Upon embarking on our Detroit Bus Company‘s Drunks of Antiquity tour, I don’t think that my roommate and I were fully prepared for the Detroit dive bar culture shock we were about to experience. When we slowed to a stop on Gilbert Street just a few houses down from the first bar on the tour, we exchanged looks of confusion. This couldn’t be it; the street we were on appeared to be lined with only houses (some of which were boarded up or abandoned). Where was the bar?
Enter Abick’s Bar. Touted as the oldest family owned, continuously run bar in Michigan, Abick’s is situated on the corner in a now largely Hispanic neighborhood, below an apartment in which owner Manya Abick Soviak has lived her entire life. Manya’s aunt and uncle purchased the bar in 1910, and the apartment above has been the only place she has ever lived (her late husband moved in after they were married in 1946).
Some of the above facts were divulged to us before we entered Abick’s by our tour guides; others, however, were read from the walls in the bar. Many newspaper clippings, computer printouts, and even handwritten notes adorned the walls in Abick’s Bar telling tales of the venue’s and the owners’ heritage (as well as the infamous Samson, the enormous, yet sweet-tempered bull mastiff who calls the bar home).
We were lucky enough that Manya came down to the bar during our visit; coincidentally, she bumped into me while I was looking for the restroom and gave me a quick glimpse into the side room which had once been home to both a barbershop and a cigar bar. Abick’s was chock full of quirky, amazing relics that could have held my attention for hours.
But, as with any tour, we had to move forward. And the next bar did not disappoint: the building housing the Two Way Inn predated Abick’s Bar by a couple of decades, back to when Colonel Philetus Norris originally platted the village of Norris (also known as Norristown, or Nortown, or, eventually, North Detroit). Norris, who had originally come to the Midwest as a trapper and a trader, used the Two Way Inn as his first place of residence after moving to Michigan after the Civil War.
While Colonel Norris departed Michigan in the 1870s to become the second superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and the building housing the Two Way Inn has served many purposes (including jail, general store, brothel, home, and bar), it is one of just a few original buildings remaining from the village of Norris. We selected our stools at an old barrel beneath the mount of a deer to play a quick game of chess while drinking in the history until it was onto the next stop.
Again, we found ourselves approaching a building older than the last. The 1860s Victorian farmhouse we rumbled up to was actually Michigan’s oldest continuously operating bar, Stonehouse Bar. I use the term rumbled lightly, since, as a home away from home for the east side’s independent bikers, Stonehouse Bar is used to a much more intense revving and rumbling than the Detroit Bus Company bus that we pulled up in.
Now known as the best biker bar in town (or the state according to some), the building once served as clubhouse for the infamous Purple Gang (supposedly they even ran a brothel on the second floor). Though all of the buildings that we had been to were original, the large Victorian style covered porch on the front of Stonehouse Bar was the first big structural draw for my roommate and me. We sat on the porch and danced to the music playing over the jukebox for quite a bit of our time at Stonehouse Bar (scaring away potential customers, I’m sure).
Perhaps it was a win-win that we stayed outside, too; one of our tour guides mentioned that (when prompted) the owner, Mike, will share a shot or two of Polish rectified vodka. At a whopping 95% ABV, the night may have taken a turn for the worse with a spirit like that.
It seemed only fitting that we end the night at the first establishment to regain a liquor license after prohibition: Tom’s Tavern. Opened in the 1920’s by Tom Lucas, the tavern has survived many a catastrophe (including being hit by a car).
The bar even has the look of a survivor: a shanty-looking exterior feeds into an interior with sloped ceilings and a slanted floor that feels almost cave-like, yet somehow still feels warm and lively. This may have something to do with the drawings and photos that adorn the wall, or that this is the kind of bar that celebrates the birthday of the great Bambino each year.
Riding back to our pick up/drop off point in Royal Oak, I mused about what a unique experience our Detroit Bus Company tour had been; under other circumstances, I might never have ended up at a single bar that the tour lead us to. All were completely off the beaten path to me, in areas I had never even thought to visit or learn the history of. But, as the mission of the Detroit Bus Company is to solve the transit problem and increase connectivity in the Motor City, I couldn’t help feel like their mission had been (in some small part) accomplished.
The Detroit Bus Company also has daily routes, other events, and private rentals available. Check out this amazing company helping to solve the transit issues of Detroit (and having some fun at the same time) on Facebook and Twitter!