It began as a hot dog stand in 1932 with a drive-up window and an annual tradition of making sauerkraut. Those in the know, though, came for something else.
“Folks would knock on the back door and then go directly to the basement,” says Nancy Freund, of the speakeasy that operated there until the end of Prohibition in 1933.
This year, Little Bohemia (known for the last several decades as Lil’ Bo) at the corner of West Front and Maple streets – named in honor of the Bohemian community that settled on the west end of the city – turns 80 years old. To celebrate, it’s taken its original name back.
“I’ve thought about changing the name for several years, but I was waiting for a milestone,” says Freund, who moved back to TC from California to manage the family business. She also was waiting for it to be the friendly, neighborhood tavern it once was. “I really think what we’ve done here … we’re restored our standing in the community.”
Back in the 90s, the place was one of the roughest bars in Traverse City, known for back-door drug deals and as a place inhospitable to women.
So when Nancy and her brother, Edward, took over operations from their father in 2005, the first thing they did was shut the place down and start cleaning it up – literally and figuratively. They reopened the renovated establishment later that year.
The elder Freunds, Eugene “Geno” and Phyllis, had purchased Little Bohemia in 1969 from its founders, Frank and Corrine Kucera. By that time, it had expanded from hot dogs to include a tavern – and was a favorite watering hole of golf legend Walter Hagen, who called another golf great, Arnold Palmer, from the bar’s pay phone when he won his first British Open in 1961. (Check out a Hagen historical reenactment featuring “his corner” in Little Bohemia here.)
For all those vintage sign fans out there who are wondering what’s happening to the “Lil’ Bo man” with the mug of beer (fashioned after a former customer) who long graced the post out front? An April windstorm blew the entire sign down, Freund says, but he survived and will soon have a new permanent spot on the building.
As for Little Bohemia’s future as Traverse City’s second oldest tavern (Sleder’s celebrates 130 years in September), Freund says she and her siblings will eventually inherit the family business, and then they plan to sell it but keep the real estate. And then, she says, it will be California or bust.
Did you know … ? Reportedly, two of Al Capone’s men showed up at the speakeasy one night and demanded (with a gun) that Kucera better get his liquor from Capone (not from Canada, like he was). The two men were scared off by an employee who sneaked out to his truck and surprised them with his own shotgun.