During the mid-1900s, it seemed there was a neighborhood bar on nearly every corner in Lebanon.

The history of neighborhood bars

Neighborhood bars have been known by many names over the years, including alehouse, beer joint, café, cantina, cocktail lounge, grogshop, inn, lounge, pub, roadhouse, saloon, tavern, tap house, and watering hole.

Neighborhood bars date back to colonial America when they were often referred to as taverns. These establishments were vitally important to the growth and development of communities as they also served many other purposes such as courtrooms, gathering places, general stores, inns, polling places, post offices, religious centers, and trading posts. Philadelphia’s City Tavern was frequented by some of nation’s Founding Fathers and served as the unofficial meeting place for the First Continental Congress. The City Tavern also hosted the first anniversary of the 4th of July celebration. The United States Marine Corps was founded in a bar named the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia on Nov. 10, 1775. These early American taverns were typically open to the entire community, including women and children. 

Starting in the mid-1800s, saloons dedicated to the sale of alcoholic beverages were common around the nation and became the domain of men. Women were usually not welcome in these establishments unless they worked there. It was not until Prohibition (1920-1933) that women began to frequent speakeasies (very profitable illicit liquor shops and drinking clubs) and drink alcoholic beverages alongside men in public establishments.

Neighborhood bars were significant social gathering places and an epicenter of activity in their communities where people could make and meet friends, play games such as darts, pool and shuffle board, listen to live bands, discuss politics and local news, and sometimes find a new job. Bartenders could even cash paychecks in some of these establishments. They were also an important part of the economy for their communities as they generated tax revenue from alcohol sales, provided employment for local workers, and often contributed to local charity causes. 

In Lebanon, neighborhood bar businesses included the 11th Street Café, Brandywine Tavern, Buzz Mann’s Bar, Four Seasons Bar, Freddy Arnold’s Bar, Gentlemen Bar, Kass’ Friendly Bar, Lafayette Bar, Old Fort Inn, Smokey’s Tavern, Stadium Café, Stan’s Bar, and the Town Pump. These establishments provided various forms of entertainment, some prepared food, and, of course, they served lots of beer, liquor and wine. 

Four surviving Lebanon neighborhood bars: Connor’s Tavern (top left), Willow House Tavern (top right), Steggie’s 9th Ward Café (bottom left), and the Liberty Square (bottom right). (Randy Jaye)

Starting in the 1970s, Lebanon’s once plentiful blue-collar industries, which provided livable wages — including the Bethlehem Steel Corp., the Lebanon Steel Foundry and Cleaver Brooks — began downsizing, laying off workers and eventually closing down. Fewer well-paid workers coupled with the area’s shifting demographics resulted in diminishing expendable income. This meant fewer customers for neighborhood bars and they too began going out of business.

The majority of Lebanon’s neighborhood bars that operated during the mid-1900s are now gone and only some matchbook covers, old newspaper advertisements, a few T-shirts and signs, and personal memories are all that remain of many of them. This is part of a continuing national trend that has accounted for over 10,000 neighborhood bars around the nation closing between 2005 and 2015 (that equates to about one out of every six). Some that managed to stay in business after 2015 have since closed due to the hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and a sluggish economy.

Matchbook covers from several neighborhood bars from Lebanon’s past including the George Washington Tavern’s Fiesta Room. (Author’s collection)

Many of Lebanon’s past neighborhood bars attracted many patrons as they sponsored bowling, trivia nights, pool and dart leagues. Some participated in fund raising events for charities such as the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

During the mid and late 1900s, many of Lebanon’s past neighborhood bars used various advertising strategies included beer and liquor specials, happy hours and dinner specials to attract customers. These strategies included the Brandywine Tavern’s $1 seven days a week T-bone steak special, a nightly piano player taking song requests from customers at Kass’ Bar, and live bands coupled with nightly clam specials at The Old Tunnel Inn. 

Various Lebanon Daily News ads featuring Go-Go dancers in Lebanon area bars during the 1970s. (Author’s collection)

The Go-Go dancing craze started in the early 1960s in France at a bar aptly named the Whisky a Gogo and quickly spread into the United States. Many fashionable women in the 1960s wore miniskirts and knee-high, high-heeled (Go-Go) boots, which became the outfits for the era’s Go-Go dancers. During the 1960s and ’70s, when Go-Go dancing was in full swing, many Lebanon area neighborhood bars and clubs featured this type of entertainment on a frequent basis.

Kass’ Bar, Brandywine Tavern, and Old Tunnel Inn in newspaper advertisements from the 1960s. (Author’s collection)

Lebanon’s surviving neighborhood bars

Today, despite the odds, there are a few longtime neighborhood bars still in business in Lebanon, including Connor’s Tavern at 319 S. 5th Street (more than 60 years), Liberty Square at 447 N. 9th Street (more than 50 years), Steggie’s 9th Ward Café at 210 E. Weidman St. (77 years), and the Willow House Tavern at 41 N. 5th St. (more than 50 years).

Interior of the Liberty Square with several patrons at the bar. (Randy Jaye)

Mary Jo Bishop, owner and operator of Steggie’s 9th Ward Café, said the business has been in her family since 1945. She believes the secret to the establishment’s success is due to its legacy of treating customers as family, allowing smoking, and keeping a consistent business model as they remain open six days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight. The backbone of Steggie’s business are longtime regulars, and recently new people of diverse backgrounds are becoming regulars.  

Legacy and future of neighborhood bars

It is doubtful that neighborhood bars will ever disappear completely as they are still important contributors to the fabric of their communities and to the identity of certain neighborhoods. However, it is unlikely they will ever be as numerous and affluent as they were during the 1900s. Surviving neighborhood bars, including the few in the Lebanon area, still offer a nostalgic atmosphere where face-to-face interactions with friends and locals can possibility free a person from stress and the drudgery of everyday life.

It is also possible to experience the friendly gesture of a neighborhood bar patron offering to “buy a round” of drinks, which is unlikely to happen in most of today’s chain restaurants, microbreweries or other establishments that sell alcoholic beverages.

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Randy Jaye is an historian and Lebanon, PA native. He has recently researched and nominated four properties that have been successfully added onto the National Register of Historic Places. He is the author of three recent history books, and writes articles for historical journals, local newspapers, magazines,...