The blues are best heard in an old, dark, dingy place, a place that echoes back to the Juke Joints of the Mississippi Delta where the music was born, a place where you can have a cheap and listen to the hard driving, floor pounding beat of a bass guitar while the lead vocalist wails about troubles that make yours seem inconsequential.
Hines Farm in Swanton is such a place. So too is the Midway Tavern in Mishawaka, Indiana, a place I’ve visited a few times.
The Midway is steeped in a rich history as old as the blues. Cyriel and Martha Antheunis bought the place in 1924 during prohibition. They called it the Midway Lunch and sold chicken for 25 cents and near-beer for a nickel. They also sold hooch from a garage in the back. As the legend goes, that drew the attention of Al Capone, the Chicago bootlegger who would stop by periodically and bring Martha a dozen roses.
In 1930, the Midway was caught selling illegal booze and was closed down for nine months. In 1933, after prohibition ended, the couple added a dance hall, a stage and a variety of musical acts.
Susan Wassenhove, Martha’s granddaughter, says the European-style dance hall that seats 150 has virtually remained unchanged including the antique light covers that depict old-world men raising steins of beer. The walls and ceiling appear to be covered in the original coat of peeling beige paint browned with age. Susan says the walls will not be repainted. A new coat would cover hundreds of autographs from bands and musicians who have played there since 1992 when the blues found a home midway between Chicago and Detroit.
They include Pinetop Perkins, keyboard player for Muddy Waters; Rod Piazza and The Mighty Flyers; Barrelhouse Chuck; Nick Moss & the Flip Tops and Dicky James and The Blue Flames. Last Friday, we saw J.R. Clark whose band included Johnny B. Gayden, former bass player for Grammy Award winner Albert Collins and Jerry Porter, former drummer for Grammy winner James Cotton.
Black and white eight-by--ten action photos of many of these musicians adorn the walls and enhance the ambience. The photos are the work of Johnny Munoz, a semi-professional photographer who walked into the bar one day 15 years ago on an assignment. At the time, he knew nothing about the blues but after hearing Pinetop Perkins he fell in love with the music and has taken some 1,500 photos. He says he does it “for the love of the music and the bar.”
While the Midway has a history with Martha’s family going back to 1924, Susan says it was Martha’s daughter, Susan’s mother, Albertina Wassenhove who brought the blues to the tavern in 1992. Albertina fell in love with the music and gave it a home.
“My mother has done a phenomenal job booking local and regional blues bands,” she said.
Albertina is now 86 and recovering from brain surgery to remove a tumor and a subsequent stroke. Susan hopes she will eventually return to the bar and the music she loves. Albertina carried on the family tradition her mother Martha started in 1924. Martha tended bar for 66 years, outliving her first husband Cyriel and her second husband Archie Van Holsbeke. In 1986, she was inducted into Bartender Magazine’s Bartender Hall of Fame. She has also been featured in People Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and CNN. Most recently, the family was honored by Rolling Stone Magazine as a finalist in the Hyundai sponsored contest entitled The Family That Rocks Together Rolls Together.
In 1992, the Michiana Blues Society presented Albertina with the Keeping the Blues Alive award and a sign stating that hangs over the stage.
Susan keeps her hand in the bar business, but her full-time job is as a physician’s assistant. Brian Geirnaert manages the day to day operations and can pour a cheap draft or uncap any of a number of craft beers including a couple of non-alcoholics faster than Barrelhouse Chuck can boogie-woogie his fingers over the keyboard. He has been there for 11 years.
The Midway is also reminiscent of a lot of Toledo bars that used to be tucked in neighborhoods within walking distance of the factory workers who used to frequent them before television, video games and organized sports. The Midway is in what was a Belgian neighborhood near a Belgian shoe factory in Mishawaka. It is a few miles south of Notre Dame and 35 miles west of Shipshewana. To learn more about the history and see the schedule of bands go to www.themidwaytavern.com.