Alby's wedding

Wedding day, 1933, St. Vincent de Paul Church. Couple on the left: Alby Stasukinas and Vera Wisnoski (Vysnauskas); couple on the right: John Staken and Anna Stasukinas. Back row, from left: Albina Dombroski, George Stasukinas, unknown, Wally Kerchowski, Eva Casper, John Dombroski, Barbara Gent Beck (age 20), and Chick Michaels (who lost a leg in a mine accident in West Frankfort, Ill.)  Courtesy of Jerry Stasukinas.

Alby (Albinas) Stasukinas, son of Lithuanian immigrants Joseph and Rose (Poskevicius) Stasukinas, opened his storied tavern at 14th and Carpenter streets in 1944. After quitting coal mining in 1940 and working several years at the Illiopolis munitions plant, by 1944 Alby was a traveling boilermaker. So it was actually his wife Veronika (Vysnauskas or Wisnoski), who managed the new tavern for the first couple of years.

Alby and Vera’s middle son Jerry, the informant for this story, began working at his family’s tavern in 1946 when he was 10. Jerry says drinks were pretty simple at such neighborhood watering holes. “It was pretty much just draft beer and whiskey shots, and sometimes a simple drink like a coke or 7-Up with a shot of whiskey. I remember my father would say if you wanted a fancy mixed drink like a Manhattan, you’d better go drink uptown.”

Jerry also reports that tips were not required, or even accepted at Alby’s. “If anybody left change, my father would scotch tape it to the bar so it would be there when the customer came back. Dad always said the people he served didn’t have money for tips.”

Tavern hours were 8 a.m. till 1 a.m. daily, except Sundays, when bars could not open before 1 p.m. After writing about so many serious turn-of-the-century battles over Sunday drinking, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of this compromise. Early morning drinking was another matter.

Back when Springfield was a blue-collar mining and factory town, a bar couldn’t make it unless it met the demand for a shot or two before a hard or dangerous day’s work. “Dad always said if a customer came by early once and we weren’t open, he may come a second time, but not a third,” Jerry recalls.

Jerry also remembers his Dad’s strict observance of federal liquor labeling laws, and the prohibition against serving minors. Jerry says he had to go to other taverns to drink before he was 21. “Dad would never serve me when I was under-age. But I do remember he served some boys who were working at Pillsbury Mills while attending Lanphier (High School). His reasoning was, if they were doing a man’s work shoveling wheat, they deserved to be treated like men, and they got served.”

An Entrepreneurial Tradition

Alby’s father Joseph left the area of Vilnius, Lithuania, at age 21 to avoid conscription into the czar’s army, where Jerry says his grandfather reported that Lithuanians “were starved and treated as slave labor to Russian soldiers.” After arriving in the U.S. around 1900, Joseph mined coal. From 1932 onward, he was a member of the Progressive Miners of America along with many other Lithuanians, and worked the Progressive “Mine A” on West Washington Street until the mine closed in 1947 or ’48. He eventually died of black lung disease.

Stasukinas.immigrants

Joseph Adam and Rose Anna (Poskevicius) Stasukinas, 1934. Courtesy of Jerry Stasukinas.

But from their early years in Springfield, Joseph and his wife Rose set a thrifty and entrepreneurial example for their family. Up until 1919, they operated a grocery store, first at 19th and Moffatt. Later, they built a new house and a replacement store in the 1500 block of Moffatt.

Joseph was a thoughtful man who had been taught to read and write by a traveling peddler back in Lithuania. He read the Draugas Lithuanian daily newspaper from Chicago, as well as the local newspaper in English. He served as scribe to Lithuanians who couldn’t read and write. Good at math, and no doubt chronically underemployed in the mines, in addition to operating a store, Joseph also taught his sons and grandsons how to make a buck by building and fixing things on the side.

“My grandfather could fix anything,” Jerry recalls. While holding down their mining jobs, Joseph and his son Alby sold homes they built from re-purposed materials. “They would tear down an old house, salvage the lumber and use it to build a new house. They were very conservative.”

Eventually, Jerry says that his father and mother (Alby and Vera) in partnership built 14 new homes that they rented. “Mom and Dad were very good business people. They were hard workers all their lives; my grandparents were the same.”

Prior to its opening in 1944, immigrant Joseph helped son Alby renovate the basement and roof of the first Alby’s tavern, including two apartments upstairs that served as the family’s living quarters. In the 1960s, Joseph even helped his son build a new all-brick Alby’s tavern right across the street from the first. (See photo above of the new building, circa 1965, from the Sangamon County Recorder of Deeds.)

The new Alby’s featured 1950s-style indirect lighting, red and black floors, a wall of rough walnut lumber and the same red leather bar that had graced the original. (The original building was sold to Concordia Seminary, while the newer building became a motorcycle club after Alby’s son Albert closed the tavern in 1986.)

“Even when he was 65 years old, my grandfather built his aunt a new home. He worked almost right up until he passed away.”

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Vera and Alby, Anna and John celebrating their wedding anniversary. Courtesy of Jerry Stasukinas.

Bank of Grandma

Jerry remembers that his immigrant paternal grandma Rose held the purse strings of the family, managing its mining wages and business income. “My grandfather would always turn his mining paycheck over to her. And after my dad went down into the mines at 16, he also turned his paycheck over to his mother until he was 21.” As a youth, Jerry followed the same tradition, giving his grandma his earnings from finding, fixing, and selling old or broken-down bicycles and other items.

“The grandmother was the banker of the family back then,” he says. “For a long time, when they needed money, none of the Lithuanians went to the bank because it was seen as going outside the family.”

Losing Two Brothers in One Night

According to a State-Journal Register article dated March 29, 1919, Grandma Rose suffered a terrible loss when her two single, immigrant coal-mining brothers who boarded with her and husband Joseph were shot and killed while they were patronizing a “soft drink establishment.” The shooter was a Sicilian employee of Joe Yucas, owner of the drinking parlor at Eighth and Washington streets.

The fact that Yucas was dubbed “King of the Lithuanians” in one State Journal-Register article makes me suspect that more lay behind the double-murder of George and Joseph Poskevicius than a simple wrestling match that turned into a scuffle with Yucas, according to eyewitness testimony. The crime bears all the markings of an execution, perhaps resulting from a personal feud or business disagreement or competition over illegal alcohol or gambling.

The fact that Yucas was initially arrested, held, then bonded out for the crime only adds to my suspicions that perhaps police believed the murders were premeditated, and that employee Simanella, who ran the tavern because Yucas was legally prevented from doing so, was acting at the behest of his boss. Alternatively, it’s possible that Yucas set  his countrymen up for execution by Simanella.

Rose was quoted in one SJ-R story saying that her brothers drank a little but were good men who had never been in any trouble, and had never mentioned Simanella to her once in their whole lives. Unfortunately, they appear to have received no justice.

Newspaper accounts located by my faithful researcher Tom Mann report that Simanella successfully fled law enforcement for two years, not turning himself in until summer or fall 1921. After a story saying Simanella was released on bond in early 1922,  Tom also located an SJ-R story saying Simanella was tried and acquitted of the double-murder in 1923, despite testimony immediately after the killings by six eyewitnesses naming him as the shooter and never mentioning that he had been attacked or had any fear for his life. (One of the Poskevicius brothers was shot in the side of the head from close range, and the other in the back as he fled.)

Years later, Jerry reports that Tony Simanella, son of the trigger man, made a visit to his dying father, Alby, perhaps to explain or apologize for the murders. Whether or not the mystery of the murders was solved in that deathbed conversation remains a secret.

The loss of the two young Poskevicius brothers (George was 30 and Joseph was 31) coincided with the closing of Joseph and Rose’s  grocery store shortly afterwards in 1919. Perhaps the brothers had been needed to help work the store when they were not in the mines–or the store had provided them extra income that was no longer needed after their deaths. Maybe the brothers were shot over some kind of mafia threat involving the store, and contraband alcohol that was often sold by corner groceries back then. Or maybe Rose and Joseph were just too upset to go on alone in the business.

Alby's Tavern, 1963

The new Alby’s Tavern, 1960s. Sangamon Recorder of Deeds.

Selling to and Helping Alcoholics

Because of its location at 14th and Carpenter, Alby’s was the neighborhood tavern mainly to the nearby public housing development known as the John Hay Homes. “That was our neighborhood, where our business came from,” Jerry says. Unfortunately, he also remembers, “Our whole neighborhood was afflicted with alcoholism.” That meant a neighborhood tavern-keeper’s job did not end with selling alcohol. Jerry says his father also made it his job to “take in all the poor souls who were afflicted by liquor.

“My father had a charitable heart, and so he had a lot of alcoholics who were boarders of the tavern, whom he tried to ween off liquor as best he could. There was always somebody who was sleeping on a cot in our basement.

“Dad’s bedroom was on the first floor of the tavern, and that’s where our family also had our dining room. Many times, the guy Dad was trying to help ended up in our dining room, eating supper with us. My father even had them sleeping in his own bed recuperating, hallucinating. He also always had projects to give them work and let them make a dollar, so they could become men again. It was his whole life.”

Jerry continues: “None of them ever totally recovered, that I can remember. One guy ended up boarding at Romanowski’s (the Railroad Tavern on East Reynolds Street). He cut his own throat because of alcoholism.

“Another time Dad finally put a friend of his in the hospital. Back then, they would treat them with formaldehyde, make them so sick they would not want to drink, but many of them still would drink alcohol.”

Alby’s tavern family extended other forms of charity to the neighborhood. In addition to helping two families in the Hay Homes with hand-me-down clothes from their sons, Alby and Vera (who had married in 1932 at St. Vincent de Paul’s) also took in an orphaned boy of about Jerry’s age, who lived with the family from when he was 14 to 17. “My dad tutored him in the carpentry business, and later, he learned the plumbing trade from me. Dad treated him just like son.”

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From left: Jerry, Jr., Andy, Frannie, Jerry, and Sherrie Stasukinas, 1970s.

All in the Neighborhood

Jerry’s mother Vera was from the Wisnoski (Vysnauskas/Visnesky) clan, which had its own tragedy. Vera’s Lithuanian-born uncle John Wisnoski was crushed to death in a roof fall in 1928 in a mine located on Phillips Street. According to public records, Clements Wisnoski, Vera’s immigrant father (Jerry’s maternal grandfather), suffered a shattered leg in the same accident.

Like so many Springfieldians of his time, Jerry grew up on the neighborhood scale with extended family from both the Stasukinas and Wisnoski clans who lived close by and who cooperated on various projects. In the classic “tavern family” youth, he also grew up knowing Alby’s  cast of local characters and customers.

Also, when he studied at St. Peter & Paul Grade School, Jerry got to know some of the children of the second wave of Lithuanian immigrants  who arrived in Springfield after 1948. Born in Lithuania, these child “DPs” or displaced persons did not yet speak English. Jerry says, “Barbara Staken, me, and Augie Wisnosky–we were in the same class at St. Peter & Paul, and they would put the immigrant kids in our class because we could still speak some of the old language (Lithuanian).”

Parents Alby and Vera always encouraged education for their three sons, Albert, Jerry, and John.  However, though sharp of mind, Jerry suffered from dyslexia and found himself more attracted to business and the trades. After studying in the machine shop at St. James Trade School, he became a licensed plumbing journeyman, later joining the union.

Respect for Women

Jerry married his late wife Frances (Frannie) in 1957, and the two operated plumbing/heating company Springfield Mechanical for many years.Two of the company’s biggest contracts were the $2 million renovation of the piping system in the Hay Homes (which involved installing five miles of piping in occupied buildings) and the first phase of the HVAC and plumbing work for the campus of Lincoln Land Community College.

Along the way, Jerry also became a commercial real estate investor and developer, a line of business he continues today. The Lithuanian in him still lives through phrases of the language both he and his father were taught by immigrants Joseph and Rose.

Jerry has visited Lithuania and plans to do so again next summer with his own granddaughters, which leads me to my favorite strand of this story: how several generations of Stasukinas women were respected partners to their men in business as well as marriage and family life.

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From left: Brittany, Sherrie, Frannie and Jerry, Katie, Justin and wife Crystal, circa 2015.

I like to think that three generations of husband-and-wife partnerships, including the “bank of grandma,” made this Lithuanian-American family, though it suffered its own share of tragedies and problems, more resilient and successful than many others. Today Jerry’s daughter Sherrie and his granddaughters Katie and Brittany continue in the long tradition of successful Stasukinas women. Jerry also has a grandson, Justin.

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