The stairs at the old Squire's Cafe in Dundalk led from the bar to a smoky betting parlor on the second floor, and sure, says 85-year-old John Stewart, he climbed them a time or two.
But that was a long time ago, Mr. Stewart says -- a long time,indeed.
Workers remodeling the upstairs dining room at what is now Squire's Restaurant on Holabird Avenue recently uncovered part of a chalkboard that covers an entire wall and still contains names of horses from the 1920s. Bookmakers' helpers wrote on the board all the information gamblers needed -- they updated odds in chalk three times -- to place bets at their neighborhood bookie joint.
Lorenzo Romiti, one of the owners of the popular family-run restaurant, says he had heard that the upstairs room was once an illegal betting parlor.
"We'd always heard it was a pretty hopping place during Prohibition and during the '30s," says Mr. Romiti, shining a flashlight on the board to read the horses' names. "This is just part of Dundalk folklore."
Conversations with old-timers reveal even more spicy Dundalk lore. In addition to Squire's, one store and two bars in Dundalk and neighboring St. Helena "made book," as one resident puts it, during the '20s, '30s and '40s.
And one of the bar owners "took book up to when he died, seven or eight years ago," says William Rossi, 76, who still operates Rossi's Machine Shop in St. Helena.
Mr. Rossi says that he doesn't know much about the places, but that if you want to talk to perhaps the last man alive who does, go see Mr. Rossi's brother-in-law, John Stewart, who lives in Harford County near the Pennsylvania line.
The affable Mr. Stewart was born in Ireland in 1906, and his family moved to St. Helena in 1911 when he was 5. He bought some land and moved to Harford County in 1949.
During his adult years in St. Helena, from the late 1920s through the 1940s, he placed bets on horses at the four well-known betting spots, he says, as well as in cellars and living rooms where bookmakers set up shop from time to time.
He says he climbed the stairs at Squire's only a few times. It was a bar and small restaurant owned by Fred Squires from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Then the Romiti family bought it, remodeled it and opened an Italian restaurant.
Mr. Stewart says that the upstairs betting parlor may have been a hopping place at times, but that when he was there he never saw more than a half-dozen gamblers. Actually, he says, Squire's may have been a backup parlor open for business only when the more popular spots were closed.
Mr. Stewart, whose memory is impeccable, says he bet at Squire's in the 1940s. He even remembers horses he bet on. And Mr. Romiti says he had always heard that people bet there into the '40s.
Yet the races on the chalkboard took place in 1928 or '29. That was determined with the help of Happy Broadbent, who works at the Bloodstock Research Information Service in Lexington, Ky. The service has computer records of horse bloodlines dating back to the 1800s.
Mr. Broadbent looked up the names of several horses on Squire's chalkboard and found that they were born in the 1920s and raced into the '30s. One horse, Gangster, raced only in 1928 and '29.
So the races on the chalkboard at Squire's could have occurred only in one of those two years.
But Squire's had a chalkboard in the 1940s, Mr. Stewart says. Why then would a race from the late '20s be on the board today? Neither Mr. Stewart nor Mr. Romiti can come up with an answer for that.
The Romitis' workers covered the board back up last week so the dining room could reopen for the weekend. But, Mr. Romiti says, he plans to somehow incorporate a top section of the chalkboard into the remodeling scheme in the next six months or so.
He says he doesn't plan to ever take down the stucco wall to uncover the entire chalkboard, because it's pretty "grungy" in places. But you can't help but wonder what the room would look like, and what secrets might be revealed, if the whole board, which is at least 50 feet long, were uncovered.
Mr. Stewart says the board at Squire's and the board and sheets of paper at the more popular betting room behind a bar at Central and Baltimore avenues in St. Helena contained entries for races from tracks as far away as Cuba.
If the Sunpapers -- as The Sun and The Evening Sun were known then -- carried the results, Mr. Stewart says, you could bet on the races in Dundalk or St. Helena. And the Sunpapers in those days carried the results from many horse tracks, including the 10 or so in Maryland.
Sometimes the parlors provided the call of the race, although Mr. Stewart never understood the relay system that made this possible. And sometimes they even got raided.