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.

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