What to do after a long day–and night–at the Illinois State Fair? The after-Fair, after-hours mecca for everyone from carnies to Hell’s Angels to local movers and shakers was the Skyrocket Tavern, right across the street from the main pedestrian entrance at Gate 2, near the intersection of Sangamon Avenue & Peoria Road. Thanks to Scott Welsh, son of the tavern’s last owners, Peter and Barbara (Bierbaum) Welsh, we finally have some photos to go with memories he shared on my blogsite in 2014.
According to Scott: “The Skyrocket was known as a rowdy place (not just during Fair Week) due to its location just over the city line on Sangamon Avenue, which allowed for a 3:00 a.m. liquor license. People streamed into the Skyrocket after midnight after having been served elsewhere for many hours.”
Peter Welsh bought the Skyrocket and the house next door in 1963 from Ules Rose after going to work there in 1958. The tavern had been opened by Lithuanian-American Kostie Welch (Wilcauskas) in 1945, then bought by Rose (whose daughter Barb married Charlie Foster, Jr., the son of Ann Mosteika Foster, long-time music director and organist at St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church).
All seven Welsh children and their mother Barbara worked in the tavern at one time or another, and its position next to the Illinois State Fairgrounds attracted a cast of characters few places in town would see.
According to son Scott Welsh, “It was an education for all of us. The stories of the SkyRocket are legend, including visits from the Hell’s Angels, dignitaries hanging out late night, and many ‘disagreements’ between patrons handled with flying fists. My dad Pete ran a tight ship and was respected by most for not putting up with a lot of problems. He was smart in that he hired off-duty sheriff’s deputies as his bar ‘backs’ and doormen.
“There were many great characters that frequented the Skyrocket, and a few infamous ones. Sunday breakfast conversations between Mom and Dad usually consisted of a list of people who became ‘barred,’ and asked not to return. You could write a book just about the carnies who came in every year.
“I remember a guy named Studley Jefferies, who had formerly worked for the Busch family at Grant’s Farm in St. Louis. He spent his later years working at the barns on the fairgrounds. Some of these people didn’t have family, and my Dad would invite them to Thanksgiving dinner, much to my mom’s chagrin. He inherited a long-time bartender named Frank Ballog, who was a true gentleman bartender. He was missing an index finger, and told me a girl bit it off when he tried to kiss her.
“The SkyRocket featured mostly country-rock music with bands like Gail Day, Country Dawn, and many other local groups.
“During Fair Week, there was always something happening. For many years, my dad Pete had his own beer truck in the parking lot. In about 1975, when I was 10 years old, I once hawked every space in the parking lot for $3 each. I thought I was rich, but Dad was so pissed I took all the spaces, he had smoke coming out of his ears!
“The SkyRocket served food until the late 1960s, then only during Fair week, when my mother ran the kitchen. Interesting in that she grew up right across the street from Bozis’ Tavern, and down the street from Alby’s (two other Lithuanian-American taverns).
“My Dad, Pete, was a professional baseball player. He came to Springfield in 1956 to play in the Jack Rossiter Baseball Camp (former St. Louis Brown) at Memorial Field. He had been signed by the Washington Senators the year prior. He rented a room from my Great Aunt Wanda Bierbaum, and met my mother on a blind date when she was 15.
“They corresponded over the next few years, and he came back to Springfield after his baseball career ended due to bursitis in his pitching arm. Mom and Dad married in 1958, and he started to work at the Skyrocket the following week.”
The family lived in the house next door to the tavern until its seventh child was born and they moved to Lake Springfield in 1968.
Thornton Oil purchased the land in the early 1990′s.