“Squire Butler is Dead”, proclaimed a headline in the April 12, 1902, Illinois State Journal. “George H. Butler, familiarly known as ‘Squire’ Butler, was a character in the neighborhood of his home at 1124 South Grand avenue, east,” the Journal explained.
Butler (1827-1902) had served as justice of the peace for Woodside Township and was a veteran of the Mexican War of 1848. According to the newspaper story about his death, Butler had gone out on a “carousal” after receiving his military pension check. His initial stop was at McCaffery’s Saloon on the northeast corner of 11th Street and South Grand Avenue. After tipping a few there, the squire crossed the street to Donovan’s Saloon on the northwest corner of 11th and South Grand.
Donovan’s Saloon, owned by John J. Donovan (1878-1943), was the first bar as well as the first business of any kind on the northwest corner, which was a vacant lot until the 1890s. (Depending on the era, the corner bore the address of either 1327 S. 11th St. or 1031 South Grand Ave. E.)
Donovan’s would be far from the last saloon to occupy the building. Probably the best-known, however, was Booker’s Tavern, which operated on the northwest corner from 1941 to 1975.
When Donovan owned his saloon, the growing Southtown neighborhood contained a mix of Irish and German immigrants. John Donovan also operated Donovan’s Hall upstairs from the saloon. The hall served as a meeting place for political events, stag parties, costume parties, or any kind of party, according to newspaper accounts of the many events held there.
As he entered Donovan’s Saloon, Squire Butler ordered a “pony whiskey,” and the liquor bottle was placed in front of him. What happened next is unclear, except that Butler was intoxicated and the saloon was in full operation. Authorities later speculated Butler was headed for Donovan’s back room when he tripped and fell down a flight of stairs head first. Knocked unconscious, he laid in the saloon’s cellar stairwell until the saloon opened the next day. Butler was still unconscious when discovered by William Castor, a bartender at Donovan’s. He died without waking up.
Castor and his brother Joseph took over the bar about 1908, renaming it Castor’s Tavern and Hall. The family got out of the saloon trade about 1915, when William Castor (1877-1967) opened Castor’s Market on South Grand Avenue.
Saloons occupied the northwest corner of 11th and South Grand even during Prohibition, which began in May 1917 in Springfield and lasted nationwide until 1933. When liquor was made illegal, many former saloons relabeled themselves “soft drink parlors,” and the beer continued to flow.
During the 1920s and into the early ‘30s, the establishment at 11th and South Grand came under two sets of owners. Jacob Reavley ran Reavley Hall there for a short period, and in the mid-1920s, Patrick Allen had Allen’s Soft Drink Parlor on the corner. When Patrick Allen died, his son James “Bud” Allen took over until his death in 1935. (Patrick Allen’s other son, Thomas, owned Allen’s Cigar Store in downtown Springfield for more than 20 years.)
The building also was home to two grocery stores during the 1930s – McManus Grocery and Clover Farm – but saloons were reborn there when George Booker (1908-1981), came to own the corner in the early 1940s.
Booker and his brother Louis, the sons of immigrants from Slovenia, opened the initial Booker’s Tavern on Peoria Road in early 1941. Late that year, however, George Booker reopened the former Rialto Tavern, previously a block east on South Grand, in the building on the northwest corner of 11th and South Grand. In 1942, the closing of the Peoria Road tavern allowed Booker to transfer the name of Booker’s Tavern to his South 11th Street bar.
Over the years, Booker, a gregarious fellow, served innumerable bowls of his famous chilli (a secret recipe) to loyal patrons. The tavern also sponsored bowling teams featuring some of the best bowlers in Springfield for the entire period that Booker ran the bar. Booker retired in 1975, although he continued to own the building.
The new operator, Bernie Gall (1938-2014), introduced live music to the saloon – at first, the attraction was country music in addition to an occasional polka band. “Blue Mondays,” featuring local blues musicians, also drew in patrons. Tonguesnatcher and Finnegan’s Wake were among the better-known local acts who played Bernie’s, as it came to be known.
Richard Bruce took over the bar in 1979, changing the name again – to Bruce’s – and catering particularly to motorcyclists. At the same time, Bruce’s was still known as a place for the blues, in great part thanks to the Illinois Central Blues Club regularly hosting blues musicians from around the Midwest. As musical styles changed, however, Bruce’s became less of a blues hub and more of an alternative rock venue. In 1992, a new operator, John Guinn, rechristened the bar the Underground. Springfield native Jeff Feurer worked at the Underground during its heyday. “We never guaranteed money for a band,” he said. “You got the door proceeds and some beer.”
However, the tavern struggled to stay afloat, and the old Booker’s changed hands a couple more times in the ‘90s. The Undergound closed and reopened as Bubba’s in 1994, and in 1995, Bubba’s turned into The Bunker – a venue that closed even faster after an investigation discovered cocaine distribution inside the bar.
The corner was revitalized in 1996, when Bourbon Street Rhythm & Ribs opened in the old Booker’s Tavern space. Bourbon Street remained in operation in 2022, offering a combination of music (including blues) and a menu of ribs, chicken and Cajun dishes that preserved the tavern tradition at the northwest corner of 11th and South Grand.
Contributor: William Cellini Jr.
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