Since 1928, Pop’s Tavern has served as a country music beacon in Sparrows Point, sitting at the corner of Wise Avenue and North Point Boulevard with multiple neon signs glowing late into the night.
The same lights could soon go out forever, as “Baltimore County’s Oldest Bar” heads to the auction block on May 28.
“It’s time,” said Deb Maxwell, manager and the daughter of the current owner, Patricia “Mom” Gawlik. “I can’t keep doing this seven days a week with no vacations.”
Maxwell, who said she has health issues, has tried to keep Pop’s Tavern in the same family. Her father’s grandfather opened the bar a year before Prohibition, when the now-busy avenue was little more than a dirt road used by workers on the way to Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant.
“I have three boys who aren’t interested,” Maxwell said from behind the bar she’s kept for 43 years. “My mom’s up in age, and I can’t keep up with it.”
She also put the business and the acre of land it sits on up for sale two years ago.
Though Maxwell wouldn’t reveal the asking price on the record, it’s lower than you would imagine for a bar that once hosted bands like The Spinners, a “hunka” Elvis impersonators and almost a century of live country music bands, as seen in faded framed photos on the paneled walls.
“I hope if it sells, they keep it as a bar,” Maxwell said. “I want to be able to come in here for the people. They’re what make it. But it needs a lot of work.”
As a few evening drinkers pop in and out, “Esskay” Eddie Gravley fills out a Keno card and walks over to talk about his history with the bar dating back nearly half a century. As his nickname suggests, Gravley worked for the once-giant Esskay Meats.
“At least over 30 years,” says the 92-year-old former meat packer with a laugh. “It’s been so long that I don’t remember anymore.”
There’s a vintage sign over a door at the back of the bar that reads “Pop’s Tavern: Baltimore County’s Oldest Bar.” It holds the second oldest liquor license in the county as well, according to Maxwell.
“It’s definitely the oldest bar,” she said, “but no one knows who has the oldest license anymore.”
The signs over the restrooms are also historic–so much so that a patron tried to make off with one last Saturday night, according to Maxwell.
“I guess they thought we were closing,” Maxwell said. “This guy tried to take down the ladies’ room sign, which is almost 100 years old. My husband took it and put it away.”
The heyday, according to Maxwell, was the ’60s through the ’80s, when steel and iron workers and mechanics from the now-shuttered Bethlehem Steel mill would file in for post-shift drinks. As the mill’s fortunes declined, so did the bar’s.
Despite the impending auction, the bar will remain open and honor its calendar of concerts, like the Outlaw Country group The Family Tradition Band, who banged out standards from Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash on a recent Saturday and is slated to return in July.
“We’re not changing anything,” Maxwell said. “We’re staying open. The music isn’t stopping.”
She then reflected on the uncertain future of Pop’s Tavern. Maxwell said she hopes someone will carry on its legacy.
“I’ll miss the people if it’s not a bar,” she said. “I won’t miss the headaches of running it, but I’ll definitely miss our customers.”