The iconoclastic and undeniably unique presence that White’s Bar harbors throughout the Saginaw community and beyond is truly the stuff that legends are made. Comprised of qualities that include vision and tireless commitment mixed with profound amounts of passion and hard work, on Saturday, July 29th from 1 PM until 2 AM this ‘little family bar’ located at 2609 State St. will be staging their 80th Anniversary Celebration with an all-day outdoor festival featuring more than a dozen bands performing both inside and outside this classic Saginaw landmark.
Since the late 1980s, White’s Bar has featured an unprecedented litany of live national & local entertainment on a nightly basis that truly rivals and emulates the reputation of such legendary and more famous musical emporiums as the The Viper Room in Los Angeles and the now defunct CBGB’s in New York City.
To commemorate this historic occasion, recently I sat down with owner Bo White and his daughter Allysha in order to pull together a generational perspective about this treasured legacy and important community resource known as White’s Bar.
The history of White's Bar begins a long time ago in a place so far removed from modern day Saginaw that it may seem almost unrecognizable. It's really the story of a fairly typical American family with its share of heroes and villains, successes and failures, and a few tragedies along the way.
Lambert "Bert" White founded White's Bar in July 1937. But before that he had lived a whole lotta life.
Bert was the son of Albert White and Susan Kauffman. He was born on 6/21/1897, the oldest of seven children. Explains Bo: “I never met my great-grandfather Albert, yet his legacy lived on in our family's oral history. Grandpa Bert told me he grew up on a farm in Millersburg, Michigan and that his family never had much money - they would barter cows, turkeys, eggs, and chickens and go into town maybe once a month for staples such as salt, flour, oil, sugar, and soap. They never thought of themselves as poor but life was hard. They did not have "conveniences" like electricity or a telephone. Great-grandpa never owned an automobile and never learned to drive one. This man was true "backwoods" country. And he was mean. He was a devout Baptist, a believer in fire and brimstone. He believed that alcohol and tobacco were the "devil's work".
Grandpa Bert, a relative free spirit compared with his volatile father, suffered many a beating. But times were not always so bad. Bert remembers playing lacrosse in the woods with the "Indians" (who lived next door). For a brief stretch Bert lived a simple rural life - hard - but free from the corruption of the big city until his mother Susan died on November 7th, 1911. She was 37 years old. Bert was 14 years old and got a job working the limestone quarry at Rogers City. After a few years of that, young Bert was looking for some excitement and began working the railroad on the Detroit/Mackinaw Line between Tawas and Bay City.
In 1918 he met his future wife Odetta Elizabeth Byers at a dance in Onaway. By all reports, Bert danced like a man possessed, not at all like the other boys. She was originally from Sarnia, Ontario, the oldest of ten children born to George Byers and Celia Felton. Bert missed WWI. He was exempt from military service because he worked for the railroad. He and Etta married on January 20th, 1919. After the war, Bert moved to Saginaw in search of a more lucrative job in the nascent automobile industry. He landed a job as a foreman for General Motors Grey Iron Foundry. By this time Bert and Etta had three children (three others would die shortly after delivery), Margaret (born in 1921), Annabelle (Born 1923), and Rollin "Billy" (born in 1926).
Family fortunes were improving steadily until the Foundry's dust and fumes affected Bert's lungs. He became gravely ill and was not expected to survive, especially when his appendix burst. But survive he did. His recuperation was lengthy (one year) and complicated. Etta took a job downtown at Cunningham's Drug Store. Upon his recovery, Bert understood that he could no longer work at the foundry, but was eager to resume his role as breadwinner.
It was Etta who convinced Bert that a tavern may hold the key to a successful transition - from industry to hospitality. Ed and Kittie had operated several businesses at the State & Bay location since 1926, including a party store, an ice cream parlor, and a grocery store. The property was originally owned by Charles T. Brenner who first executed a title in 1872. Ed and Kittie converted Bennett Grocery Store to the State in Bay Tavern in 1934 following the demise of the "Grand Experiment" (prohibition).
By 1937 they had enough. Old Ed was tired of the strain, the daily grind of self-employment, and was ready to sell. Bert and Etta were ready to buy. Etta had already established herself with the customers and it seemed like a "good fit" So Bert purchased the business for the then tidy sum of $1500 ($20,000 in today's dollars). Bert's "Grand Opening" on July 27th, 1937 was a phenomenal success with sales totaling $32.75. Today there are three distributors and most beers are "national" or "imported". In 1939 a case of beer cost grandpa $1.50. In 1962, a case of beer cost my father $4.00.
Draft beer sold for 5 cents and bottle beer was a thin dime. We didn't sell liquor until 1949 when government census figures indicated a population growth that allowed the issuance of several coveted "liquor" licenses. Liquor was called "notions" in the business nomenclature of the day. My father continued to use this quaint term through the mid-sixties. Bert got one of them. To coincide with this great fortune, Bert had a new and bigger bar constructed on the northeast end of the building (the original bar - which seated only eight people was placed in the front northwest window).
He also covered the carved metal ceiling with some homey pinewood. So now Bert had a full menu of food and beverages and even sold candy bars for those GI's who came home addicted to the sweet delights of a Hershey Bar - a staple of military K-rations in WWII. Bert and his family lived in a two room hideaway adjacent to the bar (now a storage room) for several years. Here, in the early forties, Etta would prepare home cooked meals to the workers who built Daniel's Theater and the new Arthur Hill High School.
White's Bar became a hot spot a place to go for a good meal, cheap booze, and a family-type atmosphere. Neighborhood children would walk over to fill up a pale with draft beer to take home to their fathers. This was the very beginning of selling beverage alcohol "to go". Now, over 75% of all alcohol consumption occurs at home.
By the early 1960s. State Street was converted to a one way, Davenport and Genesee streets were expanded. Bay Road past Weiss Street was still "country" but was under the watchful eye of investors, who would soon develop Bay Road beyond recognition...all the way to Bay City was the boast. Seemed unlikely at the time. Wrong again.
My father met Patsy Smith while still in high school. Patsy was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her mother had a substance abuse problem and her father abandoned the family early on. Mom remembers a strict upbringing by her deaf grandparents and a sense of loss and abandonment and an unresolved yearning for her birth parents. For mom, her life's most pressing insecurities were founded in her earliest experiences. She would always struggle with themes of "fitting-in" and "being good enough". And though she may never have felt successful, she surpassed everyone's expectations, becoming one of the kindest and most beloved people in White's Bar history.
Bill and Patsy were inseparable and dated for several years, all the way through WWII. And on July 26th, 1947, they married. By 1950, their first child, William David was born. Two years later, "yours truly" followed. We were joined by our sister Sandy in 1955.
I was a sickly baby - almost died (by suffocation) from an undiagnosed thymus gland condition. Apparently the malfunctioning gland was enlarged and cutting off my supply of oxygen. I was choking to death and nobody knew it! But my mother finally - against the wishes of her in-laws - sought treatment for me. Thank God. I was given x-ray treatment that proved successful. Gradually, I regained my health and energy to become the most destructive, hyperactive kid since the Tazmanian Devil - my personal hero.
Anyway, it was during this innocent time in our history - pre-Kennedy assassination and pre-Beatles that my father purchased White's Bar from my grandpa. As a bartender, Dad made $90 for a 40-hour work-week. He needed to work 6 and 7 days a week in order to support his family. My brother and I were pretty much typical boys - we ate a lot and we were always getting into stuff and breaking things...like when we played baseball in our backyard and windows with an errant throw or a foul ball. It cost dad some heavy $ to keep Bill and I in business. Mom and dad had their hands full with working all the time and trying to manage three demanding kids, but we never went without food, clothes or love.
My dad purchased White's Bar in 1962. White's by that time was well established as a place where people could "get away", fit-in, and become part of our family. White's became a modern neighborhood tavern "where everyone knows your name". An "alpha male" attitude dominated the spirit of the establishment...it was a guy thing... and it appealed to people of all walks of life. Politicians, local television and radio celebrities, educators, bricklayers, electricians, and plumbers...everyone was equal - especially if you bought a round - in the often heated debates over sports, politics, religion, or any other topical controversy.
We even had a resident philosopher, James Nicole Ferguson (Fergie). He was my dad's best friend - a workingman with a PHD - plumbing, heating, and drinking. An amazing fellow who was the catalyst of the entire White's Bar scene for at least 20 years. Fergie helped bring the fraternal Masons and the Shriners into White's as customers, further widening our influence and popularity.
Local historian Dewey Hesse was a frequent patron. He was popular with everyone and considered to be a regular "joe" despite his intellectual leanings. Mr. Hesse taught me to think deeply and critically about spiritual issues. And he raised me to the 32nd degree of freemasonry. It was an honor. I even have one of his videotapes of Saginaw circa early 1900's entitled Old Time Saginaw - a truly amazing document.
Hank Steinert, local boxing impresario, was one of my favorite customers. He would tell me stories about helping the GI's that came home after WWII and how he ended up promoting local boxing and wrestling matches. At one-point old Hank arranged for me to fight a midget female wrestler, two out of three falls, in the back seat of a Gremlin. I never had a chance.
White's also became a hub for "sports enthusiasts". Parents of the athletes and other high school sports fans would meet at White's before and after Arthur Hill and Saginaw High football, basketball, and baseball games. Dad sponsored knothole baseball teams for YEARS. My team, the White's Bar Bobcats, won championships in the 11 & under, 13 & under, and 15 & under divisions. Quite a dynasty.
From 1962 - 1972 White's Bar flourished under my father's watchful eye and his good deeds. He paid off his mortgage to Grandpa Bert in 1972, paved the back parking lot, and threw one helluva "Mortgage Burning Party" at a local union hall. He grand slammed that year by flying our family to Fulda, Germany to visit my GI Brother-Bill. It was also the year that I contracted a severe case of "mono" while "burning the candle at both ends". I roofed City Schools by day and prowled the clubs at night. I had a great time...but I sure paid for it. I lost over 25 lbs. and was out of sorts for an entire year.
During his 22 years at the helm of White's, dad financed several adult bowling, softball, basketball, and volleyball teams and was well known in the community for his charitable giving. He never publicized the times he helped people less fortunate... dad shied away from such a self-serving spotlight, preferring to execute his good deeds quietly.
Robert (Bo) White purchased White’s Bar on December 1, 1984 and says that initially, he didn’t change anything. “I kept things pretty much the same - sponsoring sports teams, keeping up excursions to Detroit ballgames - and working my butt off. It was typical to work 80 hours a week - nothing unique about that. My Dad did it, grandpa too...any small business owner worth a hoot will tell you the same thing. I worked every day without any time off - including Christmas day - for 5 consecutive years - I had to because I couldn't afford to hire anyone.”
“I started working for my dad in 1974, after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in Psychology. I was tending bar alongside my Uncle Art Shindler, who was prone to drinking too much, saying whoopsie-do, and falling asleep standing up. He would be dead asleep, holding a lit cigarette until it burnt to the butt, without any ashes falling off - a skillful demonstration of the calming effects of narcolepsy, aided and abetted by Corby's Whiskey, Uncle Art's favorite booze. In fact, Art would answer the phone with the phrase, "White's Busy Bee, Corby's at each end, two in the middle".
“I left White's in 1975 for graduate school at the University of Michigan. I dropped out after one year, despondent and quite insecure. It was very painful experience. I had lost a fragile hold on my self-confidence and began to experiment with substances and lifestyle. I became a vegetarian and began reading eastern philosophy and Zen Buddhism. I spent an additional year in Ann Arbor working at Bicycle Jim's and the Little Brown Jug restaurants where I hung with an assortment of beatniks, actors, academics, and political radicals. The original motley crew. I had the pleasure to befriend Joe Gilchrist aka Coleman, one of the Harrisburg Eight (They destroyed Pennsylvania draft records in the home state of Dupont - one of our more corrupt corporate nightmares).”
“In 1977, I left Saginaw to help build a restaurant with some hippie friends. We relocated to Corvallis, Oregon (home to Oregon State University) and opened the Valley Restaurant (it's still in operation today). After three months and some nice road trips (like watching the whales migrate down the coast), I bid my friends adieu and returned to Saginaw in January, 1978, resuming work at White’s Bar. I met my future wife Lisa Matuzak and we were married December 16th, 1978, "in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout". She was knock-dead gorgeous - an absolute beautiful person - and she TURNED ME ON....still does. We have four children. Kristy, Ryan, Kari and Allysha.”
“I started to develop my own group of retired regulars who were too damn poor to move to Florida or Arizona. They were stuck here at White's and were bound and determined to make the most of it. I remember my good friend Red O' Toole regaling me with stories of Rose Morton, Saginaw's wealthiest-ever Madame, with a stable of beauties with big bosoms and bigger hearts. Red claimed that as a young man he delivered "milk" to the bordello and that Rose herself would award him for a job well done...just rubbed his face in it for a brief but wondrous moment. Heaven on earth!!! Red claimed that Rose's was the only bordello ever registered on the New York Stock Exchange.”
Several years after he purchased White’s Bar, Bo started merging his lifelong and passionate love for live music into his blueprint for guiding the family establishment into the future. “Marty Viers was one of the first guys to perform here and he sat on a chair in the front room,” reflects Bo. “We didn’t have a stage yet and people kept telling me, ‘This won’t work’, but Marty & The Music Doctors put on several Jimmy Buffett shows that drew standing-room-only crowds. I always loved Marty's voice and pizzazz. He only played about every song ever recorded...and still found time to write some great original material.”
“Many bands performed during this formative period before I transitioned to a fully functioning "Music Club",” notes Bo. “My nephew Tim Dunn brought "Boom Shanka" to White's. It was a great little alt-rock band that featured Dean Vanston and Bill Silverthorn. I loved that band... and not just because my nephew was a great lead singer - the whole band was talented. My old high school friend Leonard Trinklein made 'Lectric Be-Bop a fixture at our outdoor shows. His partner Bryant Brewer was a touring member of "Michigan Rock" legends, Frigid Pink! The Be-Bop played some sweet classic rock and some great Trinklein originals and I always loved those guys.”
Then in 1998, Killing the Kind, TNT Blues Band, and the John Krogman Band put on a show that blew everyone away. I was in the midst of making changes at the bar. I was unhappy and looking for a new direction. Krogman intrigued me. I loved his voice and I thought his original songs were every bit as good as the great cover songs he performed. Anyway, John agreed to meet with me and discuss the possibility of performing on a more regular basis.”
“We selected Wednesday nights for his solo shows. John performed through the remainder of the summer. By fall, with help from Rockin' Johnny, I began booking the John Krogman Band and others on weekends. Gradually I added Zydeco Ziggie & The Bayou Blasters on Sundays and Eastside Mike & the Purple Warblers on Wednesdays. We were on a ROLL!!! The response was fantastic. And it convinced me that I was on the right track.”
“I deepened my commitment to live music, eventually expanding to six nights of entertainment. As a long-time music lover, I embraced diverse musical styles that included Rock, Blues, Cajun, Jazz, Country, Bluegrass, and Alternative Rock. To me it was ALL THE SAME SONG, derived from the same source. Blues begat Jazz; Country begat Rockabilly; and the styles merged to form Rock 'n' Roll, a bastard son if there ever was one.”
“From 1998 to 2007, White's earned a reputation for providing some cool live shows for fans of original music.... music that reflected our "culture" and who we are as a people. It's a homely truth that America's best music is in the jukejoints and the backroads gin houses - not in "them fancy" nightclubs or on radio. I've hired bands from California, New York, Colorado, Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago...and THEY called me. Word quickly got out about this little club located off the I-75 corridor, not too far from Detroit.”
“Notable performers that have graced our stage include: Country Joe McDonald, Kim Wilson, John Sinclair, Dick Wagner, Lazy Lester, Maybe August, Empty Pockets, Donny Hartman, Scott Morgan, Rusty Zinn & the Dynatones, Larry McCray, Frank Bang, Laurie K. Lewis, Spanky Mcfarlane, Junior Watson, Chris Beard, Cash O'Riley & the Downright Daddies, Alberta Adams, Fingers Taylor, Doug Deming & the Jewel Tones, Sharrie Williams, Bernie "The Ride" Nelson, Stewart Francke, Al Hellus & the Plastic Haiku Band, the Brush/Lopez Trio, The Purple Warblers, the Bayou Blasters, Liliana Rokita, Pete Woodman, Question Mark & the Mysterians, Catfish Hodge, Johnny & the Boomers, Pete Best, Denny Laine, The Banana Convention, The Mongrels, Sal Valentino (Beau Brummels) and many, many others.”
When Bo made the commitment to present live music seven nights a week it was an unprecedented move; and today, 80 years after it opened, White’s Bar still stands as the only establishment in the Great Lakes Bay Region to remain steadfast to such a commitment. “At the time I made the move to featuring live music 7 nights a week I simply made the decision to do something different,” he reflects. “It was really a case of dumb luck because I didn’t know what I was really doing, but I just said to myself, “I’m going to show everybody and I’m going to pull this off. Some people liked it and some didn’t, so eventually I started presenting the quieter kind of music at our 6:00 PM matinee shows, especially as the Children of the ‘60s got older and the culture started changing.”
“A couple years ago, I handed over the reins of White’s Bar to my daughter Allysha, who’s the real promoter here and handles all the artist bookings now,” explains Bo. “She worked for Morley Companies on the phone banks and would have people yell and scream at her, so she learned how to be composed and is great behind the bar. She doesn’t get rattled and has a great touch.”
“My "little club" has an intimacy and charm that is derived, in part, by its modesty...its "smallness" - that Knotty-pine paneling is way country-cool and the "Maggie & Jiggs" bathrooms are echoes from a fading memory. When entering White's Bar, one is whisked to a by-gone era of fellowship and family. It's real, hometown, historic and evolving. White's Bar became known for presenting the finest live music in the area - something akin to Daniel's Den in the mid to late '60's (located next door to White's Bar back then). We have formed friendships with some of the finest and most creative musicians in the Tri-City area and beyond.”
“It’s been a long, strange, and fantastic trip, but with my regular job as the Community Health Supervisor for Children’s Services, but at this stage of my life I miss the freedom. The things I love most here at White’s Bar also was the rope around my neck, so I’m thinking I’ll retire in a year or two. I’d like to travel overseas and hang out in Great Britain, only my wife points out that with all the violence in Europe, I might want to rethink that plan. Maybe I missed the opportunity. I should have travelled there when The Tremeloes were still playing.”
“My father died on June 15th, 1995. His death shook me to the core. I guess my prolonged and complicated grieving had its origins in our troubled relationship. I always wanted to please him, but I never seemed to live up to his expectations. And I never really felt that I had gained his approval. In many ways, my life has been an ongoing search for my father. Much of my personal struggle has occurred in service to this existential journey. Owning and operating White's Bar was one step toward discovery. And in the pain of looking at myself and seeing my father, I was able to go back to my very beginnings and realize - deeply - that I am my father's son.”
Bo’s daughter Allysha White retains fond memories growing up as a child and sharing the experience of White’s Bar with her father, and also shares an ancestral trait common to each generational transition at White’s aimed at striving to foster a stronger community presence and sense of ‘home’ for its patrons.
“I remember growing up that we used to have an old 45-Jukebox in our garage that was constantly playing old music we listened to, and then when I started coming to the outdoor concerts with Question Mark and Dick Wagner it was always so much fun, so when my husband and I approached my Dad about buying White’s Bar one day, slowly I started taking over more responsibilities off his plate because of the fact he’s so busy,” she explains.
Before assuming her duties at White’s, Allysha worked for 11 years at Morley Companies handling customer service requests for repurchases and mechanical defects. “I had a way of calming customers down and solving their issues, so moving over to White’s was easy,” she smiles, adding that when she started at White’s she had to learn everything from the ground floor up.
As for the music, she is equally committed to keeping the weekly entertainment flowing through the sacred knotty-pine walls of this legendary and historic establishment. “The majority of the music we feature has to be artists that people enjoy, but I do like to bring new groups into the mix,” she explains. “Recently we brought in The Joe Stanley Trio a few months ago and nobody knew who they were, but people loved them, so we’ll be booking them again. I think its important to try new things and am more than willing to give other local bands a chance, because you won’t know unless you try.”
“We’ve featured national acts such as Michael Graves; and I get some national acts contacting us, but they need to have a decent following,” she continues. “Right now we have a solid weekly schedule featuring artist such as Joe Balbaugh, Michelle O’Neil and Mel Curry, Honesty & Noel, The Temperpadics, and Aaron Johnson, and I like to stick to things I know will work, but I also don’t want to feature the same bands every week, so like to try different things on the weekends.”
“The most challenging thing initially was coming in when we already had staff in place and being their supervisor, so to speak,” she admits. “I had never bartended before so had to learn everything from the bottom up; and it wasn’t that I was ‘over’ them so much as helping with scheduling and learning the ropes. But for me personally, that was the most difficult part of the transition because I was looking at these people that had been here longer and telling them to listen up because these are the rules now. Everybody has been on board and I’m very close to our staff.”
“We needed a family presence here and back in day of growing up I would come here with my Dad and help my Grandma clean in the morning and I would be here on weekends in the morning, and I always felt this big sense of community, so my focus over the next few years is to bring that sense of Family and that community presence back here,” reflects Allysha.
Another goal for the future is to add a kitchen back into the mix. “Eventually, I would like to add a kitchen, not necessary in the current bar, but maybe next door. It’s a slow process that I’ve been looking into, but is one of my goals. Other than that we’ve added in Keno and are slowly making other little upgrades.”
“But my main goal is similar to that of my father and my grand-father: I want people to come here and feel like home.”