Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Visit to Whitey's Wonderbar

Dateline: East Grand Forks, Minnesota
During my week here in Grand Forks, North Dakota I have had an opportunity to do a little poking around, and this exploration has led me across the Red River of the North to the smaller neighboring town of East Grand Forks, Minnesota (population 8600). You can throw a fairly good size rock across the river here, yet there is a different feel when you cross the short bridge linking the town with neighboring Grand Forks. Both of these communities were virtually destroyed during a major flood in the spring of 1997. The river runs north, and an early spring that year in the Dakotas and Minnesota sent a rush of snow melt toward Canada where the river was still clogged with ice. These communities have rebuilt and a new system of flood walls, levees and dikes line both sides of the river to prevent future flooding. One of the wonders of survival in East Grand Forks is Whitey’s Wonderbar, which was first constructed near the river in 1925, and became the home of the original stainless steel horseshoe bar, the first ever constructed in the United States.

I stopped in this afternoon when there were very few people around and bellied up to the horseshoe bar and enjoyed a 24 ounce Bud Lite draft for $2.50 while the bartender shared with me a little history of the place. Apparently East Grand Forks was a wide open town back in the early 1920. North Dakota was dry, but Minnesota was not and so the town was home to a number of taverns and casinos where local farmers and lumbermen came “for fun and frolic.” East Grand Forks and Moorhead, across the river from Fargo eighty miles south of here, and other border towns thrived on the nightlife they could offer. Dozens of nightclubs and restaurants lined DeMers Avenue and made East Grand Forks famous throughout the Great Plains as "Little Chicago."

In 1925 a young fellow named Edwin "Whitey" Larson, not yet 20 years old, opened the Coney Island Lunch Room a couple blocks off the DeMers strip. It featured bootleg alcohol, unrestricted slot machines and other types of gambling, and Coney Island hot dogs. Chicago gangsters, including Al Capone, are alleged to have frequented Whitey’s back in the day. Even Clark Gable stopped by, or so the local legend goes. A few years later Whitey moved his establishment to the former home of the Duluth Brewing Company, on the DeMers strip, and built his now famous horseshoe bar in 1930. The tavern was later featured in the Saturday Evening Post and Time Magazine. In 1942 a fire damaged the building, but it was soon reopened as Whitey's Café and Lounge, with a new facade and with a more legitimate clientele. A wise move since gambling was outlawed in 1947, and the local authorities began to clean up the town. Most of the bars closed down yet Whitey's managed to survive the winds of change that blew across the prairie in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a landmark restaurant in the 1970s featuring three bars and a nightclub.

Whitey's had been in business in the same location in downtown East Grand Forks from 1933 to April 1997, when flood waters inundated the building in which it was located. After the flood, the owners salvaged what they could from the 1933 building, including the horseshoe bar and some other Art Deco furnishings, and everything was stored off site until a new building could be found. There was some talk it would move across the river to Grand Forks when the original building was torn down to make way for the new flood wall on the Minnesota side of the Red River. Once the flood barrier had been constructed, however, a building just east of the original building in East Grand Forks became available and Whitey's reopened in September, 1998. The following year the new building was extended westward towards the river with an entrance on the new boardwalk.

Whitey's eventually changed hands, the new owners quickly defaulted and the restaurant closed in February 2011. After being closed for nearly nine months, and sold at auction that May, the new owners of Whitey's Wonderbar reopened in October 2011 with the hope of taking the iconic establishment in a new direction. They have added a separate evening dining area off the original bar area and facing the boardwalk patio and the Red River. As a result, the entire establishment has been given an incredible facelift and almost everything has been replaced and upgraded except for the famous horseshoe bar. New walls were erected and given a fresh coat of paint in addition to other more modern touches. East Grand Forks, which has seen some rough times since the 1997 flood, is happy to see this piece of the city's history kept alive and thriving. And so am I!

I sit here and try to imagine what the place must have looked like back in its heyday when this was still a rough and ready frontier area. My waitress has just pulled another tall draft and a delicious looking meat and cheese plate which will be my light dinner this evening. It would be nice to walk along the boardwalk while there is still some daylight, but the temperature is hovering near 20F and there is a stiff wind blowing down from Manitoba, only a few miles north of here. I am happy to stay right where I am.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the colorful recounting of your visit to EGF and to Whitey's. I lived there as a kid in the 1950's and '60's and really know little about the history of the area.