Take a look at some of the longest-standing bars in town and why they beat the Lawrence biz turnover curse.
| 2016 Q4 | story by Bob Luder | photos by Steven Hertzog
Parents probably don’t want to believe it, but if they ask their college-student children where they spent most of their time, being completely truthful, they very well might answer The Wheel or The Hawk, as opposed to Watkins or Burge.
Every college town has what is referred to in local parlance as its “institutions.” In most of those small- to medium-sized burgs, that term translates to bars, typically long-standing watering holes where students—and parents and alumni, for that matter—gather on game days, Friday or Saturday nights, or really about any night of the week. They talk about the test they should be studying for at the aforementioned Watkins Library or just socialize and knock a few back before returning to class the next morning.
Lawrence has its institutions. It’s a widely revered short list of long-standing establishments, some of which have been around longer than today’s students’ parents have been alive. The Wagon Wheel Cafe and The Jayhawk Cafe, two University of Kansas (KU) campus icons known more succinctly as “The Wheel” and “The Hawk,” are two of the oldest bars in town and have thrived by their close proximities to campus (they sit across 14th Street from one another) in addition to their friendly atmospheres and student-friendly pricing. Just down the hill on 14th, Bullwinkle’s has also stuck around for more than three decades.
Downtown on Mass Street, Louise’s and Harbour Lights have been fixtures for as long as locals can remember. The owner of Harbour Lights says he’s heard of liquor being distributed in the space during the Prohibition Era in the early 1930s. Cross the bridge over the Kansas River and find Johnny’s Tavern, famous for its early-morning opening, burgers and rugby club, and its legitimate claim as one of the oldest bars in town.
Not to be forgotten are the “babies” of the group: the Jazzhaus on Mass and West Coast Saloon at 23rd and Iowa—mere pups at 36 and 35 years, respectively.
It’s almost like its own fraternity, these long-standing institutions. Owners, employees and patrons alike are proud to say they belong to it. Alumni might be proud to say they survived.
“All the owners get along; we’re all friends,” says Rick Renfro, owner of Johnny’s for the last 38 years. “That’s because we all know how tough the bar business is.”
While it might be a fairly tight-knit group of owners, there does seem to be a bit of a dispute about which bar is the oldest in town. Renfro makes the claim for Johnny’s and its October 1953 opening, and Rob Farha, owner of The Wheel since ’97, agrees, adding that the Wheel’s opening in ’55 puts it a close second. They both note that, although The Hawk was established way back in 1919, it hasn’t always been known by that name throughout its history.
It’s believed that Louise’s downtown first opened in 1957 in the location that’s today filled by Urban Outfitters. It moved a few doors north to its current location in the ’70s.
Current Harbour Lights owner David Heinz insists his bar has been at its current location at 1031 Mass and under the same name since 1936. He says ownership can be traced all the way back to John Emick, former Lawrence mayor who owned much of downtown back in the late ’30s, early ’40s.
“That arrow sign that hangs outside the front door of Johnny’s?” Heinz says. “John Emick had that sign outside Harbour Lights, but his mom made him take it down.”
Based on information in telephone directories and research files at Watkins Museum, the first listing for The Harbour at 1031 Mass was in 1961.
Whatever the case, these long-standing Lawrence institutions are in rare company in a town defined by turnover.
Thanks to some extensive documented research by Wichita attorney and KU alum Tyler Heffron, it’s known the neoclassical Craftsman-style cottage that houses The Wheel was built in 1906 and originally opened as Rowlands College Book Store. When the Rowlands family gave up the business and moved away in 1954 or early ’55, a couple named Jim and Virginia Large, who owned and operated a small restaurant called The College Inn at the site of what is today Bullwinkle’s, moved their restaurant up the hill and into the location of the bookstore.
The Larges found three discarded wagon wheels while visiting a nearby farm and decided upon the theme for their new restaurant, the Wagon Wheel Cafe.
“The first two years the business was opened, they didn’t serve alcohol,” Farha says.
One of Jim Large’s golf buddies was a man named James Wooden. Wooden’s son, John, went to work for Large at The Wheel and eventually bought the business in 1965-66. John Wooden, known to everyone as “Woo,” was widely beloved by both KU students and townspeople, and the business thrived under his leadership (he also owned Harbour Lights for a time).
Farha worked for Woo at The Wheel while a student at KU and, when Woo died suddenly in 1997 while putting on the 18th green in Palm Springs, California, he bought the bar from the Wooden family and owns it with pride to this day.
It was a natural disaster which led to the creation of Johnny’s. Specifically, the infamous Kansas River flood of 1951. The existing building was a tractor dealership before the floodwaters wiped everything out. When John Wilson, whose family owned the building and business, came back into the area to survey the damage, he decided to rebuild the entire building and convert it into a bar.
Johnny’s was born.
Renfro, who bought the bar in 1978, proudly displays wonderful old photos of Wilson, former employees and friends, even overhead shots of the building under water, on the walls of Johnny’s today. It’s a history he’s worked hard to maintain.
“When I bought the place in ’78, it was a .32 bar. I broke out the walls, added some space,” he says. “From 1982 to 88, we built out the upstairs into a private club.”
One evening in February 1981, in the original downstairs portion of Johnny’s, three one-time KU track teammates, Shaun Trenholm, Kendall Smith and Jim Groninger, sat in a booth enjoying a beer when, all of a sudden, Groninger blurted out, “We can do this!”
That was the beginning of the West Coast Saloon, an establishment that, at first, was somewhat of a novelty, with its sandy-beach floor with surrounding boardwalk. From opening day on June 12, 1981, students lined up around the building waiting to get into the packed .32 beer bar. The West Coast offered students an alternative southwest of campus, away from the Mass Street stalwarts and 14th Street institutions, The Wheel and The Hawk.
“I never had any doubt it would work, but it was mostly ignorance,” says Trenholm, who bought out Smith and Groninger after the first year and became sole proprietor. “People would walk by when we were getting the place ready and ask us what we were doing. We told them we were opening a bar. Everyone said we’d never make it.”
The three friends built the interior of the bar themselves on a very limited budget of about $8,000, Trenholm says. People thought the sand and wood-plank boardwalk were brilliant marketing moves, but that wasn’t the case. When Trenholm, Smith and Groninger finished building the bar, they discovered it was too high for a normal-height person.
“We had two days to raise the floor 4 inches,” Trenholm says. “That’s why the boardwalk is there.”
The sand? They simply didn’t have enough money to finish the floor.
“We were so stupid … and so lucky,” he says. “It was all very amateur.”
The West Coast Saloon celebrated its 35th anniversary last June.
Just about any weekend at The Wheel, especially one that includes a home football or basketball game, you’ll find an ex or current KU athletic luminary or three back in the corner booth, known to students as “the hot tub.” On Oct. 7 this past fall, legendary Jayhawk football coach Pepper Rodgers celebrated his 85th birthday with lunch at the bar, along with fellow former coach Terry Donahue and All-American quarterback David Jaynes.
“The best part about owning the bar for me is, one, I get older every year, and the clientele stays the same age,” says Farha, known to all by the nickname Knobbie, “and two, it’s like a mini-homecoming all the time.
“I have a passion for the history of the place,” he explains.
The university and its highly successful men’s basketball team, in particular, have been and continue to be a major boon to the business of most, if not all, bar business old or young. Heinz, who also owns Henry T’s in the western part of town, says the busiest day he can remember at Harbour Lights was when the Jayhawks faced North Carolina in the NCAA Final Four in 2008.
“It was one out, one in,” he says. “So many people were jammed in there, it was hard to even move the door. We did a month’s worth of business in a day.”
It’s a different sport that’s helped support Johnny’s all these years.
The KU Rugby Football Club, formed in 1964, since its inception has made Johnny’s its home base. Initiations, meetings and team breakfasts and dinners have been held there, and the club even has an official headquarters with trophies and collection of jerseys upstairs.
Renfro, who bought the building in 1980 and added another room to the north in ’88, himself played with the club from 1975 to 1981.
“The main reason I bought the bar was that I was involved with the rugby team,” he says.
The West Coast Saloon was a hangout for college kids in the early days, but eventually the clientele shifted more heavily toward townies, especially after the liquor laws changed in the late ’80s and serving food became a much larger portion of the business.
Trenholm’s “other” full-time profession as a teacher and coach in the Lawrence school district also dictated the West Coast demographic.
“To be a college bar, you had to let underage girls in,” he says. “We couldn’t do that, because I worked for the school district.”
While Johnny’s might or might not be the city’s oldest bar, there can be no dispute that its brand has been the most successful financially.
The little bar that rose from the floodwaters of a drowned tractor dealership today is a full-fledged franchise, with nine locations (and 12 partners) throughout Lawrence and the Kansas City area.
“We’ve put more emphasis on food, less emphasis on frats and sororities,” Renfro says. “Since 2000, we’ve been doing OK. Now, we have realtors coming to us all the time wanting to loan us money.”
Heinz has led some major expansion at Harbour Lights, and three years ago, he built a two-story outdoor patio out back that he says is the nicest outdoor deck of any bar downtown.
Trenholm, who today owns the West Coast with partners Bob Gruenwald and Dave Dick, bought that building and plans on adding Shaun and Sons Pub and Coffeehouse next door in January.
And Knobbie Farha? He says he never thought he’d own The Wheel this long. Yet, he’s fully aware that, if he can make it eight more years, he will have owned the bar as long as his mentor, Woo.
“I have a 10- and 13-year-old,” he says. “Is this something I’d pass on to my son? I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.
“Whatever happens when I’m done, I can promise it won’t come down to money. It’s about selling it to the right person who won’t come in here and change things.
“It’s been a fun run. I just hope my health stays intact,” he says.