Bob “Mongo” Eikelberry is the owner and founder of one of Des Moines’ most prolific gay bars. The Blazing Saddle is the oldest gay bar in the city, having originally opened in 1983. Prior to being the proprietor of the Blazing Saddle, Mongo had been an electrician for over thirty years, and even had a contracting service for a time.
But much earlier in his life, Mongo was doing something much different than contracting and bar owning. He had been a sergeant in the army with ninth division of the first cavalry.
“And yes, I was out, but I lied,” Mongo said.
He said that, besides his service, his sexuality was never any kind of secret, even as far back as junior high.
His work as an electrician is what first got Mongo interested in opening his own gay bar. He had been a part of the construction of several Des Moines gay bars before his own, which is what inspired him to open the Blazing Saddle.
“All the owners had one thing in common,” Mongo said. “All they wanted was money. They didn’t want to be a part of the community. So I felt by opening this, we could have a community base.”
Mongo donates much of profit from the Blazing Saddle to various charities. First and foremost, to him, is the Veteran Center. His second biggest priority is their scholarship foundation.
Another notable recipient, though not as major anymore, was an AIDS benefit that Mongo started, which was eventually taken over by Primary Health. That money now goes to Cedar Valley AIDS Project. Mongo noted that the reason he created the benefit was always to help the people, not the “corporate” side of it.
The scholarship, known as the “Guardian Angels’ Scholarship” is run through the Imperial Court of Iowa. This is another organization dedicated to helping the LGBTQ+ society of Iowa, and was also started in part by Mongo. The scholarship is for residents of Iowa who are also going to school in Iowa. Entrants go through a background check, several letters of recommendation and their application is reviewed by the Imperial Court system, before an independent committee decides on the winner.
“This year we gave 8000 away,” Mongo said. “Now in the scope of things, it’s not that huge, but, by golly it’ll pay for books.”
Mongo strongly believes that the Blazing Saddle is a welcoming place, though he does admit that it was not always this way.
“When I started out it was the ‘Country Western Leather Levi Bar’ and it was men only,” Mongo said. “And I said ‘hey wait a minute, I’ve got a lot of lesbian friends,’ so slowly they started coming in. ‘And I’ve got a lot of straight friends,’ so they started coming in.”
Mongo said that many of the Blazing Saddle’s guests thank him for making the bar into such an open environment, but he says that’s not the point.
“No, thank you for being here!” Mongo said. “This is a fun place, we have our own music, we can do our own dancing, there’s no drugs, there’s no violence, there’s no prejudice, we’ve got straights, gays, everybody else, and it’s wonderful. I mean, packed.”
Mongo is not just the founder of the Blazing Saddle, but also a major founder of Des Moines Pride Parade as well.
“It’s gotten way beyond my wildest expectation,” Mongo said.
Though he’s happy to see where pride is today, he also thinks that it’s important to remember how the community got to where it is now.
“It took a lot of civil rights fighting, a lot of us just standing up against establishment, and saying ‘we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going anywhere,’” Mongo said.
“If you don’t stand up and make a change, you’re not gonna get a change.”
Mongo still appears in Des Moines news every once in a while, often to deal with vandalism against the Blazing Saddle. Rocks have been thrown through the front windows on more than one occasion, and the bar has even received many threatening letters, with one containing a suspected hazardous white powder. However, this powder did end up being harmless.
Though Mongo was a major part of turning the Des Moines pride scene into what it is today, he finds that running the Blazing Saddle, donating to his charities and the occasional public appearance (such as the Des Moines pride parade) are more than enough for him. He said that most nights, he’s not even in the bar past 9 p.m. Even though the Blazing Saddle usually has special events going on, Mongo typically makes sure he’s in bed before 10.