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Beside the Rising Tide: Up In Smoke

Author’s Note: Long-term readers know occasionally I’ll write a rather self-indulgent column only tangentially related to NASCAR and some that take their good sweet time getting to any mention of the sport at all. Today’s effort, or lack thereof, is one of them as I reflect on the death of an old friend I haven’t seen in years. You’ve been warned.

I woke up Sunday morning to a headline on the local news website that a friend from the days of yore had passed on. Fortunately in this case it was a tavern I once considered a second home, not one of the Brothers Under the Bridges I used to hang with there. But the Sawmill Inn was long gone way before last night. Today’s headline read that Barnaby’s Sports Bar on West Chester Pike had suffered a two-alarm fire in the overnight hours and was basically reduced to ashes. Anyone who has ever been to Barnaby’s (and it was still pretty popular) might never have known the same building and bones had once been the Sawmill Inn, the local bar in the town where I grew up. The Sawmill wasn’t a sports bar, it wasn’t a place to go hear the latest local garage band. It wasn’t where one would have hosted a wedding reception (though my guess is, some did over the years). It was saved, by a bit of nice décor and a friendly crowd of regulars, from being a dive. The Sawmill was just your neighborhood bar, a place you felt as comfortable walking into as slipping into your favorite pair of Wranglers fresh out of the dryer.

It’s not like my friends and I toured the area sampling what each local bar had to offer before deciding where we’d hang out. It just so happened that the Sawmill was near all of our homes. Proximity is a big selling point when you have to consider the ride home at the end of the evening. In some cases it was preordained. Some guys’ older brothers had been regulars at the Sawmill as had their fathers before them. Draft beers were a buck during Happy Hour and I didn’t hang out with an affluent crowd.

If you weren’t from the area, you might have had a little trouble finding the Sawmill. It was on an odd little jug-handle of a road that connected Old West Chester Pike to, well, Newer West Chester Pike. If you turned in at the Pathmark grocery store, you went over a little bridge, past the White Glove car wash and there was the Sawmill. Further up the street was the local hospital, then the road rejoined West Chester Pike. Because of the topography and a concrete storm-water runoff, the part of the Pike that ran directly across from the Sawmill was elevated a decent distance. If you were on the rear deck and paying attention, you could see the cars driving by but if you weren’t you just saw headlights and heard the occasional rumble of a car with a big cam in it and glass-packs.

almrola
No matter how much you want to, you can’t go home again. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

If you did find the bar, you likely decided if it was your sort of place before you ever walked inside. The Sawmill parking lot was largely populated with pickup trucks back in an era before accountants and yoga instructors adopted pickups as lifestyle accessories. Those trucks tended to have ladder racks, dents in the rockers and light coats of construction site mud behind the tires, not 24 inch rims, neon, and leather interiors. The signage on the doors usually indicated the owner worked for a drywall company or was a plumber, carpenter, a mechanic or contractor. After a long hot day of physical labor, working men were ready for a cold mug of beer and a smoke. The Sawmill is where they found them amidst a convivial atmosphere though my guess is the word “convivial” was never spoken aloud at the Sawmill. A sign above the door did read “This is a high class place, act respectable” but the Mill was definitely a blue-collar hangout. Jeans faded by time and not manufactured that way, painters pants, T-shirts, and steel tipped lace-up work boots were the dress code. Oh, and a ball cap with the brim properly peaked. For car guys, the caps were usually NAPA. The rest were typical hardware store and lumberyard gimmees back in the day when most such places still had someone’s last name in the title before Lowes and Home Depot put most of them out of business. It also wasn’t unusual to see dirt bikes out in the parking lot. The bar was directly across the street from Birdall Hill, a popular area to ride then which is now an on-off ramp for I476, the Blue Route. You could just ride up that concrete spillway, across the carwash parking lot and do the hill climb into the Mill’s lot.

Inside the Sawmill, the owner kept it back-alley dark, my preferred lighting for a drinking establishment. There was a brass rail around the bar, if I’m recalling correctly, though it was pretty nicked up and seldom polished. There were the usual old-fashioned bar stools with no backs to them. If you rocked your bar stool up onto two legs and fell backwards you were flagged for the night, no questions asked. Such a misfortune was usually loudly applauded and jeered.

The booths themselves were of some sort of very dark wood (or more likely pine wood that had been stained to the color of a jazz-club piano.) What was extraordinary about them was the height of the backs of those booths, Even a six foot tall guy’s head didn’t reach the top of them. There was a feeling of intimacy as a result, just you and your buddies in your own little outlaw’s oasis until the waitress happened by and more pitchers were ordered. Pitchers as in plural. Two of Bud because that’s what most people drank, one of Coors Light because that’s what I drank, and one of Ortleibs because it was cheaper than a urinal cake and tasted about the same. No, the Sawmill didn’t offer craft beers. There was no such thing back then. There were two types of beer…..cold and warm….cold being infinitely preferable. If you wanted something exotic you could order a Schlitz or a Heineken which the older guys at the bars typically derided as a “commie” beer. There was a pool table on the far side of the bar, but that involved too much standing up most nights. The food at the Sawmill was a cut above your typical tavern fare (I was a particular fan of the hot beef sandwich on an Amoroso roll with enough of the high-test horse radish to set your sinuses ablaze.) Yeah, food at the Mill was a lot more expensive than at the Burger King down the street but Burger King didn’t serve beer and anything beat going home and cooking one’s own meal.

Naturally, the Mill had a good jukebox like any self-respecting bar. It wasn’t one of those high dollar Wurlitzer antique jobs with the neon but it was still old enough that watching the records get shuffled to the deck where they’d be played was fascinating, or fascinating if you’d smoked some cannabis in the men’s room, anyway. It featured all the required bands like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, and even the Grateful Dead perhaps a decade after most juke boxes stopped containing Dead records. And Sandy was the queen of the jukebox. Yep, Sandy. I wonder where she is these days. Memory plays tricks but I still remember Sandy as being the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen though she couldn’t have been that good looking or guys would have gone hysterically blind just looking at her. The trick was to play anything off Stevie Nick’s Belladonna album or American Beauty and Sandy would start swaying to the music, her long hair dancing across her shoulders and those cutoff jeans so impossibly tight moving in time while every guy in the bar quietly fell in love with her. The bad news was you could always buy Sandy a beer but you couldn’t buy Sandy. She was almost the perfect woman and I probably should have married her. I might have, too, except Sandy’s dream car was a BMW 3 series, not a Trans Am or Mustang GT, she was my sister’s best friend, she hated Bruce Springsteen (how’s that for ironic) and she had zero to less interest in me. Good call on your part, Sandy.

There was one rule concerning the jukebox, though. On weeknights, if the Phillies game was on TV, the juke was unplugged and most folks watched the game. I’m not a fan of baseball now and wasn’t then, but it never bothered me. To this day when I hear the sound of a baseball slapping a leather glove or the distinctive crack of a bat hitting one into the cheap seats my hand reaches out for a beer mug and I scan the area for a wicker basket full of popcorn.

Despite the blue-collar vibe, the Sawmill was a friendly place. I only recall one fistfight there and I recall it only because it was so unusual. Two brothers got to beating on one another. They were dragged out into the parking lot and allowed to have at it. An hour later they were sitting at the bar beside one another splitting a pitcher, both a bit worse for the wear and sheepish about having caused such a hullaballoo. The owner and bartenders weren’t prudes but they did frown on excessive use of profanity especially with a raised voice. No, it wasn’t an altar boys’ Sunday picnic in there, but it would have been rated PG-13, not R or X. As such the Sawmill was perfect for a first date. Most of the woman I had long-term relationships with back then (and others I did not), I took to the Sawmill on our first date. If they were comfortable there it meant the two of us were probably a good fit.

I bought all four of my brothers-in-law to the Sawmill the night that they became engaged to my sisters or shortly thereafter. Three out of four of them liked the Mill. And I liked three out of four of them too.

The Sawmill was also the Saturday night meeting place for the part of the fraternity that street-raced down on Front Street, about a half hour away, later on Saturday nights. I recall parking a sneaky fast Buick GS, a bright yellow Trans Am with a 11.5 compression rat engine, a Camaro with wheelie bar mounts on the rear-end, various Mustangs with blue bottles in the trunk and of course Kenny’s infamous “JOKIN” ’67 Chevelle there in the shadows of the Pike bridge as we had a few beers and waited for the witching hour. On hot summer nights, we’d sit out on the back deck waiting, telling racing stories, listening to the out of state truckers trying to beat the turnpike tolls to get to I-95 north riding their jakes down the long hill, and the occasional sound of a worked big block as we tried to catch a glimpse of as they rolled over the bridge.

Sitting here writing this, I’m stuck by another vivid memory of the Sawmill. During the winter, the Sawmill was always toasty warm. Even on the coldest of nights with snow falling, you’d walk into the Mill and the warmth embraced you to the point you could strip down a T-shirt after a few minutes. I do recall one late snowy night leaving through the vestibule and looking across the snow covered parking lot. My car seemed a whole lot further away than it had when I parked there hours earlier. I didn’t want to go out there. I wanted to stay right where I was, but then the inside lights went out in the bar, one of the few times I’d ever seen that happen, and I was off into the storm listing a bit to starboard as we hollered our good nights to one another.

I’m not really sure what happened to the Sawmill. I’ve heard stories that the owner passed away and left it to his son and other stories that he just decided to retire and leave the business for his son to run. Said son had a decidedly different idea of what sort of bar he wished to run. I recall the first time I walked in there and the place was lit up like a police lineup. Unfortunately that bright light revealed all too clearly just how shabby the bar had become. Remember the narrator arriving at the Araby bazaar in a James Joyce short story? That’s sort of how I felt seeing my old haunt up close and personal. And the changes kept coming.

The bar closed a few weeks and reopened after it was remodeled. The dark wood and the tall booths were gone. They’d been replaced with an interior that looked like it had been looted from a fast food restaurant. Apparently that sort of crap don’t come cheap. The price of a pitcher of beer went soaring. The old jukebox was gone. So were the records by the good bands. And Sandy. But habit is a tough thing to break, I was with a friend drinking drafts one evening after work and the bartender bought me a mug. He asked for one as well and she patiently explained it was five of six and after six there was a new dress code. No jeans, no T-shirts and no sneakers or flip-flops. I recall him looking at her as amazed as if she’d sprouted a second head and started speaking in tongues. But he didn’t argue about it. Instead he downed my mug of beer in one gulp, pushed some damp one dollar bills over toward me and left the bar for what was probably the last time, though for a decade he’d spent more time there then in his apartment.

The pool room got turned into a comedy club, with some regrettable name like Chuckles, and you had to pay a cover to get in Friday and Saturday nights. My crowd found different places to hang out and over the next couple years, the parking lot at the Mill got emptier and emptier. I’d still run in there occasionally to grab a few six packs and it was a totally different crowd. Yuppies mainly. The place was lousy with them. And eventually the place went belly-up with no warning. There’s a lesson there. I’ll get to that.

The Sawmill reopened as Barnaby’s Sports Bar. It’s a chain sports bar if I’m remembering correctly and pretty much what you’d expect of such a joint. Lots of TVs, no smoking, too much noise, overly cute specials to match the waitresses in their decidedly unattractive outfits (none of whom could hold a candle to Sandy or at least the Sandy I recall years ago.) It’s too damn bright and the hostess must get a cut on selling T-shirts and plastic Barnaby’s beer mugs because she can get aggressive. I don’t even have a Sawmill T-shirt. I don’t guess they were ever offered. And a plastic beer mug? Isn’t that like bringing an inflatable date to the prom? Seriously.

There’s nothing wrong with Barnaby’s. On occasion, readers who were coming to Philly asked if we could meet back when I still lived in that area and I’d usually recommend that bar because it was 15 minutes from the airport and just off an exit for I-476, a six lane highway that now runs through our old dirt bike paradise. If it never exceeds expectations, nor does it fail to meet them. If you were filming a screwball comedy starring Adam Sandler and Chevy Chase having a meal and a drink, Barnaby’s would be perfect for you. Or at least it was until it burned down early Sunday morning. You wouldn’t have to change the décor, staff or location. You’d just need to cover up the prices on the menu because they won’t make anyone laugh.

Somewhere around 5:30 Sunday morning, someone called in a fire at Barnaby’s. By the time the first fire company arrived, they immediately called in a second alarm for an active working structural fire. The place was pretty much gutted with a cold Sunday morning rain helping douse the hotspots by dawn. When I saw the pictures right away I knew where the fire had taken place even before clicking the link. Or I thought I did. Momentarily transported in time I recalled the place as the Sawmill, not Barnaby’s. (How’s the song go? Out on the road today I saw a Deahead sticker on a Cadillac, little voice in my head saying don’t look back, never look back.) Looking at the photos, I could see what was where it should be and what was missing.

Interestingly enough, the local articles all mentioned what a favorite neighborhood hangout Barnaby’s had become with no mention of the local hot spot, the Sawmill, that once dominated that property in the pre-Blue-Route/ No T-shirt era. One employee said she’d been working there 13 years. Which is why I never met her. I do feel bad for the owner(s) and employees of Barnaby’s suddenly without an income. The owner says he will rebuild. Perhaps. But he will rebuild Barnaby’s not the Sawmill and as such, there’s no need for me to punch 1900 West Chester Pike into my Google Maps app. One article erroneously (I believe) listed the bar as being in Haverford not Havertown. Those are very similar names but very different places. Haverford is a very upscale community centered on Lancaster Pike along Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line. Havertown is on West Chester Pike, lined with row houses and doll houses in the communities of Upper Darby (pronounced Abba Dab-ey) Drexel Hill and Havertown outside of city limits at Cobbs Creek Parkway. At Philadelphia city limits West Chester Pike becomes Market Street which runs east about 47 blocks to City Hall. If you take that drive after dark make sure your doors are locked and duck if you hear gunfire. If the first responding fire company was from Haverford it’s a wonder the car wash and out of business hospital didn’t go too.

Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Hey, Matt, this is your job calling. You’re supposed to write about NASCAR racing not local bars and hot chicks from the 80s. Yeah, yeah, right. I’m on it, Boss. But seriously. She was smoking hot……

See there was a time that NASCAR racing fit its longtime fans just like their favorite jeans just out of the dryer too. It was a decidedly blue collar, working class sport and the loyalty of stock car racing’s stalwart fans was legendary. NASCAR fans had sort of an outlaw image back then as did many of our drivers. But if you actually attended a race, you’d find the fans were actually quite nice and fun to hang around. I’ve seen more fistfights at ball games than stock car races, and a lot of fans bought along their families and had a great time, redneck image be damned. Back then, members of the racing fraternity mostly felt like we were in on a wonderful secret the rest of the world was missing out on. It’s too bad we didn’t know enough back then to keep the secret to ourselves.

Then the boss’s son, idiot-boy Brian, came along, and while the family business was humming right along making a huge profit, he saw the need for some changes. The lights got turned up a bit too bright, showing the seedier side of the sport. Most of the driver’s went to Yuppie training school at the behest of their multi-million dollar sponsors. They became as bland as vanilla yogurt in some cases, and didn’t appeal to fans who preferred a nice Margarita or two instead. The prices on everything kept going up as NASCAR worked to attract a higher-class fan who could afford those prices and sent their long-time fans to the curb without so much of a handshake goodbye. There was actually an attitude back then that can best be expressed, “If you don’t like the changes we’re making there’s a line of people waiting to buy your seats if you don’t renew. Don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya…”

Only those newer fans were fickle. They grew bored easily (and the racing did in fact get more boring) and moved on when stock car racing was no longer the next big thing. And I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts somewhere during that time period you could have purchased a plastic NASCAR beer mug. Forsooth!

Which has led to this modern era of half empty grandstands and TV ratings tumbling like Mick Jagger’s dice.  Yep, it’s about time to call in a second alarm on this disaster….and the arson squad to arrest the man responsible, a fellow with the initials BZF.

Well there’s a lot of damage both on West Chester Pike and in NASCAR today. But perhaps it’s not totally gone yet and can still be rebuilt. Unfortunately it will likely be rebuilt at Barnaby’s and not as the Sawmill. Things are just never going to be the same as much as we long for them, like that girl who used to dance in front of the jukebox. And perhaps for most, the NASCAR newly formed out of the ashes will be good enough. But for those of us who remember it in the Sawmill days, it’ll never be the same. The Outlaws have left the oasis.

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Bill B

Excellent article Matt. That’s pretty much the trend now days. Everything has been sanitized, homogenized, and standardized to maximize profit so that no matter where you are in the country everything looks the same. It used to be nice when each geographic area had it own personality.
We all had our “Sawmill” back in the day. Oh well, those days are gone forever, I should just let ’em go now.

BTW, personally, I like when you write about non-NASCAR related subjects once in a while. Probably because I grew up in the same era and can relate to many of your observations about the larger world outside of NASCAR.

janice

Me too

REMC

When is Nascar going to rule themselves out of bissness

Old_Timer

Am I the only one with a tear in my eye?

Amazing … how a story such as this … we “were all the Sawmill crowd” … just different names in different towns.

RamblinWreck

Thanks Matt.
Loved the column and smiled at the “Dubliners” reference.

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