In November 1927, Illinois State Journal writer A.L. Bowen embarked on a three-day series of columns remembering the restaurants, saloons and hotels that dotted downtown Springfield when he arrived in the city at the turn of the 20th century.
The three-day series turned into five days as readers responded with their own comments and reminiscences. (Bowen’s stories previously pointed SangamonLink to its recent entry about chef extraordinaire Sam Willis.) But some of Bowen’s most vivid memories were published in his Nov. 24 column, which discussed the free lunches by which local saloonkeepers attracted business in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Here is what he wrote about Springfield’s free-lunch tradition. (This entry is published courtesy of The State Journal-Register, descendant of the Illinois State Journal.)
The saloon free lunch played a leading role in the domestic affairs of our city. For a nickel, a foaming glass of beer was purchased which entitled the buyer to dive into an array of delicacies on the table in the rear of the room or, perhaps, it was on the end of the bar, where the caterer could keep close watch on it.
Saloon lunches ranged all the way from the elaborate and varied meals set out by the St. Nich and Leland hotels for the aristocracy of drinkers who patronized their bars to proletariat soup on the levee, where the “hack driver’s bottle” and the “put back” were institutions of respect.
The Leland bar was noted for its salads, the St. Nich served sliced chicken and exquisite cheese sandwiches. Today you buy these foods, no better prepared and serviced, and pay high prices for them. The St. Nich sandwich that went with a nickel glass of beer costs today twenty cents or even more.
About town the saloon lunch was highly specialized. Baldwig and Mockler (sic – Charles Ballweg, 1859-1931, and John P. Mockler, 1858-1935) catered to the best trade but did not believe in tempting it into the house with a bait.
Giblin (Patrick H. Giblin, 1860-1909) did not serve free food. Cooney Byers (sic – Conrad Beyer, 1868-1932), I am told, set the best free lunch. He bought fresh ingredients and had an artist in their preparation working as porter. Cooney himself superintended distribution and employed a cipher system in communicating to the keeper of the lunch how liberal he was to be with each customer, who had to show his good faith in buying substantially before he could hope to partake of the trimmings. John Zimmerman (1860-1918) also set a lunch that was well known. One resort was favored for one thing and another for another, which stimulated circulation among the bibulous.
On the north side of the square was the only saloon that faced the court house. It was owned by a man named Mueller (apparently Carl “Charles” Mueller, 1842-1908). On Thanksgiving he put out a square meal of which roast turkey was the foundation. The little place, you may imagine, was popular that day.
As the economic scale of saloon patrons descended, the quality and variety of free lunch deteriorated. Up on the levee, soup was the sole item on the menu. Some of it was atrocious. Some of it was most tasty.
It was not an uncommon thing to find a hostler, down and outer or human wreck, presiding over the soup kettle of an East Washington street saloon and brewing a concoction whose odor and flavor were fit for a king.
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