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Where Everybody Knows Your Name

author: Tom Cruickshank  photography: Matthew Botha

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An ode to the small-town beverage room, which lives on – against the odds – as Kelly’s Homelike Inn in downtown Cobourg.

If your party years began before 1980, you are no doubt familiar with the now-archaic term, Ladies & Escorts, as it related to Ontario’s notorious liquor laws. And likewise, when you look back on your misspent youth, you probably have memories of time well-wasted at the local beer parlour, one with a Ladies & Escorts room.

You know the kind of place: not a nightclub, nor a sports bar, nor an English pub, Ladies & Escorts was a bare-bones beverage room. Invariably found on the main drag in a local hotel, you might recall the Royal in Picton, the Walton in Port Hope or the Queen’s in Belleville. Hardly the fanciest hostelries in town – in fact, some folks, ladies or not, wouldn’t be caught dead in them – these small-town institutions had been around so long that they became fixtures in their community. Generations of beer drinkers imbibed there, sitting in captain’s chairs surrounded by smoke and the smell of stale beer. Back in the day, 25-cent drafts were served by the trayful, often with a salt shaker and a side of pickled eggs. A dartboard dangled on a nearby wall, but long ago, someone lost all the darts. It didn’t matter, because on Saturday nights, the place was standing room only. Above the buzz of conversation and a blaring jukebox, the party would go on till closing time – which in that era, was one in the morning – unless the dense blue cloud of second-hand smoke drove you out earlier.

If those walls could talk… well, maybe it’s a good thing they can’t.

You may not have thought of it before, but the small-town watering hole is an endangered species. So to find one that is still thriving is remarkable, but there it is, against the odds: Kelly’s Homelike Inn is still going strong in downtown Cobourg. Across the street from Victoria Hall and the market square, it has been an operating tavern since 1844.

“For years, a bar like ours relied on the regulars – folks coming into to relax after work – and walk ins,” says Gord Kelly, who has run the bar for his entire working life and now shares duties with his two sons. “Nowadays, you need a marketing strategy.”

To that end, Kelly’s capitalizes on its reputation as a friendly neighbourhood pub and actively recruits “after-the-game” celebrations and special events such as birthdays and retirement parties. Live music on the weekend brings in the young crowd when the older cohort heads for home.

The panelled walls in the main bar are a history lesson in themselves. Team photos – some in faded sepia tones – hang amongst the championship banners and the signed NHL jerseys that reflect the glory of local sports legends. “There’s a camaraderie that oozes from the walls,” says one regular patron. “It starts with the Kellys themselves and permeates the room – they talk to everyone,” adds another, noting that the bar sponsors his team.

“They make a big effort on special occasions,” says a third. He mentions the Kentucky Derby day when the staff circulated trays of cheese and crackers, homemade meatballs and pulled pork sandwiches. “They make a special effort and the atmosphere encourages you to pick up a conversation with the person next to you.”

It’s about as far from Ladies & Escorts as you can get.

Gord Kelly, now 71, has been working in the family business since he was legal. “Over the years, I‘ve seen a lot of bars and hotels bite the dust,” he says, recalling the Plaza, the British, the Baltimore and the biggest rival of all, the Chateau. Whether through bad management, bad times or bad luck, all of these downtown Cobourg landmarks have closed. Indeed, Kelly’s stands pretty much alone as the sole surviving traditional small-town bar in town. On a Saturday night, it still packs them in and a summer evening sees the backyard patio full of regulars. When the three beverage rooms and the deck are full, the place holds 300 people.

“The times are changing,” Gord says, explaining how the small-town pub scene has evolved in the 50 years – count ’em, 50 – he’s been managing the bar. “For one, there is way more competition than there used to be: sports bars, pubs, restaurants and special events.” It’s an older crowd than it used to be and they don’t drink as much. “People used to drop in for a round after a hard day,” Gord observes, “but with more retirees and fewer workers, you just can’t rely as much on the after-work crowd any more.” Furthermore, “the younger clientele – the 19 to 35- year-olds – doesn’t drink as much as our generation did.” To their credit, they’ve listened to the don’t drink- and-drive mantra and as a rule, don’t take the risk.

Gord is the third generation – in fact, the third Gord – at the helm of Kelly’s. It is the only profession he has ever known. “When I was younger, I used to work part-time at Loblaws down the street, and would come over to help my dad [the second Gord] serve the lunchtime crowd,” he recalls. “And when my shift at the store ended, I’d be back at the hotel to work some more.” Somehow, Kelly’s was his destiny. Today, he doesn’t put in the hours he used to, but Gord is there every morning, prepping the kitchen for lunch and tending bar in the afternoon. The heavy lifting doesn’t really begin until the afterwork crowd settles in. By then, Gord is comfortably back home, and the peak evening hours are split between his sons, new co-owners Gord (the fourth Gord) and Kris, both in their 40s.

Libations have always been the bread-and-butter for the small town hotel, but until recently, hotels had a more fundamental role in the community. Traditionally, they were often the only places in town that served food, and rooms were in year-round demand among farmers coming to mill, salesmen selling their wares, groups looking for meeting rooms and settlers on their way into the hinterland. In fact, hotels were one of the first businesses to appear in fledgling settlements, and throughout the 19th century, even the smallest town would boast more than one. In 1856, Port Hope had six hotels; Picton had at least nine in the 1880s. They were often the most ambitious buildings in town, with beautiful verandas and balconies – note there is still one on Kelly’s – gracing the façade, from which guests could take in the downtown scene.

Gord’s grandmother, Jean Kelly, bought the inn in 1932, perhaps to coax her husband, the first Gord, onto dry land after years working as a chef on the ferry that made the daily trek from Cobourg to Rochester. It was the height of the Depression, but things were actually looking up for small-town hotels: Prohibition had been repealed only five years before and after more than a decade in which alcoholic beverages were largely illegal, the bars were open and the taps were running again.

Ontario was one of the last provinces to pull the plug on the “noble experiment” in which booze and beer were banished by law except by prescription from a doctor. (Doctors wrote 650,000 “prescriptions” in 1920). Even so, the decision to “go wet” was hardly unanimous – the matter was decided by a provincial referendum in 1926 and the yeas won by the slimmest of majorities. While folks flocked back to the beer halls, the newspapers were abuzz with scandalous reports of drunken behaviour and other moral impropriety, most of it aimed at women who chose to drink in public. Just get a load of these eyebrow-raising headlines published in The Globe in 1934 and 1935: “Trustee Observes Girls Being Brought Out of Beer Rooms” and “50 Girls Seen Drinking by Minister.” Clearly – tongue planted in cheek here – something had to be done about the social menace that came to be known as “mixed drinking.”

The solution came in 1937 when legislation was passed that, among other things, segregated the sexes in the beer hall. It required that a hotel provide two distinct beverage rooms, each with its own entrance – one exclusively for men, and a second for women, who could bring along a date if they wanted. Never mind the blatant sexism, most agreed this was a progressive law. “In future,” observed The Globe, “the beverage room will not be a convenience for women seeking the company of men.” And thus Ladies & Escorts was born, and for the next 40 years, it would be the norm in Ontario’s bars and taverns.

“Thank goodness that was put to rest,” says Gord, who is old enough to remember that law and how difficult it was to enforce. In those early days, it was actually illegal for his grandmother to work in the bar in any capacity, even though she was co-owner and lived upstairs. And it was only in the late ’70s that the laws were relaxed enough to allow such questionable practices as seating more than four people at a table, moving from one table to another with a drink in hand, use of the offensive word “bar” in signage, or having windows open to the street.

It was in this environment that several generations of Ontarians learned to imbibe. Looking back, there is little nostalgia for the archaic laws, but an old beverage room like Kelly’s still has certain panache. There’s something genuine about its down-home humility. Long may the taps run.

A TOAST TO KELLY’S

Garry Sharp is a regular at Kelly’s and has been for almost 60 years. Now 80, he remembers the Men Only days, particularly Hallowe’en, when women, disguised as men, would sometimes sneak a peek inside the men’s beverage room. “They were always disappointed,” he laughs.

For 30 years, Garry was at the helm of Sharper Image, a men’s wear store just around the corner on King Street. After closing up shop for the day, Kelly’s was his place to unwind with a glass of Labatt’s 50. “I would usually go in alone, but there were always friends to talk to. It felt like a home away from home.” It still is. “It’s my social hour,” he says fondly. “Wouldn’t miss the special events like the Kentucky Derby and Grey Cup.” He chuckles, “I can still remember sitting in the bar on a Friday afternoon and the phone would ring. It would usually be someone’s wife looking for them. The barman would call out, ‘Is so-and-so here?’ All eyes would turn to so-and-so, who would smile and shake his head. The barman’s answer was always the same, ‘Nope.’”

Today, a Budweiser Light or a bloody Caesar are Garry’s beverages of choice when he stops in to Kelly’s. Chevy, his waitress, knows his order before he sits down – a turkey sandwich – not a turkey sandwich made from pre-sliced deli-version of turkey, but fresh turkey with mayo and yup, cranberry sauce.

Ed Kukiel runs into Garry Sharpe regularly and at Kelly’s. Ed and his wife moved to Baltimore in 2000 and joined the corps of daily commuters on the Toronto-bound VIA train. “As newcomers,” he recalls, “we were told there were three local pubs we just had to visit: the Beamish, the Oasis, and most important of all – Kelly’s.” Almost 20 years later, Kelly’s is still his favourite go-to place for a Saturday lunch, where he invariably orders the house burger and a draft – in the traditional eight-ounce glass, a nostalgic hangover from the Ladies & Escorts days.

“Long ago, Kelly’s became more than just a place to hoist a beer,” Ed says. “I can’t believe the number of friends and contacts I’ve made there.” Indeed, it was at Kelly’s that he either met or learned of several people he would eventually hire for home improvement jobs: a renovation contractor, a roofer, even the guy who built his pizza oven. “One of the great rewards of moving here was finding a place like Kelly’s.”

“Every town has that bar,” says Matt Botha. “If you know Cobourg, you know Kelly’s.” Despite the age difference, he feels the same affinity toward Kelly’s that Garry Sharpe does. “I always know that I’ll meet someone I know there. It’s guaranteed.” However, Matt’s social hour starts a little later. On weekends the bar takes on an entirely different character as the daytime regulars give way to a younger crowd. “Come 10:30 at night, I’ve seen the bar go from empty to 200 people in a matter of minutes, especially in summer when the university students are home.”

Matt is philosophical about Kelly’s. Thinking back to the time he left Cobourg for a job out west, he remembers that Kelly’s was a welcome sight when he returned home. “The more things change, the more Kelly’s stays the same… and that’s a good thing,” he says.

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