Cheap gin and horse meat
When Sangillo’s Tavern, on Hampshire Street, recently got closed down by the City Council, I got to thinking about how much the town’s attitude toward bars has changed over the years. A few decades ago, city officials would have been hounded out of office had they tried to hold bars to today’s standards. If someone didn’t like what went on in this or that place, they didn’t go there. That was the solution to the problem, not taking liquor licenses away.
There was a time, within living memory, when there were so many bars between High Street and India Street that a well-known social club had a standing offer: a $1,000 prize to anyone who could drink a short draft in all of them in one day. Many tried, as one might expect, but none succeeded. We’re talking over a hundred bars just in that part of the peninsula.
This was during World War II, when the North Atlantic fleet was stationed here and Fort Williams, in Cape Elizabeth, was an active Army post. Hordes of sailors and soldiers out for a good time, in varying states of inebriation, crowded the streets of Portland day and night. This was a lively little burg at the time, and the scene really didn’t level off until about the mid-’60s, when the number of “gin mills” was maybe a couple dozen. Compare that to the handful of dive bars in existence today.
Not surprisingly, the supply of female company during the post-war era wasn’t adequate to meet the demand, so there wasn’t much left for the servicemen to do but fight. And fight they did, with each other and with any local unwise enough to venture forth. When you signed up to be a Portland police officer, you signed up to fight drunks, period. The recruiting officers set up tables at the graduation ceremonies of local high schools, having carefully scouted the members of the schools’ football teams the previous fall.
There were bars that existed for no other reason than to host battles. One of those illustrious establishments was on Temple Street, where One City Center is located today. Its name was The Bucket of Blood. I was told by a veteran of the era that you had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the bar and there was always blood on the steps in the morning. The guy’s uncle was the cleaning man, so he had it on good authority. His uncle also said there were indentations in the walls of the establishment where someone’s head had made an impression, and the winner of the fight got to autograph his handiwork.
This is not to say all the bars of that era were rowdy and disreputable. Some were family-oriented “taverns” where one could drink beer or bring the wife and kids to enjoy a pleasant meal. Sangillo’s Tavern was such a place back when it was on India Street, at the corner of Fore Street. It was one of the finer dining rooms in Little Italy, where the greatly missed Village Cafe also stood.
Another such place was the first incarnation of what is now Rockin’ Rickey’s Tavern, located on Portland Street across from the main Post Office. There’s quite a story here…
If you’re at all familiar with the history of World War II, you know that Italy was divided following the fall of Mussolini in 1943, and the southern half of the country aligned itself with the Allies. Not long after that, an Italian submarine surfaced in Portland Harbor, its crew intent on turning themselves over to the American government.
Since it was late in the war, with the outcome in Europe already decided, our government had no use for the services of the sub’s crew. They were given the option of being returned to Italy or remaining in this country. Those who stayed would be provided some money to settle here. Some went home, but a number of the crewmen took the sensible course (much of Italy was devastated at that time), and one of them was a man with the surname Ricci.
With the money allotted to him, Mr. Ricci opened an eatery on Portland Street and named it Ricci’s Tavern. Ownership passed from one individual to another over the years, and the name was eventually Americanized to Rickey’s Tavern — the addition of “Rockin’” being the latest twist.
Stories about bars make up a good part of Portland’s folklore, but there are stories behind those stories. For example, I remember when Carlson’s Meat was located in the Hampshire Street building that Sangillo’s later took over. During the so-called “energy crisis” of the early 1980s, Carlson’s sold horse meat. Yeah, horse meat. Those were desperate times, and desperate times call for desperate measures.
Horse meat actually looks really good. But it isn’t. It’s kind of, well, tangy. And people have a fondness for horses. So after that “energy crisis” passed, the bottom fell out of the horse-meat business. Carlson’s tried switching to regular beef, and even put a big plastic steer on the roof to get the message across, but it didn’t work. Once you’ve sold horse meat, forget it.