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



The history of beverage alcohol in America and Canada has a considerable literature. Many aspects – technological, business, consumer, Temperance/Prohibition, and sociological have been addressed.

What of the social life of the saloon? Quirks of customers, beverages favoured, peculiarities of barkeeps? Some has been chronicled, of course, in journalism and essay-writing certainly. One thinks of Joseph Mitchell’s 1940s writing on McSorley’s tavern in New York.

There is of course the anti-saloon tract, a genre of anti-drink literature. Lurid essays, often by ex-drinkers or ex-barkeepers, discourse on the evils of liquor. Far from me to dismiss these wholesale: the saloon did its share of damage. Still, it provided a service people wanted, and will find one way or another. America’s National Prohibition (1919-1933) showed that only too clearly.

Indeed, too the bar meant something positive, worth studying. Christine Sismondo’s excellent recent America Walks Into A Bar, chronicles aspects of bar history related, for example, to core political notions like liberty.

But praise of the saloon 60, 90, and more years ago, on any account, was not that common. Lauding the watering hole offended the existing moral narrative, then. The bar was considered a lawful business (outside the Prohibition periods), but hardly one holding an honoured place in society.

But an exception is provided by an article of July, 1932 by Walter Brown Leonard. In that year the end of Prohibition was nigh. The Republican-Journal in Ogdensburg, New York felt encouraged to publish the article, which cast a nostalgic, warm glow on the family bar Leonard recalled from his boyhood.

The period goes back to the 1870s. Leonard was born in 1860, and as a boy helped his father run a bar and hotel in Morley, New York. Leonard describes it in the context of village life – American, small town life that is, just after the Civil War.

In the 1930s he was a sometime journalist and music teacher. In his mid-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 to.

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.