A legacy of speakeasies in Binghamton
BINGHAMTON (WBNG) — In 1918, the town of Binghamton dried up. This meant that there was no sale, consumption or production of alcohol in the area. If the date seems irrelevant to the national timeline of history, it is. The municipality made this decision two years before the rest of the nation entered prohibition.
“A lot of taverns, bars and manufacturers had to decide what to do. And it turns out that a lot of them decide to go ahead and keep doing what they do, but in secret, in order to hope that they don’t get caught,” said Broome County historian Roger Luther.
In fact, according to Luther, the decision to ban alcohol would have exactly the opposite effect.
“In 1922, there were more sources of alcohol in Binghamton than there were before Prohibition began,” he said. Although he continued, this did not stop law enforcement: “In 1921, probably every day, raids were taking place. There were arrests and in the early 1920s half of the arrests were for public drunkenness in Binghamton.”
In those days, owning and operating a business was dangerous.
However, according to Luther, many were still participating, including a family of Slovak immigrants. Both parents were Stephen and Mary Merlack, they raised two daughters.
“In 1916 they bought their own business and what they bought was the place on Main Street; 176 Main St. (Binghamton), and decided to run it as a tavern and hotel which they called the Turf Exchange Hotel,” Luther said.
The business was a successful one until 1918 when the Merlacks had to decide what their future would look like.
“They decided to continue, like most other places. They found a way not to get caught. They had an underground vault right next to the building, and then they made a secret underground passage leading from the vault to the cellar of the tavern,” the historian said.
Just two years after Prohibition, Stephen Merlack passed away, leaving his wife not only a widow, but also a single mother.
“Now Mary is trying to raise two little girls on her own, and the hotel part of the business was next to nothing, all the money came from the tavern. Of course it was illegal, but she decided to go ahead and go with it,” he said.
Wanting to provide for her children, she decided to do whatever it took to keep the money flowing, even if it meant dangerous situations.
“She would cross the border, load her car with booze and so on and the way the story unfolds great all that liquor behind the front seat of the car and cover her with blankets and then she would take her three year old – my old girl and put her on top of it all. The girl would pretend to be asleep and then they could drive across the border and pass the border guard without being searched, because who wants to disturb a sleeping three-year-old girl? said Luther.
According to the historian, Mary Merlack ran the bar until the end of Prohibition.
“She had to earn a living, and earning a living at that time was difficult. Not only making a living, but supporting her two little girls so that she is, by today’s definition, you would call her a bold woman, she definitely strikes me as a bold woman”.
After alcohol was legalized again, Mary sealed the safe and continued to run the business as a tavern. However, the story of a speakeasy in Binghamton does not end with the completion of Prohibition. More than 100 years later, Alise Willerton looked at an empty space on State Street and transformed it into what is now called “205 Dry”.
“All my inspiration comes from this ladder that was here when I bought the building, so everything was kind of inspired by this ladder behind there,” Willerton said.
The business owner says hearing Mary’s story is something that inspires him now.
“For her to do this in the 1920s, it’s crazy, it’s super inspiring and I’m honored to even love being part of history with her. // I’m a mom like her, a direct path I’m sure a lot of my struggles were the same as hers, so yeah, that’s a super inspirational story,” she said.
As a business owner, Willterton said she felt there was still a stigma against women in business.
“I just felt like I wasn’t really taken seriously at the time. I feel like a lot of women might struggle with that, I think it’s changed and evolved a lot over the years, but certainly in my youth, I just felt a bit intimidated,” Willerton said.
Through Alise Willerton’s vision, the city of Binghamton is able to take a look back, into the Mary Merlack era, into how a speakeasy was supposed to sound, look and taste of the 1920s .
“I tried to make it as authentic as possible. I’m very aware of temperature, music volume, lighting, candles. I mean most of the bars you go to don’t have flowers and candles on every table, the details are all very important to me. When I was decorating obviously, I was doing a lot of antique shopping. I really love decorating with pieces that were important to other people you know at the time, so there’s a lot of authentic pieces from the early 1900s that are here and a lot of great people when we open have dropped off their grandmother’s chain-link purse and we have an old license plate, so we have so many old genuine parts that make the vibe happen here,” she said.
The building in which Merlack’s “Turf Exchange Hotel” existed still stands today and is in the former “Cyber Face West” building. 205 Dry continues to operate and serve customers in Binghamton’s downtown arts district, it’s open to the public…that is, if you can find it!