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Editor’s note: Ye Olde Alpha closed its doors on Carmel Road on Jan. 6. Charlie Schlegel, who owns the rights to the name, plans to open Ye Olde Alpha at the former Stratford Springs. The opening is set for May 1, however, because of the coronavirus, that date could change.
Tim Cogan met his wife, Janet Boyle, “three stools down,” the way she tells it, he said.
But, eventually she quit going to Ye Olde Alpha with her husband. Why? Because Cogan was always wandering around, talking to customers.
“You treat it like your living room,” she’d tell him.
He wasn’t the only one.
Ye Olde Alpha really was like your living room.
It was comfortable. You could watch TV. Get good snacks. Have a beer. There was always someone there you knew to talk with — even if was the bartender, or someone three stools down.
THE PLACE TO GO
The Alpha — as most call it — was the place to go to over Thanksgiving weekend to meet up with old friends.
It was the place that took you five minutes to make it to your table (where the hostess patiently stood and waited with menus in hand) because you had to say “hi” to everyone as you zig-zagged through the dining room.
It was the place you stopped for a quick dinner on the way to the high school for a play, or the place you stopped after a concert or a dance. You could go in shorts and flip-flops or a homecoming gown.
It was the place where you almost always ran into Tim Cogan. Heck, there was even a drink named after him.
“When I found myself helping [former owner] Bobby Miller putting up Christmas lights, I thought I might be spending too much time at the Alpha. It rang a similar alarm bell when Charlie asked me if I wanted to come to the employee Christmas Party,” Cogan said.
Ye Olde Alpha means different things to different people. And those who loved it, really loved it.
There’s a special place in our hearts for the Alpha.
My first Ye Olde Memory is at the age of 5. My family didn’t have a color TV at home, which was just a couple of blocks and across National Road from the Alpha — where there was a color TV. We’d go there on New Year’s Day to watch the Rose Bowl Parade floats bloom in living Technicolor.
Memories grew as my friends and I grew …
It was the “casual” night for high school reunions.
If you met a guy at the Alpha, it was OK to go on a date with him — because someone there could surely vouch for that guy.
It was the place my brother went for fries and gravy even before he went home to see the family — where my mom was waiting by a table laden with home cooking.
So what was it? Babe the bartender with his chaw of tobacco? The pool tables? The gambling room? The Fat Boy sandwich? Waitresses Fran and Suzie? Tom Armbrecht on his stool at the end of the bar? Bobby Miller and his cup of coffee and cigarette? The moose heads?
And speaking of moose heads, Alpha cooks Trevor Kropp and Dan Dokes, loaded hundreds of stuffed game into a truck on Jan. 15.
As they moved the moose heads out, they reminisced about their Alpha years. Trevor has been with the Alpha for 14 or 15 years, and Dan, at least 17. Both are moving up the hill to Stratford Springs with Schlegel.
They agreed the best part of working at Ye Olde Alpha was the people.
“Working with good people. … We get along great,” Dan said.
“[We were] all pretty much like family,” Trevor added.
They both remembered working with Frank Wilson, who was a long-time cook at the restaurant, when Charlie took over. “He taught me a lot about cooking,” Trevor said.
As a kid, Trevor remembers the numbers on the wall. When your food was ready, a number lit up so your waitress knew to deliver your Fat Boy or Alpha Salad or cheese and salami plate to your table.
SUZIE’S NIGHT SHIFT
Suzie Murphy’s customers read like a virtual who’s who in Wheeling. Everyone went to the Alpha. And Suzie waited on them all during her 40 years on the night shift.
In fact, many customers became her friends. She’d meet people, learn their habits — “you notice things, that’s a trick of the trade, she noted — and before long, they were social buddies.
Her favorites were her golfers — a bunch of seven guys who came to Oglebay every spring and would always end up at the Alpha. “They were always kidding around and had so much fun.”
She remembers a class reunion — it wasn’t her class reunion, but a Wheeling Central class a couple years ahead of her. “They had so much fun — I probably remember their class reunion better than they do!”
Suzie started at the Alpha in the summer of 1978, after her second year of college. But she never went back to school. And, on her 60th birthday, Aug. 19, 2018, she retired after 40 years at Ye Old Alpha. “It was time,” she said.
Why did she stay so long? “The grass is never greener!” she believes.
She was hired as a waitress by Bobby Miller, who then promoted her to supervisor, and then to manager around 1991 or 92, she recalled.
When Charlie Schlegel bought Ye Olde Alpha in 2005, she came, too — part of the “lock, stock and barrel!” she said.
Certainly, things changed in 40 years, she noted — employees and customers came and went. But she was the constant.
Suzie said she always loved the kitchen staff … Roberta Green and Carol Vincent were her night shift kitchen crew.
She recalls that the only time the employees got to socialize was Christmas Eve. The Alpha was closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Bobby would open the bar and the kitchen to employees for a Christmas Eve party every year.
Suzie wasn’t only a waitress, supervisor, manager and friend, but a delivery person as well. When one of her customers had back surgery, she walked food down the street to the woman’s home.
Besides a lifelong career and good friendships, the Alpha meant “neighborhood” to Suzie. And good food.
Her favorite menu item? The Norteman’s steak sandwich in the early Bobby Miller days. The filet came straight from Wheeling’s Norteman Meat Packing Co.
The bread was always fresh, she recalled, because they went through so much. It came from Nickle’s Bakery. And the chili — the college kids loved the chili, along with the fries and gravy. “Filling and economical,” she noted. And Coleman’s fish. “We always used Coleman’s fish. The fish was always good.”
And lately, she’s been missing the blackened tomato sandwich and the salsa. “I need salsa!”
She’s looking forward to Schlegel opening Ye Olde Alpha at Stratford Springs. She believes “he can really grow the place.”
Everyone remembers Fran Maxwell. She started as a waitress on March 8, 1974. And she was always smiling … well almost.
She went in for an interview at 2 p.m., went home, changed clothes and started that night, she said.
It was a tough night. “No way in hell I’m going to stay,” she thought after that shift.
Her last shift was on New Year’s Eve, 1995.
In all those years, “I knew so many people … had so many regulars.”
“That was my home away from home. … My second family,” she said. “I saw them more than my own family!”
She recalls John Nanny. “I started waiting on him at Kennedy’s [Fish Market on 16th Street]. John came in there. I went to the Alpha, and he followed me there.”
She remembers fondly several people who indulged her love of Tammy Wynette.
Cathy Gurley got her backstage when Wynette performed at Jamboree USA.
And, as a member of Wynette’s fan club, she received an invitation to the singer’s house. One of her customers “drove me all the way to Nashville. … He couldn’t get in because he wasn’t a member of the fan club, so he dropped me off at the site.”
Another favorite story she tells … One customer was a bit impatient for his steak one night. “I told him, ‘it ain’t done.’” … but she brought it out anyway, to satisfy his impatience. She plopped it down in front of him. “It ain’t done,” he told her. “I tried to tell you!” she said.
That steak is one of Fran’s favorite menu items, along with the fries and gravy, of course.
The Alpha is in her blood, Fran said. “I had a lot of good memories. I’m always dreaming about waiting tables.
“I dreamed the moose from the Alpha were on my wall. I dreamed I was messing up everyone’s orders.”
When she gave Bobby Miller her notice after 22 years, he told her, “Boy, that’s a shocker and a half.”
“We both thought I’d be here until I couldn’t be there anymore.”
But she moved away to Illinois when she married Robert Maxwell. Even though he took her away from the Alpha, she said it was “the best thing she ever did.” She returned to Wheeling several years ago after the love of her life passed away.
IN YE OLDE DAYS
The Alpha wasn’t always a restaurant. The Alpha Theater was built on the property in 1913, where films were shown and Vaudeville shows were performed. In 1934, it became known as the Alpha Beer Grille, and most likely, the name Ye Olde Alpha appeared in 1941, according to the Upper Ohio Valley Historic Review article by Rebekah Karelis.
In 1945, Frank Miller Jr. and Sara Jane Miller purchased the property, and it was in 1955 when the mounted animals appeared on the wall — from Miller’s hunting trips.
Bartender Babe Hirt came on board in 1953, and stayed until1986! A new kitchen and dining room were added in the 1990s.
The Miller family sold the place to Charlie and Paula Schlegel and Mark and Karri Thomas in 2005.
Herk Sparachane purchased the building at auction in October 2019. Schlegel retains the restaurant name and is expected to open Ye Olde Alpha at Stratford Springs sometime in the future. Schlegel is still planning for a May 1 opening, but it depends on the coronavirus situation.
“Everything is on hold until we get word from the government that we can open. We are preparing to open on May 1, but it is obviously out of our hands right now,” Schlegel said.
Currently you can find some Alpha favorites on the take-out menu (Tuesday through Sunday) at the West Sports Bar, located adjacent to Stratford Springs, such as Greek pork shanks, calamari with lemon butter and Parmesan, the Moose Wrap and Woodsdale Chicken.
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So, while Ye Olde Alpha was a living room to many, Gerrill Griffith — who has a 48-year history with the Alpha — liked the bar side best.
“The bar side of the Alpha … for me a place that had a different feel, function and history than the comfortable living room-style of the grill side. It was where, in the 1980s and 1990s, then-owner the late Bobby Miller stood at the end of the bar smoking cigarettes, slurping black coffee and keeping an eye on the busy bartenders like Babe, a short bald, tobacco-chewing, hard-of-hearing beer slinger who wore a white apron and had a uniquely Babe-like way of serving (or not serving) Alpha bar side customers. Legend was that Babe and Bobby’s father, Frank, bagged the animals that were stuffed and mounted on the smoke-stained walls of the bar on far-flung hunting expeditions,” he said.
“Under the glassy watchful eyes of those slain stuffed creatures, and over the din of pinball dings and clangs from the back room, the bar side was a place for serious drinkers, legendary regulars and sports on television. It could be a place of laughter and merriment, or a place of depression and loneliness. It was where you went if you wanted to drown your grief over a torn relationship, a bad workday or some other disappointment. Or, it was where you went if you wanted to have a few laughs with the many regulars whose eccentric behaviors could always induce levity. It was also the place you went after the grill side closed down for the night and the buzz of an evening’s worth of beer-drinking led to late-night shots of whiskey and less gentile behavior. You didn’t have to go to the bar side with a friend. You could go alone. You could stay alone or mix it up with the crowd. It was always your call,” Griffith shared.
Dan Bauer’s memories start early on, he worked in the kitchen as a teen, and he’s still connected by printing the restaurant’s quirky T-shirts.
“My Alpha connection starts in the early ’60s when I was probably 5 or 6 years old. My mom used to bowl at the Rose Bowl Lanes when it sat next door to St. Michael’s Church where the current Marathon Station now sits. … I would ride with Dad to pick up Mom after her evening bowling, and they often took me to the Alpha for a hamburger afterward. … Then came those teenage years. Now, mind you, the drinking age was only 18 at the time and, with my long hair, I had no problem getting into the bar and having an occasional beer with my older friends. Also during that timeframe, I worked there during the summer of ’74 as a short-order cook. … I met and worked with some of the best folks ever! Fran was and is the best! She ran that dining room,” Bauer said.
“Come April 1975, and I turned 18. It was time for my first legal beer, and it had to be the Alpha. … You could try a new mixed drink from the placemats they used to place on your table with all the different cocktails. … That was the first time I tried a Tom Collins, Singapore Sling and a Grasshopper.
“These days, I print all the shirts that the staff wear and the Alpha sells. The Christmas shirt has become quite the collectors item. Now when I drive, by I just shake my head. I don’t think I will be able to walk into the new place, and probably never will. I want to remember Ye Olde Alpha as it was.”
While many classes and families and friends used the Alpha to reunite, Wheeling (Jesuit) University took it one step further: They recreated the Alpha bar and brought it to campus.
“In 2012, the leadership of Wheeling University came up with the idea to bring the Alpha to campus to serve the university’s Friday evening meal of its annual Alumni Weekend festivities,” explained Kelly Klubert, WU coordinator of engagement.
In order to make the event authentic, the university photographed and produced a life-sized backdrop of the famous Alpha bar. The banner was hung inside the dining hall to give alumni the feel that they were at the Alpha.”
Some of the Alpha’s favorites — fries and gravy, the Fat Boy sandwich and the famous Alpha wings, among others — were served.
A life-sized backdrop replicated Ye Olde Alpha’s bar for the 2012 Alumni Weekend festivities at Wheeling University.
WEE asked our readers to share some of their Ye Olde Memories. Here are some snippets:
… I’ve been going there ever since college, almost 50 years we’ve been going to the Alpha. It was really big in our college days, Wheeling College. We’d get together and start drinking and want to sing Irish songs or just raise some hell, and Babe would always come by, chewing tobacco, and say, ‘No singing at the Alpha. No singing at the Alpha.’ It wouldn’t stop us … but he’d have to come back and forth five or six times. — Pat Cassidy
… The Alpha was our “go-to” place for the Fat Boy sandwiches at $1.50 and served by Babe. The sandwich was huge, and Babe was the greatest. — Luciano D. Muzzatti
… After I decided to live in Wheeling, the Alpha became a really special part of my life. Fran joined the staff, and she was always so nice. It was the place to go to on special days like birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. As my kids went through St. Mike’s and Central, hanging out in the other room while the kids are with friends. And finally being the place where you saw friends who came home for the holidays. — Bob Kagler
… On Saturday nights after church services at The Vineyard, our regular group would go and eat together and have a wonderful time, sometimes spending hours just talking over our food. One item on the menu that was my favorite was the chopped salad. What a treat. — Eileen Palmer
… My best memories from Ye Olde Alpha are bittersweet because they center around my deceased friend, Tom Armbrecht. It was his home away from home, and everyone knew him. Tom was usually on the bar side on the weekends, and I felt at ease going there by myself after work because he made me feel safe. On the outside, Tom had a Mountaineer exterior with a long beard, ponytail and bib overalls but on the inside, he was a gentle soul. I cherish those memories. Old friends are the best. — Nancy Kadar
… The Alpha was a steadfast, cozy, gathering spot. Spent the most time there in the ‘90s … late nights with Wheeling College friends … holiday break reunions with high school friends … sometimes a meal, mostly beer and zucchini pucks, always pool and pinball. I always loved when it was really cold outside, maybe snowing, then walking into a packed house … slowly making my way down the narrow bar route, every stool filled, hugs and smiles of dear friends, a beer being put in my hand, then waiting for my turn at pool. — Amy Field
… I started going to the Alpha in 1959 when I was 16 years old. A boy in a bar. I played the pinball machines near the front door at the end of the bar. I drank beer but I also drank bourbon. I would alternate between Toms and the Alpha, but the Alpha was my favorite. When you are a teenager, now with your driver’s license, and hanging out (in a slightly naughty place for a teenager) with grown men, drinking, talking loudly, swearing and laughing, you start to feel older, more independent, more ready for the complexity of the world. I treasure those memories and truly feel that I grew up a bit in the midst of Babe and Tom, my teenage buddies and the bar regulars who let us share their sacred space with them — Rob Stein
… I spent 95 percent of my life within walking distance of the famous watering hole and have a long history there. I even met the love of my life there. I can remember going there for dinner with my parents when I was around 5 years old, the late 1950s. Women weren’t allowed in the bar but women and families were permitted in the grill. There was a side entrance on the South Park Street side of the building toward the rear. The grill was the room behind the bar — now the pool and gambling rooms. As a kid, I loved the chocolate milk in half-pint glass bottles. I thought it was the best ever until, after coming of age, (of course) I started on Stroh’s beer. … Those who frequented the Alpha will remember crazy Thanksgiving eves and packed Christmas Eves. It seemed anyone who left Wheeling would come back for those occasions. — Gib Lamb
… Years ago, BC (Before Child), we lived in Weirton. Friends included one couple, the husband being a member of the WWVA Jamboree stage band. We’d drive to Wheeling to catch the second show Saturday night, and hang out backstage with his wife. After, we’d go to the Alpha for the cheese and beef plate and drinks. We’d then head to Howard Johnson’s for breakfast. Then we’d drive home. If our timing was good, we’d attend the 5:15 a.m. Mass at St. Peter’s In Steubenville. One time at the Alpha, we turned in our order, and waited. And waited. A server checked on us, and we learned she had taken a number of orders, didn’t turn them in, and quit. Walked out the door. Needless to say, our order was on the house. — Judi Tarowsky
… It was sometime in the fall of 1972 when I was introduced to the charms, grit, comfort and quirky personality of Ye Olde Alpha — the Wheeling landmark establishment that became my home base touchstone for eating (but mostly drinking) for the next 48 years. … The Alpha was where a friend predicted that the Pittsburgh Steelers might actually win a Super Bowl someday. It was where I took the girl that I had a crush on since seventh grade for our first shared beer together as adults. It was where I celebrated the birth of my son in 1990, hosted the informal rehearsal dinner for my 1997 remarriage, and drank a toast to my mother after her funeral. … Uniformed servers, like the woman named Fran who was an Alpha fixture for years, took great care of us, dutifully delivering trays full of draft beers and food orders like cheese plates with special “Alpha hot mustard,” chili or a “Fat Boy sandwich.” They were patient, friendly and always kind, even when some patrons showed the effects of their overindulging. Susie, who advanced from server to become the Alphas major domo until her retirement, kept everything running smoothly. — Gerrill Griffith
A SAD DAY
Ye Olde Alpha’s closing is part of a trend, Cogan believes.
“There used to be that barge [the Valley Voyager] on the river, Bud’s Bar, Under Glass, Tin Pan Alley, the Cork and Bottle (with in-bar phones on each table), the Office Lounge (now The Moose), Fabulous Fannies, the Checkerboard (now Frederick’s) … Moxie’s (now a hair salon), the Army Navy Gaslight (now WVNCC), the Three Gaynors and the Arabique.”
And what will become of 48 Carmel Road?
And how will Charlie turn Stratford into Ye Olde Alpha?
I guess we’ll see soon enough.
But until then, we all have our Ye Olde Memories.
Cheers to that!
• Having spent nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal now serves as Weelunk’s managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.