Sunday, February 12, 2012

More Pool Hall Memories

Now, friends, let me tell you what I mean.

You got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table.

Pockets that mark the differences,

Between a gentleman and a bum,

With a capital “B”.

And that rhymes with “P”,

And that stands for Pool!

(From the song, “Ya Got Trouble”, by Meredith Willson in “The Music Man”)

So I’m standing over a pool table at the Doncaster Hotel in Kensington, Australia trying to remember how to shoot a three-cushion bank shot. If I can make this shot, I’ll be in good shape to win my fourth straight game of eight-ball, which is no small feat since I haven’t played any pool for a number of years. It is July of 2010 and I’m searching back in the memory of my youth for the proper angles to make the shot. I have made the shot many times before on the pool tables at Mac’s Pool Hall in La Farge, but that was nearly fifty years ago, when learning to play pool was a part of a boy’s growing-up. After sizing up the tricky shot some more, I make the call of the three-cushion shot in the far corner and draw back the cue. The cue ball strikes the 13-ball and that brightly colored ball begins its circuit around the table; one cushion, then a second and a third before it heads for the called corner pocket. The small crowd gathered in the hotel’s pool table room inch forward to see if the orange-striped ball would fall in the pocket. As it slowly approaches the called pocket, . . .

If you were a boy growing up in La Farge during my time, there was a pretty good chance that you would know how to play pool. My time to learn to play pool in La Farge was in the 1950s and ‘60s, but young lads had learned the game in the village’s pool halls for generations before my friends and I came along. By the time my learning of the finer aspects of pool shooting was experienced, the lone pool hall in the village was Mac’s Pool Hall.

Mac Marshall had started the pool hall at that spot on La Farge’s Main Street in the 1940s, perhaps shortly after his hotel had burned down in 1942. When his son, Mac Marshall Jr., returned from serving in World War II, he ran the pool hall for several years before becoming postmaster. For the next thirty years, the business was rented out to various men who operated the pool hall in that premises. During most of those years, there were three pool tables in the building and several tables for card playing in the back room. The card room was an adults-only area, off limits to anyone under the age of eighteen. There was an age limit on pool shooting as well, which varied from 12 to 16 years of age, depending on the particular time in La Farge’s history that one views.

I think that the La Farge village board lowered the age for pool playing from 14 years of age to 12 about the time that I turned that younger age. I seem to remember that “Carp” Lowrey was running the pool hall then and asked and received the change from La Farge’s village board. There were quite a number of us “town boys” at that younger age, so the rule change swelled the customer base for the pool hall. My friends and I rushed to Carp’s pool hall to take advantage of the change in age requirements and become masters of the art of shooting pool.

We plunged into games of “Rotation”, “8-Ball” and the trickiest of all of the basic games, “Bank”. The game of Bank was an adaptation of 8-Ball in which every other ball, including the eight ball had to be made with a called bank shot. Bank required a higher level of shot-making expertise and strategic planning than the more basic games of pool. As a youngster starting to play the game, you learned the finer points of these pool games in a variety of ways. That education could often be accompanied by the emptying out of the change in your pockets, as you often had to pay for the lessons by paying for the games you lost.

The pool game of Bank cost more to play, a dime per game compared to the nickel charged for Rotation or 8-Ball, and the cost could accumulate fast as you lost and learned how to play the game with the older players. But the real education in the game of Bank came when you played partner Bank, two against two, with the old-timers. Each of the elderly players would have a youngster as a partner. The veterans could control the outcome of the games as they passed on the nuances of playing the angles of bank shots, positioning the cue ball for the next shot and playing defense against the opposition. On a Saturday afternoon, when Grover Hamilton came down from West Lima and Otis Arms came over from Valley, the old friends often taught the game to La Farge youngsters. I was fortunate to be involved in a few of those Saturday afternoon lessons in the finer aspects of playing Bank. Besides the lessons learned for the younger players, it was also a social time for the teachers. By controlling the game, the elders could share the week’s news as the lessons were taught. They could make the games go on forever as they manipulated the cue ball into hopeless situations for the next shooter. Scratches meant pulling a made ball from the pockets and putting it back in play, thus extending the game and the lesson some more.

I have many fond memories of my experiences in Mac’s Pool Hall over the years, but few seem so special to me now as those games of partner Bank with the elders of the game. There are many ways for a boy to learn about life while growing up in a small town like La Farge, and one of those ways might just be over a pool table. I am thankful for those who took the time to teach the lessons.

There is no longer a pool hall in La Farge. Mac’s Pool Hall closed sometime back in the 1980s. We think the last man to run the pool hall was Grover Hamilton, still trying to get people to play his favorite game of Bank. Others who ran that pool hall over the years included Ned Sewell, Ted Hammond, Bobby Kennedy, Theron Phillips and the previously mentioned Carp Lowery. When the pool hall was closed and the equipment sold off, it is said the pool tables ended up in Madison. The store space where the pool hall had been became the new site for the village’s library. It was a good use for the space, but not nearly as alluring to boys as the pool hall had been.

By the way, if you were wondering about that three-rail shot that was circling the table at the Doncaster Hotel, it went in the corner pocket just as I had called it. The small crowd then assembled murmured in disbelief. Now all I had to do was make the eight ball in the side pocket, which I had lined up pretty well with my leave of the cue ball. It was almost a straight-in shot, but in looking at the position of the two balls, I also saw an easy bank shot across to the other side. I made the tougher call for the bank shot and the black eight ball crossed the table and found its home to end the game. Some lessons are just not forgotten.

“The young man who can play a crackerjack game of billiards

usually is not good for much else.”

- La Farge Enterprise, January 28, 1909


I wish to thank Kay & David Mick, Shirley Marshall, Maxine Shird, Gary Hamilton, Blaine and Mark Phillips and others for their help with this story. If you would like to help with this little history project on La Farge, please contact me at or P.O. Box 202, La Farge 54639.

If you want to order signed copies of my books, the prices are $19 for a copy of the book on the La Farge dam project, $25 for a copy of volume I of the history of La Farge or $40 for both books. Mailing and shipping costs are included in all prices.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rack 'Em Up!

Well, either you’re closing your eyes

To a situation you do now wish to acknowledge,

Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated

By the presence of a pool table in your community

Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,

I say, right here in River City,

Trouble with a capital “T”

And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!

When I first heard the actor, Robert Preston, sing those words in the movie adaptation of Meredith Willson’s musical, “The Music Man”, I immediately thought of my hometown of La Farge. Wilson may have been writing about memories from his boyhood hometown of Mason City, Iowa, but that song seemed to fit right in with this Kickapoo River town. Of course, I viewed the movie at the Mars Theater in La Farge back when the movie was first released in 1962, so it was natural I suppose for me to imagine that the mythical River City of Willson’s story was La Farge. I don’t really remember any other songs from that movie, but some of the lyrics of “Ya Got Trouble” have always lingered in my mind. “P” rhymes with “T”, which stands for Trouble, so watch out for those pool tables!

The evil of the pool hall was a moral dilemma played out in many an American town and La Farge was no exception. By the time that I came along as a lad in the 1950s and stood on the sidewalk and stared in at the forbidden tables at Mac’s Pool Hall on La Farge’s Main Street, I think the moral drama had played its course and that type of an establishment was pretty well accepted. It was viewed as a relatively harmless place for boys and men to while away their free hours – playing pool and cards. There were age limits of course, for both playing pool, which I think was 12 or 14 years of age, and the adult card room in the back, which I’m pretty sure required the age of 18 for proper entry to play.

The village of La Farge has always had pool tables. When the village was established in 1899, one of the first pieces of business that the newly elected board had to conduct was giving out licenses for pool tables. Since that first village board decided to give out liquor and beer licenses for saloons and other drinking establishments, the pool table license usually went with it. But pool tables were in other establishments in La Farge besides taverns. There were actual pool halls from the very beginning. A Mr. Bezuchka, of the Hillsboro brewery family, who had many business interests in the village at its inception (including its gold mine), opened a three-table pool hall in La Farge several months before getting his liquor and beer licenses to turn it into one of the first saloons in town. Two of the three hotels in the village also had pool tables for their patrons to use. The “La Farge House” or “Belcher’s Hotel” did not have a pool table, as the family who owned the hotel strictly forbid their guests from any drinking, smoking or chewing in their establishment. So, it would follow that there would not be any pool table there, either. (Those strict rules soon led the Belcher family to close down the hotel, as they had little use of their rooms from business travelers. Mrs. Belcher ran a millenary store in the front of the building for years and a barbershop was also located there.) Both the “Central Hotel” and the “Ward Hotel”, La Farge’s other two hotels at the end of the nineteenth century, had pool tables. As a matter of fact, we have a record of a view of the pool table at the Ward Hotel provided us by Dale Muller in one of his Johnson Gunfrunk articles.

Writing in one of his John Bear Spreader Notes, Gunfrunk (Muller) was regaling about the village’s past in an article titled, “La Farge – Back Then”. In that piece, Muller recalled the busy Saturday nights in the village of his youth, “When a new kid came to town, and the town kids wanted to impress them they would take them down to the Ward Hotel, and peek down in the game room. They had a pool table and some card tables down there, and you could see the drummers playing cards with money on the table and drinking something out of big brown bottles. In one corner of the room, they had a stuffed two-headed calf and that really impressed the country kids.”

WELL – there you have it folks! Trouble with a capital “T”: card games, a pool table, drinking from big brown bottles and a two-headed calf! – Welcome to Sin (River) City!

Regular pool halls were in the village from its start. Besides the previously mentioned Bezuchka establishment, Art Travers had a pool hall early on in his building next to the Central Hotel. There was a pool hall in the Miller building across from the bank and another at one time in the KP Hall building on south State Street. Suffice it to say, many of the buildings that survive from that early era of the incorporation of the village (and there are quite a few of them), probably had a pool hall under roof at one time or another.

Sam Hook put a pool table in his general store located up in Seelyburg soon after he opened the business. That move did not sit well with the residents of the north end of La Farge. Dempster Seely, Chauncey Lawton and the other leaders of that community had always kept a tight check on drinking, gambling and other sins in Seelyburg over the years, but that group was gone by the time Sam opened his store. More than one correspondent to the La Farge Enterprise reporting on the happenings in Star (Seelyburg) at that time mentioned the sullying affect of Sam’s pool table on the youth of the old river town.

A while back, I received a scan of an old photographic post card from Julie Roberts, who lives down Readstown way, of a pool hall that was located in La Farge over a century ago. The historical society in Readstown had come in possession of the post card, which was dated as being mailed on May 28, 1909. The photograph showed an interior shot of a three-table pool hall owned by a man named Hart. The post card was sent by his daughter, Tacy, who identified the post card’s photo as her Dad’s pool hall in La Farge. Looking at that old photograph postcard, I am reminded of the last pool hall in La Farge – the one where I hung out in my youth. That back window placement and covered sidewall beam on the right side of the photograph remind me of Mac’s Pool Hall as I remember it, but it could be the interior of another building in La Farge as well.