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Sprited Women: A Legacy of Speakeasies in Binghamton

Published: May. 24, 2022 at 8:30 PM EDT
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BINGHAMTON (WBNG) -- In 1918 the City of Binghamton went dry. This meant no sale, consumption or production of alcohol in the area. If the date seems out of character for the national timeline in history, it is. The municipality made this decision two years before the rest of the nation went into prohibition.

“A lot of taverns, bars, and manufacturers had to decide what to do. And it turns out a lot of them decide to move forward and keep doing what they’re doing, but secretly, so that hopefully they wouldn’t get caught” said Broome County Historian, Roger Luther.

In fact, according to Luther, the move to ban alcohol would produce the exact opposite effect.

“By 1922, there were more sources of liquor in Binghamton than there were before prohibition started” he said. Although he continued, it did not stop law enforcement, “By 1921, probably every day there were raids taking place. There were arrests made and in the early 1920′s half of the arrests made were for public intoxication in Binghamton”.

During those times, owning and operating a business was dangerous.

However, according to Luther, many still participated, including a Slovakian immigrant family. The two parents were Stephen and Mary Merlack, they raised two daughters.

“In 1916, they bought their own business and what they bought was the place on Main Street; 176 Main St. (Binghamton), and decided to run it as a tavern and hotel they called at the Turf Exchange Hotel” said Luther.

The business was a successful venture until 1918 when the Merlack’s had to decide what their future would look like.

“They made a decision to keep going, just like most of the other places. They came up with a way to not get caught. They had a vault underground right next to the building and then they laid a secret underground passageway leading from the vault into the cellar of the tavern” said the historian.

Just two years into prohibition, Stephen Merlack passed away, leaving his wife not only a widow, but a single mother as well.

“Now Mary is by herself trying to raise two little girls, and the hotel part of the business was virtually nothing, all the money was from the tavern. Of course, it was illegal, but she decided to just keep going with it and going along with it” he said.

Wanting to support her kids, she decided to do what it takes to keep the money flowing, even if it meant dangerous situations.

“She’d go across the border load her car up with liquor and what not and the way the story goes super all of this liquor behind the front seat of the car and covered it up with blankets and then she take her three-year-old daughter and put her on top of all that. The daughter would pretend she was asleep and then they would be able to drive across the border and get past the border guard without being searched because who wants to disturb a three year old sleeping girl?” said Luther.

According to the historian, Mary Merlack kept the bar running until the end of prohibition.

“She had to make a living, and making a living at that time was tough. Not just making a living, but provide for her two little girls so she was, by today’s definition, you’d call her a bold woman, she definitely strikes me as being a bold woman”.

After liquor was legalized once again, Mary Sealed the vault and continued to run the business as a tavern. However, the story of a speakeasy in Binghamton does not end with the completion of prohibition. Over 100 years later Alise Willerton would look at an empty space on State Street, and turn it into what is known as ‘205 Dry’ today.

“My whole inspiration from this ladder that was here when I bought the building, so everything was kind of inspired by the latter behind there” said Willerton.

The business owner says hearing Mary’s story is something that now inspires her.

“For her to do this in the 1920′s is insane, it’s super inspiring and I’m honored to even like be a part of the story with her.// I’m a mom like she is, a direct pathway I’m sure, I’m sure a lot of my struggles were at the same as her struggles so yeah it’s a super inspiring story” she said.

As a business owner, Willterton said she feels as though there is still a stigma that exists about women in business.

“I just kind of felt like I wasn’t really taken seriously at that point. I feel like a lot of females might struggle with that, I think it’s changed and evolved a lot more as the years have gone on but definitely in my younger years I’ve just felt a little bit intimidated” said Willerton.

Because of Alise Willerton’s vision, the city of Binghamton is able to take a look into the past, into the time period of Mary Merlack, at how a speakeasy was supposed to sound, look like, and taste like in the 1920′s

“I tried to make it as authentic as possible I’m very conscious of the temperature, the volume of the music, the lighting, the candles. I mean most bars you go to don’t have flowers and candles on every table, the details are all very important to me. When I was decorating obviously, I did a lot of antique shopping. I really like to decorate with pieces that were important to other people you know back in the day so there’s a lot of authentic early pieces from the early 1900s that are in here and a lot of awesome people when we open dropped off their grandma’s chain-link purse and we have an old license plate, so we have so many authentic old pieces that make the vibe happen here” she said.

The building that the Merlack’s ‘Turf Exchange Hotel’ existed in still stands today, and can be found in the former ‘Cyber Face West’ building. 205 Dry continues to operate and serve its patrons in the arts district of Downtown Binghamton, it is open to the public... that is, if you can find it!