Miedusiewski family leaving the bar business Landmark changes hands: After 47 years, Frank and Frances Miedusiewski are retiring as owners of the bar that became synonymous with politics

The Political Game

September 26, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Another little piece of Baltimore will die this week when American Joe's Bar closes.

Oh, the doors of the corner tavern will open again -- as Harry's American Bar -- but it won't be the same.

The Canton landmark -- a family-owned business on the Northeast corner of South Luzerne and Foster Avenues -- will fade into the history of this city Friday, going the way of the shipyards, manufacturers and canneries that once fueled the economy of Southeast Baltimore.

In this case, the owners, Frank and Frances Miedusiewski, are retiring after spending the past 47 years running the tavern that was founded as a malt and hops bar in 1923, during Prohibition. Both of their sons declined the option to take over.

"We outlasted Procter & Gamble," said Dennis Miedusiewski, the younger son, referring to the company's liquid soap plant that stopped production last month. "We've been pouring suds longer than they've been making suds."

Mrs. Miedusiewski, known as "Miss Frances" to many regulars, regardless of their age, is looking forward to her retirement. But, she said, "I'm going to miss the customers. We've made a lot of friends here. It's like a big family."

It is indeed -- one that's been around since Frank's father, Josef, a Polish immigrant known by the locals as "American Joe," opened the bar 72 years ago.

Though the tavern is not unlike hundreds of other corner establishments across the city -- each complete with its own cast of characters -- American Joe's Bar stands out in that it became synonymous with politics.

American Joe's was a "must stop" for political aspirants wooing the East Baltimore vote, including Bill Clinton, one of its more prominent visitors, who stopped there along the 1992 campaign trail to quaff a draft, have a coddie and shoot a game of eight-ball (which he won).

"They knew you could always find a crowd here," said American Joe Miedusiewski, the former state senator and Democratic organization man who ran for governor last year.

"For me, the bar was a great complement to my life as a legislator," said Mr. Miedusiewski, now a lobbyist. "I'd see hundreds of people a day and get a good idea of what was on people's minds -- and these were all my constituents."

American Joe's Bar -- a working man's shot-and-a-beer kind of a place -- is as much about politics as it is about Frank and Frances Miedusiewski, and how they carved out a living in a Formstone rowhouse, raising two sons above the tavern.

The former state senator gets his passion for politics honestly. His father was a Democratic political operative who founded the Luzerne Avenue Democratic Club in the days when the city was dotted with dozens of political organizations. Frank eventually took a shot at a 1st District City Council seat in 1963, but lost.

He became a lieutenant in the political organization of the late state Sen. Joseph A. Staszak, the powerful Highlandtown boss, and ran for the House of Delegates in 1970. He lost again, mostly owing to confusion about his name. (Voters didn't realize that Francis Joseph "Frank" Miedusiewski was "American Joe," which neighbors and patrons had called him and his father before him.)

Among the comings and goings of elected officials at the bar was a visit that convinced a young American Joe Miedusiewski -- who was Joseph Francis Miedusiewski until he legally changed his name to run for office -- that his future was in politics.

In 1960, Rep. Edward A. Garmatz strode into the bar on a campaign round. At one point, the congressman pulled out a crisp "silver certificate" dollar bill, autographed it -- "To Joe from Ed Garmatz. Good Luck. Feb 28, 1960" -- and gave it to the 10-year-old boy.

He was smitten with the idea of elected office. Mr. Miedusiewski ran for the House of Delegates in 1974 and won, beginning a 20-year career in the General Assembly.

Beer and politics -- and maybe a little baseball and card-playing -- that's what American Joe's Bar has been all about over the years.

"It was always a place where the working man got a fair shake," said Dennis Miedusiewski, once a bartender at his parents' bar, who now owns a Canton trucking concern.

"They've had a good run here -- working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," he said. "It'll be sad Friday when we close the door and walk away. But it's time. It's time."

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