Last Chance Saloon

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I have cracked open numerous cans of beer inside the most rare and precious piece of real estate in Newport’s leafy East Row Historic District. The property I refer to is not an Italianate house with stainless steel appliances in the kitchen and a Lexus in the driveway. Those are a dime a dozen in the East Row. Jerry’s Jug House has no comps.

A postage stamp of a saloon and carry-out store, the Jug House is, inside and out, frozen in a time before the rehab boom hit the East Row. It’s just about always open, seven days a week, from early in the morning to late at night. Even so, there’s a good chance that the people living around the corner have never set foot in the place—which is one reason its days may be numbered. Another might be that it’s difficult to find. The Jug House isn’t a corner bar; it sits along narrow Seventh Street, amid the East Row’s maze of one-way roads. It’s as close to a secret society as a business open to the public can be. There’s little chance of a first-time visitor serendipitously stumbling upon it.

The two-story building has housed a drinking establishment on its ground floor since the 1940s. At first it was essentially a stag joint, according to its current owner, Dave Wentworth. Years later a women’s bathroom was installed. Today it’s the easternmost tavern in the East Row, completely out of place, a lone Wiedemann sign aglow in the middle of a residential block. While the East Row gentrifiers might favor the newer sports bars on Monmouth Street or the chain establishments of Newport on the Levee, Jug House customers are typically folks who have lived in the area their whole lives. On a Thursday night, a man can hunker down with his buddies and a bucket of Miller
Lites for $9 and settle into a session—lobbing complaints about a Campbell County judge, say, or gossiping about a Cincinnati sports broadcaster. On a Saturday, he can return to throw a college graduation party for his grandson.

I moved to Newport in 1999 and wondered about the Jug House every time I drove past. At the time, my wife was the bar manager at the Southgate House, where she worked with Ben Saunders. A bartender by day and artist at night, Saunders grew up in Bellevue and became an expert on local bar culture, familiarizing himself with every Campbell County dive along the Route 8 corridor from Newport to Melbourne. His favorite was the Jug House, and he suggested we go, as he knew I also liked my taverns down-home and lightly populated.

When he took me there, I couldn’t believe it. It was like the old-man bars I used to visit as a young man on the Northwest side of Chicago in the early ’90s, before Mayor Daley and gentrification swept them away. I couldn’t believe how tiny it was: five stools and a few tables and chairs squeezed into a 300 square-foot barroom. I couldn’t believe the prices: a can of
Wiedemann for a buck-and-a-quarter. To this day I still can’t believe that I never run into anyone I know on the occasions
I pop in, other than the regulars whose faces I recognize. It’s a neighborhood bar in a neighborhood that drinks elsewhere. Not a business model for survival, let alone success.

People like Saunders, who hails from a multigenerational Campbell County family, make up the customer base. His dad would take him along for the ride to the Jug House when he was a teenager. When he became of age, they started to drink there together. Saunders’s late maternal grandfather, a lieutenant colonel with the Newport Police Department, was a Jug House regular. Saunders lives in the neighborhood and says he’s probably the only Jug House drinker on his block. “It’s not the bar where a guy goes to get away from his wife,” he explains. “She figures it out and goes there too.

“Everybody I’ve taken loves that place, even the people who are too cool. It’s cheap and it’s cozy. Bars like that don’t exist anymore.”

 

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in June, and sunlight filters through glass-block windows. Like most other weekdays at the Jug House, business is slow. The barstools are empty, and the TV is tuned to the Golf Channel. Mike Griffith—Griff, to the regulars—is behind the bar, and he does not know, or care, which tournament is on. A couple of customers stand near the door at one end of the bar; I’m planted at the other with a can of Hudy.

I look up at the most random piece of decor ever to grace a Newport bar: a six-inch disco ball hanging above my head. Where’d it come from? I let the mystery be and sip my beer. Another customer enters. That makes four of us. A cigarette dangles from his mouth, and he mumbles unintelligibly. Griff nods and hands him a bottle of Bud Light. The door cracks open again. Five people before suppertime? This is now a party. “Rock’s in the house!” someone declares.

The arrival of “Rock” Rauckhurst, whose workshirt bears his name, brings an uptick in energy. “One of these?” asks Griff, presenting Rock with a High Life. Names are named; rounds are purchased; lungs are coughed up in lieu of laughter and Rock and his friends catch up on current events.

“Did you see Sawyer today?”

“Yeah, he was here.”

“What’d he say about his kidneys? He was hurting yesterday.”

Rock tells me he lives in Southgate and is from Bellevue but drinks in neither, making a second home out of the Jug House for the last 16 or 17 years. “I’ve always hung around—what do you call them?—hole in the walls,” he says. “It’s my type of place. It’s low key, everybody knows everybody. Seems like there’s too much activity and riff raff in larger bars.”

Rock introduces Beans—Tom Kinman—a 62-year-old UPS retiree who works a Jug House bartending shift one Sunday a month, which leaves him plenty of off days to come in for a beer. Beans lives in Highland Heights and grew up in the East Row on Monroe Street. Rock assures me that Beans has Jug House stories, and he does, like the one about the dentist who would drink at the bar in the morning, and who once took a fellow drunk back to his office and pulled out all of his teeth just for laughs.

Beans has worked in bars most of his life, first at the long-shuttered Burkhart’s a couple blocks away at the corner of Ninth Street and Park Avenue. He was a stock boy at age 7 before his promotion to bartender at 14. Although he says that nearly nothing about the Jug House has changed since he first starting hanging out here in the ’60s, he mentions a couple of exceptions. “We never had stools here until the 2000s,” he says. “Dave said there would never be stools and never be a woman bartender.” There’s a school of thought in the bar business that patrons drink less if they’re sitting down. And as for female bartenders, Beans proudly notes that his daughter-in-law is a member of the Jug House staff.

Even so, Beans admits that the bar is not made for these times, or vice versa. “There are no local bars anymore,” he says. “Because of the big places, the little places are going out of business. We’re charging $1.25 here. My buddy used to own the Beer Seller, and they get $3.75 for the same beer.” Plus, the neighbors finance their beers with plastic. “They don’t know what to do when they come in here and we don’t take credit cards.”

 

A true working man’s establishment, the Jug House opens at 7 a.m., ready to accommodate thirsty third-shifters. On a midsummer Wednesday morning, 70-year-old owner Dave Wentworth is pulling double duty, accepting beer deliveries and tending bar for a grand total of one customer.

Even with a virtually empty room, Wentworth is slow to warm to my efforts at conversation. As he begins to piece together details of his life dating back to a time long before even the blue and nicotine-yellow University of Kentucky wallpaper was hung upon the Jug House walls, his wife Carol comes down from the couple’s second floor apartment. She visits briefly, giving her husband a kiss on the top of his head of slicked-back gray hair before heading out to her job at Cappel’s, the downtown Cincinnati costume shop. Wentworth reluctantly continues the task of talking about himself.

He was born on December 6, 1941,
the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At Newport Central Catholic High School he was the baseball team’s star pitcher, and when the Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a contract he headed to the team’s instructional facility in Florida. He made $250 a month, with room and board coming out of his pocket.

Wentworth has the physical attributes of an old jock—large cranium, big frame, and hands made for gripping a baseball or balling into fists. He reminds me of Chicago sports heroes like Mike Ditka and Dick Butkus, guys who, despite the aging process, maintain an air suggesting that when they were in physical altercations as young men, they were not often on the short end.

I ask about Wentworth’s pitching career, but he fails to share much. “It must have been pretty good,” is all he says about his fastball. “But that son of a bitch went over the fence too much.” Wentworth spent about a year-and-a-half in the minors before returning to Kentucky when his dad died. He was the oldest of four kids and felt an obligation to be home. No excuses, though. “It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he says. “I wouldn’t have made it anyway. I’ve had people say, ‘How’s Philadelphia?’ I’d say, ‘How the hell would I know? I signed with the Phillies. I never made it to Philadelphia.’ ”

Next up was the army, including eight months in Vietnam. In 1968 he and Carol were married, and they settled in an apartment in Ft. Thomas. After that he started bartending at Jerry’s Jug House, named for the proprietor, Jerry Bittner. “It was a neighborhood back then,” he says. “Personally, I think it was a hell of a lot better than it is now. You could rely on the people. They’d come in and have a couple beers. They’d go home, eat dinner, then come back and have a couple more. Different generation now.

“The world’s not set up for a small businessman, I’ll tell you that. Hell, they can go buy beer from the store cheaper than I can buy it off the delivery truck.”

Wentworth says business was decent when he bought the bar from Bittner in 1986. But even then, the clientele was aging. Things began to change dramatically when rehabbing in the East Row took off in the ’90s. The new neighbors didn’t give him a hard time, but they largely didn’t patronize his bar, either. Which is too bad, because there’s never any trouble at the Jug House. Wentworth would bet that half the police force doesn’t even know his little spot is here. Why would they? Nobody ever calls the cops on him. He says that city officials leave him alone, too. “Everything is centered toward the Levee,” he says. “If you’re not on the Levee, you’re a dead duck.”

I ask Dave and Carol if they’ve ever been to Newport on the Levee.

“No,” Wentworth says. “No desire.”

“I went to the comedy club,” answers Carol.

“I have enough comedy in this place,” Wentworth says.

On Christmas Eve in 2009, Wentworth had a stroke. He worked in the bar that night and has no recollection of how he made it upstairs. Carol found him laid out on the bed and called an ambulance. The stroke has debilitated the left side of his body, including vision in his left eye. He used to work seven days a week but has cut back. Sometimes he doesn’t get the bar open at 7 o’clock on the dot.

It’s what his upwardly mobile neighbors might call a lifestyle change. He has only had about five beers since that day. Gone too are the filterless Pall Malls. Instead, he takes about 20 pills each day, which Carol sets out for him. “I feel like shit,” he says, breaking off eye contact and glancing in the direction of the jukebox. “I miss my routine.”

 

I had a journalism teacher in college who told the class how she’d filed a story about Cuba for The New York Times Magazine. She was unhappy with her editors, who decided to title the piece “The Last Days of Castro’s Cuba.” She wasn’t in the business of making prognostications, she told them. That was in 1993. As I type, Fidel is celebrating his 86th birthday. 

Are these the last days of Wentworth’s miniature empire? He says he’s ready to get out, but who wants in? He has no children to whom he can bequeath the Jug House keys. All of his siblings are dead. And a potential buyer might take note of the square footage, which doesn’t lend itself to high-volume sales.

This is a clubhouse in need of a leader with an appreciation for Old Newport, someone who enjoys drinking and smoking and laughing in small groups, and who embraces certain facets of the bar business, such as the part where you don’t make any money.

“How much would you sell it for?” I ask.

He doesn’t name a price. This feels like less of a negotiation tactic than a sign that he’s not fully committed to walking away. But, like The New York Times Magazine, I could be wrong. So I follow up.

“If you sell it, do you want it to remain a bar?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

He takes out a handkerchief to blow his nose. “History. Memories.”

Would the neighborhood miss it? Maybe. Newport sometimes doesn’t know what it has until it’s gone. Consider the Wiedemann Brewery. Wiedemann was once the largest beer maker in Kentucky and was headquartered a few blocks west of the Jug House at Sixth and Columbia. The massive office-and-bottle house, designed by Samuel Hannaford and built in 1893, was demolished 19 years ago. In August, this magazine named it one of five important buildings we wish we could have back. The grocery store built where Wiedemann once stood closed up and is now occupied by Builders Surplus. From a turn-of-the-century Romanesque marvel of form and function to a rotating big box: American progress in action.

The Jug House obviously doesn’t rank with the Wiedemann building in terms of architectural significance, but it’s part of the fabric that once made Newport a workingman’s beer-drinking paradise. There’s no wishing back the Wiedemann building, but the brand has recently returned under new ownership, brewed with a different recipe, in a different location. So it goes to show that there are entrepreneurs who see value in an old brand known for good, cheap beer.

Maybe someday soon, someone will wake up to the value in this good, cheap bar with the Wiedemann sign hanging above its front door. 

Editor’s Note: We were saddened to learn of the death of Carol Wentworth, who passed away in September after work on this story was completed.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue.

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