JOHN BAR-LEY-CORN, a personification of barley used in malt liquor itself, or of any intoxicating liquor. (Random House Dictionary of the English Language)
The building that John Barleycorn calls home was constructed in 1890. The structure has a limestone rock foundation, vaults that extend under the sidewalk, the original tin ceiling, and Cyprus columns and walls, which are over two feet thick. The first saloon opened later that year and was operated by an Irish immigrant who moonlighted as a Chicago Policeman.
In the 1920′s during prohibition, the rear dining room of the restaurant was a Chinese laundry. The laundry served as a front for bootleggers who rolled carts of liquor through the laundry to the basement. The laundry basement was conveniently connected to the saloons’ basement providing easy transportation of the booze to the upstairs saloon via a small elevator. At the time, there were no large front windows to look through so from the outside the saloon appeared to be “closed” in accordance with the law. Meanwhile, patrons could enter the speakeasy through the laundry, thus eliminating any suspicion that liquor was being served on the premises.
Over the years, many interesting patrons have quaffed a brew here. John Dilinger was a frequent patron. The quiet, well-dressed bank robber was more than generous with his booty. It seems he used to enjoy “buying the house a round”. Dilinger met his death two blocks away near the Biograph Theater -thanks to the lady in red and the F.B.I.
Several saloons came and went in this building until a Dutchman purchased the property in the early 1960′s, calling it the John Barleycorn Memorial Pub. The artifacts, handmade ships and paintings displayed around the room were collected by the eccentric Dutch proprietor. Some of the ships date as far back as the late 1800′s. Many of the pieces were obtained while he was visiting such places as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Europe.
One unusual artifact was not discovered until renovations were underway in 1986. Workmen came upon a crumbling hidden staircase leading to a door. After several unsuccessful attempts with a sledgehammer a hole was finally cut into the door and a workman slipped into the tiny room. In the corner a dust-covered oilcloth concealed a beautiful woodcarving. The carving is of a person wearing a crown (of unknown origin) and is displayed above the bar’s cash register.
To say John Barleycorn is only a saloon is to say that the Great Wall of China is only a fence!