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When we were drinkers

Some 40 years ago in one of those fact books for hipsters – it might have been the People’s Almanac which was published in 1975 -- there was a list of areas with the highest concentration of mom and pop taverns.

Now I’m trying to remember something from the 70s, so bare with me, but I think the list was a top 10. Of the ten areas with lots of little bars nine were neighborhoods in Milwaukee, a town made famous by beer, and the other was -- you guessed it, we are right in the middle of it – Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

There may have been a lot bars in Pittston 40 years ago, but in 1975 we were practically Baptists compared to 60 years before that. One hundred years ago in 1911 there were 75 licensed bars in Pittston. Today there are 14 not counting private clubs and that includes two Convenient Stores. Most of the other 12 are more restaurant than bar.

But 100 years ago most of them were more bar than restaurant unless you were partial to pickled eggs. In some sections along Main Street the front doors lined the sidewalks.

There were nine bars between 635 and 677 North Main Street in the first of the then 11 wards in Pittston. Thomas Milauckas ran a bar at 647 North Main. Thomas Rowan’s was at 649 and M.J. Toole’s was at 653.

There were 12 in what was then the second ward between 127 and 197 North Main. Among those were Frank Katkowski’s bar at 187, Joe Kemezis’s at 189 and Charles Rudaitis’s at 193 North Main.

Like those three, most of the other nine bars in that ward had Eastern European surnames. Ethnic sections were a trend throughout the city. For example down on South Main in the ninth ward John Barrett, Oliver Burke, Daniel Cavanaugh, Charles Heffron, Patrick Kearney, William McAndrew and John Tierney ran establishments. In the third ward at 385, 449 and 453 North Main Lynott, O’Brien and Langan were pouring ‘em.

All but 10 of the 75 bars in Pittston in 1911 were on Main Street. Six of the off-Main bars were in the fifth and sixth wards on Centre, Stark, Mill, Carroll, Broad and Ewen Streets. Among the owners were Charles Kizis and Elizabeth Boos, one of the few female licensees. Barbara Boyle was another. She ran a hotel at 25 Water Street.

Italian-owned bars weren’t common. Luigo Bianco had one at 635 North Main and Chiavaccie Leopolo one at 53 South Main. Michael Loquasto, Guiseppe Matarazzi and Peter Peovesano had bars on South Main, but Ralph Restuccia did not. He applied for a license but was denied by a county judge.

There was no LCB in 1911 and liquor licenses applications were heard in open court by county judges. They held regular hearings and a lot of citizens testified for and against. The testimonies against allowing licenses were called “remonstrances.” The Reverend J. J. Curran of Holy Savior Church in Wilkes-Barre would spend all day in court giving remonstrances. He refused to accept donations from bar owners. In his sermon on February 20, 1911 he said, “I will send out pledge cards to every adult member of the congregation next week and I expect you will sign and return them to me before Lent.”

Wonder how that worked out?

Anyway, the county judges had to decide whether to grant or deny every license in the county every year -- be it an existing license under the same name as the year before, an application to buy an existing license or an application for a new license – and there were a lot of them. Wilkes-Barre alone had 176 bars. The process took two months.

In March of 1911 Judge Fuller denied all 50 petitions for new licenses in Nanticoke, where there were already 103 bars for a population of a little over 18,000 which meant there was a bar for every 180 residents. Adding 50 new bars would reduce that ratio to a bar for every 125 residents, and Judge Fuller, who must have been a bit of a comedian, said, “Those proportions exceed any that exist in another civilized or uncivilized community on the face of the earth except the borough of Freeland.” Freeland had 75 bars and a population of 6,197 for a ratio of one bar for every 80 men, women and children in town.

In the Pittston area besides the 75 licenses in the city in 1911 there were 37 in Duryea, 22 in Avoca, 21 in Exeter, 9 in Wyoming, 7 each in Hughestown and West Wyoming and one in Yatesville. West Pittston was dry and remained so until after prohibition.

Going into the bar business then, as now, was expensive. A license was $250. A lot of the owners, especially those staring up or buying existing licenses, hired lawyers who charged $300 to $500. That was a chunk of change for an owner who might be expected to clear $1,000 in a year.

It’s weird to imagine how prohibition changed things. Was it like one day in 1920 there were 75 businesses in Pittston providing 150 or so jobs and the next day they were gone? Some of those bars turned into luncheonettes, pool rooms, cigar stores, and pop shops, but how many of those could thirsty miners support?

Some of the bars, of course, went right on selling alcohol, when they could get it, with a wink and a nod from the local police who didn’t see it as their job to enforce prohibition. The county, state and federal government did the enforcing, such as it was.

In newspaper archives I looked at the names of license applicants in the Pittston area in 1911 and 1912. Of the close to 200 names I looked at I found only one which I recognized as surviving prohibition.

Jacob Walutes had a bar on Seventh Street in Wyoming in 1911. His grandson Barry ran the same bar into the 1990s.

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