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Ely, A Two Fisted Hard Drinking Town

Ely, A Two Fisted Hard Drinking Town, by Mike Hillman

The first mention of Ely and drinking that I could find went back to the late 1800’s when a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter asked the nationally known evangelist Billy Sunday the reason why he spent so many summers battling Old Scratch in the small mining town at the end of the tracks. Billy Sunday was an outstanding athlete who played semi pro baseball for the Chicago White Sox, before he heard the call of lord beckoning him north to Ely to do his evangelistic work. For several summers Billy Sunday battled the devil on the stage of Washington Auditorium on warm summer nights. According to reports; Billy Sunday would take off his coat, roll up his sleeves, get right down on the stage floor, and challenge Lucifer to a one fall match. Billy would toss the invisible demon around like a rag doll, pin the devil after a tremendous tussle, and then throw the overmatched spirit out the front door on his ear. Then the good reverend would ready him self for the next battle to save a lost soul. According to legend; Billy Sunday never lost a match. The next day Billy would put down his bible, pick up his glove and bat, and be out on the diamond playing ball during the Ely-Winton baseball games. When the newspaper reporter asked Sunday why he kept coming back to Ely, Sunday thought for a moment and then replied; Ely has forty six saloons and six churches and the only difference between Ely and Hell was that Ely had a railroad running to it. There was too much work in Ely for a single summer.

Prohibition hit Ely like a nine pound hammer. Franklin Roosevelt told America that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. Ely was afraid that if it spent one more year of enforced sobriety, it would dry up and blow away like dust in a desert sandstorm. In order to cheer up his depressed and parched nation Roosevelt chose Happy Days are Here Again as his theme song. When the newly elected President repealed Prohibition in the early 1930’s, FDR made good on the promise, and happy days really were here again. Ely celebrated the repeal of the 18th Amendment by issuing fifty three liquor licenses to assuage the powerful thirst that had built up during that desert dry decade of enforced sobriety which gripped the little mining town like terrible ten year hangover.

My Uncle Poochie used to take me fishing on summer mornings. We would get up early, but before we headed out to the lake, we would stop at Zaveral’s Bar so that Uncle Poochie could enjoy a bump and a beer before we sallied forth to angle up a few walleyes. One morning I asked my uncle if six o’clock wasn’t a little early to start drinking. My uncle looked at me in stunned surprise and shook his head in incredulous disbelief. He thought for a moment and then taught me the catechism of Ely’s attitude towards drinking. I will always remember what Uncle Poochie told me that day. “There’s no right or wrong time for drinking Mike. It all depends on the individual. The old pensioners who come early for a bump and a beer are morning drinkers. Retired guys like welcoming each new day with a few snorts. They have a couple shots to get their motors running, and then they’ll go home for lunch and a nap. Many of them come back in the afternoon to help buck them up the rest of the day. Then there are night time tipplers who love to drink and dance. Night timer’s start drinking at nine when the music starts playing on Friday and Saturday nights, and they don’t quit until the music stops a one o’clock. So you see Mike, there’s no right or wrong time for drinking here in Ely. It all depends on the drinker.” In Ely, drinking is a timeless tradition. It seems Billy Sunday still has some work to do.

1 comment to Ely, A Two Fisted Hard Drinking Town

  • Ralph Lassi

    Hi Mike, I enjoyed this article about OUR uncle Poochie. Have you written any more referenced to our family that I could access?

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