Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Many Faces of Billy O’Hern — Minneapolis Saloonkeeper

The genial smile of the man at right, the one wearing the jaunty straw skimmer hat and bow tie, is Billy O’Hern who ran a saloon, pool room, and retail liquor, beer and tobacco emporium on on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis.  Although facts about O’Hern’s personal life are scant, he clearly liked having his picture on his advertising materials and by tracking them it is possible to trace this whiskey man’s progress through life.

Although O’Hern apparently avoided U.S. census takers throughout his life, the Minnesota State Census caught up with him in 1905, living in Ward Eleven of Minneapolis.  He was living over the saloon.  To the interviewer Billy revealed that he had been born in Minnesota in 1875 and that his father had emigrated from Ireland and that his mother was Canadian born.  He was not married and, to my knowledge, remained a bachelor all his life.
Of O’Hern’s early life, my research revealed nothing.  He emerged into the public record in 1902 when, with another Irishman named John P. Collins, Billy opened a saloon at 927 Cedar.  He was 27 years old at the time.   After about a year Collins departed the partnership and Billy continued on at the same address.   As the trade card picture above would imply, at this stage of his career, O’Hern was playing the role of genial host. He was selling his whiskey in glass pint flasks as well as in larger containers;  most had “Billy O’Hern” embossed on them.
The generous saloonkeeper image was evident in the gifts O’Hern was bestowing on regular customers.  Among them was a small beer stein, ceramic with a metal top.  Probably made in Germany especially to his order and shipped to Minnesota, the stein was an expensive gift, bestowed by the saloonkeeper on favored customers during the 1910 Holiday Season.  Less costly was a beer mug that included the verse “To the Auto:  May We Hear It Toot in Time to Scoot.”  His name also appeared in red Celtic lettering.  Another mug, not shown here, contained the motto: “Your Money is Your Best Friend” and indicated that the ceramic was a 1909 present from Billy.
Fast forward a few years and a subsequent trade card.  This Billy has discarded the straw skimmer and genial smile.  He has on a bowler hat and a skeptical look.  Has something occurred to disrupt the geniality of this publican?
Move to the next O’Hern trade card.  The message is just the same as the earlier trade cards but a different image of Billy has emerged.  Gone is the bowler hat and bow tie.  Now O’Hern is wearing a fedora, a four-in-hand tie, a suit and a vest.  The look is rounded off by a watch fob and a dark goatee.  This is a wealthy and well-turned-out publican, showing off his prosperity.  The trade card indicated he can afford two phone companies.

O’Hern throughout this time was giving out bar tokens of at least three varieties, as shown here.  These tokens, while they might be taken as symbols of Billy’s generosity, also might indicate considerable shrewdness.  If someone bought a round of drinks for a group, the bartender would give a token or two to those patrons already having a drink and collect the full sum from the round-buyer.  The owner would collect immediately, and the drinkers would have tokens for later use that frequently were lost or forgotten.  As the token cost less to produce than the value of the drink, there could be a significant profit to the bar owner. 
Moving on another few years into the 1910-1920 period, we find a major change has taken place in O’Hern’s aspect.  No longer is he “Billy,” but now “Wm. F.”  Here his face appears on a tip tray.  The goatee and hat are gone.  No smile.  This O’Hern now has the look of a slightly overweight, self-satisfied businessman.   

We can conclude that this visage is a later one since the rival phone companies, as often happened, have morphed into a single utility.  Not only has Billy — excuse me, William — changed his look, he has altered the embossing on his bottles of whiskey.  It now read “William F. O’Hern Wines, Liquors & Cigars.”

The final trade card shown here carries its own surprises.  Here an older looking William is sporting a mustache and has an additional line of goods.  While he is still dealing in wines, liquors and cigars, he is also selling dogs.  Pitt bull terriers were his specialty and, he advertised, “always on sale.”  O’Hern, the owner of “Bullrat” and “Slim,”  apparently had become an impresario of dog-fighting.  This blood sport was legal in Minnesota at the time and even today, according to state authorities, goes on illegally.
Although O’Hern was still selling whiskey and beer when the final card was issued, National Prohibition could not have been far off and the alcohol trade was illegal.  Closing down the bar and shutting off the spigots, O’Hern still had his restaurant, pool room and cigars to sustain him financially.  One report has him serving soft drinks to his customers during the 14 “dry” years.  

Then this Minneapolis saloonkeeper fades into the mists of history — no census reports, no death notice, no gravestone to place him in time.  Because he liked to have his picture taken, however,  we can trace Billy O’Hern, as few other whiskey men,  for almost two decades of his rapidly evolving life.  

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