Saying Goodbye to a Community Icon
After 25 years, Jake’s Tavern closes its doors
From behind a desk in the airy office off the liquor store inside Jake’s Tavern, Jane Patton fielded questions from a contractor and a beer vendor guy. Tomorrow is the 17th Annual Steel Stallion Ball and the place will be swarming with hundreds of Wyoming Biker Association bikers. There’s still lots to do to get the sprawling tavern ready for its last hurrah, and Patton had returned from Rock Springs in mid-June to help with its final events and closing.
Officially, Jake’s closed a week ago on July 14, but they are opening their doors for this annual fundraiser. One of many community events that owners Jimmy and Barbie Hays had hosted at the bar over the past 25 years.
Patton sighed with a smile as she picked up the phone in between questions. This call was from a long-time customer, who like many in the past week, had called to check in with her and share their memories about her parents and the bar. Her parents were beloved, she said.
“There’s really not a bad story about them,” Patton said. “They were both kind and considerate. People loved them.”
Patton laughed about how long it could take to make a simple trip to the grocery store with all the people stopping to talk to them. Prior to Jimmy taking over the bar, their parents had always held huge Thanksgiving dinners at their house to which they invited anyone without a place to spend the holiday, a tradition that continued after they bought the tavern.
For many, both customers and staff, Jake’s Tavern was a home away from home. A place they could come to throw some darts, play a video game, shoot pool with friends, or just sit at the bar with a cup of coffee in the morning and talk about the news. Others spoke about the “wall of fame” with the rows and rows of musician and band photos, from well-known names to up-and-coming acts, who all took the time to sign a photo for the wall, including Bellamy Brothers, Darryl Worley, and Chris Young, to name a few.
For others, it was the place to meet friends, take a date, or dance to rock and roll music. Almost everyone living in Gillette for the past couple decades – as well as many who were just passing through – have a Jake’s story of some kind, Patton said. She recounts all the fundraisers hosted there and all the money raised for individuals in need or community groups. That room was always available for free for anyone who needed it, she noted, and that’s a part of the legacy that will be missed.
“That’s the hard part,” she said. “Our events hall facility was a wonderful community asset.”
End of an era
Jake’s has a long history in the community. Prior to it becoming Jake’s Tavern in 1994, Jim was one-third owner of the building with his brother Joe and dad Robert, who leased it out to other bar owners, including JB Blues and the Rustic Inn.
It was at the Rustic Inn that Jimmy met Barbie, who worked there part-time as a bartender. Back then, she was a single mother of two school-aged children, who worked full-time at a bank. When the couple bought out Jim’s dad and brother, they renamed the establishment Jake’s Tavern.
Many people over the years have asked where the name came from. According to Patton, her parents told people the names stemmed from the expression, “everything is jake,” or satisfactory. Other people speculated that the name was a conglomeration of the first two letters of their middle names, Jane and Kearns, but according to Patton, that’s only half the story. It’s also the first two letters of their kids’ names, Jane, Kevin, and Talayna, which was fitting Patton said for the pair who were always very much about the family.
When Jake’s opened it consisted of one building that now is referred to as the “old bar.” Back then, it was pretty much standing room only as customers jockeyed for a spot at the handful of tables or the bar. Slowly, over the next two decades, the original 5,513-square foot liquor store and bar would continue to grow, beginning with the beer gardens in the back, followed by game rooms for pool, darts and video games, and finally, the 8,036-foot events hall, complete with stage and rolling garage doors that opened up into outdoor seating with a parking lot on the roughly two-and-a-half acre spread.
Music was Jimmy’s passion and part of the legacy of Jake’s is the music he brought to Gillette and the careers he helped launch.
Jake’s Tavern was one of the best places to play, according to Judd Hoos band member Shane Funk. Funk and his band stopped in a few times a year at Jake’s over the past 12 years, and remember it as one of the best venues they ever played. This is saying something, Funk noted, considering that the band tours in more than 10 state, with many gigs in big cities and concert halls.
“Jim knew what he was doing when he set that room up,” Funk said, describing the big stage, high ceilings and careful placement of plugs for easy set-up and tear down. “It was a true concert venue for bands big and small.”
Jake’s holds many memories for he and his band, Funk said. Along with being a regular stop on their schedule, they also wrote and recorded some songs there and even filmed a portion of a video.
Apart from the venue and great crowds, Jim was also a one-of-a-kind, according to Funk, who remembers him fondly as a straight shooter and gentleman.
“When you play the place over and over again, you get to know the people,” Funk said. “Jim stood out as being an authentic, genuine person who was always coming up to say hi to everyone and went out of his way to treat us real well. He was just a good guy with a lot of integrity.”
If Jim booked a band, he added, then you knew it was a done deal. Period. He never tried to bump anyone, even if a bigger name act wanted to play. He joked that he didn’t care if it was the Rolling Stones, Funk added with laugh. “If Jim booked you, then that was that.”
In later years, when Jimmy was living with pancreatic cancer, he still stayed active in the business and never let any detail slip, Funk noted. “He was still hands-on and very positive,” Funk said, “even when he was sick.”
Eric May, too, has fond memories of both Jake’s and its owners, where he also played for nearly 12 years. May had moved to Gillette and was playing in a country band mainly at Boot Hill. He’d always wanted to play at Jake’s and approached Jim many times over the years to ask for a shot. “He always told me no, because we were a country band,” May said, “and they only played rock and roll.”
May asked Jim if he’d ever heard them, because they were pretty rocked up country, May laughed. Finally, on a snowy weekend when the roads closed and the band from Casper was snowbound, Jim called May to see if they were free. Ironically, in town, he and his band also got stuck and had to have a tractor pull them out of a ditch on the way to the show.
That one night was all it took. They had a big crowd, Jim and Barbie loved them, and from there they became a tavern regular.
“Jim and Barbie were salt of the earth people, and they became really good friends,” he said. “It was a big step in my career to let us play there, and I’ll always appreciate them giving us that chance.”
For May, it was a big deal to open for bands like Fire House and Chris LeDoux and son Ned’s band Western Underground. Later, after Jim died, May returned to Jake’s with the Thomas Gabriel Band featuring Johnny Cash’s oldest grandson. That was a bitter sweet gig, May recalled, because they knew the bar was closing.
“It was a place with a great vibe,” May said, “and I’m sad to see it close.”
It wasn’t just the stellar stage or big crowds, he noted. It was the owners and their big hearts for people and the community. He can’t even count the number of fundraisers he’d attended there over the years.
“Jim and Barbie were always the first to help in our community, whether it was someone who had cancer or was in an accident, they would step in and throw a fundraiser,” he said. “It was a place with great spirit, and I’ve never seen anything else like it.”
All in the family
Together, Jimmy and Barbie were a power couple, Patton said, putting in countless hours to keep business thriving. It was more than just a place to hear a band or have a drink, Patton said. They were interested in making everyone feel comfortable and treating customers like family, from the doctors and lawyers to the coal miners and oil field workers.
“Everyone was welcome,” Patton said. “No matter who you were. It’s just a building, of course. But it’s really the people and all the patrons that made Jake’s so special.”
Currently, the building is up for sale as it has been for the past decade, even prior to Jimmy and Barbie’s deaths in 2016 and last April, respectively. They’d planned on selling the place and enjoying retirement, but the right buyer hadn’t come along, so they kept it going.
After Barbie died last spring, Talayna stepped in to help her sister. For her, it’s been an emotional week because Jake’s is tied up in so many family memories.
“I’ve had dozens of mixed emotions,” Talayna said choking back tears. “It was a place where everyone knew everybody and was home to a lot of people for a long time.”
And though Patton feels sad to see the place change hands out of their family, neither she nor her sister or brother Kevin have an interest in taking over the family business.
“It was their dream,” Patton said, “and they encouraged us to follow our own.”