GREAT FALLS — What is now a parking lot on Third Street South was once the Ozark Club, a racial barrier-breaking entertainment club in Great Falls.
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“It's a story that shouldn't be overlooked and not only about racial tensions and collaborations,” Kristi Scott, Director of the Cascade County Historical Society said, “but also thinking about music as an American art, jazz especially as an American art form, and how music brings us together and breaks down some of those barriers.”
The club was opened the night prohibition ended by Leo Lamar, a boxer from Chicago who decided to enter the entertainment business. He saw an opportunity as the Great Falls population grew and decided to capitalize on it.
“He saw World War Two as an opening because his club had been restricted to a colored club until then,” said historian Ken Robison. “But he quietly turned it into an interracial club where blacks and whites were both welcome.”
The club was open to all races and was one of the liveliest jazz clubs between the Midwest and the West Coast. Black citizens attended because it was the only place they could go, and white citizens attended because of the music and entertainment.
However, because it was owned by blacks, its history, like much of the west, was not well preserved when it closed.
“It’s important to remember the past and to learn from it,” Robison said, “And a big part of that is the racial environment and the stories around that.”
In the early 2000s, historians including Robison himself began to recover and commemorate the history of the club, which is an important part of Great Falls civil rights history.
“The Ozark Club was a huge step in building toward those later events that allowed blacks to attend any church they wanted, any club they wanted and live anywhere they wanted in Great Falls,” Robison said.
A night at the Ozark was an exciting experience, until 1962, when just weeks after the passing of Leo due to a heart attack, there was a late-night fire, leading to the end of the Ozark Club, and suspicions raised as to the cause.
Scott said, "We don't know the exact cause of the fire; we do know that hardship had struck the family with Leo passing away, and not long after that, the club burned to the ground."
While the actual Ozark Club may no longer be with us, the memories of bringing excitement and entertainment still exists to this day. You can experience the legacy of the Ozark Club at the History Museum, located at 422 2nd Street South; click here to visit the website.