Since Prohibition ended, Mary’s Place has been serving customers at its humble location on the Rock River. Owner Becky Haddad and her son, Jason, have a plethora of tales to tell about the storied history of making it Rockford’s oldest continuously operated bar.
When Prohibition ended in late 1933, Rockford businessman Joe Galvanoni decided to open a bar at 602 N. Madison St. That establishment, Mary’s Place, has been in business at the same location ever since, making it Rockford’s oldest continuously operated bar.
“I’m pretty sure the story was that his wife didn’t want him to buy a bar, and his way to get her to go along with it was, ‘I’ll name it after you,’ says Jason Haddad, general manager and son of the establishment’s current owner, Becky Haddad.
“After the Galvanonis, it was owned by Hector Tondy. Then there were the McBride brothers, George and Mel, who owned it together until Mel sold it off to George, who I purchased it from in 1988,” explains Becky.
The Haddads traced the building’s existence back to 1919, but just over a year ago an elderly woman brought in a photo of the building, dated 1918, when it was a store. “I believe she said the man in the photo was her cousin, Ernesto Notari. He was the owner – they sold tobacco and bread, milk, that kind of stuff,” Jason says.
Galvanoni also owned Joe’s Marina, which was long located next door to the Lombardi Club, just down the street from Mary’s Place. Becky suspects the Galvanonis originally chose the downtown location for their tavern due to its close proximity to a couple of bottling companies, but at the time, several factories operated downtown, too. “Do you know how many people come in here and say, ‘My grandpa used to come here and have a beer after work?’” she says.
“It really is a generational thing,” Jason adds. “I hear people say ‘Oh, my grandmother hates this place because she used to have to come here to pick up my grandpa all the time.’”
Over the decades, the Haddads have maintained the bar’s unpretentious look, which reflects its long history as a community watering hole. Becky appreciates it when people return after a long absence, then comment that it looks exactly as they remembered.
“We’re a dive bar, and we embrace that, because there’s not much we can do to change it,” Jason says. “We’re small. We’re old. And there’s really nowhere for us to expand to. But we try and keep everything updated and clean.”
Since its inception, Mary’s Place has served as a neighborhood bar.
“We’re set in a neighborhood – right off Madison Street. If you go up Hill Street, First Street is right there, and a lot of people from the neighborhood come here,” Jason says, adding that even folks who used to stop in after shifts at the now-shuttered factories still make a point to stop in and catch up.
Disorderly conduct is rare at Mary’s, since the regulars tend to look out for one another, but in the early ‘90s the bar escaped a potential tragedy.
“A disgruntled customer set the building on fire because I cut him off,” Becky recalls. “I said, ‘You’ve had enough,’ and he got mad and went outside.”
“When we were leaving,” Jason continues, “somebody noticed smoke. Luckily, we caught it before we left. The fire department came and put it out in short order. The only real negative thing was some smoke got into the bar, so any open liquor containers had to be dumped.”
Over the years, Mary’s Place has weathered Rockford’s economic ups and downs, as well. Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic temporarily shut the bar down, and before that, losing the annual On the Waterfront celebration was a huge blow to their business – but they still celebrate Labor Day weekend.
“We almost still operate like it’s still going,” Jason says. “Miles Nielsen always played that Sunday night, and even after [On the Waterfront] ended, we kept that going. It’s become a tradition.”
The Haddads run a tight ship, allowing them to keep prices affordable. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Guinness are always on tap – last year Mary’s Place was recognized as one of the top 100 sellers of PBR in the nation – but a broad assortment of craft beers and other libations are available, too. If you’re hungry, you can even order a frozen pizza.
“When people from Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago order a round of drinks, when we tell them the price they’re usually like, ‘Wait. Really? That’s all?’” Jason says. “And every day we have at least one type of beer that’s just a buck. We offer a lot of top-end stuff, too, which is probably surprising for people to find in a little hole-in-the-wall dive bar.”
The bar – capacity roughly 100 under normal circumstances – serves an eclectic mix of patrons that can vary by day or even by the hour. The crowd might skew a little older by day and younger by night, but people of all ages (21 and up) and all walks of life mingle at Mary’s.
“I’ve always thought of Mary’s as a blank canvas,” Jason says. “We are whatever the band playing that night says we are. Maybe we’re a punk rock band this weekend, maybe we’re a blues bar the following weekend. You never know the kind of crowd that’s going to show up. It’s usually a good mix of people and good vibes all around.”
Dan McMahon – a local musician and producer/engineer who typically plays Mary’s once a month with Bun E. Carlos’ Monday Night Band, and a few times a year with Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts – likens Mary’s clientele to a melting pot.
“I’ve been down there and talked to a third-shift worker coming in to have a cheap beer, but you could also be sitting next to a multimillionaire executive from a company in Rockford,” McMahon says. “Everyone likes to go to that bar. There’s not a specific scene, like just musicians or just dive people. There’s a crazy cross-section of people hanging out there, which makes for a pretty amazing time.”
McMahon credits Mary’s homey feeling to Becky, Jason, and their longtime, close-knit staff.
“People always comment on how welcoming it feels, and how welcoming and pleasant the bartenders are,” Becky says.
“Something we pride ourselves on is being inclusive, not only to ethnic groups and different ages, but we have a lot of LGBQT people who come in here, too,” Jason says. “We just try and make everybody feel welcome. We treat everybody the same.”
There wasn’t much live music at Mary’s when Becky first took ownership. But once Jason – who started sweeping floors at Mary’s Place when he was 12 – got more involved in running the business, his musician friends starting coming in. So, a corner was set up for them to play. Before long, bands were being booked for special events like the Fourth of July or On the Waterfront.
Eventually it grew into a small, but bona fide, music venue.
“We started looking at the music scene as kind of our bread-and-butter once it got going,” Jason says. “We thought it was somewhat of a new thing for this place, until this guy brought in an old advertisement,” touting 10-cent spaghetti and meatball dinners and music at Mary’s Place (see on page 117). “So yeah, it seems like the music history goes back a lot farther than we realized.”
By the time McMahon discovered Mary’s Place in 2006 or 2007, it had already established itself as a hot spot for both aspiring and experienced musicians. His first gig there was with Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts.
“I remember playing my first show there with Miles and thinking, ‘All right. This is kind of cool,’” says McMahon, who often shows up even when he’s not playing a gig. He especially likes the open stage nights, held each Tuesday and Thursday.
“They provide all the instruments, so you don’t need to bring anything with you. You can just show up and bring some people – or not bring some people and meet someone down there who you don’t know – and get up and play music. On stage with a PA. That’s not a thing I’ve seen many other clubs do,” McMahon says.
He says playing at an open stage night is not only a good way for aspiring musicians to get seen – and maybe even get booked for a weekend show if they impress the crowd – but for seasoned pros to test new material.
During open stage nights, pretty much anything is fair game. As Jason says, “It’s kind of a crapshoot. Of course, you’re going to get some duds here and there, but you’re also going to see some really great surprises. You never know who’s going to show up and blow your mind.”
It’s not limited to musicians. Stand-up comedians, spoken-word poets and even a self-described “circus freak show” have performed. One member of the latter got on a bed of nails as another used a sledgehammer to break a cinderblock on his chest.
“They were great, though,” Becky recalls.
The eclectic mix of acts that play at Mary’s Place defies categorization. In addition to Carlos and Nielsen’s bands, other popular local and regional acts include jazz sax player Harlan Jefferson, The Sensations featuring Holland Zander, Chicago blues guitarist Pistol Pete, and the soul, rhythm and blues band Too Deep. The local rapper Robert “Pairadice” Wash – who was killed in October 2019 – used to perform at Mary’s as well.
“I’ve seen so many quality shows there,” McMahon says, noting a recent standout. “It was a band from Rockford called Glitter and another band called Cealed Kasket. They ordered like $200 in Grubhub to the stage at the beginning of the show and threw out cheeseburgers to everybody. It was super entertaining – and super random – but that’s the kind of stuff you see at Mary’s.”
Perhaps the most memorable show for Jason was when Dean Ween – a member of one of his favorite bands, Ween – was in the area and played Mary’s.
“That’s high on my list because I put that together,” Jason says. “It kind of fell into my lap, and it was the kind of risk we normally don’t take. But I convinced my mom to go along with it and it worked out. In the end, we may have lost a little on it, but it was good for the notoriety.”
McMahon says musicians of all levels appreciate the honesty and respect they receive from the Haddads and their staff.
“As a performer, you’re very well taken care of. Everything from getting people to help carry your stuff to making sure the door guy isn’t letting 20 of his buddies in for free,” McMahon says. “You always get a fair business deal. It’s about as good as you could ask for, for the size it is. It’s definitely become an anchor in the music scene.”
Word keeps spreading, too. When out-of-town musicians record at McMahon’s studio, he often brings them to Mary’s Place. “I’m like, ‘You’ve gotta check this out,” and they’re all just like, “That place is awesome!’” he says.
“There are bigger bands that you’d wonder why they’d want to play a little bar in Rockford,” McMahon says. “It’s because they’ve had such positive experiences there, dealing with Jason and Becky and the whole crew. It’s funny because when people first go there, their immediate reaction might be, ‘All right. What is this place?’ but give them 2 hours and they’re like, ‘I love this place!’”
Cheap Trick fans across the country have inquired about Carlos’ monthly shows. “People literally come from all over the country to see him here,” Jason says, “It’s such an intimate environment, and he is so accommodating. He takes time to take all the pictures and sign all the autographs people want. We feel extremely grateful that he’s taken Mary’s as his home base.”
“He’s a great guy,” Becky adds. “And Miles is the same way. They really draw people in because of their interaction with them.”
McMahon, however, believes Becky and Jason are the key to Mary’s success. “They know what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re so kind and generous, and they don’t bite off more than they can chew. They’re not trying to also be a restaurant or 10 other things. They do live music.”
Jason credits the close environment for much of the bar’s success, saying the close proximity generates a symbiotic relationship between performers and audiences.
“I think that’s why a lot of bands like to play here. In a bigger room people can start having conversations, and you get a crowd murmur that can take away from the music. Here, people really engage.”