Courtesy Exchange Tavern

If the walls of Spanaway’s Exchange Tavern could talk, one can only imagine the stories they’d have to share — some joyous, some funny, some maybe even terrifying. And all of them, no doubt, intriguing.

With roots dating back to at least 1890, this historic gem got its start as a rough loggers’ saloon reportedly nicknamed “The Bucket of Blood.” Its storied past includes tales of a wooden wheelbarrow that wives would use to haul home their drunken husbands, a bucket brigade that frantically saved the tavern in the early 1920s after a fire at a nearby feed store ripped through surrounding businesses, and a room where wives would gather and wait for their husbands to finish their nights of drinking and socializing.

Stories of free-flowing moonshine at the bar — even during Prohibition — abound.

“It simply hung out a sign as a general store, and it ran moonshine. The moonshine was cooked in several areas around here, but one of the areas was right out on the little island that’s on Spanaway Lake not far from the Exchange,” said Jean Sensel, who owned the Exchange with her husband, Irv, between 1985 and 2001. “Henry (a former customer who has since died) told me that when he was 10 years old, he would take the orders that were ‘medicinal’ — it was always a ‘medicinal’ order — and he would deliver that ‘medicinal’ order to various customers in the area, which is the moonshine, and get 10 cents a bottle for delivery.”

In fact, shortly after Sensel and her husband purchased the business in 1985, she discovered in the attic cases and cases of ornate gallon jugs that were once used to house the outlawed liquor.

Despite the wild tales, the installation of the rail line in Lake Park and the establishment of Mount Rainier National Park in 1899 brought about change and helped transform the area into a popular
tourist haven.

“They brought all kinds of tourists out by the rail line, and they would wait in the hotel, a beautiful hotel. The next day, they would take a motorcade to the new Mount Rainier National Park,” Sensel said. “So, the Exchange became kind of a gentlemen’s club. They had a wine room that they built next to the Exchange, and that’s where the ladies waited for the train, or the motorcade, to go back up to the mountain. And they cleaned the place up a lot.”

Today, aging photographs, cherished memorabilia, and old news articles help tell the tales of this community landmark — its walls now a museum of sorts. In a sense, the walls are talking. 

“This place is historic. Established and operating in some form of commerce since 1890, SET is a neighborhood backyard. No pretense. Often comfortable,” said one customer in an online review. 

Added another: “The history is awesome. It’s an old bar with (a lot) of regulars.”

In recent years, the Exchange has hosted countless community events like bridal and baby showers, wedding ceremonies and receptions, wakes, and holiday parties.

Current owner Mike Metcalf said he hopes to “keep the experience the same so that all the people that come can enjoy being at the oldest continually operated bar in Washington state.

Al Zender, standing on the porch of the tavern. managed the business during WWII, while owner Irv Ball served in the military.
Courtesy the Ball family

“We have tried to keep the place as it has been for decades,” Metcalf continued. “Anything that we have done is behind the scenes to update the (utilities), add liquor and systems to be more efficient. Everybody that comes in and hasn’t been there in 10, 20, 30 years and used to come in with a friend, parent, or grandparent always says that the place is just as they remember it,” said Metcalf, who purchased the Exchange in 2001. “It is really a lot of fun to hear all the fun times and experiences that people have had there.”

With roots that go back roughly 130 years, the Exchange has become notable among local residents and visitors alike. Its charm and allure lie not within modern decor or trendy bites, but rather in its rich history and hometown atmosphere.

It’s fascinating to imagine all of those who have walked through its doors since it first opened so many years ago. Perhaps some of its most loyal patrons never really left — reliving the good old days and joyously toasting in the shadows. If only walls could talk. — Antoinette Alexander