We Were Where We Ate: Pennsauken Eateries Past

BobFisher-HughesBy Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

Restaurant and hospitality businesses have gone through as many evolutions over time as any other enterprises, suiting the needs of the historic communities they serve. Changes in transportation, communication, household technology and germinating ethnic and cultural diversity in the population contribute to this evolution, as do specific historic events such as Prohibition and its repeal. Changing tastes in food and advancing understanding of diet and nutrition also help determine both menus and the economic success of dining establishments. Add to these influences the atmospheric and entertainment dimensions of a night out, and the public accommodations of the past become an interesting way to trace our historic timeline.

Pennsauken Township, as well as the previous entities of which is was a part: Stockton Township, Delaware Township and Waterford Township, has had an interesting and surprising history of providing hospitality, sustenance, and entertainment in its taverns, restaurants, cafés, and clubs. As far back as the 1600s, Griffith Morgan himself was issued a license to maintain an “ordinary,” or small tavern or inn, for the respite of travelers. In those colonial days, this was considered such an important public good to encourage commerce and communications, that townships were mandated to provide at least a minimum of such establishments to accommodate the need. A large home on Maple Ave. in Pennsauken, originally part of the Burrough family’s property, is also believed to have served a similar purpose along the stage coach route to Moorestown and onward. The Vennell Tavern at Fish House Cove is another example, although its titular career as a tavern did not come until later, as it served in the late 1700s as a private home. Its nearby competitor was the Shiller Heights Hotel, operated by the Tippin family.

Perhaps the best known of the early taverns of Pennsauken history was the Sorrell Horse Inn, which was located near the intersection of today’s Route 130 and Haddonfield Rd., the latter byway still bearing the alternative title of “Sorrell Horse Rd.” This old tavern can be traced to at least 1807, according to Camden County historian George Prowell, and was operated by the Vansciver and Lawrence families in its early days and later by Harry Hayes and Charles Starn. During the Civil War, the Sorrell Horse Inn also served as a recruiting station. During Prohibition, the tavern scraped by with ostensible compliance with the law, but on at least one occasion in 1925, a report of a disturbance was received during a Township Committee meeting, resulting in Committee members and Township police joining in the response and charges against the establishment for serving “beverages stronger than soft drinks.”

Long after the Sorrell Horse Inn was gone, its memory was perpetuated by the “Sorrell Horse Lounge” inside the Ivystone Inn opened by Burt Ross in 1959. The Ivystone Inn itself served as a major venue for dining, imbibing, and entertainment of many varieties; and in several new incarnations over time, the Ivystone Inn was the site of social and public events like trade and civic association dinners and the early meetings and public events of the Pennsauken Historical Society. In fact, the parents of a certain editor of a very well read local newspaper had their wedding reception there on January 21, 1967. Today, the old Ivystone Inn is the Bentley Senior Living facility on Rt. 130.

A kind of golden era of dining and entertainment can be found in Pennsauken history, roughly coinciding with the heyday of Central Airport, the burgeoning of the automobile age, and the boom times of World War II and its aftermath. This was an era when dining on a large scale with live entertainment of all kinds and a sense of sophistication and exuberance gave meaning to the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” This was the era of what entertainment insiders called “niteries,” fancy nightclubs like Pennsauken’s own Old Mill Inn, Deighan’s, Weber’s Hof Brau, the Red Hill Inn, and many smaller clubs and cafés that provided an entire evening’s experience of food, cocktails, dancing, music, comedy, and more to a prospering and aspiring patronage in white gloves, pearls and suits, ties and hats.

Some of the diverse and interesting entertainment offerings at Pennsauken venues in the 1930s through the 1950s included house bands like Joe Ritchie and his band at the Old Mill Inn, Bill Bilger and his Royal Bavarians at the Hof Brau, George Marchetti and his orchestra at Deighan’s, Joe Voorhees and his orchestra at Brown’s Log Cabin, and others, usually with a floor show or revue. Masters of ceremonies acted as ringmasters as well as contributing their own talents, such as Eddie Austin or Mickey Diamond, “The Fighting Comic,” at the Old Mill; or Murry Wood, “World’s Smallest M.C., 36 Inches of Song,” at the Red Hill Inn.

A sampling of other acts worth catching at Pennsauken niteries were: “Monya Requella, Exotic Danseuse;” “Ramona, Queen of the Rhumba;” “Mario Rongi, European Bombshell;” “Tip Top Dancers;” “The Flying Berrys;” “Marie Dell, Peer of Prestidigitators;” hypnotist “Professor Whiz;” Ralph Eden on the SoloVox; “Two Maids of Song;” “The Slappy and his Swingsters;” “Bunny Briggs, Sepia Star;” “The Pioneers;” and many more. Acrobats, magicians, balancing acts, ice skaters, yodelers, polka, local singers and Hollywood crooners gave meaning to the term “variety show.” Not infrequently, the evening’s entertainment at one club or another was broadcast on local radio stations, making the folks at home wish they could be there, too.

In addition, entertainers of truly legendary stature also performed at Pennsauken’s clubs, including Duke Ellington, Mel Torme, Billie Holliday, Lenny Bruce, Woody Herman, and others, particularly at the Red Hill Inn in the 1950s until its fiery demise in 1965.

The era of the grand night on the town represented by the great clubs and restaurants of the 40s and 50s has receded. Restaurants and clubs closed or were succeeded by new management adapting to an era of television and even greater mobility. Deighan’s was succeeded by Club Shaguire, which was succeeded by The Pub, perhaps the lone hold-out in the tradition of the eateries on a grand scale, though lacking the dancing and entertainment of its predecessors. The Hof Brau, like the Red Hill Inn, eventually burned. Owners retired, chefs prepared their last dish, and crooners sang their final note.

Other eating options have come and left their own indelible marks, including wonderful diners like the Penn Queen and many others, including take-out, pizzerias, travel stops like Kent’s Chimney House and Howard Johnson’s, and many fast food restaurants.

Perhaps today, we enjoy an even more diverse set of dining options in terms of cuisines and ambience, from more parts of the world and from white tablecloths to take-out. In a real sense, the history of our dining establishments continues to track our times and nourish our community memory.

Sources for this column include: Contemporary newspaper accounts and advertisements; Billboard Magazine; “A History of Pennsauken Township,” Jack Fichter, 1966; “History of Camden County, New Jersey,” by George R. Prowell, L.J. Richards & Co. 1886.


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