Every university has one. It’s the place where students gather after class (sometimes, instead of class) to relax, have fun, tell stories and make memories. It’s a place where soul mates are found and love begins to blossom (and sometimes goes to die). It’s a place where theoretical university curriculum meets real-world education (sometimes, meted out in hard-learned lessons). It is … the college bar.
Since 1905, 414 First St. has served as that communal watering hole in Cheney. The site has supplied university staff, faculty, students and local residents with billiards, bands, beer and booze, while simultaneously birthing several rituals that have become EWU and Spokane-area traditions.
The 108-year reign as a recreational stop and watering trough can be broken into three distinct periods, and while other bars in town have claimed their share of the spotlight from time to time, the site of Kelly’s, Showie’s and now Eagle’s Pub have been a constant in Cheney life.
The brick buildings lining downtown Cheney were erected after a series of fires destroyed the upstart town, and in 1905, Ruby Kelly opened the doors to his 30-by-90-foot Kelly’s Parlor – which advertised in the local paper as a purveyor of billiards, tobacco and soft drinks.
Societal morals shifted often around the turn of the century, and Cheney reflected those national observances while sometimes imposing their own ethics. Cheney life has always revolved around the university, and early life in the frontier town was no exception. While a thriving brewery produced grog for thirsty pioneers for nearly 25 years, a city mandate forced it to close and created alcohol-free zoning.
“In 1910, the city decided that they had to protect the morality of the college students and so they declared that any establishment selling alcohol had to be located south of the railroad tracks,” said Joan Mamanakis of Cheney Historical Museum.
That meant that even before prohibition was in effect, the front-street saloon was dry. “Noah Showalter used to go down to Kelly’s and play pool during his lunch hour,” said Tom Showalter, a distant cousin of the president of Cheney Normal School from 1911-1926, who ironically bought the bar from Ruby Kelly in 1972.
Often a place for university staff and faculty to gather, the watering hole has risen and fallen in with the fickle fads of youth. “When I bought he bar it was a locals-only bar,” said Showalter, an ’82 alumnus. “I lost all, and I do mean all, my customers when I changed things. They all went across the street to Bill’s.”
The then-24-year-old Showalter shook up the diminutive Cheney bar scene by ditching country and western music in favor of ‘70s rock, while experimenting with other ways to attract those on campus. “I was trying to cater to the younger staff at the university and the older students. We had a lot of students who were just getting back from Vietnam then,” he said.
That drive to attract and keep a different clientele has led to several traditions among university students, some of which were shuttered and others that have been adopted throughout the area and live to this day.
For anyone attending EWU in the past 30 years, Thursday nights at Showie’s were arguably the most consistent ritual of their college years. “That was something I started on purpose and worked hard on,” said Showalter. “Back then there weren’t any classes on Fridays and I noticed guys were going out then to find dates for the weekend.”
Those class-free Fridays spawned what Showalter dubbed The Friday Afternoon Club: live music starting at 4 p.m. and specials on beer and food, the latter which Showalter offered since he bought the bar and installed a kitchen. The club and music were successful albeit for one issue: when the band finished up their set, the customers had a nasty habit of leaving. To combat the exodus, Showalter started what has become a 30-year mainstay in Cheney life: Friday Night Trivia. The combination of music, food and trivia kept people coming in and staying, at least for awhile.
“Fridays started dying because there weren’t many students on campus, so I moved the music to Thursdays and it didn’t take long to catch on,” said Showalter.
Indeed, Thursday nights at Showie’s, particularly the first and last of each quarter, have become traditional nights out, not just in Cheney but throughout the area. “It became a tradition all over. We had students coming up all the way from WSU, and then it spread to Spokane,” said Showalter. And while the class-free Fridays have gone the way of peace protests, Thursday-bar-nights continue throughout the Inland Northwest (much to the chagrin of professors and tuition-paying parents).
But ask any business owner in Cheney, and they will tell you that you can’t survive on college students alone. The locals eventually forgave Showalter for turning their country-and-western dive into a rock-and-roll hotspot and returned, which created a unique melting pot in downtown. “We really had a diverse bar. From faculty, staff and students to those locals you knew what time they were going to come in, knew what they wanted and knew when they’d leave,” said Showalter.
Having birthed traditions and built the business into a success, Showalter and his wife, Robin, a ’73 alumna, decided to sell the bar – which they did in 1978. And then again in 1984, after they reacquired it by default and rebuilt the clientele. “Every time I got it back, it had reached rock bottom. And each time I built it back up, but that’s just something I enjoy doing,” he said.
His final stint as the bar’s owner came from 1988-2001, and marks the most enjoyable years for Showalter. But 30 years in the bar business will tax anyone’s nerves and patience, and in ’01 he sold the business for the third time to Mike Hartman, who owns Willow Springs Restaurant and Motel in Cheney.
Thursday-night bar nights still happen, although the crushing crowd that once only gathered at Showie’s is now dispersed among the other bars in town, including Goofy’s, the rebuilt Bill’s Long Bar, both across the street, as well as The Basement; yes, bar-hopping has come to Cheney.
Friday Night Trivia is still popular and has even spawned a Tuesday night edition. Hartman has successfully implemented a late-Friday night and Saturday karaoke party that draws locals and university people alike.
The 30-by-90-foot original building was expanded when Showalter bought the buildings on each side of it in the 90s. Hartman has continued that expansion by opening it up further and adding more pool tables, air hockey, ping pong, shuffleboard and 13 televisions, including an 8-foot projection TV.
“Game days on the big screens have become popular, and the shot ski is something that everyone comes in to do,” said Hartman, referring to an old pair of skis that hang in the bar and are adorned with four shot-glass holders that requires a simultaneous and cooperative drinking experience.
Just as the success of Eagles football over recent years has assuredly helped create a game-day rush at Eagle’s Pub, you can bet that old standbys like Thursday night carousing and Friday Night Trivia, as well as new traditions like karaoke, will continue at 414 First St. It’s a 108-year constant in Cheney; forever a place of recreation and leisure, where the university and community come together, share and evolve as the years, decades and centuries roll by.
STORY BY BRIAN LYNN ’98