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

Part I discussed a 1932 news article by an aged ex-showman, Walter B. Leonard. He recalled his family tavern that operated in the 1870s in the hamlet of Morley, in northern New York State.

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 instalment appeared in the last week of February, and the next five all in March following.*

The series had an evocative title: A North Country Tavern – An Early Recounting of a Small Village Hostelry. These parts feature the warm, down-home style evident in the 1932 recollections.

Considerable extra detail is recounted of the bar and the town, its churches, businesses and social life, part of which I’ll discuss here.

While Leonard was born at the start of the Civil War, in essence his account could appear today, in many ways not so much has changed.

In the 1870s Morley it was a thriving town of 400 inhabitants with a tannery, wagon-maker, boot-maker, grocery, clothier, mill, and cider-press. And one lawyer

There were two churches, Episcopal and Methodist. Morley had an Orange fraternal organization and there was an Orangeman march on July 12 in each year. Perhaps the town was founded by those of Scotch-Irish descent, the Ulster emigrants to America of the 1700s.

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

Despite a promising start the business ultimately foundered. Leonard doesn’t explain why. The tenor of the article, reflecting Leonard’s personality, was to look at the positive side of life. Sadness is tinged with a wistful quality and doesn’t linger, so we don’t learn why an apparently thriving enterprise soon stopped short.

The tavern was a two-and-a-half floor building with a “piazza” (veranda), al painted in white. In an annex light meals were served including hot biscuits, ham, cakes, “thick pies”, pickles, preserves, cole slaw, and cookies.

The last two items were brought, incidentally, to America by the New York Dutch. Maybe some migrated from the Hudson Valley to the edges of New York State. Well, one way or another, some of their food ended in Morley.

Beer at the bar was supplied by Greenway. This was (beer historians know) a sizeable brewery in Syracuse, New York well-known for its ale and porter. It had been established by two brothers from England.

Leonard says peppermint, wintergreen, and other flavourings for drinks were kept in bottles closed with a goose quill cork. Leonard doesn’t say but these clearly were bitters, to flavour whiskey and cocktails. Powdered sugar and ground nutmeg are mentioned as well. The bar clearly offered a range of cocktails with the whisky and beer.

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

Unlike the relatively short piece in 1932 there is more detail on the customers. This time, Leonard is more frank about men who had trouble with alcohol. 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 ended in liquor too. A double tragedy.

One drinker was able to abstain for periods but then had a binge. After such episodes he could not resume normal living without medical help.

Hence, in 1948 when he was almost 90, Leonard was more candid on the darker side of the bar trade. I wonder if perhaps his father finally had no stomach for the business, and that’s why it ended.

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

Finally, two references to Canada appear. The first is when the cashbox was emptied after Quadrille dancing and supper. The till might disgorge a few Canadian pennies, but if it caused any annoyance Leonard doesn’t say. The other reference concerns Ira Morgan, a favoured customer. He was from “Canada” with town or province unmentioned. Morgan was the overseer at a local tannery. Leonard said he was “fond” of liquor but only “occasionally” over-indulged.

I’ll conclude with an extract from the series, but to get the full flavour, do read all six parts.

Around the Leonard Tavern all was hustle and bustle! Father was down in the 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”.


*In the link given five of six parts appear. The missing one is here (March 2, 1948). All parts, including the 1932 article discussed in Part I, are as archived in NYS Historic Newspapers.