The history of alcohol in America and Canada has by now a considerable literature. Technological, business, consumer, temperance/Prohibition, and sociological aspects have been addressed.
What of the social life of the saloon? Quirks of customers, brands of beverages, that kind of thing? There is of course the anti-saloon tract, a genre of anti-drink literature. Lurid essays, often by ex-drinkers or ex-saloonkeepers, chronicled the evils of liquor.
Far from me to depreciate these wholesale: the saloon did its share of damage, certainly. Still, it provided a service that people wanted, and will find one way or another, as American National Prohibition (1919-1933) showed only too clearly.
What of innocuous, “happy days” in the old bar? Did that exist? It did, and Christine Sismondo’s excellent study, America Walks Into A Bar, is instructive here.
But praise of the saloon 60, 90, and more years ago was much less common. To do so would have offended existing mores, for one thing. At the time, the bar was considered a legal business (outside the Prohibition period) but hardly one holding an honoured place in society.
But there is at least one exception to this, an article in July, 1932 by Walter Brown Leonard. Prohibition was soon to end. The Republican-Journal of Ogdensburg, New York, which published his article, felt emboldened to support a positive portrayal of the old bar.
The article describes a much earlier period than the immediate pre-Prohibition era, the 1870s. Leonard was born in 1860 and as a boy helped his father run the family’s bar and hotel in Morley, New York. Leonard described the role and functioning of a village bar from within, so to speak.
In the 1930s Walter Leonard was a sometimes journalist and music teacher, and earlier had enjoyed a colourful career on the road, in show business.
His lines are full of human interest and describe with colour and verve various personalities he encountered. A vivid one is the old man for whom parting with a bank note, the old “shinplasters”, took a real effort of will. He never bought a drink for others, and would occasionally stiff the tavern when claiming to have forgotten his money, omissions Leonard said were overlooked by his father. The pub indulged the man as a regular.
Another story: two “sons of Erin” came in once a week, got drunk, would fight good-naturedly (I guess that’s possible) and walk home tipsily singing Irish songs.
Leonard wrote that he never saw a village youth take alcohol, only lemonade. And he never saw a woman drink in the bar, or act drunk in the locality.
Allowing for the gilding of the years the image is of a business sanely run, that supplied a social want, and was accepted in the community as part of daily life.
A few details are of interest for the drinks served. Beer was dispensed by a “silver tap” from the end of the bar. Customers would serve themselves if they walked in and staff was absent. A cask of bock beer was brought in for the spring.
Lager was a new concept when Leonard worked in the bar. He says old-timers stuck to their “ale” and “beer” (the latter may have been porter or stout). Initially, lager was only drunk by a younger set but gradually caught on with everyone, he wrote.
Whiskey was served by the drink, and bottle sales were not allowed, as these were the preserve of the pharmacy. But Leonard implies that his father sometimes sold bottles to customers, perhaps because the village was so small. The nearest town of any size, Canton, was some miles away. Morley, today almost disappeared, was a hamlet on a small river in St. Lawrence County, New York, just the other side of Canada – which never figures in his account.
A nugget shows the genesis of Leonard’s long career in show business. After some training, he went on the road, still in his teens, as an actor and musician. He “trouped”, appearing in vaudeville and circus shows. Leonard later was an acknowledged authority on minstrelsy. He also wrote and produced stage shows and contributed to Billboard magazine and the North Country press.
One account of his career states that his work brought him everywhere in the United States and British Columbia. Having grown up more or less a stone’s throw from Canada, he seems to have never been to Ontario or Quebec. In those days, the two countries were rather hermetic, which is odd since a good part of Ontario was founded by American Loyalists, but that’s another story.
The long obituary of Walter B. Leonard in 1949 in the Commercial Advertiser of Potsdam Junction, from which many details here are taken, wrote aptly of him:
He had a long life, his life was filled with incidents of interest, he made it so.
Note re images: the image above, of Morley, NY, was obtained from this Canton, NY library source. I believe one of the buildings shown housed Leonard’s Tavern and Hotel. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
See Part II of this article, here.