Showman Walter B. Leonard Recalls The American Barroom – Part II

Earlier today, I discussed a 1932 news article in which an aged ex-showman, Walter B. Leonard, recalled the tavern his family operated in the 1870s in the northern New York hamlet of Morley.

Walter Leonard lived from 1860-1949 and a year before he died, a much-expanded version of this article appeared in six parts in the Commercial Advertiser of Potsdam, NY. The first installment appeared in the last week of February, and the next five all in March 1948.

The name of the expanded series was A North Country Tavern – An Early Recounting of a Small Village Hostelry.

Both as regards the bar and the larger context such as town, churches, and local businesses, considerable extra detail was given, which I’ll summarize here. But I suggest to those interested to read the original articles as they have a gentle humour and unique style. Leonard was born at the outset of the Civil War, which sounds so long ago, yet in essence the articles could appear today with a little updating of language.

There is a good description of the village of Morley. It still exists but is not much more than a crossing or junction now. In the 1870s it was a thriving town of 400 inhabitants. It had a tannery, wagon-maker, bootmaker, grocery, clothier, mill, cider-press, and other basic services. And one lawyer!

Below is the Lisbon, NY area today, quite close to Morley and often mentioned in the articles.

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There were two churches, Episcopal and Methodist. The surnames of the townspeople are all Anglo-Saxon or Celtic.

The village may have had a proportion of Scots-Irish: inhabitants of Ulster for a hundred years or more of Scots or English descent who moved in large numbers to the U.S. in the 1700s. Morley had an Orange fraternal organization and a popular Orangeman march on July 12 in each year.

The Leonard Tavern was first operated by Walter Leonard’s grandfather. Walter’s father took it over after the Civil War, his father had built it up and it enjoyed good trade both locally and from the surrounding towns  Canton, Potsdam, and Lisbon.

Despite a promising start Walter’s father did not succeed in the venture but Walter doesn’t elaborate. He seemed generally to look at the positive side of things. The recollections are warm, and perhaps his glass-half-full approach helped him reach the advanced age he did.

The bar was a two-and-a-half story white-painted structure with a piazza (veranda). There was a dining room annex where light meals were served such as hot biscuits, ham, cakes, “thick pies”, pickles, preserves, cole slaw, and cookies. The last two were brought to America by the New York Dutch, incidentally.

The beer at the bar was supplied by Greenway, a brewery in Syracuse, NY which was well-known for its ale and porter in the later 1800s, it had been established by two brothers from England.

Peppermint, wintergreen, and other flavourings were kept in corked bottles with a goose quill through the cork. Leonard doesn’t say but these were bitters, to flavour whiskey and cocktails. Powdered sugar and ground nutmeg are mentioned as well. The bar clearly could make a range of cocktails.

Leonard describes special town events like Quadrilles, where people danced until the early hours. The odour of the mens’ hair oil and clove-scented breath stayed with him for 70 years. He reels off a list of mostly obscure dances, or obscure to me! He said most in the town could dance them, too. He describes in detail mens’ and ladies’ dress and footwear; he must have been unusually observant as a child. The mens’ boots were made from fine French calfskin. In general town life is painted as prosperous and happy.

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Unlike the relatively short piece in 1932, there is a more detailed description of the bar’s customers. This time, Leonard is more frank about some who had trouble with alcohol, and mentions names. Maybe in 1932 some of their family were still living and Leonard or the editor kept the errant ancestors out of the story.

Some cases are quite sad, e.g., a prosperous farmer who ended spending most of his time with the bottle. A son accompanied him to the pub to help control him but ultimately aped his ways and incurred the same fate.

One man was able to stay away from alcohol for a time but then went on binges and could not return to normal living without medical help. Leonard doesn’t say, but such cases often ended in the asylum.

One loser never had money to pay for drinks and would cadge them from other patrons. His trick was, if you knock a tack in my leg you can buy me a drink.

Thus, in 1948 when he was almost 90, Leonard didn’t hold back from the darker side of the bar trade. I wonder if maybe his father had no stomach for it finally, maybe that explained his early exit from the business.

In sum the life of 1800s upstate New York in that “section”, to use terminology of the day, is painted as idyllic, both the natural surroundings and the social life, for the most part. The description of icy winter sleigh rides is captivating, with people wrapped in buffalo robes lined with colourful flannel and edged with cloth of a contrasting colour.

There were, finally, just two references to nearby Canada. The first was when the cashbox was emptied after the Quadrille dances and suppers. A few Canadian pennies were found to which Leonard registered no objection. The other was in the form of Ira Morgan, a favourite customer of the bar: he was from Canada but the town or province was not known or stated.

Morgan was the overseer at the local tannery. Leonard said he was “fond” of liquor but only “occasionally” over-indulged. Here’s an extract from one of the six parts, but to get the full flavour you need to read the whole thing:

Around the Leonard Tavern all was hustle and bustle! Father was down in liquor cellar tapping a fresh barrel of “Greenway Ale”. He is being assisted by his right-hand man, Oliver Hedden, who is fairly capable, and always willing to assist especially if fluid refreshments were in evidence. Father has a hammer and is driving the bung into the barrel, while Oliver stands ready to place the faucet into the hole in the head of the barrel. This requires considerable skill. As the bung is driven through, Oliver who is a trifle slow, does not locate the bunghole until a stream of highly-charged liquid shoots out and into the face of Oliver, blinding him for a minute. Father believing this delay was uncalled for grabs the faucet, places it in the bunghole hole and pushes Oliver, who falls over a keg of gin, while father, to relieve his pentup emotions, hands Oliver a rapid fire of nouns and adjectives, the recounting of which would not look well in print; therefore, I assume the liberty of eliminating them. After the faucet is properly adjusted, and my parent’s tempest had subsided, several glass decanters are filled with “White Wheat”, rye and bourbon whisky, gin, rum, brandy, and taken up into the barroom and placed in a glass case on shelves just back of the long serving counter. In this rather artistic receptacle are some small bottles with goose quills through the corks, which contain pepper-sauce, extract of peppermint, wintergreen, and some dark fluid called “stoughton”.

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Note re images: The first image, of a farm in Lisbon, NY, is from the website of Posson Realty. The second image is from this Getty images site. The third image, of Stoughton bitters, a replication of a famous brand of the 1700s-1800s, is available from Napa Valley Distillery where the image was sourced. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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