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So Hoppy Together

Posted by lizgaribay on April 1, 2013

I met Michael Roper the same way I meet many tavern owners – just by sitting in the bar.  Back in the late 90s, I was definitely not a beer connoisseur, but for some reason, I was attracted to The Hopleaf.  The place had a historic and comforting feel.  It was the type of place that a true saloon was meant to be – a place for people to gather and share stories.  No TVs, no sports, none of that.  And while I bleed Cubby blue and am often glued to the tube to watch them lose their lead in the 9th inning, I didn’t mind missing a game because I was engaged in conversation at The Hopleaf.  It was exactly what it was supposed to be.

But what really drew me to the bar was Michael himself.  When I told him about this fun little bar history thing I do, he was actually interested, really interested.  He pulled up a barstool and started rattling off history.  I mean all kinds of history.  History about the neighborhood, history about the building, history about other buildings, history about Malta, history about patrons, his history, history about beer.  It was astounding, and impressive.  Most of the time, bar owners share tidbits of information and I get to do most of the digging.  But my research with The Hopleaf was easy because I didn’t have to do a damn thing.  The only thing I needed to do was share a beer with Michael as he told countless tales of this fantastic tavern.  I felt like that kid Bastian in The NeverEnding Story – completely lost and fully engaged in this alternative universe.

So, when it came time to tell the tale of The Hopleaf, I knew Michael, the real expert, was the one to do it.  He graciously agreed and wrote, and wrote, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.   When he handed over his multiple pages, he confessed, “I just couldn’t control myself”.  Perfect.  This is Michael’s story, The Hopleaf’s story, and Andersonville’s story.  And while it’s a great read, it sure seems to go down even better with some Belgian style mussels and kick ass craft beer.
THE HOPLEAF by Michael Roper
Known to contemporary Chicago residents, particularly those who like their beer, as Hopleaf, the structure at 5148 N. Clark St., Chicago, is a double storefront dating to 1896 and one that had many prior uses. Built on what was then known as Green Bay Trail in pre annexed Andersonville, it had two potbelly stoves that heated 500 square foot storefronts and three small two bedroom apartments. By 1950, the north storefront was a barbershop and the south was a package liquor and grocery.

As it happens, around 1950, Hans Gottling emigrated from Sweden to Chicago, became a citizen, was drafted and served in the Korean War and returned to the heavily Swedish enclave of Andersonville. Returning form the war, he found a job at the moving and storage warehouse across the street at 5145 N Clark. He was injured in a fall while working and had to find a new, less strenuous living. He used his settlement money to buy the liquor store in 1955. Shortly thereafter the barber retired and he took over the space and created a unique Chicago business – a liquor store with an adjoining tap room.

Known officially as Clark Foster Liquors and unofficially as Han’s, it became one of many neighborhood taverns serving the local mostly Swedish neighbors.  In fact there were four taverns on this one block! There were taverns on both sides of the street on the north corners of Clark and Winona, a bar called the Cove in mid block, Han’s and next door to the north, Miller’s High Life Lounge. Hans was a very charismatic fellow who lived with his growing family in one of the apartments above the bar. He became the local Democratic Precinct Captain, getting out the Swedish vote on election day. That earned him a patronage job with the city.

At that time there was a final surge in Swedish immigration. The bank across the street, Northside Federal was owned by fellow Swede, Walter T. Larson who owned many of the local apartment buildings. A new immigrant could find a place to live, a place to establish a bank account and credit, get help with citizenship from Mr. Larson and social connections, and maybe get a job with the City through help from Hans. It was the way that these old school ethnic neighborhoods and taverns worked.

When I first looked at Clark Foster Liquors in 1990, it was in decline. After an out of control car had smashed through the south storefront in the 70′s, Hans followed the trend of the time and covered the windows. In the more private atmosphere, the bar became a gamblers hangout. Dice games at the bar, visits from bookies, group trips to horse tracks – that was the scene. The only phone in the bar was the pay phone that gamblers felt comfortable using. There was also a cabinet full of mailboxes for customers who worked for the city but dodged the residency requirement by getting their mail at the bar. In exchange for that favor, Hans put them to work on election day working the polls. It was not unheard of that they would be sent to various precincts with multiple voter registration cards (often from deceased voters) to exercise their franchise more than once.

After their election help, bar customers/precinct workers could expect to pick up a Thanksgiving Turkey at the bar in November and a new trash can in the Summer as their reward for party loyalty. By the 80′s, most of the crowd were city workers and gamblers. There was a buzzer on the door and at night the door was kept locked. Most blacks and Hispanics who rang the bell at night were not buzzed in. There were few regulars who were not white however. Some were older Nisei man, some were well known blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. The common bond was gambling.

In all of the years that Han’s owned and ran Clark Foster Liquors, the one thing made it famous beyond the confines of Andersonville, was Han’s famous Glogg.  Every year in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Hans cooked up hundreds of gallons of his mulled wine family recipe. He used to save all of the liquor bottles all year and he got neighboring bars to do the same. He cleaned them out, filled them and hand labeled them “Han’s Andersonville Glogg”. The Port wine, brandy, grain alcohol, spices, raisins and almond mixture drew customers from far and wide. Many would fill their trunks with bottles. Naturally, this was totally illegal, but more than one officer from the local precinct received a bottle or two and kept quiet about it. We have not sold it for many years but people still call about it during the holidays.

I am not a native of Chicago. I grew up in Detroit. In the early 70′s, while attending Wayne State University, I got a bar job in the rough and tumble Cass Corridor neighborhood south of the campus. Further university education became pointless as I had found my calling. In 1976, I and a fellow bartender bought a saloon that had just had a triple homicide. It was quite affordable. We fixed it up and opened it as “The New Miami Bar” in February of 1977. We ran it as a hang out for neighborhood artists and musicians and it had some success before succumbing to the downward spiral of the neighborhood and Detroit in general. In February of 1980, some neighborhood thugs firebombed the bar after hours. We never reopened. After a year running a big punk rock bar downtown, I gave up on Detroit and came to Chicago in July of 1982.

My then girlfriend and I got 4 jobs between us the first week in Chicago. I worked at Rose Records on Wabash during the day and at the rock club, Tut’s on Belmont at night. My girlfriend worked at the old Don Roth’s Blackhawk at night and at Steven’s Chemical during the day. It was a world away from Detroit. From day one in Chicago, I wanted to own another bar. I had very limited resources and found that unlike Detroit, bars with potential were expensive. The search took many years, during which, I bounced around from job to job.

In 1991 I answered an ad in the Tribune for a bar at 5148 N Clark, Clark Foster Liquors. The man on the phone with the thick Swedish accent was Hans Gottling. I was very unimpressed by the bar and the neighborhood seemed too far north for the crowd that I wanted to attract. I was so unimpressed that I did not buy it. I worked on other potential locations. One on Sheffield, one on Lincoln, and one on Wilson and Wolcott. None of them panned out. I wasted a lot of time and energy.

In 1992, the Pakistani immigrant who bought Han’s failing bar, ran an ad for it in the Tribune, asking what he paid for it a year earlier. He completely failed. While it was still an ugly, failing bar, it had a clean transferable license, a long term lease and was inexpensive. This time I bit with the hope that I could fix it up, grow the business and someday, buy the building and have space to do what I really wanted to do with my new tavern.

When I took it over in February of 1992 I had a large inventory of awful products that suited the then current clientele: minis, half pints, pints, fifths of Everclear Grain, cases of MD 20/20, Boone’s Farm wines, and other products that suited the 7AM drunks that were an important part of the business. I kept some of the staff and the early morning hours as I ran down the stock. At night, I began dismantling the drop ceiling, the divider wall and the outdated plumbing and electrical work. I got rid of the poker machines. The old crowd were suspicious of my intentions. I stopped showing porno movies, forbade the racist banter that customers were comfortable with, pulling customers aside, one by one and informing them that in the future, everyone would be welcome and such language would not be tolerated. That, along with banning crap games on the bar sent quite a few customers fleeing.

During Spring of 1992, the city decided to replace the Clark Street sewer. They tore up the streetcar tracks and two layers of brick pavers, including some prized glazed ones that people filled their trunks with late at night for their patios. The street was closed for nearly 6 months. The sidewalks had planks for wary pedestrians. It was a disaster that caused many business failures. The wonderful Maya restaurant next door, the Greek deli on the corner of Winona and Clark, and Costa Doro, an Italian restaurant a couple of blocks south succumbed. Our terrible business got worse.

This was the time to renovate. We stayed open and, day by day, transformed the space into an attractive bar room with full storefront windows (the windows were the last straw for a lot of the remaining old timers) and a vintage back ad front bar on the south wall that I bought from a closed bar on West Walton, west of Milwaukee Ave. That bar had quite a history of its own and years later the daughter of the second generation owner recognized the bar and brought her elderly father in to see where it wound up. He was born above that bar and remembered when the bar cabinetry was installed in 1933 when Prohibition ended. It had been a bar prior to Prohibition but the owners turned into a candy shop and chopped up the original bar. They were happy that it found a new home.

It was time to name our bar which is harder than you might think. We made a long list. Many of the names were terrible. Some were names of great historic but closed bars from Detroit. We were stumped. Until an inspiration came to us.  My father’s family came from the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta. I still had family there and had visited. In fact, we spent four months there in 1988. During Malta’s era of being a British colony, the locals had developed a taste for beer. A British brewery, Simonds, from Redding set up a satellite brewery to supply the British Navy base there. When Simonds fortunes fell with the shrinking of the Empire, a local family, the Farugias bought it and continue to this day to brew the Simond’s ales and lagers including their flagship beer, Hopleaf Pale Ale. Every pub in Malta has a Hopleaf sign in front. Our bar would honor my ethnic heritage and be named Michael and Louise’s Hopleaf Bar, now mostly known as “The Hopleaf”.

I liked simple hand painted wooden signs. Fortunately, I had a friend in Detroit who still practiced this art. Louise designed the logo and Dave Opatik rendered it. We were ready for a transformation. We hired new staff, ditched the 7AM opening time, added an interesting and ahead of its time selection of imported and American craft beers, and installed a Chicago made 1958 Seeberg jukebox filled with my vintage 45′s. New folks started trickling in. One year after the purchase, in February of 1992, we had the official grand opening party. It was a huge success!

We maintained some of the old school neighborhood crowd until they one by one they died off. Andersonville was drawing a lot of former Lincoln Park, Lakeview, new Chicagoans from other cities and the suburbs. They came in droves. In 2000, we bought the building when the owner and upstairs resident became unable to use the stairs to get in and out of the apartment. We began demolishing the apartments, adding a kitchen, dining room, mezzanine and upstairs bar. As often happens we found interesting things in the walls and under the floors. Milk bottles from the Bowmanville Dairy, old newspapers with headlines about Frank Lloyd Wright’s scandalous extramarital affair or Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and a trove of interesting things behind the built in cabinets. There were two unopened bottles of whiskey from the immediate post Prohibition era, American whiskey bottled in bond in Montreal, still in a mouse eaten paper bag. There were many letters as well. One from 1950 from Swedes in Swedish about their wonderful visit to Chicago. One in German about the hardships in bombed out Berlin right after the war. Another was an eviction notice to a woman named Mrs. Johnson that forced her from her large apartment on Foster to this smaller one because the extra bedrooms in her former apartment were needed for defense workers. This was from a wartime housing board. Interesting things indeed.

We found that the building had never had central heat. There were still openings for pot belly stoves. The old gas lighting pipes were still in place. The plaster had horse hair mixed in as a binder, a common practice in the 19th century. We stripped the building to the brick, built part of the kitchen into the north air shaft and created a double high ceiling.

Since those additions, we’ve continued to grow. We added a rear patio and we turned the garage into a food storage building with a large walk in freezer. In 2009, we purchased 5146 N. Clark, the former La Donna Restaurant, a building also from 1896 and combined it with Hopleaf by eliminating the gangway between the two structures.

Today, Hopleaf seats 290 inside and 40 in the rear patio. We have a new kitchen which is up to our ambitions to offer fine “farm to table” fare to our customers. We have 68 draft beer lines and 8 draft wine lines along with huge variety of bottled beers and wines. Hopleaf has become a world renowned destination for beer connoisseurs while still functioning as a neighborhood gathering place. Hopleaf proudly and actively supports one of our neighborhood elementary schools, Helen Pierce. After 21 years, Hopleaf has become a Chicago institution and we hope to occupy 5146/5148 for decades to come.