A Tale of Blood, Sweat, and American Moonshine
The present day Art and Alma’s opened in 1908 as Rulhausen’s Tavern in Burlington, Illinois. She was the hub of the town poised at the corner of Center and Main. Schoenhofen pilsner (brewed in Chicago by Schoenhofen Brewery, which created the famous Green River Soda in order to survive Prohibition), was drawn from wooden barrels. The history of the Burlington landmark tavern stands as mighty as the 35 foot oak back bar was hand made by a regional craftsman, resulting in a unique departure from the common Brunswick style back bars of the period.
The Specter of the Chicago Cowboy
The Rulhausens lived in the rear of the establishment (the current dining room) and rented out the rooms above. One annual visitor, a Chicagoan, would don a Stetson hat during his summer stays. Each year, he would add to the mural he was painting on the north wall of the bar room. He completed it on his last visit shortly before his death in 1913. Several managers over the years have reported sensing a shadowy figure (in a western hat) gazing upon that same wall. These occurrences happened late in the evening at lock up time after the patrons had left. One manager even quit.
The area had been settled by hearty German dairy farmers that had migrated from Burlington, Vermont in the mid – 1800s. And like all good Germans, they considered some good stout beer the best part of any day’s routine. Each morning the saloon would open at 5:30 a m to greet the dairymen bringing their milk to the Illinois Central RR Depot a block down Main. After dropping off their milk cans, the wagons and teams were hitched to the rails lining both streets and these hard working folks would make a call on the tavern. Spittoons lined the brass rail on the floor and tobacco smoke filled the air. Card games and local gossip hastened the passing of each day. The gaslights were dimmed at 8pm, allowing ample time for chores and a bit of rest before the cycle would begin again the next daybreak.
The Great Dairy Strike of 1916
Honest brawls were not uncommon then, and there was a single report of a stabbing. A door was used to carry the victim to the new doctor in town, who saved his life. For many years, women and children walked on the other side of the street from the men who fraternized in the saloon.
The tavern also headquartered meetings during the near violent dairy strike of 1916 (see the pictures in the bar area). The strike was held to secure better prices for the desperate dairymen from the dairy processors that had moved into the area. The fire that destroyed the Borden creamery in town was “the work of divinity” according to townies.
Tough times have never closed these doors. World War I came and went, then the Great Depression. The small dairy farms and local economy were distressed. But the harder the times, the more frequent the visits to the tavern.
Juice Joints and Harlem Sunsets
Even Prohibition couldn’t shut the place down. The liquor supply was the responsibility of two local boys who would drive to Cicero (southside neighborhood and headquarters of The Chicago Outfit, including notorious mob boss Al Capone) and park the car with money spread out on the back seat, covered by a blanket. Upon returning from a brief stroll, they would find the much needed sprits in its place.
The turret on the front of the building was a curse to paint, but made for a great lookout to spot the fuzz. Rulhausen’s Tavern was always the place to stop on the way between Elgin and Rockford.
In the roaring 20s, a tunnel through the cellar wall allowed for “beverage service” to the dance hall next door. In Burlington, public dancing was about as illegal as alcohol in those days (an ordinance which was thankfully repealed in 1933). In 1932, some men tried to rob the bank across the street in a daring shootout, killing one of them. Master Detective Magazine wrote a story, drawing plenty of curious readers to the tiny town.
In December of 1941, war was declared by the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1945, on the day it was over, the piano from the bar was rolled into the street to celebrate victory with great consumption.
And so, time and much history have passed. Ben and May bought the place in the 40’s, Art and Alma Stark in the 70’s, and finally the Kupp family, after falling in love with it, in 1987. In an era of reproduction and contrived, artificial atmosphere, we strive to remain the real thing.