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Karmic '70s gathering spot

 

Bruce Millard '76

 

[Click here for the mostly uncensored, UNCUT version of this story]

By the early 1970s, 60s lifestyle was consolidating its hold on Cornell, which had a coed dorm (ooh la la, there's a good student hangout), liberal visitation rules, and few curfews. The drinking age had just been lowered to 18. Any Cornellian could easily crunch this new equation: student hangout - local bar.

With The General, Jim Ellison created an alternative to the established bar scene and an outlet for the increasingly individualistic thinking and living that was bubbling to the surface in early '70s Mount Vernon.


The bar scene consisted of The North Side and The South Side. The North Side was known as a “farmer bar.” Across Main Street, The South Side was such a lopsided victor in the battle for brand name recognition it was referred to simply as The Side. Packed wall to wall with Cornell’s most boisterous revelers, The Side was primarily inhabited by athletes and social groups—Delts, Thetas, Gammas, Arrows, the notorious Owls—most of whom would stake out the same section of turf every night. If you enjoyed an environment of human bumper cars, jet-engine-level noise, and a jukebox playing the hits of the day, this was your place.

If you looked to your local bar to provide introspection, intimacy, lofty conversation, or live music, life was tough. You either drank in your room with friends or tried to get to The Sanctuary, The Vine, or The Mill in Iowa City—difficult because so few students owned cars. Then, smack dab into the middle of Main Street U.S.A., seemingly dropped from some karmic tornado that had gathered every piece of exotic ’60s cultural debris in its long and winding path, plopped The General Tavern. The General provided a public face, an outlet of expression, a gathering place for new or previously suppressed, increasingly individualistic thinking and living that by the early ’70s had begun to bubble to the surface of Mount Vernon’s consciousness and flow out over town.

It was a place you could walk in and see something either slightly or largely out of the ordinary every single day, from a production of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story to Zetta Wojack giving Chris “Neptune” Carrington ’75 a haircut. Tony Plaut ’78, now a professor of art at Cornell, remembers all the games—darts, the chess tournament (which Tony won), and cards at a round table in a little enclosure under a loft.

The interior was perfect. Old wood and brick, with the card room and loft being two of the coolest and most comfortable places you could ever drink a beer. The loft had tree house appeal, its ceiling so low you couldn’t stand up in it. Instead of a jukebox, a house music system featured two new formats, cassette tapes and stereo FM radio album rock. There was no TV, but in its place a sort of real-life sitcom, starring characters like bar manager Boyd Howard, who, over time, assembled a VW Bug piece by piece in his living room.

To Jane Caraway ’79, “It was certainly not an Iowa type of place. It was a very informal, eccentric, artsy mix of students and townies that became a kind of family. A sometimes dysfunctional family, perhaps, but once it closed, nothing ever filled the void.”

In 1972, Jim Ellison had purchased the Yeisley Bakery building, just a few doors down from the two Sides. “We bought the building, then we were sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it and somebody said ‘Hey, let’s do a bar.’ Two days later, parts just started falling into place,” says Ellison, who still resides in Lisbon and is the son of wrestling legend Gordon Ellison ’34. A bastion of whiskey bar bohemia was born. Pabst Blue Ribbon was served on tap and many patrons wryly recall the Picketts beer in bottles. Mmm, mmm, mmm—light enough to go down fast and easy, and then … whoa … uh oh.

In 1976, Jim Ellison sold The General to Walter Leopold, Nicole Small, and Tom and Zetta Wojack, who had plans to turn it into a deli. It may not seem strange now, but back then a deli in the middle of Iowa was almost comical. Novel or not, the matzo ball soup, corn and potato chowders, bagels, and Ruebens were too good to resist. Walter took pride in the fact that many of the clientele were elderly—that the deans of Midwest cooking, so to speak, would acknowledge his establishment. They weren’t alone. One day Walter reached in his mailbox and fished out an envelope from the Chicago Tribune. In it was a copy of a rave review by their food critic, who had passed through town. Next, an article in Newsweek—a portrayal of The General as a Midwestern culinary outpost trying to survive in the tough times of the Carter administration.

But Walter, Tom, Zetta, and Nickie’s most controversial move—instituting a two-day-a-week no-smoking policy—was precariously ahead of its time. The resulting antagonism from many patrons was one of several factors that combined to diminish the owners’ appetite for the business. The exhausting 24/7 schedule, the desire to return to previous careers, reluctance to make a long-term financial commitment and more all added up to The General closing its doors in 1979. The farewell party was the happiest sad event of all time.

But this story shouldn’t end on a sad note, and I haven’t mentioned the live music. The booking was wildly, flailingly eclectic—from flamenco/classical guitar to deep Delta-style blues to reggae—the quality of musicianship often superior. The most powerful memory I have of The General is from my very first night there, when I was stunned to discover Dennis McMurrin. He and his band delivered a borderline-insane combination of black and white, city and country with rock ’n’ roll energy, rollicking humor, and living-room-level comfort. The subtlety and impact of McMurrin’s playing would have been lost in a bigger place. You felt unforgettably good, shocked by the force of your own laughter as you were swallowed up in a delirium-inducing evening of drink and dance. In a word, you felt welcome.

Bruce Millard '76 lives in Boston where he plays guitar and mandolin with The Jim Kweskin Band, Howard 'Louie Bluie' Armstrong, and The Corn Palace Conquistadors.

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