This Memorial Day weekend marks the anniversary of the Colonial Fire.
This landmark building built at the beginning of the 20th century was located at the corner of Delaware and Catawba Avenues where the Beer Barrel Saloon and Tippers is now located. The 82-year-old structure stood out with its large dome at the northwest corner of the building. For years it was the place where many fun memories were made on Put-in-Bay. Over the years it had been a bowling area, dance pavilion, skating rink, wine cellar and more. 2018 Marked the 30th anniversary of the Colonial Fire.
When it burned on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend 1988, it housed the island grocery store and the Beer Barrel Saloon where Pat Dailey entertained. The fire began at a propane-fueled grill at the front of the building. A supply line malfunctioned spewing liquid fire up the front of the old wooden structure. Within 45 minutes, the massive structure was smoldering ruins. The Put-in-Bay Volunteer Fire Department was helpless to slow the raging Colonial fire and fought valiantly to protect other nearby businesses from also being consumed in the fire. Shocked islanders couldn’t believe this beloved island landmark was gone.
Owner Tip Niese vowed to rebuild, and a new Beer Barrel Saloon and Tipper’s Restaurant were built. The burning of the old Colonial marked the beginning of a new era at Put-in-Bay. The first Jet Express and the first of the new larger Miller Ferries meant more people, both day
trippers and those who could stay late into the evening. This resulted in more entertainment at the various island watering holes and eventually the influx of Put-in-Bay Hotels & Resorts we see today.
There are still many islanders who remember the Colonial Fire, have stories to tell about fun times there, or who worked there. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll hear some fun and interesting things about the Colonial as the anniversary of its demise is marked. The grounds where the Colonial was built has a troubled history. The first structure to occupy the property was known as the “White House” which was one of the first Put-in-Bay Hotels. Joseph W. Gray who was the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer purchased the property in 1861 and made it a full-time boarding house.
Here, guests could stay on occasion, making it one of Put-in-Bay’s first boarding houses. Then, In 1861 ownership changed hands to Joseph W Gray, the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He moved to make the structure into a full-time boarding house. As his interest in Ohio’s Put-in-Bay diminished, the hotel was sold to Sweeny, West & Company who undertook an aggressive expansion adding additional wings. The property was renamed the Put-in-Bay House moving forward.
The Tragedies Before The Colonial Fire
On August 30th, 1878 a gala was held to benefit the victims of Yellow Fever in the Southern United States. Shortly before 6 in the evening a fire ignited in the cupola of the structure and the building quickly burned to the ground as there was no fire department on the island at the time. Despite residents efforts to slow the fire with a bucket brigade, the structure was a total loss and burnt to the foundation. It was rumored that 4 men smoking in the area may have been the cause of the tragic fire but it was never proven.
Valentine Dollar, a well known and prominent Put-in-Bay figure brought to the island at the request of Jose DeRivera purchased the destroyed remains and grounds and began to construct another Put-in-Bay House albeit a smaller version. On September 3, 1907, tragedy struck once again as the Put-in-Bay House again caught fire and burned to the ground. The adjacent Colonial Dance Hall was spared, but only for a brief time in history.
The Put-in-Bay Amusement Company purchased the land led by Valentine Dollar for the hefty sum of $20,000. The Construction of the Colonial was completed on June 16th, 1906 to great fanfare and publicly the Colonel opened her doors complete with a skating rink and a large dance hall. For islanders, it was a cause to celebrate. The first years of the Colonial operation, the facility was known as a wonderful place to visit and entertain. In her heyday the well known Lake Erie Steam ships shuttle thousands or visitors weekly to Put-in-Bay where Adults, Teens & Children all enjoyed the massive facility.
The Colonial combined with the construction of Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial and the Centennial Celebration of the Battle Of Lake Erie brought thousands of excited tourists to the island eager to share in the fun. Little did anyone suspect that the next few years would have such a devastating effect on Put-in-Bay as prohibition reared its ugly head.
The Colonial Era in the Great Depression
Over the years the Colonial was many things t many people as each year something was added, changed as young entrepreneur tried their hand at the latest niche. From gossiping to dancing skating to bowling the Colonial was in a constant state of change in a fight for survival and valiant attempt to stave off bankruptcy. it was certain that either a new era for the Colonial was needed if she were to survive.
The Colonial In the George Lonz Era
Now under the ownership of the Lonz family, the Colonial began to prosper once again with the addition of a wine room and skating facility. Several island charterers were involved in the operation including the Linkers, Compton’s and Scieles’ In 1948 The Lonz family opted to lease the facility out to Howard Sutton. The events continued to grow with ingenuity and even included a wrestling match! into the 50′ & 60’s others took active roles in the operation including the Crowley family, the Schmidlins and Ralph & Joan Zickafoose who own the land where Put-in-Bay Golf Carts operates today.
The Colonial Averts Disaster!
On March 12th, 1964 the adjacent Schnoor & Fuchs Grocery caught fire. Located on the South side of the Colonial, the store burned as a complete loss however the Colonial just a scant 100 feet away miraculously was spared once again. After this close call, Lonz decided to sell the property which was purchased by the Neff Family for $20,000. Immediately the Neff’s began to inject much-needed capital into the property with modern bowling equipment that included automatic pinsetters, a modern furnace for year-round warmth and comfort and new decor.
The newly named Bay 90’s became one of Put-in-Bay’s most popular bars and local hangouts as the massive dance floor hosted events such as the Founders Day Ball in 1979 and the Put-in-Bay Centennial Ball in 1977. Near the end of the Neff ownership, a little known butcher from Ottawa Ohio Tip “Tipper” Eugene Neise operated the Island General Store Grocery.
The Colonial Fire and The Niese Family
In 1979 Tipper Niese who was operating the grocery store purchased the Colonial and became its final owner before the fateful Colonial Fire. The Bay 90’s was renamed the Beer Barrel Saloon. Neise brought together two other island icons George Stoiber and Charles “Skip” Duggan whose families to this day operate numerous attractions and businesses on the island.
A few years later, Niese purchased the shares from Stroiber and Duggan and became the sole owner of the Colonial. The bowling alley was replaced by a restaurant, an arcade was added and a dynasty was started when an eager young man by the name of Patrick Houston Dailey showed up asking to play in the famed bar. He was an unknown and the family had their doubts. He was permitted to play Memorial Day weekend in 1979. His songs with fun and entertaining lyrics soon made his music popular all over the midwest and for years to come until his retirement, fans would pack the facility to hear his ballads.
Live entertainment continued to grow in popularity and the Beer Barrel continued to expand. As the population expanded so this the grocery store to over three times its original size. Tipper was known for his high-quality fresh cut meats sold in the local store. In 1988 Memorial Day Weekend the final tragic event in the Colonial History took place as in just a short 45 minutes the entire facility burnt to the ground. A BBQ grill was determined to be the source of the fire that destroyed the facility in a blaze that was able to be seen from over 50 miles away.
Soon after the blaze, the family vowed to rebuild and the family sold essentials from the back of pick-up trucks and tents. Todays Beer Barrel stands as a steel and brick memorial to the history of the Colonial Fire. Opening in the Spring of 1989 the facility boasts the Worlds Longest Bar to this day. national caliber touring acts continue to appear each summer season at the facility.