Even before you have the world-famous Bloody Mary in front of you or that double-cheeseburger is hauled out from the kitchen, there’s a lot to see at Good Ol’ Days Bar and Grill. You could kill some serious time finding every picture of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe on these walls, counting old-time gangsters, or checking out classic cars. There are newspaper clippings, iconic movie stills, magazine covers, and posters.
But if you see one thing in this bar, see the little two-person table next to the jukebox. It’s covered with a white tablecloth and partitioned off with red velour rope.
It’s the fallen soldier table, meant to represent our wishes that fallen men and women of the armed forces could be present with us for our meals. A long-stemmed rose, upside-down wine glass, yellow ribbon and lemon wedge are arranged at the table. The chair cover is adorned with a POW MIA logo. Hanging above this table is a photograph of owner Randy Semo’s uncle, Charlie, who was aboard the USS Rowan when it was attacked by German torpedo boats during World War II. Only 71 of the 271 aboard survived.
You can read right there about the significance each element holds, from the white taper candle to the salt sprinkled over the lemon wedge. The message ends with “Gone, but not forgotten.”
Semo grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with 49 cousins alongside him. He says he had more fun than a kid should have had back then. When he wasn’t sliding off snow-covered rooftops or being pulled behind trucks on a toboggan, there were always enough players in the family for two football or baseball teams.
“There were so many Semo kids, you couldn’t tell them apart,” he says.
Semo’s father and one of this uncles owned a wrecking yard back then. It was here where he earned his first $50 – and his first can of Stroh’s. He says he was 11 years old; when a staff member brings us each a can of Stroh’s while we talk in an office below Good Ol’ Days, she says he might have been closer to nine. He’s been drinking Stroh’s ever since.
Work brought him to the Iron Range back in 1973. He had moved to Hurley, Wisc., and married his wife, Carol. His father-in-law had found work in Virginia, Minn., at a foundry and suggested Randy come west.
He came to Virginia, applied for a painting job, and despite having no previous experience he was hired on the spot.
Semo spent his first several months living above bars in Virginia – Pete’s Bar, the Magic Bar, and Spolar’s Bar and Lounge were a few. He remembers looking at basement spaces for rent, with heaved-up floors and no windows, going for $650.
“There were so many people in Virginia,” he says. “There was work everywhere, everywhere, but nowhere to live.”
It took sneaking over to the Mesabi Daily News at 4:30 in the morning and bribing the janitor with twelve-packs of beer in exchange for an early look at the day’s want ads for Semo to finally find a house he could move his family into. And that’s how he arrived in Soudan.
“I called the guy in the morning,” he says. “It was like 8:00. He asked, ‘How can you know? The paper isn’t even out yet.’ [I said] ‘Well, the paper’s out in Virginia already.’”
BUILDING THE BAR
During his construction years, the late 1970s up until 15 years ago, Semo helped build a few bars on the Iron Range you might recognize: Popper’s in Virginia; BG’s in Mountain Iron; and the Benchwarmer Grille, just inside Tower city limits on Highway 169.
It was after the construction of Benchwarmer he decided it was time to build and open one of his own. He and Carol had tossed around name and theme ideas for some time (they had originally settled on The Tin Cup, but a conflict with a Twin Cities bar put the kibosh on that) but the inspiration for Good Ol’ Days was something much simpler, blurted out during a trip home from Chicago back in 2003.
Good Ol’ Days first opened their doors in July 1, 2004, but the accumulation of posters, news clippings, and autographed photos is never-ending. Visitors are greeted on the other side of the front entry by statues of Elvis and the Hamm’s bear. There used to be a giant cast-iron clown there too, but it kept freaking people out so Semo got rid of it.
Semo told me the story of the Grease poster, which he saw covering a window of the old Cook theater. There’s the bar itself, a remnant of the old Gilbert Bar. He saw it for the first time in an unlit basement, appraised it with a flashlight, and says it was in 100 pieces when he got it – but there it is, reaching almost all the way up and down Good Ol’ Days, from just past Elvis to stopping just short of the kitchen. There’s Tower Junction, that sign above the bar, and the train that passes by it every 10 or 15 minutes. The train track up there circles the whole bar.
There’s an edition of The Good Ol’ Days Gazette on each table, a newspaper published exclusively for the bar filled with past stories from area papers. Randy and Carol searched the newspaper archives at the Minnesota Museum of Mining for hours to find them. The front page story of the most recent Gazette tells the story of a collection attempt gone awry. There’s another story, published in the Good Ol’ Days menu, that describes “a drunken brawl among a jolly party of Finlanders in Soudan” that ended with a party member suffering knife cuts.
“No arrests have been made as the party who did the carving is not known,” the story concludes. It’s from April 18, 1895.
And then there’s the Packers air space.
You might have noticed the welcome mat when you first walked in the door, before you were drawn to the Elvis status and the Hamm’s Bear. There’s a Vikings helmet in a purple square, a Packers helmet in a green square, and the words A HOUSE DIVIDED.
Semo knew better than to give up his seat on the Packers bandwagon when he left the Upper Peninsula. That’s why he built himself a green-and-gold fan cave right in the back of his own bar, with a big TV and walls just as heavily coated with Packers memorabilia as the rest of the bar is with its Elvises, Marilyn Monroes, Al Capones, and old movies.
“The Vikings fans can have the rest of the bar,” he says, “and just leave me alone.”
THE BLOODY MARY AND THE BURGER
Not too far past the front entrance, Semo has got something fascinating nailed to the wall. It’s a financial report from the January 25, 1893. Twenty-two bars applied for liquor licenses in Tower that year. Those licenses cost $500 apiece.
“A beer cost two cents,” he says. “Probably not more than that. And twenty-two bars!”
On that list, number seven is Jacob Skala’s Bar, and the floor of Jacob Skala’s is the same floor we’re standing on as we examine this financial report. Today, Good Ol’ Days is one of only three bars on Tower’s Main Street (the Benchwarmer Grille and D’Erick’s Bottle Shop being the others), but this town of 500 still stops almost anyone – local or otherwise – who passes through.
The first list of reasons: celery, beef stick, pickle, garlic, pepperoncini, olives, baby corn, okra, onions, mushrooms, lemon, lime, beans, asparagus, brussels sprouts, shrimp, tomato, cheese, and Brazil nuts.
It’s the Good Ol’ Days Bloody Mary, named by Thrillist and the Food Network as Minnesota’s best-in-class, and voted best in northern Minnesota by Absolut Vodka. When I ask Semo how much is too much on a Bloody Mary, he draws his line at the burgers, ribs, wings, and soft-boiled eggs you see … well, here (and here, and here).
“Everything we put in our Bloody Marys is a drink condiment sort of thing,” says Semo. “Chicken and hamburgers don’t belong on a drink. We have a genuine Bloody Mary, not this meal thing.”
Here’s another list: sauce, lettuce, onions, tomato, egg, ham, burger, bacon, cheese, burger, bun. That’s the Good Ol’ Burger, a two-thirds-pound flavor silo equally capable of breaking the Internet and precipitating a lengthy food nap.
I ask Semo how quickly he can eat one; he says he never has.
“It’s this high!” he says, with his hand hovering about over his desktop. “How can you eat that thing? I have enough trouble eating a quarter-pounder. That’s enough.”
On the flip side of the Good Ol’ Burger is the Whimpy Burger, a two-ounce burger starting at $2.00 with additional toppings costing a quarter each. The burger section is filled out by your basic cheeseburgers and hamburgers: bacon cheese, California, BLT, patty melt, bleu cheese, and western.
Sandwiches like the reuben, French dip, and buffalo chicken are joined by a steak sandwich made with 14 ounces of ribeye on Texas toast; a chicken sandwich with ranch, bacon, Swiss, lettuce and tomato; and the “Big Beef” with Swiss, green peppers, mushrooms, grill onions, and au jus.
Breakfast is served from the moment they open (8 a.m. Sunday; 6 a.m. Mon-Sat) until 11 a.m. daily. Omelets do the heavy lifting on the menu, but they also serve stuffed hashbrowns. If it’s too early for a Good Ol’ Burger, you can bulk up with a 14-ounce ribeye and three eggs. At $21, that’s the highest-priced meal on the menu.
You can find more information at http://www.goodoldaystower.com.
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It was previously stated in this article that only two bars were on Tower’s Main Street. It was confirmed to me that D’Erick’s Bottle Shop has a pub attached.