100-Year-Old Cider Sparks Curiosity in Historic Victorian Downtown Building

When a water pipe burst in the basement of 1109 Main St, Gabe Hays, building owner and principal landscape architect for WallacePancher Group, got to work clearing out debris so that repairs could be made. The building has been home to a dozen businesses, so the piles of refuse were expected. When Hays and his stepson started clearing the space, though, they were surprised by what they found tucked away in the sub-basement of the building.

Past and Present Tenants of 1109 Main Street

The building, now home to Mugshots, has stood for nearly two centuries. The first business to call 1109 Main St home was Arbenz and Company, listed in 1874. Operated by German immigrant John Arbenz, the store manufactured, sold, and repaired furniture. Interestingly, records show the business also served as an undertaker, preparing bodies for burial.

In 1887, records show a business operated by Peter Loecher, another German immigrant, who sold “variety goods, fancy goods,” including prayer books, toys, children’s carriages, and bicycles. His family lived on the upper floors of 1109 Main St until at least 1903.

  • 1109 Main St has housed many businesses throughout its multi-century history. Today, it is home to Mugshots, which opened in 2020.

Jacques Front, a French immigrant, operated Elite Hair Dressing, Manicuring, and Chiropody Parlors, opening in 1904. At some point, the business was renamed Front’s Beauty Shop and continued operating until the 1950s. 

From the 1960s through the 2006, a series of businesses called 1109 Main St home. A wallpaper store, piano dealer, clothing shop, videotape repair, art galleries, and a print shop, all set up shop in the storefront. For over a decade the property sat vacant until Mugshots opened in 2020, still operating to this day.

Hidden Treasure Revealed

With the history 1109 Main St has, Hays had an idea of what to expect when he went exploring the sub-basement of the building. Piles of old doors, kids toys, crates, bed frames, windows, and scrap filled the historic space, collected by generations of tenants. What Hays and his stepson didn’t expect to find, though, was a giant five-gallon jar of liquid.

“We brought it upstairs and sort of got excited about it,” Hays said, remembering the moment when they found the bottle. “We knew it was liquid. We knew it was old. We knew Wheeling’s history so we could only assume and hope it was some kind of alcohol, or something fun.”

  • Gabe Hays poses with a historic bottle of what appears to be apple cider, found in the sub basement of 1109 Main St. The bottle is at least 5 gallons, and likely over a hundred years old.

During prohibition, Wheeling famously had several speakeasies hidden around the city. These secret bars and other rooms have been unearthed during the recent Streetscape project as crews tear into sidewalks and discover outcroppings of buildings built under the street. 

When Hays and his stepson moved the bottle, likely weighing over thirty pounds, the cork got wet and well into the bottle. “We did a little video of the moment, smelled it, and determined it was indeed alcohol,” Gabe said of the moment. “It smells just like apple cider vinegar.” 

Often when cider or wine goes bad it gives off a vinegary smell, leading to the conclusion that the bottle likely contained alcohol at some point.

Interestingly enough, there is a portion of the sub-basement that appears to be carved out, under the foundation, linking 1109 Main St with the building to its south, 1111 Main St. An area that Hays described as potentially intentional, and maybe a good location for smuggling alcohol.

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“We don’t know any facts at all about the ‘why,’ but the reality is there is a portion of the foundation that was dug out as a passage, or as some opening,” Hays said. “So it’s a fun little history of ‘why could it be there?’ Were they trying to sneak alcohol from one basement to the other? We don’t know.”

For now, the mystery remains over when the bottle was made, why it was placed down there, or what the hole in the foundation was for. What appears to be apple cider vinegar will remain in the heavy glass bottle for the near future, tucked away in the basement of 1109 Main St.

Progress at 1109 Main Street

What isn’t a mystery, though, is the big ideas Hays has for the building. While most are aware of Mugshots and can attest to the beauty of the shop. Many likely don’t consider the rooms above the shop. For now, they are time capsules in need of remodeling. Hays, though, has many ideas for what they could become in the near future. 

“Up above Mugshots is a Victorian living quarters for the people who owned the building–it was their home,” Hays said, and confirmed by the history compiled by Jeanne Finstein of Friends of Wheeling and retold above. There are roughly 2400 sq ft of space, which Hays says he is considering splitting into two apartments, one at 1500 sq ft and the other 950 sq ft.

  • Mugshots shows the potential for buildings that have gone into disrepair. The beautiful coffee shop as a unique plant room overlooking the Ohio River.

The apartments, when completed, will overlook the Ohio River. Because they were built before electrification, the original architect utilized ways to bring tons of natural light into the space allowing for an outdoorsy feel in the heart of downtown.

Hays says the building proves even the most derelict, blight-ridden building can become something beautiful with the willpower and funding to transform it. “It’s a real testament to what a building can be, even when people think it should be torn down,” Gabe said. Which is what most thought of this building–that it was beyond repair and it is absolutely not.”

“For folks like us who are putting our life’s retirement and security on the line on the bet that Wheeling is going to be special and vibrant again, we really appreciate real interest in if somebody would want to have their living quarters about a coffee shop,” Hays said as we ended our conversation. “So if your readers have that kind of feedback, I welcome it.”

The history of 1109 Main St was provided by Jeanne Finstein and the Friends of Wheeling. Photos are courtesy of Justice Hudson. If you are interested in sharing your feedback or interest in renting out the apartments above Mugshots you can reach Gabe Hays at ghays@wallacepancher.com.

• Justice Hudson is an AmeriCorps volunteer and citizen journalist originally from Saint Albans, West Virginia, and has lived in Wheeling since January 2020. He studied history and women and gender studies at West Virginia University and has worked in farming and community education since moving to the Friendly City. In February 2023 he began writing as a folk reporter independently for the Hudson Household Editorial and for organizations including Mustard Seed MountainBlackByGod: The West Virginian, and Weelunk