Sunday, 01 November 2015 11:38

West Michigan’s Oldest Bars

Written by  Dwayne Hoover
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Nick Fink's in the good old days Nick Fink's in the good old days COURTESY PHOTO

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. That’s how the saying goes, anyway. And at Nick Fink’s, the oldest bar in Grand Rapids, they’re absolutely fine with that adage.

While developers are continually constructing flashy, new breweries and trendy pubs across the state, other more ripened watering holes hang their hats on heritage.

“It’s definitely old and eclectic,” said manager Matt Rule of the historic building in Comstock Park, built in 1888. “You can’t replicate a place like this. We could come in and make it look all fancy and crazy, try to make it something it’s not, but you don’t change something like this.”

Nick Fink’s, located at 3965 West River Dr NE, enjoys a colorful and assorted history, which includes serving as a post office and grocery store. It was a frequent stop for Ernest Hemingway, who’d stop in on his way to Torch Lake. It also served as the location for the very first “flight” in the county.

“[The flight] was by a Fink,” Rule said. “He built a bike with wings attached to it and he drove it off the top of the building. He made it only so many feet and he broke his collar bone, but it was actually the first documented flight in Kent County.”

There was a time in America’s past, however, when serving alcohol, at least publicly, wasn’t an option. So the Finks turned to other means in order to make a buck.

“During Prohibition is when [it was a brothel],” Rule said. “Upstairs, to this day, there are numerous hotel rooms. That’s how they made their money. They had these old hotel check cards where it was checked off and it had the girls’ names on them and what they were paid.”

As with any building with a long-standing history, there will inevitably be rumors of ghosts that linger around the establishment. And while Rule says he doesn’t necessarily believe in that sort of thing, there’s no denying some weird goings-on even he can’t explain.

“The jukebox, every other day, still turns on by itself,” Rule said. “I don’t know why it happens. I’ve had the electrical redone and even a new jukebox. It still just turns on a couple times a week by itself.”

Paranormal activity aside, the bar’s longevity is what’s charmed locals for decades.

“[The community] has a lot of pride in this bar,” Rule said. “Everybody either has a tie to this with family members or just came here when they were younger. They’ll always support it because it’s a staple here.”


Kalamazoo

Louie’s Trophy House Grill enjoys the distinction of being Kalamazoo’s oldest bar. Opened in 1918 by the Nowaks, a family of Polish immigrants, it’s rumored to have operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Louie’s stayed family-owned until 2007 when it was purchased by long-time customer Mike VandeMaele.

What makes this bar unique other than its age? That’s where the “Trophy House” part of the name comes in.

“When patrons walk in, the first thing they notice is the taxidermy-lined walls,” said Jax Kappeler, talent buyer for the music venue, Louie’s Back Room. “We feel as though it gives the customers a certain aesthetic specific to the Michigan lifestyle – a cabin on the lake feel.”

Louie’s, located at 629 Walbridge St., also serves as a must-visit stop in Kalamazoo’s entertainment scene. They host a comedy show every Tuesday, an open mic night every Wednesday and live music every Friday and Saturday.

But whether you’re stopping in to catch a cool band, enjoy a few laughs, or simply to take advantage of one of their nightly drink specials, Kappeler said the one thing you’ll always find at Louie’s is a hospitable atmosphere.

“Louie’s is a home away from home for our regulars,” Kappeler said. “And for every new customer that walks in, they walk out feeling like they just spent an evening with old friends.”

Well, old friends and lots of wildlife, too.

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