Maybe it’s time to rethink our take on dive bars. Perhaps they have a place here, featured in the community rather than hiding the in shadows of street corners. Because on the flip side of our palm trees, beaches and blonde hair, lays the nicotine-stained underbelly of our local bars and taverns; the true guts of our community’s culture. Dives are colorful places where locals go because they know the bartenders and the best stories are told over strong drinks.
A true dive is soaked in as much history and lore as it is stale beer and whatever that funky smell is by the corner of the jukebox. These are the places where the past hangs low in the air, looming from the moment you step in. Dives are bars that people choose to “haunt” rather than visit, because no matter how often you go, it feels more as if you’re passing through its story rather than it through yours.
I recently visited some of the region’s most hallowed haunts, gathering a few nuggets of dive bar lore that only seem to bolster the notion that the more unique a region’s dive bar scene, the more interesting the region, itself.
124 Charlotte St.
Originally known as “The South Seas Lounge,” Trade Winds opened up in 1945 as an ode the island bars which founders, merchant marine vets, Granville Grissom and Sterling Andrews came to love overseas. Much of the décor was claimed during the founders’ trips around the world. The teak bar and palm idol that still adorns the bar are a few of the pieces that have been acquired on these trips.
By the early ‘60s Trade Winds claimed its spot in St. Augustine as a great place to hear new music. Acts that graced the stage were, Gamble Rogers, Nigel Pickering from Spanky and Our Gang, The Byrds, Odetta, who was known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights,” and also a little-known crooner named Jimmy Buffett, who, during his first appearance, was turned away by the owner on the premise that he needed to work on his act before stepping up to the Hallowed Trade Winds stage.
When the only thing constant is change, the only thing you can rely on is that Pete’s Bar doesn’t give two hoots about proverbs.
Part-owner and scion of original owner Pete Jensen himself, John Wittingslow, maintains that Pete’s has looked pretty much the same since its opening in 1925. Patrons agree that while Neptune Beach is constantly evolving, Pete’s is the same since the first time they stepped in,20, 30, 40 years ago. Even the bartenders, Joe Andrew and Danny McDaniel, started their first shift 44 years ago.
Many have sat down and called Pete’s home for a spell. Most famously, Ernest Hemingway, whose picture entitled “Hemingway with Beach Babes” graces the walls and proves his patronage. Also, Mick Jagger, W.E.B Griffin and John Grisham, who featured Pete’s regularly in his novel “The Brethren.”
Most locals use the adjective institution when describing Pete’s. This is partially owing to its role in the annual Thanksgiving Day community block party known as “Pete’s Giving.” Wittingslow says it started 32 years ago with a single bartender who had offered to stay open during the holiday, as he had nowhere else to go. Before long, everyone knew Pete’s to be the one place that was open. About 20 years ago, the bar had gotten so busy that the city was forced to allow patrons to step out on the street during the holiday. “It was strictly word of mouth. We didn’t ask the Clydesdales [Budweiser horses] to come. They just showed up one year.”
3rd Street South
Posturing on the corner of 3rd Avenue South and 3rd Street, Ginger’s looks like it’s got it all out and couldn’t care less. It’s a hard place to miss.
Darlene Everlane Payson bought Ginger’s Place in 1976. She and her husband, Ziggy, decided that the bar should pay homage to Darlene’s retired career as Ginger Lani, one of her many performance names. As far as stage presence goes, Ginger had it all. Former burlesque dancer and mermaid, Ginger made her name by doing underwater stripteases in cross-country show-bars and USO troop entertainment. In one of her many acts she referred to herself as, Tiza, The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, where she traveled around with a giant glass tank and little else.
After her death in 2003, Payson left the bar to her daughters, who currently run it. However, it is believed not just by the frequent patrons and employees but her granddaughter, Samantha Robenolt, that Ginger Lani never really left her favorite bar.
Ginger’s place since has had its fair share of eerie encounters, from dark moving shadows to moving objects. Enough so Robenolt performed an EMT reading and hired investigators to inspect the bar.
“[Previously] I’ve never believed in ghosts,” she says. “Until I saw someone, which looks sort of like a dark shadow, go into the back room. I followed it right after and nobody was there. It was the same size and shape of my grandmother and everybody said they had seen nothing. Stuff like this happens all the time here.”
Known as early on as the Ship Captain’s Bar, the Palace Saloon also holds the title as “Florida’s Oldest Bar.” Although other bars around the state claim to have opened earlier, The Palace maintains that it has always resided in the same location and never closed or reopened. By right, this makes The Palace the oldest continuously operated bar, which is more meaningful when you consider the Prohibition era. It also holds Florida’s oldest issued liquor license, which it acquired when it opened, 115 years ago, in 1903.
At its inception, The Palace was a true gentleman’s establishment, complete with large spittoons at every seat for polite expectorate disposal and complimentary towels hanging from the lip of the bar, in case one needed to wipe the beer foam from one’s elegant mustache. The design was helped in part by Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch, who was a good friend of the founder, Luis Hirth.
During Prohibition, The Palace stayed open by selling gas and Coca-Cola along with “specialty” wines that were allowed and 3 percent “near” beer.
Today, it is operated by the Sheffield family, who bought it in the early ‘90s. Although a fire in 1999 destroyed part of the bar, the historic front of the bar remained intact from damage and remains the same as it was when it opened.
The Palace remains a great place for community members to meet up and grab a drink, just as it was over 100 years ago. In fact, when catching up on community issues with one’s neighbor, a patron can always rely on the Mayor of Fernandina Beach, Johnny Miller, to grab them a pint. He tends bar there most weekdays.