Buckets of History at Stanley's in Bridgeport

Wanda Kurek gets up every morning and opens her father’s Bridgeport tavern.

She looks out the front door of Stanley’s, 43rd and Ashland. The sun is rising over the entrance to the Union Stockyards. It is a difficult sight for Kurek, 89.

She sees a lost city.

During the 1920s more than 45,000 people worked on the 350-acre stockyards site. The stockyards closed in 1971.

But Stanley’s never left. Wanda’s father Stanley worked in the pickling house of the Wilson meatpacking company. The Polish immigrant opened his first tavern in 1924 on the east side of Ashland, near the stockyards entrance.

He built the current two-story red brick space in 1935.

There is no sign that says “Stanley’s.” The beer and shot bar isn’t even open on Saturdays and Sundays. But on other days a tap beer is $1.50, a shot ranges between $1.50 and $2.50.

It’s a tall order for Kurek, who stands 4’11.”

“I wish they would have kept the stockyards,” Kurek says on a Monday conversation at Stanley’s. “There’s a lot of empty buildings and land.” She doesn’t miss the whore house that was a couple blocks north on Ashland. “We called it Stinky Stella’s,” she says.

Union Stockyards entrance from Ashland, 2013

Kurek begins every morning by reading the Sun-Times before she starts making lunch. During the Depression Stanley’s served free lunches with ham and liver sausage. The meat for Stanley’s hamburgers ($3.50) now comes from Calvetti’s, one of the last purveyors near the stockyards.

Lunch is served from 11 a.m-2 p.m. The bar is open from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. “We may open for Bears games,” she says.

Kurek is sittiing at a table in front of a dusty ‘45 Rock-Ola jukebox, three plays for a quarter. Don’t ask Kurek if she saw the Beatles in August, 1966 at the since-razed International Ampitheatre, 4220 S. Halsted.

“I don’t like them,” she says in declared tones. “This jukebox has what I like. Frank Sinatra. Marion Lush (polka vocalist). It’s not that crap they’re playing today where they have fits when they dance. The (classic maple) bar is union made.”

“This is a real Chicago place.”

Stockyards, 1947, it’s a “Jungle” in there.

Stanley’s has one of the oldest continuous liquor licenses in Chicago. Stanley Kurek died in 1957, three years after he installed the current beer taps.

Wanda has a bucket full of memories. She remembers the early 1940s’s when neighbors would bring a six-inch high pail to the bar, fill it up with beer and cart the brew home. There was a time in Chicago history when it was safer to drink pasteurized beer than tap water.

Stockyards workers didn’t trust banks during the Depression. They would cash their checks at Stanley’s.

Stanley’s was smack-dab-in-the-middle of what was known as Whiskey Row, which started in 1924 and began shutting down in 1957 when Wilson closed at 41st and Ashland (now the site of the Swap-o-Rama flea market).

Stockyards third shifters would start drinking at 7 a.m. “Every building was a bar from 41st to 43rd Street,” Kurek says. “Down 43rd all the way to Walcott. It used to be on a Sunday morning after mass each table had two guys playing (the card game) ‘66’. We were open seven days a week from 1924 until 1983. Then we started to close on Sundays. My oldest brother (Wally) was a lawyer. My older sister (Estelle) was director of nursing at the University of Chicago. My sister Joanie and her husband George had a case factory at 48th and Chrisitiana. My brother Ted ran the bar from 1957 until 1983. “When my brother died in 1983 I got stuck with this.”

Wanda attended Gage Park High School the first year it opened (1940). Her greatest memories of Stanley’s is when World War II ended. She says, “My Dad practically gave the place away because his two sons were coming home. Everybody was happy. Both of my brothers were in the Army. Today we got a bunch of yellow bellies.”

Wanda Kurek, age 14 at Stanley’s current location

(Courtesy of Stanley’s)

The real life inspiration for the 1948 noir film “Call Northside 777” happened in a holdup of a deli at 4312 S. Ashland, a stone’s throw from of Stanley’s. Jimmy Stewart plays Times of Chicago reporter James McGuire trying to clear the name of Joe Majczek, wrongly convicted of a 1932 murder of a Chicago cop.

Wanda recalls that portions of “Call Northside 777” were filmed near Schaller’s Pump, 3714 S. Halsted, which opened in 1881. “Call Northside 777” was the first feature film to be shot in Chicago. It also features vintage shots of the Merchandise Mart.

Wanda turns 90 years old in March. “I’m going to make myself a big party and quit,” she says. “Never married. I’m looking for a rich old man. I have a nephew and two nieces.” The Stanley’s corporation will likely shift into their hands. Today’s clientele includes city workers, teachers and construction workers. “They should have left the Stockyards,” Wanda says. “Today kids don’t know what a pig looks like. Or what a cow looks like. Except they look like pigs the way they dress. They should have renovated the Sirloin Room (steakhouse) instead of tearing it apart.”

Wanda continues talking and it is a good idea to listen with patience.

Her stories are the foundation of our city.

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