Our Story

Our Story

About John Barleycorn
JOHN BAR-LEY-CORN: alcoholic liquor personified

There are varying opinions as to what year the English folk song “John Barleycorn” became popularized by word-of-mouth (ranging from 1568 to the 17th Century), but it was most likely first published during the 17th Century. The ballad is an allegorical story of death and resurrection and it was a particularly popular drinking song around harvest time.

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In the song, John Barleycorn (the personification of barley), is attacked, tortured and eventually killed. After his death, he is resurrected as beer, bread and whiskey. There are many versions of this old folk song in England, Ireland and Scotland, all with a similar storyline. A widely-read version of John Barleycorn was published by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1782.In 1913, American writer Jack London published his autobiographical novel “John Barleycorn,” which detailed his enjoyment of alcohol and his struggles with addiction. The book was a smash hit. Temperance advocates promptly used the book to push for Prohibition and the alcohol producers promptly denounced the book. The novel was made into a movie in 1914 with veteran stage actor Hobart Bosworth starring as Jack.

There have been many recordings of the song through the years, but the most widely known is from the band Traffic, who named their fourth album (released in 1970) “John Barleycorn Must Die.” There is also a track on the album called “John Barleycorn,” which is the English rock band’s take on the ancient folk song.

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History of John Barleycorn

The building that the flagship John Barleycorn calls home was constructed in 1890 at 658 West Belden Avenue, in the present Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. The original structure had a limestone rock foundation, columns and walls that were over two-feet thick, and vaulted sidewalks. The first saloon opened in 1890 and was operated by an Irish immigrant who also happened to be a Chicago police officer.

During Prohibition, the east side of the current restaurant was a Chinese laundry. The laundry served as a front for bootleggers who rolled carts of camouflaged liquor through the laundry to the basement. The laundry’s basement was conveniently connected to the saloon’s basement, providing easy transportation of the booze to the saloon via a small elevator. At the time the front windows on the façade were covered, so from the outside the saloon appeared to be “closed” in accordance with the law. Meanwhile, patrons could enter the speakeasy through the laundry, thus eliminating any suspicion that liquor was being served on the premises.

Over the years, many interesting patrons have quaffed a brew here. John Dillinger was a regular patron, and the quiet, well-dressed bank robber used to enjoy “buying the house a round.” Dillinger was shot by federal agents two blocks away near the Biograph Theater (now the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater) in July 1934, thanks to a tip from the “lady in red.” Several saloons came and went in the building until Eric J. Van Gelder purchased the property in the early 1960s and named it John Barleycorn Memorial Pub. The artifacts, handmade ships and paintings displayed around the restaurant were collected by the eccentric Dutch proprietor. Some of the ships date as far back as the late 1800s and many of the pieces were purchased on Van Gelder’s trips to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Europe.

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One unusual artifact was not discovered until renovations were underway in 1986. Workmen came upon a crumbling hidden staircase leading to a door and after several unsuccessful attempts with a sledgehammer, a hole was finally cut into the door and a workman slipped into the tiny room. In the corner a dust-covered oilcloth concealed a beautiful woodcarving. The carving, which is of an unknown person wearing a crown, is now displayed prominently in our River North location.

The current owners purchased John Barleycorn in 1986. Since then, many celebrities have passed through for a beer and a burger and John Barleycorn was used as a location in two movies: “Primal Fear,” starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, and “The Babe,” starring John Goodman and Kelly McGillis.
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