The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Friday, June 22, 2007

Remember the Rat Cellar

In the ancient times of the 1970's, when I was a student at UMass, the most popular place for students to go drink (besides your dorm) was a place called The Drake. There is a bit of graffiti (above) related to the now defunct establishment which apparently no one has the heart to remove. I remember the place well, it was located in what is now an upscale apartment block.

The building is located by the Historical Society and almost across the street from that popular, if stuffy new hangout located in the old Amherst Cinema building, Amherst Coffee.

Don't put too much stock in me calling it stuffy, remember that my standards were set by the Pine Point Cafe, a place where at times no laws of God nor Man applied. It is on the side of the cinema building facing the parking lot that the Save the Drake graffiti can still be seen.

Yes, boys and girls, it is true - in the 1970's the drinking age in Massachusetts was eighteen! We actually had a soda machine in the front lobby of my dorm except instead of dispensing Coke and Pepsi it sold Bud and Miller. That meant that if you ran out of beer you could keep the party going from the vending machine. Except on Sundays, because the machine was always sold-out after Saturday night and wasn't refilled until Monday.

So on our beerless Sundays we would often go to the Drake, or more precisely, it's downstairs dive, The Rathskeller. The locals with money favored the Drake proper, but the Rathskeller was for boozy hippies like me and my roomies. It was great, Carl Mayfield's Martian Highway used to play there a lot and everyone smoked so much pot in the restrooms that newcomers could find the toilets just by following the smoke plume. This was a clientele that did not "Just Say NO."

In those days the answer was always yes.

It was years before I realized what the real name of the Rathskeller was. Here is the internet definition of what I believe is originally a German word:

A restaurant or tavern, usually below street level, that serves beer.

For a long time I thought the name was "Rat Cellar" as did most of my friends. It wasn't until we saw an article in the Hampshire Gazette about a drug bust in the joint that we realized its real name. It seemed strange to us - "Rat Cellar" may have been technically wrong but it was spiritually more accurate. The old entrance to the Rathskeller/Rat Cellar has been sealed off from the modern building, although you can still see a faint outline of it.

When the Drake/Rathskeller closed sometime in the 1980's there was a great outpouring of that old canard about it being "the end of an era" except in this case it was true. The closing represented the triumph of the new Amherst - Amherst as the academic Longmeadow. People with real serious money were moving into town, people who were fleeing Boston or who were the last remnants of Springfield's upper crust. The Drake/Rathskeller with its dirty hippies and wild times just didn't fit anymore. When it closed everyone knew that it meant that the flower-power era that had dominated Amherst throughout the 60's and 70's, making it the counterculture capital of Western Mass, was over. The local hippies either became yuppies and joined the new establishment or fled to rural sanctuaries in nearby towns like Pelham, Sunderland and Whately.

But in a town that is obsessed with cleanliness and appearances and otherwise acts with alacrity to remove graffiti everywhere else, after all these years no one in Amherst can quite bring themselves to scrub away that "Save the Drake" spray painted on that brick wall. That pleases me, because it means that on some level Amherst still remembers what it used to be.

Speaking of Pine Point, the infamous Mean Mary Jean sends along this classic postcard. (click to enlarge)

Can anyone date the cars well enough to put forth a guess of how old this is?

Finally, here is a video of me walking out in the field to meet some friends for a Celebration of the Solstice ceremony.


sodafixer said...

you better check yourself for ticks after that walk in the field!

Jason Burkins said...

I got an eerie "Children of the Corn" vibe from that video...

Greg said...

Hey Tommy --

I lived in "The Drake" from 2000-2002, while my wife was in grad school at UMass.

That graffiti had fascinated me since I was a kid, when my parents would take me to the Jones Library. "Save the Drake" was one of those mysteries I grew up with, figuring I'd never figure it out. Then, I did:

Tommy said...

Greg, thanks for the additional info and link, it is very informative.

As for the solstice affair, aside from a few mosquitoes having a party on my ass I emerged unharmed.

Anonymous said...

I was a Drake regular until the bitter end (even taking part in the relatively pathetic closing night party - complete with live band).

Just so others know, the reference to Willy in the graffiti is to the Drake's aged, and last bartender.

Also, when the building was originally built (I don't remember exactly when, but late 19th century), it was the fanciest hotel in town. You could see signs of its faded glory in the "upscale" upstairs bar (site of my first pickled egg - I definitely had too much to drink to get to that point!).

david said...

I remember Willie andtherewas a real short women who ran the pop corn machine.I think sheeither had a monkey or a bird.They used to serve GAnsetts in a large dixie cup for .75.I remember watching monday nite F.B. therewhen that started.if youwanted a little elegance you could go upstairs to the grown up bar where you could watch channel 40 or channel 22 in virtual solitude.

Todd said...

Been looking for evidence that the Drake wasn't just figment of my imagination. Anybody remember Sheehan's in Northampton?

Marty said...

I remember the Drake well while at Umass 66-69. The Rathkellar was comforting in a smoky laid back way. My pals from those days are gone, but I give in to nostalgia form time to time.

I visited Sheehan's back in the day. It had a classic 19th century feel with mirrors behind the antique bar. My dorm monitor in 67 was Bill Sheehan, son of the owner, I think.

Dloomis494 said...

70 cent shots in plastic cups at the Drake. I remember it well. Kim Toys across the street. Russells Liquor would deliver to the DORMS with a TWO Keg minimum. I'm a Martian Highway fan, too. It was Peter Martians(Mitchells) band, too. With original drummer Joeno. The good old days. A lasting memory was the 20 minute "Shroom Kitty" that the Highway did at the coffee shop downstairs at the Student Union.

Anonymous said...

The Drake in the early 70's was fun. The drinking age dropped to 18 on my 21st birthday - March 1, 1973. I worked the concession stand at Amherst Cinema in the late 70's. I'ld trade a big bag of popcorn for a whole wheat pizza. We both profited from the deal.

TJG said...

I worked at the Drake in 1978/79, my senior year at Umass. I was a short-order cook in the small kitchen at the back, upstairs-- served burritos, burgers and the like through a window that opened to the main room. From that kitchen I could see the whole scene, and it was fascinating--a truly colorful place and cast of characters--Willie, Mr and Mrs Parker-the owners, the Senator, Sheri, the beautiful blond waitress. On a Saturday night it would get packed--the Juke box crankin'--Far Away Eyes from Some Girls, which fit the place and people pretty well. And always something going on in the bathrooms --the doors painted as the King of Diamonds and Queen of Hearts. Downstairs was altogether different, a bit more divey and dangerous maybe, but no less colorful--Willie worked that bar. Martian Highway was an amazing Dead band--wish I still had that cool T-shirt that Carl designed--he a superb space artist as well as guitar player--I remember Shroomkitty, and the big yellow farm house in Leverett, and a blue and tan Peugeot 505, Peter's I think. MH played in our back yard on Nutting Ave in the spring-- a week or so before the Dead came to play the stadium for the spring concert, May-12-1979 -- a heck of a year.

Bobby said...

I remember the Drake and the Rat well. The cars in the photo are mid 1950s.