There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about spending some time in a local tavern just to soak up a little bit of history. I am always unbelievably overwhelmed about how much we don’t know about the liquored past, yet I am always absolutely grateful for what we do know. But as Spring is trying its damnedest to break Winter’s tight grasp, I get a bit more itchy to get to that bar. Cabin fever? No, trust me, I get out. I blame baseball. The anticipation of Opening Day coupled with the thought of spending the summer watching ball and sipping beer makes me grin from ear to ear. I get pretty geeked out about not only tavern history, but beer history. So, for April, I thought I’d do double-duty and discuss a little bit of both. Tucked away on a little neighborhood block in the Ukrainian Village, the Happy Village is a fantastic example for this story.
During the 1850s and 1860s breweries began sprouting all over the Midwest. Risk-taking immigrants like Frederick Pabst, Adolphus Busch, Valentin Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, and Phillip Best were just getting started in the brewing business and never imagined they would go on to found the American brewing power houses that we know today. As they learned more about their trade and consumers, it seemed that Americans got thirstier and thirstier. Industry, war, politics, luck, hard work, and tenacity helped these businessmen succeed to the point where they could call the shots, especially when it came to who served their beer and how it was served. Wanting to control tavern operations to make sure their product was selling as well as possible, breweries would supply saloons with fixtures, furniture, glasses, and everything else needed to run a tavern. In turn, the saloon would exclusively sell that brewery’s beer and the tavern owner slowly became more of a saloon keep. These specific taverns were called tied houses (being tied to the one brewery), and while the idea originated in England, it was in the United States that the concept flourished. Under the tied system, brewers could make a killing and ultimately pay for their brewery expansion, remodeling projects, and new state-of-the-art equipment. Not to mention, owning these bars would help them stay competitive in what was becoming an intensely cutthroat business. In turn, tavern “owners” wouldn’t have to dig into their savings to come up with the cash to pay for the items necessary to run the bar. But this was not the happiest of situations for either party. Brewery owners had to deal with what they considered to be mundane matters that took away from more important things at the brewery. And tavern keeps began resenting the breweries believing that they were just too controlling, greedy, and power hungry.
Chicago was a great beer market because of its geographical location and its growing population and this new urban city was a phenomenal place for emerging breweries and tied houses. In the late 1800s, the city was home to dozens and dozens of breweries and at least one saloon or tied house could be found on a Chicago street corner. In 1899, the Chicago Police Department estimated that half of the city’s population entered a saloon on a daily basis (it is also estimated that there were approximately 300,00 saloons across the US). And by the turn of the century, Schlitz Brewing Company owned approximately 60 saloons in Chicago alone.
One great Chicago brewery was the Peter Hand Brewery. Peter Hand was a Prussian immigrant that arrived in Chicago in the mid-1800s and began working for the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company (a brewery that was known to advertise in Chicago brothel guides). Wanting to create his own empire, Hand founded his brewery in 1891 on North Avenue in what is now the Old Town neighborhood. Hand’s most famous product was a beer called Meister Brau and allowed the company to flourish. The brewery even survived Prohibition, but never fully recovered to its original level of success. The company was purchased in 1965 and re-named Meister Brau and, a few years later, sales reached $50 million and became one of the top 30 beer companies in the US. It was sold to the Miller Brewing Company in 1972 and the actual brewery finally closed its doors for good in 1978. Sadly, this would be Chicago’s last brewery for some time.
The structure that houses the Happy Village was once a Peter Hand Brewery tied house. And it’s a special find because I have been unable to locate another Hand tied house in the city. The building was constructed in 1878 by Frederick Hein with the purpose of being a tavern. By the mid 1890s, Peter Hand purchased the property and made some architectural adjustments, mainly, he added an image of a hand holding the letter P on the exterior façade, an obvious indicator of who owned that saloon. The tavern enjoyed several years of great business until it closed just before Prohibition. During those years it was a grocery store and when the drink became legal in 1933, the establishment became Lenchard’s Tavern. In 1964, the Pilch family, local residents with a Polish-Ukrainian heritage (common for the area) purchased the property and opened up Happy Village. Today, Cherlyn Pilch, daughter of the original owners, still owns the bar.
The beauty of the bar is that it has pretty much remained the same since it was Lenchard’s. The Pilch’s added a few things of their own upon their purchase. Remember, they acquired the place in 1964, so it’s no surprise that some of the signature items in the bar are a wall clock that feature John and Robert Kennedy or a giant 50 cent piece with JFK’s silhouette. And that’s part of the charm, it looks like a 1960s rec room, only it has good beer.
Aside from the large ceramic urinal in the men’s bathroom (it’s original and has been there since the early 1900s), the hidden gem here is the fantastic beer garden. Cue the angels, because it’s a paradise. Wooden arches, a pond, greenery, and angel statues make it easy to see why this is, indeed, a happy village.
Today, the majority of the few tied houses that remain in Chicago were affiliated with the Schlitz Brewing Company and are easily identified by the large blue globe logo. For an example, visit Schuba’s, Southport Lanes, or Mac’s. I get a little bit emotional when I think about how much has been lost to the old wrecking ball – all that history gone in seconds. But then I think about places like the Happy Village and families like the Pilchs, their personal history and lively present is helping us preserve a bit of tavern and beer history and ultimately quenches our thirst for the sudsy past. I’ll drink to that!