Maxine’s Tap Room to celebrate 70 years in business in Fayetteville

Maxine’s Tap Room operator Hannah Withers looks at old photos from the early days of the bar, and founder Maxine Miller

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

One of Fayetteville’s longest-running and most well-loved watering holes is celebrating a major milestone next month.

Maxine’s Tap Room, the bar opened by entrepreneur Maxine Miller in a wooden shotgun shack on Block Avenue in 1950, is preparing to celebrate 70 years in business in Fayetteville in March.

Hannah Withers, who along with her husband Ben Gitchel, have been managing operations for the bar since 2013, said the party will honor what the bar has been, and what it has become.

“Ben and I are super excited and honored to be a part of a bar that has been here 10 times longer than we’ve been operating it,” said Hannah Withers, “We wanted to celebrate Maxine’s 70th anniversary here with a little bit of her, and a little bit of us.”

The festivities will begin later this week, with a new installation by crochet artist Gina Gallina Duling, who plans to cover the building in colorful yarn beginning on Feb. 29. The installation will help commemorate national crochet month, as well as the 70th anniversary of the business.

Also in the works is a celebration on March 18 featuring throwback prices on Budweiser pitchers, commemorative glasses, live music, and more. A bartender reunion to document old stories from the bar is also in the works.

Withers said that while she didn’t known Maxine personally, she has learned a ton about her since occupying her space on Block Avenue these last few years.

“She was a fascinating person, as a women business owner, who has accomplished so much,” she said. “To establish a business that has survived for 70 years, as someone who has worked in small business, that is just legendary. Plus, she was such a character.

“I feel like we’ve gotten to know her more and more just as we’ve been in her building,” she said. “We still have her former customers and employees reaching out to us with stories. I have a feeling we are going to be getting to know her for a lot of years to come.”

Miller with friend and frequent performer, Jed Clampit

Photo: Courtesy, Maxine’s Tap Room

The festivities on the 18th will include live music featuring a house band of some of the bar’s current favorites, including Dana Louise, Adams Collins, Noah Richmond, and Dick Darden.

There will be commemorative pitchers for the first 70th guests, and a few other surprises in the works, Withers said. More info about the celebration is available via the Facebook event.

Former employees who are interested in having their stories recorded for the occasion can email maxinesonblock(at)gmail(dot)com.

A colorful history

Maxine Miller opened the bar on March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, in 1950 when she was just just 24 years old.

She borrowed money to open the business from her parents, and it was so successful early on that she was able to pay back that loan within a year.

“She was so young, and there weren’t a lot of women-owned businesses back then,” said Miller’s great niece, Andrea Foren, who Miller entrusted with the bar she started after she passed away in 2006. “It’s pretty crazy what she was able to do.”

Once the bar opened, it quickly found favor with working-class folks in Fayetteville.

“Back in the 50s and early 60s, when Maxine’s was a basically a white wooden shotgun shack and the beer was 20 cents, the clientele was more downscale,” read a Flyer comment from a former patron who remembered the bar’s early days. “Mostly guys dressed in coveralls who worked with their hands or, in the morning, Social Security recipients, glad for a convivial spot to relax and yak.”

Over time, though, the bar evolved, and the clientele changed with it. Famously, Miller developed a penchant for hiring players from the Razorback football team to tend bar, and to help out when things got a little out of hand with patrons who’d had a pitcher or two too many.

That helped her tap into a college-aged crowd that propelled the bar to even more success.

In the 1960s, Maxine was ready to expand, and in 1963 she tore down the small building where she got her start, and hired famed Fayetteville architect Warren Seagraves to build the building in which the business is still located today.

Maxine’s on Block Avenue before renovations

Photo: Courtesy, Maxine’s Tap Room

The building was built in brick, with no windows other than a small one at the front door at Miller’s request, as a security measure.

“I think that was the minimum that building codes back then would allow,” Foren said.

Traditions old and new

And old jukebox loaded up with country classics. The ding ding machine. Cheap pitchers, low light, Budweiser signs, Jed Clampit, Kidd Miller, and Miller’s famous closing-time refrain of “You’ve got 10 minutes to drink up, and get the hell outta here.”

All of these were traditions of the old Maxine’s Tap Room, before it was re-invented, and invigorated by the new ownership that took over in 2013.

Maxine’s back in the day

Photo: Courtesy, Maxine’s Tap Room

But just as you don’t make it to 70 years in business without establishing some closely-held traditions, you also don’t make it without being willing to adapt and change.

Foren, who ran the bar herself for several years before turning it over to Withers and Gitchel, said that Miller herself told her to be ready to evolve the bar in a discussion about leaving the bar

“I remember having a conversation with her before she passed away, and her telling me that eventually, things would have to change to keep (the bar) going,” she said. “And even though I knew that, I really tried to keep things the same for a long time.”

In the fall of 2006, just two months to the day after Miller died, an after-hours fire severely damaged the interior of the building, destroying the old green stool that was Maxine’s seat for so many years, and requiring repairs that closed the bar for nearly a year.

She didn’t see it at the time, Foren said, but looking back, she feels that the fire was a sign for what she needed to do.

Maxine’s after the 2006 fire

Photo: Courtesy, Maxine’s Tap Room

“I think that was Maxine telling me it was time for things to change,” she said. “I resisted it for a long time even after that, thinking I wanted (the bar) to be just how she left it. But that was her, telling me it was time to let Maxine’s become something else. It took me a few more years to realize it, but she was right.”

A new era

There are obviously ups and downs for a business that sticks around for seven decades, but things have been mostly up lately.

Operator Ben Gitchel (right) works behind the bar during the renovation project in 2013

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

Foren made headlines in 2010 for voluntarily making the bar smoke-free, earning her the 2011 NWA Smoke-Free Business of the Year Award for the efforts.

Withers and Gitchel, along with business partners Rebekah Champagne (Terra Tots) and Matt Champagne (Hammer and Chisel) remodeled and reinvented the bar in 2013, have taken the bar to new heights.

The new owners remodeled the business that hadn’t changed much at all since Maxine opened it in the 60s. Work included several improvements like repositioning the front door, removing the drop ceilings, recovering the bar with copper, and remodeling the bathrooms.

The new renovations, though, still included nods to the bar’s long history.

“We feel like we’ve changed the atmosphere considerably, but it’s in the same stroke,” Withers said back when the bar originally re-opened in 2013. “We have also embraced the history of Maxine’s and the history of Block Street with the atmosphere and the decor. We kept the deer head that’s been here forever, Maxine’s stool is mounted on the wall, we found some old photos that we’re going to hang up.”

One of several absinthe fountains stands near the edge of the newly recovered copper bar inside Maxine’s Tap Room

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

In addition to the decor, the new owners overhauled the menu as well, with a new focus on vintage cocktails from the 50s, the era when Maxine’s originally opened.

The new look Maxine’s, with fresh takes on old-timey cocktails was an instant hit, and the bar has been pretty much hopping ever since.

Last year, Maxine’s made USA Today’s list as one of the 10 best places to get a drink in the US compiled by renowned bartender Kate Gerwin.

The changes, and the success of the business, are exactly what Miller would have wanted, Foren told us.

“I think she would love it,” she said. “She was always happiest when the bar was hopping on a Saturday night. She told me she just wanted to see it busy and thriving again. I think if she walked in now, seeing it as busy as it is would definitely make her smile.”

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