On 215 South Fourteenth Street, in the Third Ward, sat a cramped saloon. Patrons knew the proprietor, John Kerns, for selling good liquor and maintaining a, “gentleman’s saloon.” The Excise Board granted him a liquor license on January 3, 1896. Kerns had strict rules of decorum that patrons had to follow, or face his scorn. Business and theatrical people frequented the bar; it was also a watering hole where Omaha’s elite quenched their thirst.[i] Born to Irish immigrants on October 22, 1855 in Carlinville, Illinois, he brought his wife, Delia Bailey, to Omaha, Nebraska around 1886.[ii] His saloon closed in 1917 when Prohibition came to Omaha. During the years that his saloon was open, Kerns made a lasting impression on his adopted city.
Unlike other saloons in Omaha, Kerns’ saloon was a, “very quiet place.” Kerns required patrons to be subdued. If a person were loud or unruly, Kerns made the patron leave the bar. People talked politics, local events, and gossip in a restrained environment. Actors like William H. Crane stopped by while in town to talk Shakespeare and other topics of the day with fellow patrons. John Creighton went to Kerns’ saloon by horse-drawn carriage after leaving his office in the late afternoon. Creighton, “an opposing figure with [a] flowing whitebeard tall silk hat,” ordered himself a whiskey along with a round for the bar.[iii] When Kerns ate lunch at the Paxton Grill on Farnam, he sat at the front window to watch people coming in and out of his establishment.[iv] He always monitored his saloon.
No chairs existed in Kerns’ saloon to prevent idlers and thieves from entering the bar. The rule was that everyone had to keep their, “tootsies’” on the ground. He did not want people coming into the bar without ordering a drink. If a loafer came into the establishment, they were spotted and quickly removed. One night, for example, a loafer came into the saloon and sat on a steam radiator. Kerns sent his porter downstairs to turn on the furnace. The loafer left when his bottom became hot. [v] “Creepers,” people who would, “sneak around and take money and valuables from trousers,” were strictly forbidden. If a person went to the saloon, Kerns made sure they were there to buy drinks.
Kerns prided himself on selling the best whiskey in the country. He offered patrons a choice of 15 whiskeys kept in barrels and tapped when crystal decanters became empty.[vi] He sold two drinks for a quarter. If a person only took one, he gave them a voucher for a free drink.[vii] Kerns could become defensive if anyone questioned his product. If a patron, for example, asked to take a sniff of the cork before he poured the drink, Kerns took it as an insult. “He snatched the decanter from the sniffer’s hands and poured out the contents into the sink.” Kerns sold beer begrudgingly because it was not a high-end drink, but brought well-needed capital into the saloon.
Kerns believed that whiskey from his private stock should be savored, not wasted with a quick chug. He gave customers a four-ounce glass of whiskey and along with the decanter. If the customer drank too quickly, Kerns went over to them and said, “good whiskey is for gentlemen, not hogs!“ Customers were on the honor system, reporting what they drank to him. Everyone in the saloon drank their whiskey slowly when Kerns was around.
During the winter, people came to Kerns saloon for his famous, “Tom and Jerry,” drinks. He could not keep bartenders in the winter because it was hard to keep up with demand. [viii] He refused to sell non- alcoholic drinks. For example, a person came into the saloon during the winter with their hands shivering from the cold. They requested regular eggnog. He gave them a glass of whiskey and an egg telling them to, “Run Over to the Paxton and get a glass of milk. You’re shaking enough to put it together all right.”[ix] Patrons had to be careful not to offend Kerns.
A voter referendum on May 1, 1917 brought Prohibition to Nebraska on May 1, 1917. Although Kerns was proud of his own business, he said that the, “Saloons have ruined themselves.”[x] He closed his saloon and lived a quiet life. He still, however, received visitors from people who frequented his saloon. Today, the old saloon’s site is on the Northwest Corner of the Gene Leahy Mall.
[i] “Johnny Kerns Passes Away” (30 August 1923), Lincoln Journal Star, (Lincoln, Nebraska), pg. 6, https://www.newspapers.com/image/37003668/?terms=%22Johnny%2BKerns%22.
[ii] “Mortuary—Kerns” ( 10 April 1905), Daily Illinois State Register, (Springfield, Illinois), pg. 2, https://www.genealogybank.com/doc/newspapers/image/v2%3A13D09CDA6F396332%40GB3NEWS- 13E3682EAAE0362D%402416946-13E1275A558DF605%401- 13E1275A558DF605%40?h=3&fname=Delia&lname=Kerns&fullname=&rgfromDate=1860&rgtoDate=190 5&formDate=&formDateFlex=exact&dateType=range&kwinc=&kwexc=
[iii] Robert McMorris, “Omahan, ’91,’ Remembers City in Its Youth” (10 April 1982), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 16.
[iv] Jake Rachman, “Town Tattler” (28 January 1944), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 26.
[v] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days Dies in Hospital” (30 August 1923), Evening World-Herald, pg. 5.
[vi] “Conversations” (19 November 1961), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 24.
[vii] Jake Rachman, “Town Tattler” (28 January 1944), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 26.
[viii] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days Dies in Hospital.”
[ix] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days Dies in Hospital.”
[x] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days Dies in Hospital,”