Last week I wrote about some of the major business and industries in Sandusky during the 19th century, but perhaps the biggest business — at least in the number of operators — may surprise you.
If you think about Sandusky’s German heritage, it might be less surprising.
Like the beer hall and beer garden in German towns, the saloon, or tavern, in Sandusky was a popular place for friends to gather and, of course, have a beer.
By the end of the 19th century, the neighborhood saloon was nearly ubiquitous, with multiple businesses per block in some parts of town. The rise of the saloon, along with other changes, reflected an evolution in the city’s culture, from the New England Yankee traditions of the early settlers of Sandusky, to a more diverse culture dominated by more recent immigrants — primarily, but not exclusively, German — and their descendants.
Taverns existed in Sandusky since shortly after the first settlement. The words “saloon” and “tavern” generally mean the same thing today, although in the early days, a tavern might refer to an inn where people could stay the night as well as get a drink or a meal.
Marsh’s Tavern opened in 1817, with the Portland House opening soon after. The historical record for the early years of the city is not as well documented, but it is likely that some taverns operated throughout the first decades.
Although not a “dry” city, early Sandusky was home and host to many Temperance organizations in the 19th century, not surprising considering the predominance of relatively conservative Protestant churches that tended to oppose alcohol consumption, such as the early Methodist Church.
The Sons of Temperance and the Washington Total Abstinence Society both had chapters in Sandusky, along with other anti-drinking groups. But by the middle of the century, particularly after the increase in the German and Irish populations, the saloon became more popular, and Temperance, though not eliminated, became less dominant in the community.
When German and Irish immigrants began to arrive in large numbers starting in the 1840s, they of course brought with them their cultures and traditions. Going to a public place to meet friends and have a glass of beer was one of these more popular traditions that continued in Sandusky.
Saloons played an important social role for many in the community, not just immigrants. It was often a place to go for information about what was happening in town, a source for job information and connections, and a place to meet others and learn about the outside world. Not surprisingly, there was a large concentration of saloons along the downtown waterfront, where most people traveled into and out of Sandusky at that time.
What might surprise you is the number of saloons. In the 1889 Sandusky City Directory, there were listings for 41 saloons on Water Street.
Most of these saloons were tiny by today’s standards, but they offered a place for travelers to stop and relax, and for locals to meet. And saloons were truly a neighborhood institution in Sandusky, with 181 establishments in town in 1889.
For many, the saloon was the primary source for recreation and entertainment, both good and bad. (We might talk more about the bad in a later blog article.)
The Atlantic Garden saloon on Meigs street, operated by German immigrant Louis Zistel, had a bowling alley inside and an aquarium and menagerie outside, including a live bear. Others had billiard tables, or even slot machines. By the 20th century, some saloons would provide live updates of baseball scores, received via telegraph or, later, radio.
Perhaps most importantly, the saloon was an important source of community for many people of Sandusky, as can be seen in some of the photographs in the Sandusky Library’s collections. The “regulars” of a saloon often felt a loyalty to their business and its proprietor, and a kinship with their fellow regulars, often posing for a group photo in front of their favorite place. You can sense this kinship in the picture of men gathered in front of Hohler’s Place with the owner, “Blink” Hohler, and his brother, “Noodles.”
And you can see the sense of community in the image of Blink and the baseball team. The community was also served by many saloon proprietors who also operated grocery stores next to their taverns – it was said in the day that these businesses were paired so the wife could shop while the husband drank.
Although the number of saloons was greatly reduced by a licensing law in 1913, and, of course, by Prohibition in 1919, the saloon continues in some level of popularity today, but with a different name: bar, nightclub, etc., as well as somewhat different activities such as television, video games, etc.