Pub crawls tell tales of past

By Brianna Wellen

Embedded in the bar of Harrigan’s, 2816 N. Halsted St., are 4,000 Irish pennies collected as a last memento from before the Euro became universal European currency. The name of the bar references a famous Irish limerick, connecting Chicago’s Irish community back to its roots. The stories told by the tavern’s workers and patrons give a glimpse into little-known history hidden in the center of some of Chicago’s most social venues.

For the fifth year in a row, Liz Garibay presented the Erin Go Beer pub crawl as part of the Chicago History Museum’s History Pub Crawls on March 8. The monthly series explores the history, characters and neighborhoods surrounding Chicago tavern culture in an effort to bring people together to celebratethe past.

Garibay started collecting the history of Chicago taverns 10 years ago. She wanted to provide an informational resource on local bars that differed from a review and delved into the history surrounding them. So she created the website to post her findings.

Five years ago, she was hired as the public programs manager at the Chicago History Museum and decided to bring her work to life through group tours.

“Ever since then it’s been the most popular event we’ve offered at the museum,” Garibay said. “This is a fun tour because it allows us to go see the city and interact with people in the city. I consider taverns [to be] their own characters and you get to interact with these particular characters [who] have all this information to tell you, past and present.”

Each month a different theme is chosen, sometimes timed to holidays, other times as an excuse to visit interesting bars. Garibay runs the event entirely on her own and has a single criterion when arranging the tours: Never visit the same bar twice. She wants to keep things fresh, creating a unique social gathering each month.

Anthony Romeo first heard of the crawl when a co-worker attended the first St. Patrick’s Day event five years ago. Curious, he came along and ended up having a great time with his co-worker’s parents. Since then, he’s brought his wife and other friends on the tour every month.

“It’s a fun intergenerational event,” Romeo said. “It focuses your conversations around something a little more productive than hating work, and you get to experience through the eyes of Liz or the historic footprint of where you are [and] through your friends’ experiences with it.”

The perspective doesn’t always stop with those directly involved in the tour. Romeo recalled a visit to Trinity, 2721 N. Halsted St., when they stopped outside the nearby fire station to hear the tale of the three retired firefighters who opened the bar as one of the city’s first non-smoking bars.

As Garibay relayed the history, a firefighter came out of the station to listen in, adding witty asides about his experiences at the bar, Romeo said.

“I wouldn’t normally get to talk to a firefighter about what he thinks about the bar across the street, but here I got to have this experience,” he said. “I think it sort of takes people a little outside of their comfort zone, yet it has that social lubricant where everybody’s had a couple of beers, so it’s OK.”

Many times the tours’ focus digresses from Chicago history and starts educating the crowd on brewing techniques, which is a subject John Thomas, another regular tour attendee, has learned a lot about through attending the pub crawls.

One of his favorite events was the water tour. The participants took a boat down the Chicago River to Lake Michigan, with local brewers on board sharing their techniques. Thomas said he and his wife never miss an opportunity to attend one of the crawls.

“We have two more scheduled already for this year; they pop-up on the website and we book them right away,” Thomas said. “It’s something you wouldn’t find in a history book. I think you almost have to experience [it].”

The experience is what Garibay hopes will make the lessons stick. She acknowledges many people are afraid of history, and the idea of sitting in a classroom reading from a textbook turns a lot of people away from learning. Through the History Pub Crawl, Garibay aims to dispel this notion.

“I think now that we’re older, we kind of have more of a curiosity about history, but you still want it presented in a different way,” Garibay said. “People are naturally social beings so the fact that they get to go out and meet new people on a tour or spend time with their friends and have a drink and learn, provides a really different environment. People remember the stuff you teach them because they’re having a good time.”