Historically Speaking: Bill Parkhouse and the Town Hall Bar
The Town Hall Bar has been in business in West Fargo since 1936. When Bill Parkhouse bought it in 1964 it had eight stools and two booths. He was 25-years old, had a few years experience tending bar, and had $50 in a tip jar that he used in the cash register.
"Every day I had to hustle. I came in at 7 a.m. and left at midnight," Parkhouse remembered.
With only a narrow area for customers to walk, the Town Hall shared the building with a doctor, and dentist upstairs, and was wedged between a mechanics garage, and the Chamber of Commerce on the east side and a grocery store, drug store, and a clothing store to its west.
"The whole town was in this building. When someone would leave I rented out their space and cut a hole in the wall," he said.
He would cash payroll checks from the stockyard and packing plant workers and wouldn't charge them for it if they'd stay for a drink. He only had $200 on hand for cashing checks so he was frequently running down to the bank for more money.
In the late 1960s he saw how much of a crowd The Flame and The Five Spot in Fargo attracted with their topless go-go dancers and he soon found his way into the business.
"All I had to do was get the girls in and I wouldn't have to worry about the rest," he recalled, "Monday would always be a packed night because everybody wanted to see the new girls."
Getting people in was not a problem anymore. Most of his customers were from out of town which meant more business for the other bars in the area as well. In 1970, with most of his fellow tenants moved out, Parkhouse bought the entire building and turned the upstairs into apartments. He took down the remaining walls and made a stage for the dancers.
Pressure to close down the dancing was fierce, but it was such a great draw that Parkhouse vented some of the pressure by donating to causes around the community. By the latter part of the decade, however, he ran into strengthened opposition led by religious officials and Mayor Clayton Lodoen.
Mayor Lodoen wanted the city commission to be able to control the entertainment in the city. Complaints that the dancing promoted prostitution and worries about the reputation of his city drove him to action. Also serving as a state senator, Lodoen became the driving force in the state legislature to change the law to let municipalities regulate the entertainment in their city. In April of 1980 the issue was put to the ballot. It was non-binding and only advisory, but it showed that the majority of voters were in favor of an ordinance by over 100 votes.
The West Fargo Cabaret Ordinance was passed by the city commission in June of that year, but it was fought by bar owners, including Parkhouse, who argued that it violated the dancers' First Amendment rights. The bar owners were eventually ruled against and the ordinance went into effect on Nov. 29, 1980. It banned any "exhibition dancing or modeling by an entertainer who is not fully clothed." When the dancers left, Parkhouse's business dropped 90%.
"I had to hustle everything again," he remembered. "I'd try anything as long as it was legal." He flipped his cabaret into a sports bar, replacing the stage with an area for darts. He sponsored a softball league, pool league, fishing derbies, hula hoop contests, and chili cook-offs to name a few.
"The first free bingo in town was me and the Catholic church," he remarked.
One day a few customers stopped by saying they were on their way to hunt gophers. Parkhouse suggested that they come back afterward for a "gopher drink." They did and the next year they helped him turn it into a contest with trophies and prizes.
"That first hunt we had 50 people show up," he recollected. "Before that some folks thought I was an idiot. I said 'who's stupid now,' and after that they all started doing it!"
His only regret that first time is not collecting the gophers afterward. When it was done his customers tossed the dead gophers on the roof of the bar. Parkhouse noticed the awful stench the following Monday but didn't let it stop the gopher hunt from becoming an annual event.
Upon reflection, Parkhouse values his hard work over his easy times.
"The time with the dancers was the easiest, but the time with the sports bar was the best," he recalled.
But don't get the wrong idea about Parkhouse. Called "Wild Bill" in his day, he was known to party but he was a shrewd businessman.
"I wasn't always a pet angel, I'll tell you that, I was a hell raiser and a half, but I didn't let it interfere with my work. Drinking and work just don't work, regardless of what business you're in."
In 1980, the Town Hall bar became a landmark in the city of West Fargo. Parkhouse sold the bar in 2000 and it has changed hands since then. Now 72, he works a few days a week at the Fort Saloon & Mess Hall in Abercrombie, N.D.