ONLY ON THE AVENUE
The Mule - January 12 - 26, 2006
For 15 years, The Brown Bear Tavern has been the "Cheers" of St. Joseph.
On January 2, 2006, Dave Winn celebrated his 15th year of ownership at the Brown Bear Tavern. Tonight days after the anniversary, business is slow. It's a Monday and regular patron and employee, Winnie Wells sits listening to Dave while keeping one eye on ESPN. "I'm Owner Number Six," says Winn, proudly. Before purchasing the Brown Bear in 1991, Winn worked for Prudential, St. Joseph Tobacco and Continental Screw. At the same time, he was always a part-time bartender somewhere in town. "I started working for my father-in-law, Les Heater at the Missourian, where I was a swab, mopping the floor after close starting in 1965." In the mid '70s, Winn covered the bar for the owners of the Bluetown Tavern when they played softball. In '82, he poured beer at the First Ward and on special occasions, for Mike Welch at the Hi-Ho. Winn ended his part-time bar-tending tour of St. Joseph right here at the Brown Bear for the previous owner, Brad Edmondson.
When serving a beer, Winn knocks twice on the bar, a ritual he's been performing since his days at the Bluetown. Dave is proud of the Bear's rich history. "Since the day it was built in 1899, the Brown Bear was always a tavern . . . even during prohibition." grins Winn. "At that time the Bear sold soda and who knows what else." Winn goes to a stack of tattered cards he has piled around his cash register and a collection of artifacts and pulls out two weathered coins engraved with the names of the first owners, Veraguth & Moskau. "This place is full of stories." He then begins at the entrance and paces an imaginary wall where he has calculated that the barbershop once stood. "The barber was actually my wife's grandfather, Homer Green... and at one time in the back room there used to be a restaurant."
The Bear's been through its share of changes. In 1991, when Dave bought the place, it was in need of some good old TLC. "I'm proud to say I saved the Bear." He's not bragging. Winn sure has left his mark on the tavern, refurbishing almost every square inch. He's rehabbed the foundation, replaced walls and at one time added a full kitchen just to meet local codes so he could feed his patrons on MU game-days.
In order to make the renovation process more efficient, Dave built a full wood-shop in the attic. He's not shy about giving the grand tour, pointing out the fir paneling and maple flooring and various collections mounted on the walls. Winn's clearly more excited about the atmosphere he's created, though. Sometimes he jokingly refers to it as The Brown Bear Tavern and Museum. Everywhere you look in the bar you see real stuffed brown bears, displayed in glass cases that Winn himself has constructed. "Every year I travel to Macon, Missouri to the exotic animal auction. Sometimes I come back with a new bear."
Located two blocks away from Lafayette High School, the Bear has been transformed into a shrine to north-end athletes, thanks to Winn. Team pictures from all generations at LHS grace the walls. "Oh, sure we bleed green," he jokes, "but we get along with everybody here. Some of my best friends are from all over town." It's definitely a north-end bar though. "Lafayette Alumni basketball tournament weekend is the happening of the year at the Bear," says Dave. Brown Bear regulars agree that it's usually standing room only then. "It's better than St. Patty's Day and New Year's Eve rolled into one," he adds.
And while the renovation of the building has been a labor of love, it's not what he has built with his hands that makes the Brown Bear special. Dave Winn has created something far more special with his heart. "I've always tried to create a family bar atmosphere." says Winn, "the kind of place where I would like to go... a sort of St. Joe version of Cheers, where everybody knows you and anybody can come in without worrying about bad language or trouble."
Winn has the backroom set up for parties and smiles as he explains how sometimes groups just show up with a cake and chips and start the party unannounced. “The number one asset of this place is the people who gather here." he glows when he thinks of his patrons. "When you put good people together, good things happen." Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't bring a gift into the Brown Bear. Bear figurines and souvenirs clutter the walls and shelves. "I might have a bear or two around here." he jokes. Winn also enjoys framing the occasional high school sports photo or piece of memorabilia that finds it's way through the door. By immortalizing local sportsmen and women he seems to have found a way to showcase the good in people.
Another of Dave's endeavors is the novel collection of dollar bills stuck in the ceiling tiles. Patrons at the Bear push a thumbtack and quarter for weight in a rolled-up dollar bill. The coins fall out and the dollars remain in the tiles until they are harvested. "Ronnie Seckinger and I came across a bar up north during a road trip that did it this way and we thought it was neat." Every year that Dave has had the bar he has donated the dollars at Christmas time to the North-side Community Center. "All the money goes to the kids," says Winn proudly.
Dave is a hard worker. "I learned that at Prudential," he says, "I would feel terrible if I was late for work so it never happens." He has spent countless hours making his business work and that's meant time away from loved ones. His dedication hasn’t seemed to divide his family; in fact, it's drawn them closer together at times. "My wife keeps the books and records and all of my kids have pitched in behind the bar." Son B.J. is now a partner in the business. "I've also got some dear friends, Jimmy Bergner, Tommy Nagel, and Winny Wells. They have helped me in so many ways that I consider them part of my extended family."
Dave Winn must be doing something right. He's quick to point out, "There aren’t' too many taverns that have been around since 1899."
One of the inspirations for his success attributed to the late Gary Scannlin of Scannlin's Fillin' Station. "We weren't close friends but I admired the way he ran his bar. You always felt welcome when you came in and you were as good as anybody else there."
Another motto that Winn lives by is a line spoken by actor Chief Dan George in the Clint Eastwood movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, "Endeavor to persevere." After doing some follow-up research I returned to the Bear to tell Dave that his inspiration, Chief Dan George, was born in 1899, the year the Brown Bear Tavern was built! "That's amazing," he replied, "and it's my story now." Dave Winn shakes his head, "Only on the Avenue... Only on the Avenue."
* Chris Fleck