Drinking in Denver
by tom christopher
all rights reserved
...in 1947 in fact, right after I met Cody, and had all those
anticipatory dreams of me and him drinking and grabbing at bars in the
construction worker night; I came to feel that the alleys, the fences,
the streets were the ‘holy Denver streets’ I called them...
--Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody
Denver was built on taverns. Wagons full of whiskey joined the settlers and prospectors who followed the Arkansas River Trail or the Smokey Hill Trail to the new town of Denver at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. A series of roadhouses had grown along those trails and they were often the first buildings or public buildings of new towns. Wagons arriving in Denver with liquor were often dismantled and the wood and canvas reused to make crude saloons, and many early farmers converted their buildings to roadhouses. Four Mile House on the Cherry Creek route to Denver, described as ‘a neat little tavern’ with cold well water and strong drink in 1866 is now a museum and state park
Denver was founded in 1858 and by 1860 had a population of 5000. The town was described as being an exceedingly primitive collection of shacks and tents, with as many rum shops and taverns as cabins. Indeed, there were 36 taverns scattered around the old downtown in 1860, the year the first churches (Roman Catholic and Southern Methodist) were built. A contemporary diary notes that many travelers became disheartened at the site of this ‘dismal village’ and immediately returned home.
But some liked it here. Richens Lacy Wootton, called Uncle Dick, visited Denver on Christmas Eve of 1858 with eight wagonloads of merchandise including some Taos Lightning, a potent brew made by mountain men near Taos since 1825, using a wheat base and such legendary ingredients as pepper, tobacco and gun powder. Uncle Dick set up camp, tapped a barrel and invited the town to celebrate Christmas. The town later gave Uncle Dick free town lots to set up a business and his story and a half building of hewn logs, shake roof and glass windows was considered the grandest structure in town. Even Thomas Pollack, the first elected sheriff and hangman, augmented his salary of fifty cents for each jailed prisoner by opening a boarding house and saloon. Denver House, a notorious tavern, hotel and gambling den was 130 feet by 36 feet, with a bar that ran the length of the building.
Saloons were the largest buildings in town and they did double duty as banks, as they often had the only safes available, theaters and even churches, with the bars being used as alters. In 1859 residents met in Uncle Dicks tavern to vote on succession from the Kansas Territories. Two years later this was accomplished, but legislative sessions were held in taverns, halls and hotels until 1894. In September 1860 townspeople gathered in Apollo Hall, a saloon and billiard hall to draft the city?s first municipal constitution.
Even in frontier bars there was a natural segregation of various groups depending on language, past residence or social experience. This continued as the city developed and neighborhoods began to take on characteristics of specific immigrant cultures and taverns continued to act as cultural centers for these groups.
By the 1870s the arrival of the railroads had guaranteed the arrival of easterners with more genteel appetites and a call for reforms. New, dry suburban housing tracts were developed, and this further concentrated taverns in the older downtown areas. A certain amount of wildness was tolerated downtown because of the amount of civic income that was derived by special business taxes leveled on the taverns. Saloons continued to serve all classes of people and liquors, and Denver became the commercial and amusement center for the Rocky Mountain region with a reputation as the wildest city in the West.
Denver and Colorado had a healthy brewing industry, with 23 breweries in 1893, including Zang Beer, the Denver Brewing Company, Coors, Rocky Mountain Brewery, and Tavoli-Union. Domestic beers such as Budweiser, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz came with the railroads as did a full selection of American and European liquors, wines and champaigns.
At the turn of the century pornography was available in penny arcades. Prostitution was legal until 1941, and when prohibition of liquor began in 1916 there was no less alcohol around.
It was during this time that Denver was first visited by its most famous drunk, Neal Cassady Sr. Some people gain celebrity and are known to also have a proclivity for drink, but Neal Cassady Sr is unique in his celebrity for being a drunk.
Father’s morning sobriety for work was guaranteed, for it must be said
that in the depression years he seldom missed a day’s work when there
was one to be had; equally assured, whether achieved often throughout
the week or not, was his Saturday Night Drunk
--Neal Cassady, The First Third
Neal Marshall Casady was probably born 1 Sept 1893 in Queen City Missouri. No birth certificate can be found in this rural farm town, and looking over documents one never sees the same birthday twice. He left home about age 15 and seldom visited. He married a woman named Ethel in 1914, and is listed in the Des Moines Iowa directory as a barber in 1919. By 1921 he had deserted his wife, having failed to ever support her, according to 1924 divorce documents.
By 1925 he drifted to Denver and married the widowed Maude Schuer Daly, who called herself Jean. Their son Neal Marshall Cassady was born in 1926 in Salt Lake City and they lived together until 1932 when Neal?s drinking and the dissipation of the family’s property proved to be too much for Jean. Neal moved to The New Metropolitan Hotel on the corner of 16th and Market Streets.
The New Metropolitan had never been a great hotel. Denver had great hotels. The Windsor was the first and was followed by the Tabor, and the Barclay, with The Brown Palace the last of the great ones. The Metropolitan, which was apparently renovated in the early 1920s and renamed, was always a second class hotel, but even as such it had the high ceilings and large windows of a spacious older building, though by the time Cassady was there the rooms had been subdivided with partitions topped with a roof of chicken wire often covered with broken glass to prevent thefts.
Cassady apparently settled into his new life pretty easily. It probably Wasn’t much different than it had been previously. It was the middle of the depression and Denver was hit hard. Jobs were scarce but he worked at least part time as a barber and made the rounds at the Citizens Missions or Father Divine’s (24 and Larimer) for free meals when down. The rest of his time was apparently spent drinking with his friends .
He has been described as being charming and gregarious, and women found him attractive even years later, and it’s interesting to note he and Jean were married by Judge Ben Lindsay, a prominent figure in Denver. But Neal’s real love was drinking. His family knew him to drink Sterno, an alcohol based fuel, or kitchen extracts such as vanilla before resorting to sobriety, and those who met him only once comment on his drinking.
Young Neal spent the school year with his mother and the summers with his dad. In 1932 the two of them hitchhiked and rode the rails to the family home in Queen City. In 1933 they traveled to Salt Lake City, where the elder Neal was arrested for being drunk in public, down to Albuquerque and then through Sacramento,and San Francisco on their way to LA before stopping in San Jose, where young Neal was left with a kindly stranger while the elder Neal went with a work crew to pick fruit. While there he met a woman and when he picked up his son they traveled to LA to meet her. They lived in LA about 6 months before returning to Denver
In 1934 the two stayed in Denver, the elder Neal having become friends with a dimwitted German alcoholic and his wife living in a barn in the Barnham district before dad was thrown out for screwing the wife.
In 1935 The two traveled to Nebraska with a friend of Neal Sr’s, with whom they made fly swatters and sold them door to door, sleeping in the other guy’s car and drinking the profits until the two men quarreled and father and son set off for Denver with the supplies, continuing to make flyswatters and sell them along the way.
This was the last trip the two would make together for years, but the elder Neal kept up this pace for years, joining work gangs in Utah or a WPA project in Texas. For a guy who didn’t like to work he often did some hard physical labor.
Back in Denver the younger Neal went to live with his mother. His mother lived in the Curtis Park area. Curtis park was the earliest suburb of Denver, serviced by mule drawn trolleys in the 1870s. They lived in numerous houses and apartments in the neighborhood, and often in a huge old rambling building on the corner of 26th and Champa Streets called The Snowden Apartments.
One of Neal’s earliest friends was Art Barlow, whose dad Blackie Barlow was a successful bootlegger who employed Neal’s older brothers, Ralph and Jack. Blackie was a slick good looking guy who drove a large car with the glovebox full of money. He rented a farm outside of town and was so successful that he was paying the farm owner a hundred dollars a week, and his two sons sixty dollars a week in 1930. In addition, there was a neighbor, a truck driver and Blackie?s brother also on the payroll, as well as Ralph, Jack and probably others back in Denver. The Queen City of the Plains had an appetite for liquor.
Blackie’s ranch was searched, and a large amount of whiskey mash was found, but unfortunately when the Federal Prohibition Agents returned to their car, they discovered their car had been burned and their overcoats stolen. At his arraignment Blackie expressed regret that the officers had experienced such a streak of bad luck, but denied knowing anything about either the car or the whiskey mash. The charges seem to have eventually been dropped.
Later, Ralph and Jack went into business for themselves, and set up a distillery in an apartment by the Puritan Pie Company, where the smell of the cooking pies would disguise the smell of the liquor. The Puritan Pie Company is still on Champa Street between 26 and 27 Streets, and many other buildings that Neal describes in his autobiography The First Third are still clearly recognizable in the neighborhood.
Bootlegging was common in this part of town and those involved are matter of fact about describing pay offs to the police, and supplying high ranking officers with booze.
When prohibition was repealed in 1933 Blackie used his profits to go into the gasoline transport business where he was successful until the 1950s.
Neal continued to go back and forth from his mother?s to his father?s house until her death in 1936. After that he stayed with half’ brother Ralph or Jack’s families or with his father. School records note Neal prefers living with his father, whose whereabouts are unknown.
Ralph and Jack tried to keep him. Neal’s half brothers have sometimes been portrayed unkindly, possibly due to the negative way Jack Kerouac referred to them, but they are a tight, loving family. They worked during a time when jobs were scarce and supported not only their mother but the elder Neal. In the absence of these parental figures they continued to support not only the younger Neal, but his sister Shirley Jean. But Neal was a handful. He was very bright and already physically mature by age 14 and used to being self sufficient. He started skipping school, stealing cars and staying out all night, even being caught in young girls? rooms.
A Catholic Charities assessment of the family notes in 1939 that the elder Mr Cassady is living with a Mrs. Bleek and her two sons. Apparently they met while working together at a Works Progress Administration project. Shortly after, Mr Cassady was noted to be caring for his daughter Shirley in a cheap rooming house and to have been drunk for some time. Shirley was taken by the courts and sent to Saint Clara’s Orphanage. The document states that Mr Cassady has been known to the Denver Police for some time and picked up frequently on drunk charges.
It was recommended that Neal be sent to the Mullen Home for boys, where he stayed briefly before running away. While attempting to place Shirley in a private residence, Mr Cassady was noted to have kept the house up all night making a drunken racket. Catholic Charities were called and Mr Cassady was described as extremely drunk and not able to tell the day of the week.
Mrs Bleek, who according to her son was also a heavy drinker, had lost her WPA job because a neighbor had reported her being paid to take care of Shirley, and Mr. Cassady had apparently lost his due to a three day drinking spree.
The Catholic Charities document, which covers the years 1939 - 1941 notes again that Mrs. Bleek and Mr. Cassady are drunk during another visit and later that Cassady is in jail for several weeks.
School records during this time tell the same story. Mr Cassady on a spree, and later noted to have a bad black eye.
During this time Neal started taking off on his own, hitch hiking to Indianapolis to see the Indy 500 race, and leaving Denver by bike with his buddy Chuck to see LA. Chuck turned back after a day, but Neal kept going.
About 1941 Neal met John and Lucille Briarly. John and Lucille loved to drink. John was a descendant of a noted Denver pioneer and quite well off. He was very generous with the less prosperous during the depression years and his house was always full of people. Once, an ice delivery man came by and got sucked into a party. The ice company found him and his truck a day or two later at the Briarly’s house with a huge melting pool of water running down the street. The more sober members of the family had to regularly chase out transients and loafers.
And so it was that Justin Brairly, lawyer and school teacher discovered the shirtless sixteen year old Neal in Uncle John?s kitchen in 1941. Who are you? Justin asked. The question is, responded Neal, who are you?
Justin was impressed with Neal and arraigned to get him into East High School, the most exclusive school in town serving the capitol area.
Neal never went to East High much, he worked an adult job as a tire recapper, read on his own and kept up an active social life. He continued to travel to California where he was arrested a couple of times and eventually he did 10 months in a Colorado reform school for receiving stolen property. While in Buena Vista Reformatory Neal wrote Justin asking him to pick up a bar tab of three or four dollars at a bar called Paul’s Place at 15 and Platte where his brother Jack used to bartend. There is still a tavern in that building
When he was released in June 1945 he met the group of kids that Jack Kerouac would fictionalize into the Pederson’s Poolhall gang. This was during the last days of World War Two. All able bodied adults had been drafted and it was common for mature 15 year olds to join the services and even more common for kids of this age to be working. Neal’s first wife, LuAnne Henderson remembers that when you turned the corner of 16 Street off Broadway that there wasn’t a face over 21 years old.
This group used to hang out at Lloyds of Denver, where they could buy a low alcohol beer at age 18, but nobody checked your ID if you were 14 or 15. Lloyds had a bar downstairs, a poolhall upstairs, and a small hotel above that. Lloyds was at 15 and Glenarm, and Pederson’s Poolhall at 1523 Glenarm. Other hangout spots on that block were Soloman’s Restaurant known for it’s cheap beef stew and the Mir - O Bar. The area was ringed by small hotels such as the De Whitt and the Kensyington, and Neal was legendary for his ability to have two or three girls in different rooms and making the rounds of each room and stopping by the poolhall for a drink or a quick game of pool in between. Neal also mentions a bar at the 3 way intersection of Park, Seventeenth and Marion, possibly called the Marion Inn, and a bar on Colfax between Pennsylvania and Pearl Streets where the plate glass front ill conceals the patrons of its booths. LuAnne Henderson’s mother had a bar inside McVittie’s Restaurant, and she saw Neal there for the first time when he came to pick up his current girlfriend, a waitress several years older than he.
Neal continued to work at tire recapping on and off and spent a lot of time organizing parties. Sometimes renting trucks in which he threw a mattress and ferried the gang back and forth to parties in the mountains, or out to one of the amusement parks like Elitches, where they could smoke pot inconspicuously or Lakeside, where they liked to watch midget auto races.
One of Neal’s girlfriends had access to an old victorian house up in the mountains which was the scene of many wild parties still remembered by his friends. All the kids liked beer and one of the girls in the circle could get liquor from a much older boyfriend. There was a player piano in the cabin as well as trunks of victorian clothing that the kids would dress in and party all night to ragtime piano rolls.
Friends from this time note that Neal didn’t drink much. He had a sensitive stomach and didn’t like the effects of alcohol. But he liked to smoke marijuana and benzedrine was available without a prescription.
It was different times, his friends stress, a time of bars and barfights and tough guys on the corner. One member of the Pedersons group, several years younger than the others watched their antics with awe, particularly impressed with Neal’s ability to seduce women. Later this person became a teacher at East High, and has stated that this was the smartest and wildest group to go through the school.
There were some bad kids in town. Contemporary news stories show teenagers being sentenced to hard time for violent and destructive crimes, and a few were on the outside of this group, but joined mainly by a common age. At least one was killed in prison, but in general these kids were too smart to get caught up in anything serious, though some petty crimes were committed. Mostly the gang liked to have a few beers and cruise around. Green’s Drive In and Pick A Rib were favorite places to get a burger, and though the crowd would sometimes get rowdy and be tossed out of a place for a few days there was generally no harm done.
A few cars ended up in ditches, a couple windows were broken and some stuff stolen, a couple of war surplus smoke grenades set off downtown, and somebody drove a bus up a couple flights of stairs, but during the war years Denver was a crazy place, full of V Girls hooking up with sailors, and gays meeting discreetly in the Brown Palace, and if these were the wildest kids they weren?t the only wild ones.
The group Neal hung with were smart, young and healthy and they didn?t like to waste time. Anytime was the right time to party for somebody, and the gang moved around from place to place taking advantage of whatever space was available in somebody’s apartment or hotel room or if somebody’s parents were gone for the weekend.
Neal married LuAnne Henderson in Summer 1946, and set off for Nebraska where they worked for a short time before heading off for New York, where they arrived just before the end of the year.
They separated, but both were back in Denver by spring 1947, and the fun continued. Carolyn Robinson, soon to be Neal's second wife, met him through a friend on his return and was surprised when the gang simply assumed they would use her hotel room for a party space. They were all natives of Denver; didn’t any of them have a home?, she later wrote.
Neal’s new friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg arrived in summer and were impressed. They were used to the atmosphere of New York’s Times Square and Harlem, and they found the same excitement in Denver.
Several of their school friends were from Denver and showed them the town in style, and Cassady, Ginsberg and Kerouac and others got together for a few all nighters at Ginsberg’s basement apartment on Grant Street. Kerouac describes the summer of 1947 in On The Road. It’s a crazy season in the romantic west, cumulating with a wild night at the Central City Opera and a party in an old miner’s cabin.
At the end of the summer Cassady and Ginsberg went to Texas to see William S Burroughs, and Kerouac went off to San Francisco, where he was soon joined by Neal’s friend Al Hinkle. It’s hard to say when Cassady was next in Denver. He ended up in San Francisco, pursuing Carolyn Robinson. He was back in Denver in March of 1948 to get an annulment from LuAnne Henderson, and then was back again just before Christmas with Al Hinkle and his bride Helen to pick up LuAnne for the road trip chronicled in On The Road and elsewhere. Kerouac moved to Westwood in the summer of 1949, and spent time working in the city and visiting the skid row area around Market and Larimer Streets, the poolhalls on Curtis, the jazz clubs of Five Points and Neal’s old neighborhood of Curtis Park, especially noting the ball park at 23 and Welton. He wandered happily through the neighborhood digging it’s pure American beauty, and later writing with his usual grace and attention to detail: The old Negro man had a can of beer in his coat pocket, which he proceeded to open; and the old white man enviously eyed the can and groped in his pocket to see if he could buy a can, too. How I died! I walked away from there. Unfortunately none of his friends were in town and he left after a season, traveling to see the Cassady’s, returning shortly with Neal. They ran around for a few days, outraging the neighbors with Neal’s desire to make everybody’s daughters, and drinking beer at a hillbilly roadhouse within walking distance of Jack’s old Westwood home before heading to New York.
During this time Kerouac had sold his first novel The Town and the City, and he was in Denver again in late May 1950 to attend an autograph party set up by Neal’s old mentor, Justin Briarly. This time his friends were in town and he spent an entire week of afternoons in lovely Denver bars where the waitresses wear slacks and cut around with bashful, loving eyes, not hardened waitresses, but waitresses that fall in love with the clientele ...and we spent the same week in nights at Five Points listening to Jazz, drinking booze in crazy Negro saloons and gabbing till five in the morning in my basement.
At this point Neal showed up unexpectedly and he and Kerouac made plans to run off to Mexico with Frank Jeffries, a Denver guy who could drink carafes of wine like water and jump over parked cars. After the autograph party there was a party for Jack that carried over to the Windsor Hotel, where Neal got uncharacteristically drunk.
You know the only reason I’m not a lush...Because I really don’t enjoy
the...ah, the - if, you know, I mean I - to, you know - it doesn’t, ah,
of course, I’ve got drunk quite a while... and I’ve been very
drunk...see, I’ll bet I’ve been drunk six months straight, see, with
Neal Cassady, as transcribed by Jack Kerouac in Visions of Cody
Kerouac was never back in Denver, but Neal wrote to him in December 1950 saying his father was to be released from jail and Neal planned to meet him. Neal was back again in 1952 during a family road trip, and Carolyn describes Neal’s father as living in an old hotel in a bad neighborhood, sweetly addled, and being taken tare of by a happily energetic old floozy. He must’ve been doing well, though, he was able to visit his family in Missouri in 1962 and died in Denver in 1963, when Neal returned again to handle the funeral. Neal was able to make the drive between San Francisco and Denver in a 24 hour run, and there’s no telling how many times he did it, but he was back for the last time in 1968 shortly before his death. Getting out of his car to embrace an old friend in front of the Heart of Denver Motel on Colfax at 10 AM a beer can rolled out after him.
But with other members of the Pederson’s Poolhall gang the party continued even as adulthood set in. Work and families took greater importance, but they were all Denver natives and had a shared love of dog and horse racing, and often ran into one another at one of the tracks or at Sid King’s Crazy Horse Bar, a popular nightclub and the first topless club in town.
And meanwhile, another generation was appearing on the streets and filling the poolhalls and bars until urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s destroyed much of the old cowboy soul of downtown. But if you know where to look along the fringes of Larimer Street or close by on Colfax, Broadway or Five Points you can see Denver the way it used to be when Neal and Jack drank beer and ate tamales in the warm summer night, always keeping one eye open for Neal’s dad or the next big adventure.
Cassady, Carolyn; Off The Road
Cassady, Neal; The First Third
Christopher, Tom; Neal Cassady Volume One
Neal Cassady Volume Two
Kerouac, Jack; On The Road
Visions Of Cody
Nicosia, Jerry; Memory Babe
Noel, Thomas J; The City And The Saloon
Denver’s Larimer Street
Plummer, William; The Holy Goof
Woods, Harold; My Larimer Street, Past and Gone
text copyright tom christopher
photo Neal Marshall Cassady Copyright Louise Bushnell and tom christopher
photo Thelma’s Crystal Room, Lloyds menu copyright LuAnne Henderson and tom christopher
all other art, photos and illustrations copyright tom christopher
Jack Kerouac text from On The Road copyright to the Kerouac Estate
Jack Kerouac text from Visions Of Cody copyright to the Kerouac Estate
Neal Cassady text from The First Third copyright the cassady estate
all rights reserved
No Text or Photos May Be Used Without Permission
This Means YouMuch of the old Denver that Neal describes is still recognizable, and anybody interested in Neal should get a copy of his autobiography, and take a nice walk around Curtis Park. The Western History Department of the downtown Denver Library regularly gets requests for information about Neal, and anyone interested in Denver history should check out their photo project website for the best vintage photos of the city. Links to more Neal Cassady and Denver history are located on the links page, which may be accessed through the index page, below