Characters On Both Sides Of This Bar

Raise A Glass To Kaufmann's 50-odd Years Of Refreshments

April 21, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

Kaufmann's tavern was born on a narrow tar road in Gambrills, beforethe suburbs came to farm country. The surroundings have grown, the tavern has grown; people have lived and died in Kaufmann's.

Bill Kaufmann Sr., known also as Mr. Willie, sat at the bar the other night with his son Bill Jr., who observed that the crowd in the two dining rooms and the bar was typical for a Thursday: an assortment of families, softballers, high school coaches and National Security Agency people.

Sports and electronic surveillance have for years been a mainstayof Kaufmann's trade.

The Gambrills Road tavern for many years formed a community center when there wasn't much else around -- a pocketof conversation and laughter amid farms and woods. Then the NSA cameto Fort George G. Meade in the 1950s, and the world around Kaufmann's started to grow. Chances are, Mr. Willie's father, Henry, wouldn't recognize the place now.

Henry built the business and guarded its good reputation like a pit bull. He was a tall, slim man -- a butcherby trade and a boxer by avocation. They say he sparred with Jack Dempsey in Baltimore. They say Dempsey's manager urged him to become a professional prizefighter. No thanks, said Henry.

His skill with a punch would not go to waste, though. When he saw unruly behavior in his bar or heard foul language in the presence of a lady, he'd come out swinging.

"He was a very powerful man, I tell you," said Mr. Willie. "I saw him hit 11 men in my time. Not one of them got up."

Henry established the tavern in 1937 in a narrow building on Route 175,where the Jerman's IGA supermarket now stands. Ten years later, he decided he'd move his two sons and his wife about a half mile away, toa wooded tract on Gambrills Road. He had a house built there, and the family room on the first floor became the tavern.

And so it remained though Henry's life, which ended in 1961 when the 76-year-old man was stricken with a heart attack in his bedroom, upstairs from the bar. Thirteen years later, his wife, Katherine, would die in the sameroom at the age of 84.

Not long after her death, Mr. Willie had the bar ceiling raised and the bedrooms taken out. One dining room hadalready been added on the north side; a second was added on the south side. The most recent addition is the glass-enclosed back room.

The central bar, all that remains of the house that Henry built, retains the feel of a neighborhood tavern.

"Over the years, some beautiful people came in and out the door," said Mr. Willie, who is 74 years old.

"God, have we had characters in here," said Bill Jr., 44, who co-owns the bar with his 40-year-old brother, David. "We've had everybody."

There was the fellow named Tom, a West Virginia-born farmhand who left the Gambrills area when farm work got scarce. Tom wasinclined to don a straw hat in the bar and offer to sing a chicken-clucking song in exchange for a drink or two.

Kaufmann's in those days was the sort of place where a regular would not be shy to lean onhis car horn and rouse the owners if he came by and found the place closed. Mr. Nick was so inclined, said Mr. Willie.

That would be the late Nick Constant, the forest ranger who downed Arrow 77 beer as if a woods fire raged in his belly.

"He'd come in 8 o'clock in themorning," said Bill Jr. "You could set your watch by him. He'd have a half-dozen bottles of beer. He'd pump $2 worth of quarters into thejukebox."

His predictability was matched by that of Mr. Pete -- the late Elwood Peters, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. man who for years worked the 4-to-midnight shift. Mr. Pete lived about a mile awayand would stop in after work every night for his shot of Four Roses and his bottles of beer. In the morning, he'd be back for his three shots of whiskey chased with soda water. "Then he'd go to the bank formy grandmother," said Bill Jr.

Katherine Kaufmann was a stout, strong-willed woman with a talent for making crab cakes, which she soldfor a quarter apiece. On summer evenings, folks would stop in to fill their own pitchers with beer, get a plate of crab cakes and eat outdoors, listening to the music of insects and hoping for a breeze.

That would have been during the 1930s and 1940s, when Mr. Willie was first pursuing a professional baseball career, then going off to war.The little second baseman signed a minor league contract with the Washington Senators right out of Arundel High School and played at the lowest rung of the minors in Florida. The manager, Joe Tinker -- of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame -- advised him that he'd never make themajors because of his size: 5-foot-6 and about 150 pounds.

He wasscouted and signed in 1938 for amateur ball by the Christian HeurichBrewing Co. of Washington, thus merging his livelihood and his lifelong passion: beer. He worked for the brewery until it closed in 1956,and then for beer distributors until 1964, when he joined the familybusiness full time.

And now Mr. Willie has his very own beer. Since March, Kaufmann's has been serving a creamy draft ale created by an Eastern Shore brewery and dubbed "Mr. Willie's Brew."

"I loved my beer dearly," said Mr. Willie, seated before a mug of his brew. "I never went to bed in my life without a glass of beer. That's what killed me in the service."

Mr. Willie uses the past tense when he talks about his beloved beer because his doctor has urged him to avoid it lest it aggravate his diabetes. But Mr. Willie's a saloon-keeper, and the son and the father of saloon-keepers. He figures one beer, allright, two, three, couldn't hurt on this night, while reflecting on a life in the tavern trade.

"I loved it," said Mr. Willie, who tended bar for years until his hearing failed him. "I don't think that there's any job in the world that can compare to it."

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