Not too long ago, armed with a notebook and a sense of adventure, we ventured out in search of the answer to a contentious question: What exactly is Detroit’s oldest bar, anyway? We found some surprising answers and not a few new questions. In fact, the challenge raised far more questions than it answered, since dating the provenance of bars and liquor licenses is extraordinarily tricky. Relying on word-of-mouth and interviews with old-timers at old bars can lead to some sticky conundrums, not to mention sticky elbows from all those bar tops.
Undaunted, we’ve decided that it’s only fair to expand our search beyond the city to the rest of metro Detroit. Finding the oldest bars in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties required persistence, plenty of phone calls, and visits to out-of-the-way spots, and an open-minded definition of the concept of “oldest bar.” Here then, in no specific order, is what we found.
The history of Oakland County centers on its tradition as a throughway between the great lumber bonanza of Northern Michigan and shipping ports along the southern lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes system. Not surprisingly, then, the oldest surviving booze joints remain in former stagecoach stops and taverns. The New Hudson Inn ranks as the oldest business in Michigan, operating in the same wood-boarded spot since 1831.
Speaking of inns, the venerable Holly Hotel deserves a mention for having been visited by the infamous Carrie Nation in August 1908. The fiery temperance activist and rabble rouser busted whiskey bottles with axes, trashed a painting of a nude woman behind the bar, and was promptly arrested and jailed for the disturbance. Although the hotel suffered from fires (oddly enough, exactly 65 years apart) that required extensive renovations and therefore interruptions in service, the Holly Hotel deserves a mention for the richness of its history.
As for the rest of the county, Pontiac may hold the greatest concentration of old bars. Years of economic depression, combined with the passionate historical activism of bar owner/preservationist Blair McGowan, mean that several old businesses have scraped through the hard times in old Pontiac’s downtown historic district.
The Liberty Bar might look shiny and new with its electronic music nights and strobe lights, but it’s housed in an antique building, and may very well be the oldest gay bar in the metro area. Prue’s Bar is an unpretentious corner bar dating back to 1933. It has a reputation for occasional sketchiness, and conjures memories of dive-bar hopping in the old Cass Corridor days, long before the Corridor became Midtown.
The granddaddy of old bars outside of downtown Detroit, Frank’s Eastside Tavern in Mount Clemens is legendary. A bar historian’s dream, Frank’s is a tiny basement bar tucked below a 1909 farmhouse on the Clinton River. Prohibition didn’t stop the locals from carrying on their drinking ways in the 15-feet-by-30-feet space with bang-your-head low ceilings. Frank’s boasts the oldest liquor license in Macomb County and was grandfathered into the town’s zoning laws in 1981. It’s a perfectly preserved and unpretentious look back into the county’s drinking history.
Another former blind pig, albeit with a less documented paper trail, is McClenaghan’s Pub in Shelby Township. McClenaghan’s has had so many different names over the years that not even longtime bartender Rusty can name them all. We do know that, once upon a time, it was called Ichabod’s. And another time it was in the center of a tiny township called Disco in the earliest days of the settlement. We also know that when Disco was nicknamed “Whiskey Center,” a blind pig called the Yellow Canary operated there. Like many great old bars, the changing names point to its colorful history.
Although the Blossom Heath Inn in St. Clair Shores may seem like just the place your pretentious cousin had a giant wedding, its history is much longer—and darker—than you might know. Built as a roadhouse in 1911 and expanded in 1920 into a lavish Arabian-themed dancehall, Blossom Heath was the glitziest speakeasy around. It suffered a sordid slide into organized crime and gambling before being ignominiously taken over by the city for use as a civic center and now event center.
Outside of Detroit’s city limits, the Downriver area holds some historic stop spots. Wyandotte’s Gold Star Bar resembles every Hamtramck dive you’ve seen, right down to the faux brick exterior and corner location. There’s a good reason for that: it was built in 1923 as a pool hall and served countless generations of shift workers from nearby plants practically around the clock. John and Jenny Bozymowski built the place with John’s $1,200 World War I service bonus, and it’s been serving blue collar drinkers since.
Despite a spectacular 2013 fire, Ecorse’s Hurry Back Bar remains open, and its owner, Butch Hall, claims it as one of the oldest continuously operating in Michigan. It’s been in his family since 1952 and, like many surviving bars, opened as a grocery store in the 1920s before quietly switching to the more profitable saloon model. By the 1930s it was the Sycamore Bar, and many older Ecorse residents remember both bars fondly.
Finally, since we can’t conclude without stirring up the pot a little bit, Greenfield Village’s Eagle Tavern tops off the list. No, it hasn’t continuously operated as a bar, and, in fact, it’s not even in its original Clinton location, having been purchased by Henry Ford and moved from its original 1831 spot. But we’re mentioning it here because there’s nowhere else in metro Detroit that gives as close to an authentic stagecoach inn drinking experience.
Whether they’re old stagecoach stops, family taverns, or unpretentious plain old dives, the historic drinking establishments of metro Detroit provide a welcome warmth and a glimpse back into the stories of our past.
Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. Read more of her writings about historic Detroit watering holes on her blog, Prohibition Detroit.
Photos by Nick Hagen.