John A. Lau fire took with it a century of ghosts, bar stories, and loving restoration
John A. Lau had three bartenders — one Catholic, one Irish, and one German.
He figured that, if he had one from each of the churches in the area, he could attract more customers, said John Van Schoick, the Alpena resident who, with his wife, Connie, originally gave new life to the historic saloon that burned to the ground on July 21, taking with it a piece of irreplaceable Alpena history.
The original owner and namesake of the John A. Lau Saloon — an entrepreneur tapping into the thirsty lumberjacks busily felling the forests of Northeast Michigan in the late-1800s — enticed customers from Alpena, little knowing that, over a century later, his name would still be synonymous with a good place to get a good meal — or that a community would mourn the loss of his business as a place where history was kept alive.
The restaurant, located on North 2nd Avenue two blocks north of the bridge over Thunder Bay River, was destroyed by the stray spark of a welder’s torch the day before the restaurant was set to reopen after an extended COVID-19-related closure.
The building that housed the saloon was one of only seven in Alpena that survived sweeping fires that decimated most of the city at the end of the 19th century, Van Schoick said.
That was back when 2nd Avenue north of the Thunder Bay River was the hopping center of the town. As the city slid into a new century, most of its residents and businesses moved south, but the Lau stood its ground, at that time sandwiched between several other businesses in the center of the block.
During the Roaring 20s, the saloon bowed to prohibition and closed down, reopening as a soda shop illegally selling booze in the back, according to Van Schoick.
Lau died suddenly of a heart attack in 1922 at the age of 53, a newspaper clipping from the time reported.
A ban on public gatherings at the time — part of Alpena’s response to the 1918 influenza pandemic — meant Lau’s funeral had to be held in a funeral parlor, instead of a church.
The saloon’s next-door neighbor, a funeral parlor that was later turned into an extension to the restaurant, was used for Lau’s funeral.
His body was laid out for public viewing in what eventually became the tavern’s fireplace.
The conversion of the funeral parlor — where bodies were embalmed in the basement — into a part of the restaurant has long been fodder for rumors of ghosts at the saloon, Van Schoick said. The ghost of Lau’s wife, Agnes, is said to have been seen regularly by both staff and customers.
Agnes died of complications from childbirth, Van Schoick believes, although some stories say she died of consumption or drowned in Saginaw Bay.
For some years, the storefront hosted a succession of businesses, until it landed in the hands of John and Connie Van Schoick in the early 1990s.
With the purchase of the saloon, the Van Schoicks had visions of not only returning it to its original glory, but also returning some of the gleam of the past to the town’s original center.
“Everything nice stopped at the river,” said Connie Van Schoick, co-owner with her husband and part of the vision of giving Alpena a taste of their own history.
The couple worked with the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce to secure the city’s first block grant from the state, allowing for the installation of trees, a park, and old-style street lamps to beautify the area north of the 2nd Avenue bridge.
The saloon refurbishment was entirely their own investment, John Van Schoick said.
“We were stupid back then,” he said, remembering the days of the couple’s youth, when they imagined fixing the building up, selling it, and making a sizeable profit.
Instead, they owned it for 27 years, most of those spent washing dishes, planning menus, and finding new ways to make the restaurant beautiful.
“We had a great time,” Connie Van Schoick said.
Over their years of ownership, the building saw one second story floor completely gutted, with a mezzanine balcony built in its place, which became a popular dining area.
The tin ceilings and exposed brick wall of the original saloon were lovingly matched by old-style furnishings purchased by the Van Schoicks from auctions and antiques houses far and wide.
A small beer garden in the restaurant’s rear was carefully designed to match actual Alpena buildings from the turn of the century. In the beer garden’s cozy confines, customers could step outside and have a drink in the past, John Van Schoick said.
Restored black-and-white photos and other memorabilia from Alpena’s history graced the walls, some of it collected by the owners, others donated by members of the community who knew the Lau was a place the past would always be cherished.
“It’s gone,” Connie Van Schoick said, a week after fire turned to rubble the 100-plus years of history that was the John A. Lau Saloon. “It’s all gone.”
Though the saloon was sold to current owner Jon Benson in 2018, they still keep clippings of stories about the restaurant that have appeared over the years in magazines and newspapers, and cheerfully rattle off stories about visits from celebrities, from former governors to talk show host Geraldo Rivera.
One senator, whom he declined to name, stiffed the restaurant when he came for a few drinks and then left without paying, John Van Schoick said.
Benson has been a devoted caretaker of the saloon after falling in love with it since the day the Van Schoick’s first opened in 1993. He might be able to rebuild, the couple hoped, though with current building codes it would be impossible to ever duplicate what once was.
“There will never be another John A. Lau,” Connie Van Schoick said. “It was kind of like the legacy of our lives.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.