If these walls could talk, they’d have enough stories to fill two lifetimes.The Commercial Tavern in Maryhill marks its 160th anniversary this month, a momentous occasion for a small-town country bar that changed hands numerous times over the years.
Paul Weber, owner and country musician, bought the bar and hotel in 1996. When he got it the walls were bare, nothing close to how they look now. Hundreds, if not thousands of historic photos and memorabilia line the walls and tin ceiling.
For Weber, it was important to return the tavern to its down-home roots.
“I have always been in love with the building, the structure,” Weber said. “Everything is hand humed: the rafters and the logs and the timbers. The building has stood for 160 years and I always remember playing here as a kid and the feel of this room. Even empty this room has atmosphere.”
To help mark the occasion, there’ll be even more of the music that’s been the hallmark of the Commercial since Weber took over. Next week, they’ll have a regular Thursday night jam followed by celebratory weekend performances. On the Friday and Saturday night he’ll be playing along with guest Harold MacIntyre. Dan Howlett will be performing on Friday night and Fiddlin’ Nellzy comes to the tavern for a Saturday evening performance.
Saturday afternoon they’ll have karaoke as they always do, and free hot dogs and pop for the kids. They’ll be no cover charge for Friday and Saturday night.
And on Sunday, Canadian Country Hall of Fame members The Good Brothers will be in the house.
The walls help give the tavern its unique charm. He found pictures all over the hotel and different tools, which he has on display. People stepped forward with donated items when they saw what he was doing.
“Sometimes a room does a lot of entertaining on its own,” Weber said. “When people are waiting for their meals, waiting for friends to show up, the room will entertain just by looking around.”
In 1854 Louis Frank built the tavern and operated it until his son-in-law Charles Halter took over. The hotel had a saddlery, a dry-goods store, a shoe store, a bank, and a doctor’s office. The adjoining pool room was added in 1894 and hydro wasn’t installed until 1934.
The Halters passed down the bar through the family for about 100 years, and in 1984 Lawrence Finnigan bought it. Four years later it was sold to Vic Diebolt. The last proprietor before Weber was Neil Duncan in 1976.
“My uncle owned the bar in the mid ‘60s to the early ‘70s, and at that time my dad’s weekend band, along with the family, we all played here,” Weber said.
He went on the road in 1974 to play music, calling an end to the touring after 22 years to buy the building in 1996. He said he wanted the bar because he was familiar with it and he wanted a venue out of the city, so that people actually had to make an effort to get there.
“I liked the history of the bar. I like that it’s an old room and lots of atmosphere, the rural effect out here with the people,” Weber said.
In terms of renovations, he put new floors in, done in the style of the 1880s – wooden screw and peg style. He said he wanted to keep the bar looking historical. They also did a major renovation to the washrooms about three years ago.
The tavern used to have its own winemaker and the town council even used to meet here. Weber’s heard many a story in his days playing at and operating the bar.
“Because it’s so close to the church, back in the old days many of the residents would drop their wives and kids off at the church and come down here and be drinking while church was going on,” Weber said. “One day [the priest] came in, so the story goes, with his handgun and fired a shot through the ceiling and said ‘okay you guys, up to church.’”
There used to be a dancehall upstairs and in the back there was a round domed ceiling built out of stone where they’d keep the ice all winter long. You can still see the cement foundation where hotel guests would keep their horses for the night.
“I think probably the most interesting part about the place is that it’s always been a tavern. There was never a time it was anything else and that’s pretty amazing, especially with the changing times,” Weber said.
Another point that drew Weber in to the bar is that music has always been there. There was a time before he bought it where a couple from Toronto brought in some major bands, like Barenaked Ladies and Long John Baldry. That lasted for about four and a half years.
He marvels at the fact the building was here before the West was won, before the days of Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And the fact it’s still here means something to him.
“You don’t have to get rich in life to get satisfaction off of it and it’s been that for me,” Weber said.
He celebrated his 18th anniversary of playing at the tavern on October 16. He said he hopes he can keep doing what he’s been doing. While it’s difficult to get staff out to Maryhill because of a lack of public transit, they have a very loyal clientele base.
He says he thinks the original owners did it right the first time and he’ll try to keep it that way.
“I managed to use the first half of my life on the road playing music to set up the last half of my life,” Weber said. “The fact I can bring in who I want and play with who I want musically, it’s been a real blessing and even if it ended today I can’t say it hasn’t been quite a ride.”