Talking to Carl
Article written by Francis Bennett, born and raised in Bay Shore, freelance writer
A Personal History of the Southside Hotel
I walked through the front door of the Southside Hotel for the first time on July 7, 1950. I was 6 years old. It was my birthday. My father shared all family celebrations with "the gang down at the Southside." His little boy's birthday would be no exception.
"I figure he's just the right age to start sharing a pint at me favorite pub," my father said to Carl Wolff, the little Irish bartender who's head barely cleared the top of the bar.
"What'll it be, matey?" Carl asked as if I were an adult patron.
"Ginger ale," I answered timidly, looking up at my beaming father.
"Ginger ale it is," Carl agreed, nodding and disappearing back behind the bar. He promptly served me a Cherry Coke. Carl and I repeated this ritual hundreds of times over the next 14 years until he died in 1964.
The Southside Hotel
The Southside Hotel was Bay Shore's original "local". In old England, food and lodging was originally provided to the traveling public based on class distinction. Only the privileged classes could patronize certain inns and always occupied separate quarters. English common law eventually imposed social responsibilities for the well-being of travelers upon the inns and taverns, declaring them to be "public houses" which must receive all travelers in reasonable condition who were willing to pay the price for food, drink, and lodging. Thus, the first "pubs" were established.
"Public houses" for travelers grew up in every small town across the British Isles and came to be known by the residents as their "local". Immigrating from Ireland, the Hughes family built the Southside Hotel in 1930 and established the first "public house" in Bay Shore. It quickly became my father's "local".
When Prohibition ended in 1933, Carl Wolff served the first legal drink over the bar that he had hauled out from Brooklyn in the back of a truck. That same bar still stands proudly today in the front room of the Southside Hotel.
"It was never no "hotel". Boarding house more like it. Hughes family took me in when I came over from the old country during the Depression. Homeless, I was. Started helping around the place to work off my keep. Bin tending the bar here for 30 years now. Just never left."
"Uncle Huey" and "Aunt Fran" Melton bought the Southside Hotel from the Hughes family in 1944 and ran a true "local" for the boys returning from World War II. The Post Office, built behind the Southside on Bay Shore Ave, and the new volunteer Fire House around the corner on Main Street insured a steady supply of patrons stopping in for a pint before and after work and after every fire call. Before some regulation stopped it, a fire department radio squawked behind the bar for twenty years calling the volunteers into action.
"Mr. Kelly liked to listen in to the police calls and offer commentary on every call. ‘Uh oh,' he'd whisper. ‘Looks like Dot Mahoney called the cops on Jack again. He musta come home in his cups. They'll be hell to pay.' Kelly tended bar with me for 20 years. Never heard him tell a story the same way twice...
When Johnny Wichert bought the place in 1952, he put old Edna out back to do the cooking. Pretty good cook. Invented what we call "pub" food today. Just simple home cooking back then. No menu. We ate what Edna cooked; pot roast, beef stew, corn beef and cabbage. Lunch and dinner. Didn't matter. She made it in the morning and we ate it all day. Tasted better after it set awhile."
In 1962, due to John Wichert's failing health, the Wichert family sold "Johnny Wichert's" to their bartender, Artie Schiller. Artie ran "Schiller's" for 38 years, welcoming a new generation of baby boomers to their "local" without changing or "upgrading" anything. Some saw this as "respect" for tradition. This, of course, was a romantic notion. Artie was not given to romantic notions. He was thrifty. Take the shuffleboard table. When I was six years old, I had to stand on tip-toes to push the pucks down the long shuffleboard table that occupied the entire length of the bar's south wall. Thirty years later I was tall enough to notice the smooth grooves worn into the same shuffleboard table that still stood proudly in Schiller's. Artie was really thrifty.
In 2000, Ned and Loretta Baker purchased the Southside and continued to operate it in the same fashion; thrifty. But their thrift was colored with a genuine respect for the 20th century culture the Southside Hotel represented. The Baker's were careful to continue the comfort of extended family, the sincere patriotism, the willingness to serve, and the readiness to burst into joy at a moment's notice that was the soul of the "Greatest Generation" and the legacy of the "Baby Boomers".
In 2013, the Southside Hotel joined the Lessing Family of restaurants and is today known simply as Southside. The Lessings, a local family with a long history in the "pub" business, have endeavored to preserve the Southside's 20th century colorful traditions while carefully updating them for the 21st century patron.
"When I pass I want my ashes stored in a scotch bottle on this backbar. I've never been nowhere else. This is my final resting place."
Carl's ashes are still behind the bar at Southside. Stop in and pay him a visit.