The region used to be a land of backwater saloons and hidden-away roadhouses, a land that withstood Prohibition with a wily sideways glance and enough under-the-table business to place campaign contributions in the right places.
I found some places by happenstance, the result of my long solo drives around the area when I first moved up here. Chapman Hotel was a bar in Schoharie County that you entered through someone’s living room. They served Genesee and kept an old jar of pickled eggs on the bar for those needing sustenance. Down the road was a trailer bar in what seemed to be a landfill, along with a combined bar, laundromat and bowling alley.
Deb Allen, founder of Black Dome Press, introduced me to Melody Manor on a back road behind Windham. The owner and bar mistress was a short lady with a bouffant wig, polka-dot dress and Wellingtons who’d sing and sashay to the age-old 45s on her vintage jukebox. The Shirelles and early B-52s were her favorite. The place was always empty, but you could imagine it filled with dancers a half-century ago.
Rosendale was legendary for being the scene of a wild off-campus bar crawl for SUNY students in New Paltz. Same for some of the hamlets and blue highways around Oneonta. Trying to catch what was around Kingston once, we found an old corner spot in Wilbur with an 1856 carved bar and a jukebox with both “Sugar, Sugar” and “Yummy, Yummy” on it. Fueled by his homemade and powerful cherry liqueur, its owner shared ribald tales of the past antics,
There were hole-in-the-wall dives up the Big Indian Valley where patrons kept mugs and stuffed animals they’d shot. A reggae bar for Jamaican field workers outside Highland held dance nights with bouncers, Red-Stripe giveaways, and some of the best jerk goat served anywhere outside the Caribbean. And we haven’t even touched on Woodstock, Saugerties, or that spot in Hudson where you could stride out the front door and get hit by a twice-daily train in less than two steps.
Good old days? More like relics of a pre-DWI world that harked back to when Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond used to hold out up here, buying up bootleg and sponsoring a local brewing business. A time when Babe Ruth could get away for a week of fishing in the Esopus as young boys brought him buckets of lukewarm beer from Phoenicia’s Main Street taverns.
Miss it? Now that I don’t drink, the only thing I can regret is a lack of easy discovery of a timeline stretching from now back into this ancient region’s earlier days.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.