June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
America’s most impressive historic survivors just may be our taverns—because they’ve had to do it all on their own, by offering you exactly the same kind of comfort they did your great-grandfather
During more than a decade of traveling America seeking interesting food and drink and lodging, we have had the good fortune to come across some of the country’s most distinctive taverns. Their décor may be scarred hardwood beams from another century or kitsch that seems to be from another planet; their clientele can range from regulars who mark their barstools not with signs or plaques but with sharp glances at unwitting interlopers, to a transient crowd barely out of college; and their wares can run from a full menu with a wide selection of beers, wines, and spirits to a single draft tap and a jar of pickled eggs. So what signals to us that we have just entered an authentic American tavern, if not age or ambiance? Simply its character.
Our nation was born in taverns. In colonial America they were places where people would go not only to eat and drink and pass the time but to argue the issues of the day—more and more vehemently as the gulf with Great Britain widened. Although food was served, these inns were not really restaurants. True dining establishments did not come to America until Delmonico’s opened its doors in Lower Manhattan in 1827, and the first tavern was likely established in the New World not long after the first house was built. And while many had rooms to let, they were certainly not hotels. The American tavern was primarily a place where people sought companionship, cemented friendships, made business contacts, and found respite from a harsh environment.
And so it remains in the year 2003. In most of the taverns we visit, like Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse in Vermont’s historic Norwich Inn, we find full menus (in Murdock’s, an epicurean one), but dining is not a genuine tavern’s raison d’être. For that you must turn to the bar and most frequently to the draft taps, which for the Norwich means a clutch of ales brewed in the old livery barn beside the inn, only a few hundred feet from where we lifted our first pint.
The Norwich Inn, just off the Appalachian Trail, was born in the 1700s in the same way as most taverns, as a resting point for journeymen, emigrants, and nomads after a long day on the road. Even though legislators of Puritan times had decidedly mixed feelings about alcohol, they sanctioned taverns in order to provide wayfarers with shelter and sustenance, and they meted out licenses to place inns a day’s horseback journey apart. This was partly a matter of protecting the citizens from constant annoyance; when there was no tavern, wayfarers were compelled to request food, lodging, and succor for themselves and their horses from the nearest house.
As soon as Col. Jasper Murdock, a self-made trader who had come to the Vermont wilderness with his parents in a dugout canoe, put up one of the first dwellings on the coaching road north of Boston, in 1797, he found himself obliged to take in travelers. After a time he made a business of it. Over the last two centuries his hostelry evolved with the world around it, catering to a changing clientele of Federal-era merchants, tourists headed for the White Mountains, and reveling Dartmouth students. It has expanded and contracted with the state of the local economy and the mettle of its owners, and, like every other tavern, it had to edge its way gingerly through Prohibition.
The Norwich Inn looks in every way a product of the Victorian era: Queen Anne shingling, a noble turret, a welcoming stick-style porch. But we found the Alehouse, like other old taverns, hard to date, since it has been so frequently rebuilt. Less important than encrustations of architecture or décor, however, is the Norwich Inn’s feel, which we noticed the moment we stepped inside to be greeted not by a “front-desk associate” but by the innkeeper himself, just as our great-grandparents might have been. Tim Wilson, the burly hotelier, even looks like a man of the past, one who eschews such modern conceits as aerobics and decaf cappuccino in favor of an honest larder and forthright hospitality. Before we could enter the realm of e-mail reservations and credit-card swipes, he ushered us into the tavern for a welcoming pint of spicy, thirst-quenching Old Slipperyskin India Pale Ale, followed closely by another of sweetish, chocolaty Stackpole Porter.
As Colonel Murdock might have done two centuries earlier, and as was common practice among tavern keepers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Wilson brews his own ale for sale and consumption at the inn, although as a concession to contemporary times he also bottles it for take-away. He brews only a handful of styles, none of them anything like our modern lagers, and he’s a one-man band, devising his own recipes, brewing alone, even growing hops on the premises. Wilson’s ales—and his hospitality—make his establishment home to a comradely circle of locals who instinrtively drew us into conversation, bringing the Norwich even closer to its early American roots. As we traded concerns about terrorism, bolstered one another’s hopes for the sagging economy, and shared local gossip, the Norwich felt very much like a twenty-first-century version of the sort of colonial tavern that once spawned governments.
Indeed, the beer itself connects the Norwich Inn to both the earliest days of New England and our modern marketplace. Americans have long been avid consumers of beer, but in the country’s early days, there were no big breweries to supply us with long necks and king cans of lager, so innkeepers were obliged to brew their own ales. In fact, it was the demand for beer from taverns that led to commercial brewing in America, which began when the Massachusetts Bay Colony licensed Capt. Robert Sedgwick as a “common brewer” in 1635.
Ingredients were limited in those early days, and equipment was crude, and Tim Wilson’s porter and ale are surely a fair sight better than anything Colonel Murdock served his guests. And for all the fellowship of the old inns, today’s social intercourse is undeniably more liberated. Now we are free to chat with our fellow travelers and the innkeeper—or not, as we please. In the eighteenth century New England tavern owners were obliged by law to know and report the origin, destination, and business objective of every guest. In addition, we probably would have been besieged by salesmen, for everything from real estate to geometry lessons to slaves was on offer in those early taverns. Had we been fortunate enough to find a good conversationalist, the topic of choice would likely have been politics, and only one of us would have been doing the talking, since a proper woman’s behavior in taverns would have echoed her role in colonial society, as part of the private rather than the public realm.
Then again, notions of propriety are often relative and geographically determined. In earlytwentieth-century Alaska, it is unlikely that many of those who had charted this unforgiving terrain would have been much cowed by old social niceties. Legend has it that at the champagne-drenched 1913 opening of a bare boards alehouse and “unofficial brothel” in Juneau known as the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, the front door key was attached to a balloon and floated out of sight, a signal that the establishment intended never to close.
That Wild West spirit dominated the Alaskan as late as the 1970s, says the current owner, Bettye Adams. Known as Ace’s Place under its then-landlord Ace Burny, this was a raffish operation that closed for just three hours a day (between 5:00 and 8:00 A.M. ) and often entertained locals with impromptu strip shows starring their friends and neighbors. “There was a certain status in getting your clothes off at Ace’s,” says Adams, quickly adding that she of course never participated. Although that frontier spirit has been toned down considerably under the stewardship of Adams and her husband, Mike, the Alaskan still proudly boasts the trappings of a traditional brotheltavern, from oil paintings of nudes on the walls to an ornate winding staircase that one imagines could lead to all sorts of temptations. As for the strip shows, well, locals vouchsafe that the Alaskan is still the kind of bar where anything can happen.
Like many historic taverns, the Alaskan has found its salvation in part from an unexpected quarter. The rise of American craft breweries, or microbreweries, has helped many a flea-bitten mongrel of a tavern begin life anew as a specialty beer bar. A prime example is the Rose and Raindrop in Portland, Oregon.
Built as a mortuary in 1890, the Rose has had a complicated past. Its premises have served as, among other things, a hotel, a nickelodeon, an antiques store, and a Chinese laundry. In 1997, 18 years after its last renovation, the Rose was bought by Mel Hickman. Along with his partner, Don Younger, landlord of one of the finest specialty beer bars in the country, Portland’s inimitable Horse Brass Pub, Hickman turned this ancient brick structure into an endearingly rough-around-the-edges oasis of fine local ales and lagers, simple yet filling fare, and, most important, easy conversation. Today, some 80 years after ticket holders lined up to see vaudeville troupes like the Duffy Players and the Baker Players, patrons gather to talk politics, catch up on local news, monitor the comings and goings of the staff—many of whom have become fast friends—and exchange the occasional homebrew recipe, all over pints of fine craft brews like Terminal Gravity I.P.A., Deschutes Black Butte Porter, and Rogue Brutal Bitter.
While the direct link between the prosperity of the nation’s brewing industry and its taverns seems obvious today, that relationship has historically been the source of one of America’s most enduring double standards. On the one hand, our traditional Puritan ethic requires us to eschew wasting time in barrooms; on the other, tavern-going is in our genes, and a large part of tavern culture was handed down from our God-fearing but beer-loving forebears, both the English, who brought their pub traditions to the new land, and the Dutch, with their custom of using drinking parlors as semipublic living rooms, an appealing convention known as uit en thuis (“out and at home”). In eighteenth-century America, a time when large families living in small spaces made home life cramped, taverns served as communal living rooms. Records show that in 1755, of the seven or eight houses in the town of Salisbury, North Carolina, four were taverns or inns. One Rowan County clergyman summed up the situation succinctly when he lamented that the tavern seemed to be faring far better than the church in the competition for men’s souls.
In sentimental memory, these colonial gathering spots should have been exemplars of America’s democratic ideal, offering creature comforts and companionship to all who passed through their doors. In practice, of course, they reflected the social and political order of their time, especially where class and separation of the races were concerned. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Massachusetts law prohibited servants, slaves, and apprentices from even entering taverns unless given permission by their masters.
Inequality persisted in taverns even into the second half of the twentieth century. As remarkable as it may seem today, when Janet was pursuing a graduate degree in film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, a bar not far from the school’s front door, the famous McSorley’s, was still off-limits to women. The times being what they were, a lawsuit was filed, and in 1970 the restrictive policy of the legendary nineteenth-century bar tumbled. The conquerors’ first glimpse of the generations-old initials etched deeply into the tables was tantalizing, evoking visions of the striped pants, collar stays, and derbies of previous habitués. Still, students are a particularly fickle breed, and despite their sociopolitical triumph, many of the pioneers eventually drifted away, seeking hipper bars.
It’s no surprise that few American taverns have lasted as long as McSorley’s. The owners of every surviving hundred-year-old bar once needed the business acumen of a Rockefeller and the daring of a Leonardo to stay in business. During Prohibition they transformed their establishments into everything from grocery stores to bordellos.
At Chicago’s Southport Lanes, bowling alleys—and possibly a brothel—were installed to make up for lost alcohol sales. The lanes remain today, along with the classic Midwestern terra cotta Schlitz ball on the side of the building—a reminder of the pre-eminence the brand enjoyed in the mid-twentieth century, even though craftbrewed beer now dominates the bar top. These days, although Southport has become a gathering spot for a youthful crowd that likely promises little in the way of long-term loyalty, it remains an authentic American gem, plastered with relics of an age that hawked the virtues of Camels—“What a cigarette—20 for 10 cents!”—and celebrated the sleek lines of a 1960 Olds that could be owned by any hardworking mom and pop for $777. And while the Depression-era frieze of nymphets dancing above the bar suggests the days the tavern may also have served as a brothel, it’s in the lively backroom that we find a scene closest to the 1930s. There the bar’s billiard tables look as though they haven’t been idle in decades, and in an age of electronic scoring and smooth mechanical pin-setters, groups of young people still crowd the last four hand-set bowling lanes in Chicago, filling the wait between balls with conversation and observing the establishment’s most crucial dictum: “If you see feet—don’t bowl.”
The story of Baumgartner’s Cheese Shop, in Monroe, Wisconsin, where bikers share space with elderly ladies and gents in the lively backroom bar, is also intriguing. Its legacy sprawls across a wall-sized mural, Battle of the Spirits , an early-twentieth-century cross between Hieronymus Bosch and The Night Watch , in which beer steins and wineglasses wearing the faces of local denizens engage in pitched battle. During Prohibition, the Joseph Huber Brewery, which owned Baumgartner’s, adopted the prosaic moniker Blumer Products, Inc., and its employees climbed the town’s courthouse tower to watch for incoming hooch trucks. A menu staple is the Limburger sandwich, served with or without onion and mustard, though always with a mint. This, we were told, is for the benefit not of the sandwich eaters but of the next person they talk to.
Such eccentricities—sandwiches accompanied by mints, hand-set bowling alleys—can be maintained only by people with passion, and fortunately passion is what taverns arouse in many of their owners. Take, for example, Chuck Bigler, proprietor of Puempel’s Olde Tavern, in the modest Swiss-settled town of New Glarus, Wisconsin. A car dealer by trade, Bigler told us that the tavern’s previous owner, Otto Puempel, whose family ran the bar for 99 years, had been like a grandfather to him. During Otto’s youth Puempel’s was a railroad workers’ boardinghouse, where a bed and meals cooked by Otto’s mother, Bertha, went for 60 cents a day. In 1913 an itinerant artist by the name of Albert Struebin stayed for six months to paint the walls with heartfelt scenes of the old country, such as Appenzeller Musik , depicting Puempel’s mother’s hometown, and Andreas Hofer , homage to an Austrian patriot, who is immortalized resisting arrest by Napoleon’s troops. On Otto’s retirement at the age of 88, Bigler and his wife, Lessia, bought Puempel’s rather than risk seeing it transmogrified into “a modern bar with video games and lots of noise,” and they continue to run it in the traditional manner. They maintain the original icebox (now electrically chilled), and allow no jukebox, video games, or fried foods, the last banned for fear that smoke from the fryer could damage the 1912 cherry wood bar and Struebin’s murals. Seeing the tavern as a project for their retirement, the Biglers treat it like a coddled offspring, lovingly sweeping the century-old hardwood dance floor, which has felt the tap and scrape of millions of feet, and polishing the tables, on which locals still play the Swiss card game Yass. Their biggest regret is being unable to restore the murals; the $35,000 price tag is too steep for such a modest establishment.
Why is this bar so important to Bigler? His reasons are part personal, part altruistic. “My grandma and grandpa ran a tavern in town for 40 years, and I saw the back bar chopped up for firewood.” He adds: “And the history of the tavern is the history of America.”
But beyond century-old bar tops and age-darkened murals, it is the embrace of community that marks the traditional American tavern, making it a place where people feel free both to revel in good times and to close ranks in bad. The afternoon we walked into the New York City bar d.b.a., September 12, 2001, the air in Lower Manhattan was acrid with smoke and dust, and the city’s comforting cacophony was distorted by sirens and the bellow of police bullhorns, d.b.a. was a magnet for people eager to crowd around the bar for human contact, even though all eyes were on the TV and no one exchanged a word.
Normally, d.b.a. is a place that perfectly reflects its East Village surroundings: Advertising executives arrive in the early evening, black-clad hipsters come in after 10, and the afternoon brings a steady mix of locals and sojourners. But not this day. As the owner, Ray Deter, told how 24 hours earlier people covered head to toe in white dust, looking like so many walking statues, had streamed in asking for water, a young man in a designer sweater and a goatee moved off to take a call on his cell phone. When he returned, he took a sip of Grey Goose and started to weep. Neither we nor our temporary family assembled at the bar found this display of emotion at all out of place.