, churches, pool halls and yes, bars. 28 total bars at the highest count, most of which featured additional “hospitality” in the rooms upstairs, including Skrobians, which contained 8 rooms just big enough for a “bed, a dresser and a little bit of fun.” Catering to the needs of growing numbers of men working in the local mines, at the smelter and the shipyard, Northport provided recreation, religion and refreshment at every turn. The upstairs floor of the old tavern is now empty and inhabited by nothing more than a few scantily clad mannequins and a thick layer of dust, playing host to memories that we can only imagine.
Early Northport boasted huge steamships running between Spokane and the Kootenai Lakes in British Columbia, most of which were built in Northport and at the Little Dalles, just down the river. International train routes and a young airport that at one time attracted aviation fanatics from around the country were fully operational in those days, hosting air shows and fly-ins and bringing the outside world to Northport. The steamships and the airport may be gone, but the memories of an important international port that was quite nearly the Stevens County Seat live on in the history of this little tavern.
The year after it was built, when a forest fire escaped it’s natural setting and devoured much of Northport, Kuk's (then Skrobian’s) was one of the few buildings that remained standing. The building was relocated from the former downtown along Front Street in 1901, pulled on logs by draft horses up the hill to a higher, flood-proof plane. The back of the bar at one point featured a soda fountain where the younger set could enjoy an ice cream soda while their parents sat at the bar and caught up on local gossip. The tavern was one of the only remaining buildings from the fire of 1914 that destroyed most of Northport’s commercial buildings.
Skrobian’s survived the fires, the floods, and even the prohibition, when the alcohol and gambling was moved upstairs and out of sight while the soda fountain carried on benignly in the public eye. For over 100 years, Kuk's has been the hub of social life in Northport, and a good representation of the tenacious nature of the local inhabitants. Fred Skrobian renamed the establishment “Fred’s Pool Hall” for a while, and at some point in the 1950s a pool table, bowling machine and shuffleboard game (the latter two are still operational at Kuk's) were brought in. In the early 1960s, Kuk’s was leased to Bill Bilson, who called the tavern “Frenchies” for a brief time, but after selling many of the valuable decorative antiques out of the building, Bilson was unable to make his payments and the Skrobian’s took over again.
In the late 1950s, Gary Kotzian recollects paying a $5 bill for a 24 pack of beer and a case of cigars. Too young at that age to legally buy the beer, he’d pay the $5 in the bar for the cigars, and circle around the block. Shortly thereafter, a cold 24 pack would be set in the alley behind the bar, left by the bartender for his retrieval. In 1968 the Skrobian family sold the bar to Marion L. (Larry) Kukuk, and it was rechristened with the name it bears today, Kuk's Tavern. Well into the 60s, the old bordello rooms upstairs were rented out as private quarters. Before owning the bar, Larry Kukuk had made his mark in the Northport area after a fatal accident on a sharp curve of highway 7 miles south of town that is known to this day as Kuk’s Corner. In 1952 Kukuk received a three-year prison sentence for the negligent deaths of a husband and wife that left four orphaned sons behind.
Over the course of a hundred and twenty five years, three stray bullet holes have found their resting place in the history of Kuks' walls, one from a visiting Spokane police officer who was showing off a new pistol, and one accidental fire that sailed right between the legs and under the barstool of an old local and drilled a hole in the wooden bar. The third bullet, above the window in the front of the tavern, keeps it’s story secret – the truth lost to the ages but speculation and imagination alive and well.
Gary and Marian Kotzian bought the bar in 1984 from Larry Kukuk, who wanted out of the tavern business after 20 years. Gary tells the story: “One Sunday he comes to me and says, ‘you still interested in buying that bar? There’s money in the till and beer in the cooler, just go open her up and start selling.’” - and so they did. Now, 31 years later, they are still selling beer “the old fashioned way, with a smile and a story or two,” with the help of daughter Deeann Kotzian, and the support of generations of Northport’s oldest families.
The years show their work, but Kuk's wears her age like the proud matriarch that she is. Strong and full of life, if a little bent at the knees and stooped in the back. The inside walls are plastered with a century of pop art and advertising – from Custer’s Last Fight, an original framed promotional print that was distributed from the Anheuser Busch Company in 1896, and is considered widely to be the oldest piece of “breweriana” (or brewing memorabilia) in the United States, to Cindy Crawford for Bud Light, circa 1987. The 20-foot shuffleboard, a glittery mirror ball from the 1970s, an internet based jukebox, free wifi, and an old bowling game round out the recreational offerings that Kuk's advertises, and in recent years the tavern has expanded to offer spirits as well. Every Tuesday night for the last six years has been “taco Tuesday”, where you can buy two tacos for a $1.50, and win a spot on the wall of fame if you can beat the record of eating 35 tacos in one sitting. Other food is available in house, or to go, for the under 21 crowd that isn’t allowed to dine in.
The next time the road calls you north, don’t forget to swing in to Kuk’s for a cold drink and remember our State as it was when it was born, young, wild and full of life, untempered and untamed.