Rows of bottles line the shelves behind the bar at the Owls Club. Some are new, some old. Some are full, some near empty. Some are expensive brands, some less so. All of the bottles shares one thing: small, white labels with names printed on them. These names are of the bottle’s owners because these bottles do not belong to the bar. Perched on a barstool, Don Brandt can found at this bar most days. Brandt, the general manager at the Owls, has been a regular for the past 31 years.
Like other bars, it has regulars that come for a drink and to talk with friends. But when you belly up to the worn wooden bar with Brandt and ask for a drink, you had better be a member of this club.
“You have to be a member to be served,” Brandt said. “Or you can be the guest of a member.” Brandt, like many other Owls, became a member after a friend of his brought him in. “Some people come in everyday after work,” Brandt said. “It always starts with a friend knowing a friend, it’s a social club. People play cards, eat food. It’s not just drinking, but we do that too.”
The labeled bottles of liquor are due to the Owls‘ liquor license; they are a bottle club. According to the MN 340A.414 Consumption Permit hanging behind the bar, members bring their own bottles of liquor and the bartender put a name on it and places it with the other bottles behind the bar. The drink order is made with the owner’s bottle and a few dollars go to the club for soda and ice.
“We have the last bottle club license in St. Louis County,” Brandt said proudly. “We haven’t heard of any others around the state.”
The license can no longer be applied for; the county doesn’t have a form for it anymore. It was issued in 1971 as an alternative for a full liquor license because the population of Duluth shrank after U.S. Steel left the Twin Ports. The number of licenses available are determined by the number of people within the city limits. The Owls was one of many bars to have their full liquor licenses revoked as people left Duluth to find work elsewhere.
“The members of this club have always been ordinary guys: men from the railroad, bankers, chefs and accountants,” Brandt said.
Unemployment in the 1970s drove many of these men south to find work. Since then, the population of Duluth has grown back. Brandt finds himself surrounded with new members in their thirties.
“Our membership is around 250, including the ladies,” Brandt said. “It’s been bigger and smaller, but it’s always been around there.”
Brandt, who is also a Freemason, Shriner and member of the Scottish Rites, knows most of the older members from the other fraternal orders in Duluth, commenting that it is common for Masons and Shriners to come to the Owls Club after meetings.
“Not many people in Duluth know about us here,” Brandt said. “But we don’t have secrets. No hand shakes.”
The Owls are also a fraternal order. Men have been members of this social club for 110 years. A women’s group, the Owlettes, began 20 years ago when their wives started to meet.
Debby Churchill has been a member of the Owlettes for three years.
“New people come in as older ones start to go,” Churchill said, a member of the middle-aged group at the Owls Club. “But we are all a family here. If someone is sick or loses a loved one, I send them a card.”
Brandt, still chatting with other regulars at the bar, will order another drink from his own bottle before the club closes at 9 p.m. and he heads home.
“It would be too expensive to apply for a new license and I like it the way it is,” Brandt said. “As long as we can pay the bills with this way, we are going to keep it.”
Are you a member of the Owl club? Have you even been to something similar? Let us know in the comments.