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Jim Bell, owner of Iowa City's Deadwood Tavern, doesn't mind getting to his bar early Saturday mornings to work. After 25 years, he still enjoys serving drinks and the people who populate the bar.

That's why Bell, Deadwood staff and tavern regulars celebrated 25 years of Bell owning Deadwood Tavern on Wednesday with free gumbo and drink deals.

"We're in the fun business at Deadwood, and after 25 years, I'm still having fun," Bell said.

He bought the bar in the heart of downtown Iowa City, 6 S. Dubuque St., in his late 30s. He said he thought he was ready to own a bar because he felt it would be a good job outside the world of farming, which his dad had worked in for decades.

What he found after years of owning the Deadwood was not just a normal job — he found a community.

"The best part of this job is the people. Be it my staff, the regulars, the best part of a good bar should be the people," Bell said last week inside his bar.

"We're not a sports bar. We root on the Hawkeyes, but we're not a sports bar. When people come here, they want to get drinks and talk," Bell said. "It's a community hub more than anything."

Deadwood is a traditional tavern, serving up drinks but not much food, just small bags of chips behind the counter. But a regular at the bar does bring in chili for Hawkeye football games.

Inside the massive bar, which can hold 218 people, are dozens of seats, a couple of pool tables and five pinball machines. Bell said people of all ages come to the tables and pinball machines, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

"We used to be the old hippie bar, but we've run out of old hippies," he said.

Kerri Haught, a bartender who has worked at Deadwood for over six years, said, "We're a townie bar and a college bar, which makes it fascinating the different type of people we get."

Bell said a large chunk of his business comes from the regulars. Gathering up a loyal following came after building years of connections with customers.

Bell credits his staff and longstanding Deadwood traditions for keeping the regulars around. Bell said he only hires "people who are passionate about something, be it literature, art, music," because those with passion "are usually passionate about people, our customers, too."

For each new staff member he hires, he hammers a nail into a wooden fish that sits over the bar. The fish has no name, Bell said, but it's Deadwood tradition.

Staying open on Easter and Christmas Day are some of the favorite traditions among the regular customers, Bell said.

With retirement years away, Bell said, he still finds joy in coming to Deadwood, but there's a byproduct of the watering hole's longstanding success that makes him even happier. With money he made through the tavern, he was able to buy 330 acres of farmland alongside the Iowa River in Louisa County.

Affectionately known as the Deadwood Wildlife and Habitat Restoration Project, Bell turned over the land to the United States Department of Agriculture's Wetland Reserve Program. Now hundreds of acres of preserved wetlands, Bell regularly takes his staff there to bond over campfires and nature strolls.

"It's really cool that we as a businesses were able to make something help Iowa ecologically," Haught said. "That's not something every bar in town does."

Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, zberg@press-citizen.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg. 

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