The Bars of Dayton’s Bluff
“Back when I started this business, there were beer joints on every corner,” says John Weber, owner of the BeeHive Tavern in Dayton’s Bluff. “There was the Tiger Tap a block down, Dayton’s Bluff Lounge was ’round the corner at the bend in the road, The Glass Bar was at the bottom of the hill — they had a big long bar made out of glass blocks. On the weekends, you would put on your jogging suit and go jogging from bar to bar.”
The BeeHive was once a stately two-story brick structure, bar downstairs, apartments above. After a devastating fire in the ’40s, rebuilding was cost-prohibitive so they capped the roof instead, leaving a rather strange-looking structure. Inside the bar, a photo of the original building hangs on the wall with turn-of-the-century folk hanging out on the sidewalk in front, old-timey heads above poking out the apartment windows, smiling at the camera.
Weber and his wife, Joanie, have owned the BeeHive for 36 years. Most days you will find one of them running the business. A sign that reads “Bartenders Do It With Gusto” hangs behind the bar; there is also a plaque of a Viking peeing on Packers helmet, and to the side is a sweet old Winston cigarette machine. Lifetime movies or the show “Cash Cab” might be playing on TV, and the jukebox is full of vintage hits like Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard it in a Love Song.” Sometimes a couple of customers sip frosted glasses of 3.2 beer — everyone seems to know John and Joanie well. Often the bar is empty.
But there was a time when business was brisk, the atmosphere lively; with big industries like Whirlpool, 3M, and Hamm’s Beer operating in the neighborhood, workers and residents kept the bars busy day and night, opening early for workers from the night shifts who filled the stools at 7am.
“When we first opened, it was three deep at the bar all day long. I made more money when beer was a quarter then I do now at $1.75,” Weber says. “They used to say if you had 20 regular customers coming into the bar you could make it. But now it’s hundreds of people, and you need pulltabs and all that, too. I’m still here because I bought and paid for this place years ago. I am the last of the dying breed.”
There were many 3.2 bars like the BeeHive in the area since it was much cheaper and easier to get a 3.2 license rather than a full liquor license. The 3.2 bars tended to be on corners, like the neighborhood grocery stores, and were an easy business to start without extensive capital. In the ’70s and ’80s industries began relocating; jobs dried up, people began to move out of the community, and both the 3.2 and full liquor bars began to close.
The Mounds Park Lounge
On a lovely summer afternoon in Dayton’s Bluff, folks are out on walks, swimming, and having picnics. But inside the Mounds Park Lounge — another hold-out from the heyday — the light only floods into the dark bar when someone opens the door. Like every Saturday at noon, Mounds Park Lounge is holding their meat raffle. The bar stools are almost all filled with older gentlemen sipping tall cold beers and watching a deer hunting show on TV.
Everyone seems to know everyone else, but new faces are warmly welcomed. You won’t find any craft beer here, but a bottle of Bud will only set you back $2.50, and a cocktail runs $3.50, including a killer Bloody Mary with beef stick garnish. It’s easy to be the big spender who picks up the tab when a round of four drinks sets you back $10 plus tip.
The community surrounding Mounds Park Lounge is a reflection of the times: yards with overgrown weedy grasses, “Keep out” notices in windows of foreclosed homes, “For sale” signs dotting every block. According to the real estate website Zillow, in the past year 43.9 percent of the neighborhood’s home sales were post-foreclosure homes, compared to 27.4 percent in St. Paul as a whole. The median single home value in Dayton’s Bluff is currently $92,200. But in this area you also find stunning views of downtown and West St. Paul, majestic bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, and the grandeur of Victorian homes lovingly restored to their original glory.
There is an old local saying: “I don’t live in St. Paul. I live on the East Side.” That pride and otherness is reflected in this community, despite the struggles.
The Viaduct Inn and Spanky’s
Back in the day, many of the area bars were also popular restaurants, like The Viaduct Inn, which was featured in the movie Joe Somebody starring Tim Allen. The bar, which was located at 7th and Earl, is fondly remembered for the beauty of the its vintage architectural details, octagonal tile in the bathrooms like an old barber shop, and the rich woodwork of the bar and booths. In 2008, the building was torn down by the Saint Paul Port Authority, causing uproar in the neighborhood by residents who were not given notice of the plans.
Area historian Steve Trimble, author of the book Historic Photos of St. Paul, is a longtime resident of Dayton’s Bluff. Trimble has many fond memories of The Viaduct Inn.
“We would go there on a Friday or Saturday night for dinner — they had very good broasted chicken and ribs. It was one of the last piano bars in the city, there was always the same woman at the piano, and people would sit around and sing songs, like a smaller version of Nye’s Polonaise. Apparently the people who last owned it sold off all the stuff inside so no one knows where that all went. But there is big money in selling antique bar equipment,” says Trimble.
There was a lot of activity at 7th and Earl, under the Earl Street Bridge. Across the street from The Viaduct Inn was Spanky’s. The bar was featured in the 1985 movie That Was Then… This is Now, in which the bar was called “Charlie’s” and the namesake bar owner was played by Morgan Freeman.
Part of the draw of this corner was the location; there once was a commuter trolley stop there, and area residents often took the train to downtown St. Paul and back. The trolley car route, which was torn out in the ’50s, stretched from Stillwater all the way to Excelsior.
Obb’s Sports Bar and Grill also has a long history in the neighborhood and is still going strong. The area around Obb’s wasn’t developed until the 1940s, according to Trimble, so visiting the place was almost like going out to the country. “Obb’s was a popular stop for farmers on their way in or out of town. It had been a grocery store originally, and after Prohibition they made it into a bar,” he says.
At Obb’s, you can still find Rosie Johnsen, daughter-in-law of the original owner and grandmother of the current owner, serving lunch most days. Rosie just turned 90 and has worked at Obb’s for 51 years, including a period of time under new ownership after the Johnsen family sold the bar; they later repurchased the place.
Much of Dayton’s Bluff (and the adjacent communities) was defined by the ethnic groups frequenting the bars and restaurants; Where Yarusso-Bros. and Morelli’s Market are located was the center of activity for the Italian community. Fondly remembered was Geno’s, a fancier bar and restaurant located across from Yarusso-Bros., which was said to be constantly filled “with old Italian men.” Gentile’s Bar and Restaurant, now the Minnesota Music Cafe, was another popular locale where Vic Tedesco used to play saxophone with his trio. According to longtime locals, the Swedish and Norwegian crowd hung out down the street at Schweitz’s, which only recently closed.
As businesses struggled, there were efforts to again draw the crowds. In the ’80s, Spanky’s raised their roof and added an indoor volleyball court. “That was kind of a gas,” says Trimble. Eventually, the neighborhood started to get tougher. “Families weren’t so interested in going to places where people would get into fist fights, so you lost that trade.”
Another longtime resident of the neighborhood, who asked to stay anonymous, asked, “Has anyone mentioned Honky Mike’s?”
Honky Mike’s, as Mike’s Bar & Liquors was more commonly known, was technically located just a stones throw outside of Dayton’s Bluff, and has quite the legendary status. My source is careful with the disclaimer that this is the second-hand scoop, yet the tale, which is said to have taken place around the late ’80s / early ’90s, is part of neighborhood lore:
“The clientele at Honky Mike’s was about one-third cops and one-third bikers. The Union Gospel Mission was nearby, so it was a gospel mission resident bar, too. One night a couple of guys came in to rob the place. They had guns and told the bartenders it was a holdup, and when the guys turned around there were about 30 guns aimed at them — half from the cops, and half from the bikers. And while I cannot confirm this, the police left for a bit while the bikers beat the hell out of them. That’s the story.”
You can find more art by Julie Boehmer at julieboehmer.blogspot.com