April 1968: Centralia’s bar scene

Keeping the Peace
By Tom Lessard

In April of 1968, Rita and I moved our family from London to Huron Park. There were five of us from 1 RCR who moved at the same time, and we were told that we could choose any house that we wanted. A one-and-a-half storey house rented for $58 per month at a time when oil was 17¢ per gallon. We moved in, and we lived there for 35 years.
In Centralia, there was a hotel owned and operated by Jim and Marg Cook. It was a going concern. There was only a “Ladies & Escorts” room, which meant that if a man was by himself, he would either have to get someone from the L&E room to sponsor him, or he could sit in the small lunch room on the north side. If he chose the latter, he had to buy something to eat. I had a small plate of cheese and crackers and dill pickle for which I paid 50¢; I never ate it. The cook wrapped it in Saran wrap, put my name on it and kept it in the walk-in. Whenever I came in for a beer, I paid the 50¢ and they put my plate in front of me.
In October of ’68, I was hired to work part-time as a waiter in the Ladies & Escorts lounge. Having no experience at waiting tables, the boss assigned me to one group of 15 people who came in every Saturday night. In those days, you were not allowed to serve any more than one glass of beer per person at a time. When the glass was empty – and not before – you would serve another. The matron of this group looked after the money and did the ordering for everyone. I didn’t make any tips but I learned fast.
As Huron Park quickly filled with mostly army families (80 in all) and industries opened, liquor rules relaxed and the bar picked up a lot of business.
The boss asked me if I wanted to learn how to pour draft beer. I said I would love to. There were two taps: one ale and one lager. Ale was the largest seller in those days so we’d load 15 ale and five lager per tray unless otherwise asked. Jim put a tray on the counter and showed me how to hold a glass in each hand and open the tap. I filled one and stood there mesmerized unable to figure out what to do next. The draft kept pouring and Jim just told me to put the glass upon the tray. I did so and then with my free hand I shut off the tap. He showed me again and the next time I caught on and soon had 20 on the tray.
From then on, it was a piece of cake. Next came the training on how to carry a tray with 20 draft on it. The manager Scott showed me how to spread my hand so that there was some flexibility and spring in it. I always had good balance so it wasn’t long before I could make my way up and down the rows of tables, dropping off drinks and collecting empties and making change.
In the following years, bottled beer and liquor came into the area and the Central Hotel and the Shillelagh bar in Lucan, the Dufferin in Centralia, Les Pines in Exeter, and the Dashwood Hotel all worked together, and were all busy watering holes. If we ran out of liquor or beer, all we had to do was phone around to see who had extra and send someone around to collect it. They’d do the same if they were short. The only one remaining today is Les Pines, now called Gar’s in Exeter. Before liquor became popular in bars, we were selling between 20 and 25 kegs of beer per week, and at one point had 23 people working at the Dufferin.