By Blake Spurney
NEWTON – Before the Kansas Legislature changed the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 nearly 30 years ago, it seemed like every town had a place like The Legal Tender, where regulars would drink red beers and eat pickled eggs while getting in a few games of pool.
Chris Zuercher said The Legal Tender was a happening place when he was in high school in the 1980s.
“I mean, you went there to go somewhere,” he said. “But it was more like if I can get in here, it’s awesome.”
Zuercher said the trick for students older than him was go there for lunch on your 18th birthday. He said anyone underage always went in through the back door.
“It was a coming of age in Newton,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of things to do.”
Steve Herbison was a regular at The Legal Tender going back to the 1970s.
“I tell you what, it was pretty upbeat,” he said. “It was mostly a younger crowd, college kids and some of us in high school who snuck in. It wasn’t all dark and dank. It lit up really well.”
Joe Blair was the original owner of the place, whom Herbison said everyone called him, “Hairy Joe Blair” because he had a bushy beard. The bar had a couple of pool tables, and its interior was lighted with chandeliers made out of beer bottles. The walls were covered with antique beer signs. The bar had Old Milwaukee on tap, and a pitcher cost a dollar.
“Nothing better than Old Milwaukee and tomato juice,” Herbison said. “You could kind of stand it a little bit better.”
Herbison said Blair served up cold sandwiches. His favorite was corned beef and Swiss. On good nights, Blair set out bowls of peanuts for patrons. He said Newton police used to come in about 10 minutes before midnight see if anybody was doing anything stupid and “making sure nobody got into a car and drove down the sidewalk.”
For all the time he spent in there, Herbison said he never saw one fight.
“I’m sure there was people who got aggravated and took it out back, but never inside,” he said.
The Legal Tender went through several different owners over the years, but the place lasted for long after the drinking age was raised on Jan. 1, 1985.
Harvey County Historical Museum Curator Kristine Schmucker traced the history of the building at 220 N. Main St., which dates back at least to 1884. It housed various businesses over the decades, and in 1954 it became Newton Billiards. Her researched showed that it was J&K Tavern in the 1960s.