The building was nothing short of spectacular and iconic in downtown Put-In-Bay; now we look back on The Colonial 30 years later. Generations of islanders and tourist spent time here, enjoying the dancing, bowling and more. Then, on that tragic day in May 1988, the building quickly engulfed in flames. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Find an easy chair, pour a beverage and follow the story of the beloved Colonial, a favorite Put-In-Bay Attraction of yesteryear.
Colonial: Years Before Construction
The land where the Colonial resided has a tumultuous history. First, a home known as the “White House” was on the property. Here, guests could stay on occasion, making it one of Put-In-Bay’s first boarding houses. Then, in 1861 ownership changed hands to Joseph W Gray, the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He moved to make the structure into a full time boarding house. Later, his interests were no more, as he was bought out. The hotel was known as Sweeny, West and Company. As time progressed, the hotel expanded with extra wings constructed. Now, the hotel dubbed the Put-In-Bay House remained
Sadly, tragedy would overtake the fledging enterprise. A benefit on August 30, 1878 aided Yellow Fever relief in the South. However, just before 6 PM, a fire ignited in the cupola at the top of the building. Quickly, flames spread throughout. Sadly, there was no fire department on the island at this time. Residents formed a bucket brigade to fight the fire. However, the blaze was far too powerful and the hotel burned to the ground. Later, speculation pointed to 4 young men as the culprits of the fire. Prior to the tragedy they were smoking in the cupola. A fire truck from Sandusky came over via steamer. Unfortunately, they arrived too late.
The islanders pressed on. Valentine Doller, a prominent Put-In-Bay figure, purchased the land. Then, he constructed another Put-In-Bay House, albeit much smaller. The new building was just 200 feet long and could accommodate up to 200 guests. Sadly, tragedy struck yet again. On September 3, 1907 the second Put-In-Bay House caught fire. Again, the building burned to the ground. The newly constructed Colonial Dance Hall nearly caught fire too. Fortunately, they were able to contain the blaze to the hotel. However, this ominous history would rear its ugly head again.
Colonial Construction and Early Years
With Valentine Doller behind the helm, the construction of the Colonial was underway. His company, the Put-In-Bay Amusement Company, paid $20,000 for the hotel property. Their plans included the construction of a large dance hall and skating rink. On June 16, 1906 the Colonial opened its doors to great fanfare. All of the islanders came out to commemorate the joyous occasion.
During the first decades of operation, the Colonial was truly a wonderful place to visit. Lake steamers ferried thousands of guests to the island. Moreover, they attended the numerous dances held in the grand hall. Children, teens and adults could all find fun things to do in the massive space. The construction of Perry’s Monument and the Centennial of the Battle of Lake Erie brought hordes of crowds to Put-In-Bay. Then, by the late teens, the threat of Prohibition was real. Interestingly, the state of Michigan went dry the year before the country followed suit. Consequently, Michigan residents flocked to the island as drinks were readily available.
Roaring 20’s and The Great Depression
There were many different activities tried in the space. The 1920’s and 30’s saw a surge in dances on the weekends. There were dancing contests held with Jack and Sue Snyder from the actor’s colony acting as judges. A popcorn stand was downstairs. Many made their way to the stand because of the delicious aroma. Another favored activity of the island women was to come and gossip on Saturday evenings. Imagine, catching up on the island news watching the youngsters dancing below. Bowling alleys were available sometime around Prohibition.
The Depression proved to be quite a difficult time for Put-In-Bay and the Colonial. Consequently, the partners of the Dance Hall faced an impeding bankruptcy. A new era of the Colonial was eminent. George and Fannie Lonz purchased the property for $6,250. They were the owners of the beloved Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island.
Now, the Colonial was under the ownership of the Lonz Family. They would retain ownership for the next 25 years of this well-known Put-In-Bay Bar. Over the this tenure, the building’s management varied. During the early 40’s, Bob and Maria Shiele ran the wine room. Here, they adorned the walls and ceiling with fabric, and painted it to resemble a cave. Also, Chick Linker ran the roller skating operation. Local publications ran ads with headlines such as, “Roller Skating at the Colonial: A Chick Linker Operation.” Then, from 1945-1947 George Compton ran the operation. Sadly, Compton passed away on October 4, 1947 during a skating party at the end of the season. Many believe a heart attack due to over exertion to be the culprit.
Then, in 1948 Lonz leased to Howard Sutton. Howard’s mother assisted with managing the Colonial. They promoted a wide assortment of events in the building. Interestingly, even a wrestling match occurred. Lonz added a wine tasting area at the East end. Here, his fine Lonz Wines from Middle Bass island were available. This room felt like a cave, being dimly lit with deep set booths. Also, past guests remember the room having a perpetual smell of stale wine. Others ran the operation pressing in to the 50’s and 60’s. This include Frank and Alice Crowley, Dale and Adeline Schmidlin and Ralph Zickafoose.
Disaster Nearly Strikes Again!
The Colonial faced peril yet another time. The Schnoor & Fuchs Grocery Store caught fire on March 12, 1964. This store, located just to the South, was a complete loss. However, the Colonial at less than 100 feet away, remained unharmed. Shortly after this close call, Lonz decided to sell the Colonial. Just prior to the sale, he sold the neighboring ball field. Then, a developer went on to build the Commodore Motel.
Neff Breathes Life into The Colonial
The South Bass Island Company, owned by Al Neff, purchased the building for $20,000. Neff immediately went to work on giving the property updates and improvements. New alleys with automatic pinsetters replaced the dated lanes. Also, this new area had a furnace so that it had year round potential. Bowling leagues formed in the Winter months. Other improvements were to come. The old Lonz wine room transformed in a rustic fashion. Much of the décor utilized reclaimed material, making the space feel very authentic. Quickly, the “Bay 90’s” became one of the islands favorite hangouts. The massive dance floor was also rehabbed at great cost and effort. Wonderful events like the Put-In-Bay Centennial Ball in 1977 and the Founder’s Day Ball in 1979 took place in the renovated Colonial.
The Old Rittman Grocery Store moved in 1968 to the present day location of the Island General Store. The architecture retained the character of the original building. Restored original posts and siding from an old island school were among the building materials. Duane Dress managed the store in the early 1970’s. Then, in the final 3 years that Neff owned the property, Tip Niese ran the grocery store.
The Niese Term
The Colonial changed hands once again in 1979. Tip Niese became owner of the iconic property. He changed the Bay 90’s bar to the present day Beer Barrel Saloon. After overseeing the grocery store in the late 70’s, Tip was poised to be a perfect partner for the property. At this time, George Stoiber and Skip Duggan were interested in buying. Not long after, both Stoiber and Duggan sold out their interests, leaving Niese as the sole owner of the Colonial. Changes were to come for the building. The automatic alleys were removed and replaced with a restaurant ran by Tom Yantz. Also, a video arcade was erected on the ground floor.
Patrick Houston Dailey: Coolest SOB in the World
Spring brought a true paradigm shift. A man showed up at the Colonial in a van, asking for a music gig. Before leaving, he left a cassette of some of his material. The Niese family had doubts about this unknown entertainer. They had never heard of him. Still, they agreed for him to play Memorial Day Weekend of 1979.
Patrick Dailey was this man. However, the first weekend he was scheduled encountered great storms. The Put-In-Bay Ferry service stopped. Still, he made it on Sunday. His show filled the room on that Sunday afternoon. The crazy antics, fun lyrics and splendid rhythm captivated audiences. Soon, Pat Dailey and the Beer Barrel were synonymous. Every Friday and Saturday night, fans would line up to see Pat play. Quickly, Dailey wrote songs about the island which became the island anthems. Interestingly, the wildly popular Put-In-Bay was written by Pat while sitting next to the Commodore Pool.
Colonial and Beer Barrel During the 1980’s
The Niese era also brought in a wide variety of live entertainment. Again the Colonial rose to be the hub of activity on the island. The Beer Barrel was expanded several times to make room for the large crowds. Also, the Grocery Store grew during this time. From the time Tip first bought the store it had grown three fold. Other additions included the Palm Tree Patio. Here, guests could enjoy cold drinks while chowing down on ribs and chicken. Potted palm trees swayed in the lake breezes. Time marched on with fun events like Halloween parties with Ben Dover and the Screamers.
That Fateful Day in May: The Fire
Memorial Day Weekend in 1988 on Put-In-Bay remains in infamy. On Friday May 27, 1988 fire once again came to the Colonial property. In just 45 short minutes, the island treasure was merely rubble. A propane barbeque grill on the outdoor patio was the source of the blaze. Mike Niese, son of the owner, and other employees attempted to put out the fire. Unfortunately, the flames were just too intense.
The fire was so intense it was seen from the Mainland. Quickly, the Put-In-Bay Fire Department realized it couldn’t successfully fight the Colonial fire. So, the efforts focused on preventing the fire spreading to other structures. Also, there was much attention given to 1000 gallon propane tank in the rear of the building. Business owners were hosing down nearby buildings with hopes to stop the spread. Fortunately, the fire did not cause significant damage to neighboring buildings. Sadly, the Colonial was a complete loss.
The Show Must Go On!
After the fire, the Niese family pressed on. Islanders still needed grocery essentials, newspapers and so on. They sold said items and more out of the back of trucks. The Colonial was still smoldering in the background. Quickly, the site was bull dozed. A huge tent put up ensured the Beer Barrel could remain open for the Summer. The grocery store opened in a temporary trailer. Still, Tip Niese vowed to rebuild. So, he employed George Poulos, a renowned local architect, to design the new building. After Summer, the large tent came down to make way for construction. This new building construction was made of concrete and steel. No more could fire wreak havoc as it had so many times before.
Today at the Old Colonial Space
The new building opened in 1989, complete with the World Longest Bar. The Beer Barrel Saloon and Tipper’s Restaurant continue to provide the island with great entertainment. Furthermore, outstanding acts like the Lo Cash Cowboys have played here and eventually made it big on the National level. Today, the Niese family continues to operate this iconic Delaware Avenue address.