Like many young guys at the time, I couldn’t wait to grow up to experience what it was like to be an adult. One of those grown up privileges was the abililty to legally consume adult beverages.
In my adolescent days the legal drinking age was 18. Beer was usually the beverage of choice, probably because it was cheaper and a lot easier going down the throat. Most of the time, two or more guys would get together, pool their money and the oldest looking (or bravest) would go to a store that was known to be lax when it came to checking ID.
We would always purchase the cheapest beer available. Back in 1960-61 you could get three quarts of “Topper” or “Ox Cart Ale” for $1. A six pack of “Old Bohemian” went for under a buck at most mom and pop markets. If you got canned beer they would usually give you a free can opener because pop-top cans would not be invented until later in the sixties.
The slang ‘church key’ was always used when you asked your buddy for the can opener. The openers were given to the retailers by the beer companies because they had their logo on them and were considered an advertisement. Today they are a collector’s item and are worth a few bucks. Most of the breweries, like Schaefer, Ballantine and Fort Schuyler, have been long out of business.
At one time I had a whole cigar box full of them. I guess my Mom threw them out along with my baseball cards.
A status among your pals was when you were able to actually go into a bar and order a drink. Most bars in Richfield were very strict when it came to serving the underage. There were a few exceptions. The word was out that if you looked even close to 18 you could get served in Schuyler Lake. Most of us knew that another sure bet was the Lake House. At that time the place was ran by an old Greek gentleman named Andy. At least back then we considered him old.
At the time we did not know if he had a poor judgement of age, or if he just wanted the sales. I think the latter was true. I remember a guy telling me he had a snow plowing business and was called by the Lake House to plow him out after a big snow storm. They agreed on a price, but when the job was done he was paid less than half the amount that was agreed upon because Andy felt the job did not take very long to do. They guy told him to keep his money and got back into his vehicle and proceeded to plow all the snow back into his parking lot. Andy then came running out, waving the agreed amount of money in his hand.
A bad habit Andy had was when a waitress ordered an unusual mixed drink, he would always make sure it was all right by taking a taste from the glass before he sent it out to the dining room.
At that time, the Lake House ran a ‘Sunday School.’ That was the term used when a bar was open on Sunday before the legal opening time of 1 p.m. I can remember going past the place after church every Sunday and seeing several cars in the parking lot.
Back then, bars had to be closed on Election and Primary days until the polls closed at 9 p.m. On one primary day, Bob Bernhardt and his friends were in the bar enjoying a brew when about 7:45 p.m., Andy left the bar to go in the kitchen for few minutes. As soon as Andy left, Bob reached over the bar and turned the clock ahead to 9 p.m. When Andy returned, Bob said, “Hey Andy, it’s 9 o’clock.” Andy said, “Oh, thanks, I’ll turn the lights on to let the folks know I’m open.”
I had a few personal experiences worth telling. I was never one to do ‘off the wall’ things on my own, but on a rare occasion I would let someone talk me into one. One time I was at the roller skating rink and at intermission a buddy said, “Let’s skate down to the Lake House and get a beer.” So, off we went, in the dark of night, making the mile trip on roller skates to the bar.
One evening Andy asked me if I was working. I told him no, so he said, “Come down in the morning, I’ll have some work for you.” As a sixteen year old, I jumped at the chance to earn a few bucks, and that’s just what I made. I spent most of the next day mowing his spacious lawn, picking up trash, weeding his garden, bailing out his boats and feeding his checkens. For a days work I got paid a ham sandwich, two beers and two dollars.
What really hurt was when he said, “Come back tomorrow, I’ll have some more work for you.” After that, I found a much better paying job just down the road at the Winegate Farm, bailing hay for a dollar an hour.
One Saturday afternoon, a buddy and I were the first customers of the day. I threw a dollar on the bar (all I had) to pay for my 30 cent beer. Andy opened the cash register and said a few Greek cuss words that I did not understand. He turned to me and said, “My wife forgot to put some change in the till, I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later he returned with a little box, and put some change in the register. When I got my change I noticed that the coins were older than the ones that were common at the time. One of them was an 1883 nickel that was just like new. It still had the sharp edges on it. And yes, I still have that coin to this day. My only regret was that I did not have any more bills to get more change.
I was in the bar one evening when two other obviously underage boys were enjoying a drink. They were having a great time until the door opened and another customer walked in. When they saw who it was, there was instant panic. The customer, a regular, was none other than their high school history teacher, Mr. T. The two boys were literally squirming on their bar stools. What should they do? Run out? Beg for mercy? Cry? Things went more relaxed when Andy set two fresh beers in front of the boys and said, “That’s on Mr. T.”
Well, I’ve used up most of my space on just one place. At another time I’ll share some more stories about other times and establishments.
Don Urtz is the town of Richfield planning board chair, and a life long resident of Richfield Springs.