Walter B. Leonard and the American Barroom (Part I)



In July 1932 the end of Prohibition was foreseen. The Republican-Journal of Ogdensburg, New York felt encouraged to publish this article, which cast a nostalgic, warm glow on the family bar and hotel Walter B. Leonard recalled from an 1870s boyhood.

Leonard was born in 1860, and as a boy helped his father run the bar and hotel in Morley, New York. Leonard described it in the context of small town, American life just after the Civil War.

In the 1930s Leonard was a sometime journalist and music teacher. In his middle years he enjoyed a colourful career on the road, as a “showman”.

His words are full of human interest, and perceptive. He vivid paints portraits of personalities he remembers. One is the skinflint for whom parting with a “shinplaster” took a real act of will. The fellow never bought a drink for another, and occasionally skipped paying Leonard’s father, claiming to have forgotten his money.

The pub still indulged him, as a regular: the omissions were overlooked. Another story: two “sons of Erin” came in once a week, got drunk, fought good-naturedly (I guess that’s possible) and walked home singing Irish songs.

Leonard wrote that he never saw a village youth drink alcohol, just lemonade. Allowing for some gilding of the lily, the impression is of a business sanely run, that supplied a social need and was accepted by the community as part of daily life.

Beer was dispensed by a “silver tap” from the edge of the bar. Customers would serve themselves if staff was absent. A cask of bock was available in springtime.

Lager was new in upstate New York then. Old-timers stuck to their “ale” and “beer” (the beer may have been dark porter). Leonard says lager was ordered initially by a younger set, but gradually caught on with all comers.

Whiskey was served by the drink. Bottle sales were not permitted in bars, that was the preserve of the pharmacy. But Leonard implies his father sometimes sold a bottle to customers, perhaps because the village was small and isolated. The nearest town of any size, Canton, was some miles away.

Morley today has almost disappeared, it is not much more than a crossroads. In its heyday it throve as a riverside hamlet in St. Lawrence County, New York, a stone’s throw from Canada – which never figures in the account.

A bit now on Leonard’s show background: After some training in the performing arts, still in his teens he went on the road. He “trouped”, playing in an orchestra, or appearing in theatrical productions and circus shows. He wrote and produced for the stage. Later he contributed articles to Billboard magazine and the press in upstate New York.

His work brought him throughout the United States, and to British Columbia. Yet, growing up so close to Canada, he apparently never visited Ontario or Quebec. In those days, the U.S. and Canada could be rather hermetic, but that was not always so, e.g. during the Loyalist period.

An obituary of Leonard appeared in 1949 in the Commercial Advertiser of Potsdam Junction, NY. (Some of details above are drawn from that account). It stated aptly of him, “He had a long life, his life was filled with incidents of interest, he made it so”.

He made it so. He lived the life he wanted.

For Part II of this article, see here.

Note re image: the image above of Morley, NY is from the Canton Free Library. One of the buildings shown may have housed Leonard’s Tavern and Hotel. Image used  for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.