A local hangout for decades
Eighty years ago you couldn't buy a beer at the Village Tap—then known as Mary's Saloon—because of Prohibition. But in all other respects, the establishment was a bar and a village hangout. Customers would enter through a set of swinging doors, and after passing the candy, tobacco, and ice cream counters in front, they'd find a stand-up bar with a foot rail, surrounded by tables and chairs.
Mary's was named for its owner, Mary Singer. Customers "would sit around kibitzing, smoking a pipe, or chewing tobacco. They'd talk about farming or about old times," recalls Glenn Lehr, who worked there in the 1920s, when he was a teenager. He recalls interesting characters such as Dyke Lehman, who lived three doors north of the bar and hung out there most of the day, going home only to eat meals. Lehman used to tell of the gold rush (Lehr thinks it was probably the one in South Dakota), when he got rich by rolling drunks. "He'd help himself to any cash they had, gold nuggets or coins," says Lehr.
Customers entertained themselves with chugging contests, seeing who could swallow a near beer or a bottle of pop the fastest. (Lehr says he usually won because he had more practice.) They'd play euchre and other card games such as Five Hundred or Pedro. In the winter, people would come in after sledding or ice skating to warm up around the potbellied stove.
The saloon served two brands of near beer, a special brew allowed to ferment only to about 1.3 percent alcohol content; ginger ale, cream soda, and root beer; and soda pop in several flavors like lemon, strawberry, and cherry. Lehr recalls that orange, the most popular flavor, sold more than the rest put together.
Singer sold cheese sandwiches for a nickel and ham or pickled tongue for a dime. Lehr made the last himself, buying tongue from the butcher two doors up, mixing it with wine vinegar, sugar, and onions, and cooking it for four or five hours.
Kids came in after school to buy penny candy and ice cream. Since there were no freezers, the ice cream was delivered in ten-gallon steel containers packed in big wooden buckets filled with ice and salt. It came in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Lehr made ice cream bars using skewers borrowed from the butcher. He'd stick a paper cap from a milk bottle on the skewer, add the ice cream, and dip it in chocolate.
Wednesday and Saturday nights, when the farmers came to town, were the busiest times. Lehr was supposed to close the saloon at nine o'clock but usually didn't lock up until closer to eleven. The farmers bought a lot of tobacco. "All the farmers chewed," recalls Lehr. "They would buy ten or more packages at a time. Beech Nut was the favorite." Mary's also sold snuff, sweet tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco.
The Village Tap has been owned by the Stein family for the last twenty-five years. Today, brothers Chris and Jack manage it while their mother, Jeanette, enjoys semiretirement. Chris grew up in the bar, learning pool and euchre from customers. He's been there long enough to see people who were brought in by their fathers bringing in their own kids.
The menu has expanded greatly since Mary Singer's day. It now includes a roster of daily specials: soups, goulash, knockwurst, and the burgers for which the place is famous. But just as it was eighty years ago, the Village Tap is a local hangout.
Chris Stein says people often come in after softball, bowling, or golf. Lately, he's been organizing special events, such as the recent Oktoberfest held in the parking lot. "Now that Manchester is a bedroom community, people like a chance to meet," he explains. "Times change, but people are the same."
Photo Caption: Chris Stein and Glenn Lehr.