At this South Dakota bunkhouse, the grill is on 'til 11 p.m. during the harvest
Agar, South Dakota, may boast only 76 residents, but they're probably all bringing a friend to The Bunkhouse on Saturday nights ... or, word has gotten out about the best bar-and-restaurant this side of the Missouri River.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another story of a multiple-part series that highlights some of South Dakota's best small-town eateries. These stories will run through the summer as tourists are traveling South Dakota, looking for places to stop and eat. Here's the fifth story in the series showing the great eateries South Dakota has to offer.
AGAR, South Dakota — First went the school.
Then, the softball tourney — a staple in little Agar, South Dakota (pop. 76) — after some wild types from Pierre showed up, tipping over port-a-johns.
“They turned it into a two-day drunk,” says Paul Brandt, from the corner of the darkened Bunkhouse bar, an hour into a Wednesday night.
But The Bunkhouse — a windowless, wheat country tavern — has stayed. Now into its second generation of ownership, Laynee Brandt, who rises early to work as an aide at the school in Onida and stays up late tending bar, frying chislic, and serving drinks at her tiny town's tavern, sometime until 2 a.m.
“I don’t know what people were up to last night,” said Brandt, recounting another demoralizing Twins score. “But we only had one wife call in to see where her husband was.”
Mid-July is a busy time for Agar, smack dab in the middle of wheat harvest, when she keeps the grill on 'til 11 p.m. But 2021 has been different. No one can remember the last it rained. The South Africans who normally come to work seasonally are fewer in number, they say. And Brandt had to put a help wanted ad for a bartender up on Facebook.
"It's just tough to find workers," she said, noting the pinch isn't tied to any national work shortage. "It's always been tough." Brandt adds she often relies on a local gal, Tammie, in the kitchen.
"Mom gets to help out," she says with a smile.
But, in a part of the county where everybody knows everybody and basketball scores from the 1970s are spoken of like last week's crop prices, this is exactly what she wanted when she got into the bar business around a decade ago — buying up the famed hometown spot. Although, she admits she's still learning.
“This is what they never tell you,” said Brandt, as she admires the dollar bills stuck by patrons to the roof of her new ceiling.
The Bunkhouse is the place in a town with a solitary water tower and dusty park. Regulars come up from Onida, Highmore, Pierre. Bryon Noem, the state's first gentleman, popped by recently asking on an old basketball coach.
Last year was a time of change, too, for The Bunkhouse, which has been around at least the mid 1960s and (named for the old bunkhouse that housed migrant workers from Mexico during the wheat harvests).
When the pandemic came in March, the Agar town council asked Brandt if she’d serve take-out only. So she did, and started in on a construction project . With help from a local contractor, she ripped up the old carpet, painted the walls, and level the floor.
“People come in here and do a double take,” said Brandt. “They just can’t believe what we’ve done to the place.”
There's more to do, like finishing the lighting in the dining area. But the woman tending bar, cooking food, and mowing the lawn (that was yesterday) has only so much daylight.
“We served 120 last 'Mexican night,'” said Brandt, who grew up around the restaurant's kitchen, when her parents and then aunt owned the joint, making hot sauce for the week. “That’s bigger than the town's population.”
The fancy folks come to Sutton Bay, the resort 17 miles west on the Missouri. But there's rattlesnakes there. And green fees for non-members. And the food might be better here anyway. The local chatter certainly is.
So, if you come, the hamburgers are a go-to on the menu (with the beef cattle raised by that guy in the corner, her dad). Then there's the shrine in the other corner to a raconteur who reportedly died from a heart-attack on his tractor. And there's the jukebox. And you can come back on Saturdays for "Mexican Night," where they serve a beef gravy over enchiladas.
It’s not even 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, but Brandt expects the regulars to come shifting in soon — it's not exactly Van Gogh's French crow-infested fields on the French countryside , but the sun is still high, the dust floats up from the field as trucks and combines bring in the wheat harvest. At another tavern down the road in White Lake, South Dakota, a man says "if we could get a half-inch, Lord, that'd be a helluva deal."
But until then, up in Agar, there'll be the grill on, and maybe the game on, and a gal who will work late, keeping the light on, at the big-hearted Bunkhouse in the tiny farming town.