Kunkel's Tavern

Kunkel's Tavern
Overbrook, Pittsburgh
Circa Early 1920's

"Home Away From Home"

Cookieís beer drinking was legend. Mind you he never missed a day of work and was the best dad and husband, but he did love his beer. For many years before I was old enough to be carried into Kunkel's, the Tavern was the center of Cookie's outside entertainment. As my brothers came of age, they too joined our dad regularly for a few beers and a game of cards or bumper pool.

Now the beer at Kunkel's, as I learned much later, was considered the best in town. I remember four taps of Iron City, Fort Pitt, Duquesne and Rolling Rock. Each keg sent its golden elixer through a "coil box" filled with crushed ice, and when the beer was drawn, the glass would form a frost on the outside!
The bar patrons would "belly-up", with one foot resting on a beautiful brass rail. Up into the 1940's, there were a half-dozen or so brass "spittoons" along the bar and at each table, to accomodate the many tobacco chewers. Later on, the bar was fitted with a brass trough just inside the rail, which was flushed regularly. (Don't look ladies!) Over the years, I would often witness Cookie with a large "chew" of Mail Pouch in one cheek, drinking his beer on the other side. The man had a cast-iron stomach!

The card game of choice at Kunkel's was called "66" and why, I can't remember. Anyway, it utilized 1/2 of a Pinochle deck and played somewhat like Eucre. Each game was completed in only a few minutes, so was ideal for the winner's prize. The losing two-man team must spring for "short" beers for the winners. Cookie was a past-master at "66" and as a result, he and his partner usually could be seen with six or more of these 6-ounce "nickel beers" lined up on the table. Many of the competitors were of German descent, and would startle this youngster as they slammed their cards on the table shouting "qveen off glupps" or "ace off schpates".

Even with all the boistrousness periodically erupting in Kunkel's, it was the friendliest and homiest bar I have ever seen. Now I'm not saying that the potential wasn't there, but fighting was rare and very brief whenever it did occur. The patrons were mostly self-policing especially with newcomers and young upstarts, but one imposing presence commanded a peaceful atmosphere. The bartender for all my years in Overbrook, was a big tough man by the name of Buck Miller. He wielded a mean billy club that noone wanted to see come out from under the bar. Of course in his early years, Henry Kunkel was no slouch in keeping order in his coal-miner's saloon.
Another "unwritten rule" that eventually went out of style, was that all ladies had to drink and eat in the upstairs dining room, ruled over by Hilda Kunkel. This was especially calming to a bunch of hard-drinkers. I remember that the bar had a Dumbwaiter, which carried drinks upstairs and food downstairs. The most popular food at the bar during those years was a "Cannibal Sandwich". One thick slice of homemade rye bread topped with about an inch thick slab of raw hamburger liberally dosed with salt and pepper, and a thick slice of onion. They were delicious, and never killed anyone. (to my knowledge)

My earliest recollections of Kunkel's Tavern are from when I was about four years old. The Kunkels had a very old parrot that eventually reached over 75 years. I believe his name was "Long John Silver", but I'm not really sure. My brother-in-law Cliff Spratt would take me to the Tavern's upstairs dining room to visit with this parrot. It became a wonderful and natural routine for me to carry on short conversations with this unique bird.
I was impressed as years went by, when observing the parrot at different times of the day. For example exactly to the minute, he would call the Kunkel's dogs to dinner, say goodbye if you put on your coat to leave, and answer the doorbell or knocking. Along with dozens of other responses and phrases, he learned many of his visitors names including mine, and would greet me with a cheery "Hello Pete", whenever I came in.

One day, to save Cookie the long walk home up steep Ivyglen Street, my brother Chuck drove Lil's car to Kunkelís to pick up dad after work.
After "a hit and a miss" (a shot and a beer) and two or three more draughts later, as they left the tavern they noticed the car of our neighbor Clem Bauer parked in front. The trunk was blocked slightly open by the top end of a beer keg tap. Lifting the lid, they discovered a full pony keg, tap and coil box inside. This ensemble was transferred to Lilís car, driven home and set up in the Theobald basement. It wasnít long before Clem came bursting into our house almost in tears, because "someone" had stolen a keg and all the fixinís from his car.
Now when it comes to such a terrible loss, Cookie could be most sympathetic. He invited Clem to the basement to drown his sorrow. Eventually the truth came out, and they both had a great laugh.
Legend has it that the two of them pretty well killed that keg by the next morning.

By the time I started Saint Norbert's school in 1938, the Parish Pastor was Father Donameyer. He was a stern-looking man with steely eyes and very deliberate way of speaking. I remember being scared to death of him. The terror grew when I began my tenure as an altar boy at eight, but I soon found that he was a very caring and gentle man.

Father Donameyer

The good Father also enjoyed lifting a glass or two at Kunkel's. I'd say that this practice brought him much closer to most of his tippling parishioners! On many a Saturday night, you would find this man-in-black bellied up at the corner of the mahogany in Kunkel's Tavern, next to Cookie and one or two other Theobalds. Suffice to say that during his brief visits, the conversations became more subdued and sanctimonious.
Father was no tightwad either, as he occasionally sprung for a bottle of the "hard stuff" and bought a round or two of beer for the house. (It also made it a little easier to sweeten the collection plate on Sunday, I'm sure!) After a whiskey or two and several beers, before leaving he would admonish all of the Catholic men in the bar that he would expect them the next morning at Mass. On these occasions he always got a good turnout, and would be most understanding when one or two would fall asleep during his sermon.
As an alter boy, I also was able to witness up close Father's appreciation for a good glass of wine. When I served the wine and water from the cruets for the Eucharist portion of the Mass, he would signal the Server to stop pouring by lifting the Chalice for just a little wine and a larger portion of water. This of course was blessed for the ceremony, and consumed as part of his "Communion".
Following Communion for the congregation, the Ritual called for cleansing the Chalice with more wine and water. Father would make sure that I comletely emptied the wine cruet, and he took just a little water. After all, Mass was almost over anyway! As he drained the Chalice, I could barely hear a little lip-smack and a soft ahhhh! I always wondered if my mum, sitting in her usual place along the front pew, could hear it too.

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