John and Suzie Cook are saying goodbye to the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof after 16 years of ownership.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
John and Suzie Cook, owners of the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof for the last 16 years, are hoping today will be a day for patrons to cheer rather than cry in their beers as they celebrate the final days of their ownership.
"It's gonna be hard to say goodbye. This place has been our life for 16 years," Suzie Cook said.
The lodge, known as the "Big T" to Kasilof residents, started out humbly as a tiny tar-paper covered bar, but has grown substantially over the years. It expanded with construction additions to allow for more seating in the dining area, a stage for local entertainers to perform and an outdoor patio for people to partake in horseshoes and volleyball.
It is now not only a hub of summer activity in a town so tiny you can count the major business on one hand, but a place where everything from baby showers to wakes have been held. It is also steeped in history and tradition.
The Big T is one of the few, if not only, business in Alaska that can boast being in the Guinness Book of World Records. It has the world's largest hat collection. It would be impossible not to notice the lids 27,264 presently and more being added regularly hanging from ceilings, walls and everywhere else there's room inside.
"The new owner bought the hats. The bar and property just came with them," John Cook said.
In winter, the Big T serves as the official starting and finishing point for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race and the permanent home of the champion's trophy. The 22-year-old race is not only billed as the toughest 200-mile race in the state but also one that draws Iditarod and Yukon Quest champions, as well as mushers from the Lower 48 and as far away as Switzerland, Germany, Japan and Spain.
The Big T is known among "meat and potato" types as one of the best places around to get a good bite to eat and features prime rib nights twice a week, which draws people from near and far for the cut of beef, baked potato, green beans and hot rolls.
"We're already doing over 100 dinners a night on Monday and Friday," said Suzie Cook on Friday, but she'll be the first to attest to the fact that in just another month when the tourists arrive in full force 100 dinners will be a slow night.
The cocktail lounge within the Big T is a place where a lot of bull gets shot nightly by the regulars, yet is still friendly and welcoming to newcomers because of house rules like "take a swing inside the bar, and get banned from it for life."
"We've always tried to keep a community atmosphere where people can feel good about bringing their family and friends, tourists can feel safe and slope workers' wives can come by for a drink without worrying about people hitting on them or bothering 'em while their husbands are away," John Cook said.
So why, then, with so many positive attributes to the place, do the Cooks want to sell after owning the lodge and bar for 16 years?
"Because we've owned a lodge and bar for 16 years," Suzie Cook joked.
With Suzie at 59 years old and with John being 72, the two are ready to retire and start enjoying life without all the responsibilities, stress and hassles associated with owning their own business. As John likes to put it, "I'm ready to move from this side of the bar to the other side of the bar."
The couple will continue to permanently reside, as they do now, in Funny River but said they are looking forward to using their boats and motor home to pursue more adventure around the state.
The Cooks don't intend to go out without one last bash to celebrate their 16 years of good times and memories. Today they'll party from 4 to 9 p.m. and will serve 1,000 free tacos and give out prizes. They've even managed to get a band back together. Men With No Pride Ray Bacon, brothers Matt and Dave Boyle, George Halder and Mike Morgan will give a reunion performance.
"It's been 13 years since we've all been together but we all got our start right here next to the bathroom, so it seemed appropriate to play here again one last time," Ray Bacon said.
He added that Men With No Pride used to pack the place so full that the floors would be shaking and it would be standing room only. He said that he was hopeful that today would be the same way. John Cook thinks it will. He said he's expecting between 200 and 300 people.
"I've been bumping into people everywhere I've been going in town, some of them I don't even know, but they all keep saying the same thing, 'See you Sunday'," Cook said on Friday.
Cook said he thought the new owner knew what he was getting into, but if he didn't, "He'll sure know after Sunday."
The new owner, Duane Lafleur who recently became an Alaska resident after moving up from Arizona, said that after two years of research and a year to consummate the deal, he does know what he's getting into.
"It's a unique bar where everybody knows everybody and there's a lot of community involvement. I intend to keep everything the same and just run it like the Cooks ran it, and hopefully I can build on their success," Lafleur said.
He officially takes possession of the Big T on Tuesday.
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