Bears Club hits century mark
MEADOW LANDS - Judges and coal miners, crooners and steelworkers have sat at the stools lining the bar to share a pint or two as they debated the success, or lack thereof, of the Pittsburgh sports team currently in season.
It has survived Prohibition in the 1920s, a name change and a 1937 fire that destroyed its headquarters. But the Fraternal Order of Bears, Den 83, has withstood it all and will mark 100 years Tuesday at its hall on Hallam Avenue in Meadow Lands.
“We survived Prohibition and the place burning down,” said John Zambell, who has served as the president for the last eight years. “We’ve got a good body of guys here.”
It was Jan. 15, 1913, when the members were presented their charter from the Grand Den of the Fraternal Order of Bears, according to a social history of the club done almost 40 years ago by Meadow Lands native Mary Ann Bazzoli. The presentation was made two years after a group of men organized a meeting place at a local miner’s hall.
“They were coal miners looking for a place to go after work,” Zambell said.
“It was a place where they could go have a shot and a beer,” James Simonini, a trustee in the club. “They were hard workers.”
With few miners owning vehicles and needing a place they could walk to, clubs such as the Bears Club popped up in several of the mining communities, like nearby Arden.
Women are not permitted as members but may go to the club as guests, a rule that has not changed in 100 years. Bazzoli, in her history of the club, noted that a man would bring his wife and children to the back room of the club.
If the ladies wanted an alcoholic beverage, Simonini and Zambell said, there was reportedly a hole in the wall between the two rooms and the drink would be passed through it.
When the 18th Amendment prohibiting alcoholic beverages and the accompanying Volstead Act went into effect in 1920, the club changed its name to the Beacon Club and drew up a new charter. Bazzoli wrote that members were forced to produce their own moonshine and home brew in the basement of the club until they were caught by a U.S. marshal, who padlocked the building.
The building was leased by the Allison Athletic Club until Prohibition was repealed in 1932. The membership grew with the new recruits called “Bears,” according to Bazzoli’s research. While booze was banned in the hall, members managed to sneak a few pints with them as they participated in sporting events in neighboring communities.
The Meadow Lands den is the only one to have survived Prohibition, said Don Zofchak, a club trustee who has been a member for almost 40 years. When the national den dissolved in 1933, the Meadow Lands den members voted to reopen and take over as the national den.
“Over the years, we have had a few inquiries from groups but nothing has ever materialized,” Zofchak chuckled. “If they ever asked for a charter, I don’t know what we’d do.”
Zofchak said most of the dens had been in the Ohio, Indiana and New York areas. During a visit to Johnstown years ago, Zofchak was exploring the city looking for watermarks left by the floods. Instead, he found a building that had once been a Fraternal Order of Bears den.
When the Meadow Lands den building burned down, it was rebuilt in the same spot within two years. Until the work was completed, the club rented a vacant storefront.
The club has about 350 members, including 30 men with at least 50 years of service.
“The old guys built this club,” said Simonini. “Today, we only have about eight guys under the age of 40 and two of them are in the service.”
Zofchak said Perry Como continued to pay his membership dues each year. Other visitors have included boxer Sammy Angott and Delvin Miller, legendary harness racing driver and founder of The Meadows.
In its heyday, the club had about 500 members and the social hall on the second floor was regular used for dances.
Zofchak said joining the Bears used to be a rite of passage for fathers and sons.
“My dad brought me down here on my 21st birthday,” Zofchak said,
Club members are proud of their contributions to charitable organizations in the community, including 2000 Turkeys and Relay for Life.
All three men agreed the club was a nice, quiet spot to have a drink and talk mostly about sports. Trouble is not tolerated.
“Some people might not even know we are here,” Simonini said of the club nestled among homes. “But our neighbors are good to us. They keep a watch on the building when we are not around.”
On Tuesday, the members will have their own celebration with meals catered throughout the day. In the spring, the club plans to have an event that will be open to wives and guests.
There are even plans to put a float or vehicle in Canonsburg’s Fourth of July parade.
“That’s if we can get someone to wear a bear suit in July,” Simonini quipped.