SHIRLEY — This town likes its pubs. And its taverns, its inns and its clubs.
“One of the things Shirley is known for is how many drinking establishments we had, particularly when the Army base was active,” said Meredith Marcinkewicz, the curator of the Shirley Historical Society Museum.
She narrated a weekend fundraising tour of the town’s establishments, past and present. For $20, participants got a bus ride, a drink and lots of knowledge about the town’s history.
It turns out that Shirley’s pubs have always been influenced by bigger trends in the community.
Most recently, commercial establishments in Shirley were affected when Devens closed as an Army base.
The tour stopped for a drink at the Phoenix Club. Owner Jay Howlett talked about how he and his partner Ed Sherwin grew the business. “When Devens was here, it was good,” he said.
When the GI’s were gone, things changed. They adapted.
They partners turned the former Shirley Club into a restaurant. A revitalization grant allowed them to improve the façade and the signs. They did much of the interior work themselves and never shut down.
Things look good for the business. “Yearly sales are going up. Food is really starting to take off,” Howlett said.
The Mohawk Club did not make the transition to civilian life. The club lives on only in memory.
The statue of an Indian on Route 2A marks the spot of the club that opened soon after the repeal of Prohibition. Once featuring name acts, by the time it closed in 1987, entertainment was usually provided by a D.J.
Folks on the bus had tales to tell. Under-age drinking, sneaking in a small window, meeting people from far away, a two-tiered age requirement of 18 for girls, 21 for boys.
Since the first tavern was licensed in 1775, Shirley pubs have come and gone.
In colonial America, average liquor consumption for an adult over age 15 was seven gallons a year, Marcinkewicz said. Even the youngest children drank; liquor was considered healthier than water.
Inns, like the Sawtelle Tavern located next door to the present-day Bull Run, served food and drink to travelers. Locally-brewed beverages were made from peach juice and apple cider.
After the British cut off the American supply of rum as a result of the Revolutionary War, Americans started distilling their own liquor from grain. Corn whiskey was cheaper than milk, Marcinkewicz said.
Alas for purveyors of spirits find and not-so-fine, things changed. The 19th century brought new transportation and new social preferences.
The railroad meant travelers had no need to stop and recover in Shirley before going on to Boston or the west. The network of inns was not needed. Some are now private homes and others are gone.
Local business was challenged by the national temperance movement. In 1838, the state banned the sale of small quantities of liquor. Establishments got around this by charging admission to see, perhaps, a blind pig, and threw in a shot with admission, Marcinkewicz said.
A few years later the law was repealed. Massachusetts towns could vote on whether or not to allow liquor licenses, Marcinkewicz said. One year, in a 100 to 103 vote, sobriety won in Shirley and no licenses issued were issued that year.
During the Roaring 20s, when Prohibition forbid any sales of liquor except for medical use, a woman ran a tea room at the Bull Run.
The liquor business picked right up after Prohibition was repealed. In addition to the Bull Run and the Phoenix Club, the Piccolino Club, opened in 1938 as a pool club, still sells food and beverages. The pizza and open-face sandwiches are great, Marcinkewicz said.
In all, there were 22 stops listed on the program for the Shirley Pub Crawl.
The museum at 182 Center Road has stories and clippings about the 20th-century clubs, Marcinkewicz said. See www.shirleyhistory.org.
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