The Little Bohemia Tavern is coming back
“If we’d get in here and hustle a few days, we’d have the front ready to go,” Leon “Tunnie” Melsha said.
“I’m amazed,” said a skeptical Diane Melsha, Tunnie’s wife. “You work fast.”
The historic saloon’s recovery has been a bit like that — a series of fits and starts. But when Tunnie, 78, points out the progress the family has made since the June 2008 flood filled the building nearly to the first-floor ceiling, Diane, 76, has to concede things have come along.
“The bar is done, and the plumbing behind it is all cleaned up,” said Tunnie. “We’ve got to scrub up.”
The room has been repainted in two-tone earth tones, and the bar refinished. The tables are scrubbed, ready for their checked oilcloth tablecloths. The potbellied wood-burning stove is again bolted to its usual spot and its chimney connected, but Tunnie needs to weld a crack in its firebox, or replace it.
“Otherwise, I’ve got to go down to the cemetery and get my great-uncle Joe out of his cell down there to fix it,” said Tunnie.
That’s the way it is at the Little Bo, where the memories — or at least Tunnie’s stories — are thick as the goulash his son and manager Jeff served up there and will again, maybe by this summer (the recipes, passed on under some duress from previous owner Adolph Kalous, survive).
Opening after Prohibition’s end in 1935, the corner tavern was one of the first encountered by thirsty workers leaving the Sinclair meatpacking plant. It became an icon when Marvin Cone painted it and its big-bellied, overalled clientele in 1941, and the 1883 building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
And it became an icon of the New Bohemia neighborhood’s flood recovery in fall 2008, when Coe College and the Marvin Cone Art Club commissioned a reproduction of the 1941 painting, with proceeds from its sale supporting flood recovery.
“It’s not only a significant historical landmark, but it had the personality of the Czech Village/New Bohemia district,” Jim Jacobmeyer, president of the New Bohemia Group, wrote in an e-mail. “As I was told the first time I came in for a drink ‘If you want to get to know the personality of the district, spend a few hours with the characters down at Little Bo’s!’”
The Melshas have owned the place only since 1978, but it and Tunnie go way back.
“I used to go in there and have lunch and stuff and drink a little beer after work,” he said. “One day (Kalous) said, ‘I’m going to sell the place.’”
Another man was interested in buying, but Kalous settled on Tunnie, who’d helped his father install refrigeration there decades earlier.
“He said, ‘I don’t like either of you guys, but you’re my choice, I guess,’” said Tunnie, who took over Banjo Refrigeration Equipment from his father. “When I first bought it, there was still a lot of the old guys that was there when things happened.”
The front room is shaping up, but plenty of work is still to come in back, where wiring needs to be rerun and coolers and stoves replaced. Tunnie tapped state Jumpstart money to finance the repairs, but he figures he’ll have $100,000 of his own in it before he’s done. He’s investigating the building’s eligibility for special aid as a historic register site.
Someone who knew the place before the flood might find the tavern’s bare walls strange, but Diane hopes to replace many of the old photos, cartoons and clippings that covered them — a museum of local history, and the kind of thing certain chain restaurants spend good money to fake — before the flood.
“A lot of the stuff I gave to Jeff were copies, so we can get that back,” she said.
“With Little Bo back in business, life can return to normal again,” wrote Jacobmeyer.