Walter B. Leonard Recalls The American Barroom (Part II)

Earlier 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 New York hamlet of Morley.

Leonard lived from 1860-1949. A year before he died, a much-expanded version of his article appeared in the Commercial Advertiser of Potsdam, New York, in not less than six parts. The first installment appeared during the last week of February, and the next five all appeared the next month (March 1948).

The series had an evocative name: A North Country Tavern – An Early Recounting of a Small Village Hostelry.

Both for the bar and the town, including churches and local businesses, considerable extra detail is given, which I’ll summarize here. But those interested should read the original articles as they have a gentle, down home humour and unique style. Leonard was born at the start of the Civil War. It sounds so long ago, but in essence the series could appear today with not so much change.

There is a good description of the village itself. Morley still exists but is not much more than a 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 Lisbon, NY today, which was close to Morley and often mentioned by Leonard.

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There were two churches, one Episcopal, the other Methodist. Morley had an Orange fraternal organization and a popular Orangeman march on July 12 in each year, so I’d think it was founded at least in part by Scots-Irish incomers.

The tavern had first been operated by Leonard’s grandfather. His father took it over after the Civil War, and built it up. He enjoyed a good trade both locally and from the surrounding towns of Canton, Potsdam, and Lisbon.

Despite a promising start the business ultimately did not not succeed. Leonard doesn’t explain the reasons. The tenor of the article, hence Leonard’s personality, was to look at the positive side of things. His recollections are warm, in general. Any sadness is tinged with a wistful quality.

The bar was a two-and-one-half story, white-painted structure with a “piazza” (veranda). In a dining room annex light meals were served including 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, and must have migrated north from the Hudson Valley to the far north of New York State.

Beer at the bar was supplied by Greenway, a brewery in Syracuse, New York 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 bottles closed with a  cork pierced with a goose quill. Leonard doesn’t say, but these clearly were bitters, to flavour whiskey and cocktails. Powdered sugar and ground nutmeg were mentioned as well. The bar clearly could offer a range of cocktails.

Leonard describes special events like Quadrilles, when 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 says most in the town could dance them, too. He describes in detail mens’ and ladies’ clothes and footwear, and must have been unusually observant as a child. The mens’ boots were made of fine French calfskin. In general, town life is painted as prosperous and happy.

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Unlike the relatively short piece from 1932 there is more detail on the bar’s customers. This time, Leonard is more frank about men who had trouble with alcohol, and names names. I’d think in 1932 some of their family were still living, and the editors pencilled out names connected to them.

Some of the cases are quite sad. There was a prosperous farmer who ended spending most of his time with the bottle. A son accompanied him to the pub to keep him under control but ultimately aped the father’s ways, and incurred the same mournful end: a double tragedy.

One drinker was able to abstain from alcohol for periods but then a binge ensued. He could not resume normal living without medical help. Leonard doesn’t say it, but these cases often ended in the insane asylum, as it was known then.

One man never had money to pay for drinks and would cadge alcohol from other patrons. His trick was, I’ll let you knock a tack in my leg, and you must buy me a drink.

Hence, 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 the business finally, which explained his giving it up.

But all in all life in a mid-1800s, upstate New York town is painted as idyllic, both the natural surroundings and the social life. Leonard’s description of icy winter sleigh rides is captivating. The riders were swatched in buffalo robes lined with colourful flannel, edged with cloth of a contrasting colour.

There are finally in the series, two references to Canada. The first is when the cashbox was emptied after the Quadrille dancing and supper. The till disgorged some Canadian pennies, but if this caused any annoyance Leonard doesn’t show it. The other reference concerned Ira Morgan, a favourite customer. He was from Canada although the town or province is not stated. Morgan was overseer at a local tannery. Leonard said he was “fond” of liquor but only “occasionally” over-indulged.

Here is an extract from the series, but to get the full flavour you should read all six parts:

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 above, 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, is a replication of a famous brand of the 1700s-1800s. It is available from Napa Valley Distillery where the image was sourced. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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