Donnie Jenei and Vicki Price of Stow, Ohio, dance on the bow of Mr. Jenei's boat as they celebrate a friend's bachelorette party. Mr. Jenei has been coming to Put-in-Bay for more than 30 years.
PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — A recipe that includes drinking, boating, and bar hopping in the village of Put-in-Bay makes for an interesting police log dotted with public urination and disorderly conduct citations.
But business owners, village officials, and longtime islanders say that paradigm is only a minuscule slice of life on the resort island that started as a farming community more than a century ago and has evolved into a resort town with a thick stretch of bars in the last two decades.
Gone are the days when boaters stood on the long concrete docks drinking beer. Sleeping in DeRivera Park — a regular occurrence on the island for years on the weekends — was banned more than 20 years ago.
“We are all guilty of saying bread was only a nickel and everyone was honest,” said Ty Winchester, a local business owner and president of the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce. “I think we have made some fantastic changes as a community. And I think some of that is forgotten ...”
Public urination remains a nuisance, however. They relieve themselves on trees, bushes, and the sides of buildings. Urinate behind Dumpsters, on golf carts, and within inches of an unoccupied portable toilet.
One 32-year-old Lorain, Ohio, resident was caught, shorts around her feet, urinating on the floor in the village Town Hall kitchen. She told police repeatedly that she was at her sister’s house.
From left, Cleveland residents Jessica and Marco Bruno, Lisa Altschuler, and Wendy Robinson laugh as they talk and eat pizza while dressed as pirates. They visited Put-in-Bay in late September to celebrate Ms. Altschuler's upcoming birthday.
Most are not belligerent, and even apologetic.
“I had to go really bad and I’m sorry,” a North Huntington, Pa., man reportedly told police who handed over a public urination citation after discovering the man micturating by a tree in DeRivera Park across from Frosty Bar.
Another man tried to reason with officers who asked him why he didn’t walk the few extra yards across the park to the public restroom.
“The bush was closer,” he told police.
The village issued 33 public urination citations over this last summer season. In 2006, the village issued double that amount — 67.
The citation is a minor misdemeanor and offenders have to pay an $80 fine and $85 in court costs. That’s $5,445 for the village coffers, if everyone antes up. Village officials enacted the ordinance in 2000 to do away with a more serious charge of public indecency, Mr. Winchester said.
It’s likely the second-biggest issue police have to deal with behind public intoxication/ disorderly conduct arrests, department spokesman Don Dress said. The department, which grows from four year-round officers to 25 officers on summer weekends, responded to about 2,000 calls during the season, he said.
Most are misdemeanors, but the department gets the occasional felony drug arrest or serious assault charge, Mr. Dress said.
Some of the accused end up in one of the department’s two holding cells. “They are basically drunk tanks,” Mr. Dress said. “The basis of public intoxication is that they are a danger to themselves, so they are not so much arrested as they are detained.”
Jenica Reynolds of Erie, Pa., yells while riding a mechanical bull outside a tavern at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, on South Bass Island. Every year, thousands of visitors trek to the resort island for drinking, boating, and bar hopping.
Although rare on the island, some drinking incidents over the years have had fatal results.
Bowling Green resident Zachary Brody, 27, was recently sentenced to 16 years in prison for beating to death Phillip Masterson, 25, of Westlake, Ohio, over Labor Day weekend 2011. Both had been drinking heavily, authorities said.
That same weekend, a Michigan woman riding a moped went left of center and slammed into a golf cart, rupturing the moped’s fuel tank, according to island police reports. She died about three months later.
Examples of the less serious, and possibly self-destructive variety include:
● In July, a man reported to be randomly knocking on doors on Massie Lane fled from police through a wooded area, losing his shoes and falling face first into some bushes, suffering lacerations to his feet, head, and hands.
● A Fostoria man was ordered to pay more than $27,000 in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard after he was charged with inducing panic for diving off the Jet Express while it was transporting island visitors back to the mainland late one night in 2010.
All involved alcohol.
During the height of the season, EMS runs in the village skyrocket from fewer than 10 in the winter and early spring, to more than 90 in July and more than 60 in June and August, according to records provided by Put-in-Bay EMS.
EMS Manager Keith Kahler said about 20 percent of those calls are for an intoxicated person. Others are accidents related to drinking, such as the moped fatality in 2011, or someone getting hit by a golf cart. Some are fights — he recalled at least two stabbings in the last decade.
“We get our share of alcohol-related incidents on the weekends,” he said.
Drops in the bucket
Village officials said the island is so much more than a few citations. It’s a resort getaway, and with that comes drinking issues.
Councilman Jeff Koehler said the board has discussed installing more lighting and signage to direct visitors to public restrooms — which themselves only have signs over the men’s and women’s entrances — but the issue usually falls to the wayside.
“You have tons and tons of people who are drinking, they are unfamiliar with the town,” Mr. Koehler said. “Realistically, you deal with what it is; it is a resort town and people are out to have fun.”
As for the $5,000 the village made this year? “It’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “Nobody is here saying, ‘Oh, look, another guy [urinating] on a tree — look at the money we are making.”
Mr. Winchester said it’s about making sure the island’s 450 year-round residents give visitors the experience they hoped to have. He said he sometimes sees visitors wandering outside his restaurant, Pasquale’s, but if an islander helps point them in the direction of their hotel or a restroom, the majority are happy to comply.
“We do see issues, but it’s about education,” he said.
Most visitors are there for a positive experience, said Pat Chrysler, who grew up on Middle Bass Island and has lived on Put-in-Bay since 1971.
“There’s a very small percentage of people who get in fights or cause other problems,” he said. “The majority of people aren’t looking for a fight.”
Stow, Ohio, resident Donnie Jenei has docked his 34-foot Formula at Put-in-Bay almost every summer weekend for 25 years. Sometimes he and wife, Becky, are there by themselves; other times, like on a recent Saturday as the season winds down, they were in the company of friends who are on the island for a bachelorette party.
Mr. Jenei agrees the atmosphere has changed. More subdued, though, he said.
“There hasn’t been as much partying in the last five years,” he said. “The cops have clamped down. There’s all sorts of patrols on the water, the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol ...”
Mr. Jenei is not shy about his love of partying. It’s all in good fun, he says, and he mixes it with boating knowledge and what he considers an air of responsibility. Just about a month ago, he said he tried to convince a boat full of drunken island visitors not to leave the dock.
Stay overnight, he implored; it’s much better to leave by daylight — sober.
They weren’t even out of the Put-in-Bay channel when the boat capsized and rescue crews had to fish the seven people out of the water, he said. “It’s a miracle they all came back alive. You learn,” he said.
On the same Saturday night, three generations of the Speer family from Sandusky stood outside T & J’s Smoke House watching the Ohio State vs. Wisconsin football game and playing with their 1, 2, and 4-year-old sons and grandsons. Just feet away, visitors were being thrown to the mat by a mechanical bull that sits outside the tavern.
“I think it’s as family-oriented as you make it,” said Jamie Speer, 28, of Sandusky. “Your view of it changes as you get older. You don’t want to do the same thing in your 30s as your 20s.”
A newer crowd
Village officials said the launch of the Jet Express in 1989 was one of the biggest catalysts for the visitor boom on the historical island, which began its ascent as a resort town in the early 19th century, when settlers traveled there to grow wheat and livestock, plant grape vineyards, or build docks.
On a typical summer Saturday, the Jet sells between 8,000 and 9,000 round-trip tickets, Jet general manager Lance Woodworth said. On the island’s biggest weekend, Christmas in July, it sells between 11,000 and 12,000.
The boat line bought the former Parker boat line, and revamped the ferry service. Today, the Jet has four catamarans that can collectively haul 1,061 passengers in one trip. “[The Jet] hauls in one trip what the [former] ferry lines used to haul in a day,” Mr. Chrysler said.
In the last two decades — in addition to popular drinking institutions such as Frosty Bar and the Roundhouse — new resorts, bars and restaurants, as well as expansions to existing accommodations, have popped up all over, packing in behind the main drag on Delaware Avenue and snaking around the perpendicular side streets.
According to the Ohio Division of Liquor Control, nearly three dozen liquor permits are active on South Bass Island.
Twenty years ago, the Park Hotel next to the popular Roundhouse Bar was the biggest on the island, hotel manager Phillip Boyles said. Now, it’s one of the smallest.
Bartenders and police do a good job of continuing to improve upon things, said Mr. Boyles, who grew up on the island and recalls drinkers “rolled up in sleeping bags in the park” on any given weekend. “I don’t think it’s good or bad, positive or negative. We as an island need the people to come,” he said. “I think more work needs to be done, but we will get there.”
Don Carey, 39, of Sylvania has been coming to the island since he was 4 or 5, when his parents would bring him on the family boat.
It was a boater’s world, a getaway for those drawn to the water, he said. He loves the island, but says, “It’s changed for the worst — it’s overcommercialized. The island has drawn a lot of people out here who are not boaters.”
Since he opened Commodore Resort and Hotel and Mr. Ed’s Bar, both in the mid-’90s, Ed Fitzgerald said the island has changed immensely — but for the better.
“Back then, you had a much smaller police force. You had drinking on the docks. Security forces on the island were nonexistent. We are much better off now than we were then,” he said.
Islanders insist Put-in-Bay is no different than other communities — “You can go to downtown Sandusky and find 10 [people urinating in public] in a night,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Mr. Winchester breaks it down statistically.
“When you think about the fact that we saw 50,000 people over a four-day period [for the bicentennial celebration on Labor Day weekend] and compare that to [33 public urination] citations the entire summer,” he said.
On 10 acres of property overlooking the lake on the east side of Put-in-Bay, Carol Root and her partner, Mr. Chrysler, enjoy a quieter side of island life.
Ms. Root, 65, came to the island from her home in Ottawa Hills in 1992 when she and her late husband, Ron, bought the property. Ron Root had been boating to the island since he was in his teens.
“It’s not a city,” she said about why she loves living on the island. “It’s serenity. There are no malls, no fast food, no traffic.”
The couple rents the other house on the property. The most exposure they have to downtown life from their vantage point is a little bit of music, some laughter from vacationers, and the occasional overfeeding of apples to their llama, Luigi, by a drunken passer-by.
Mr. Chrysler, a retired charter fishing captain, did his time downtown, admitting to “cashing a paycheck or two” at the Delaware Avenue bars. These days, they venture downtown sometimes — for dinner, to people watch, or to meet up with the “Wrinkle Club” on Sundays at Tipper’s.
“If you want to see what goes on downtown, you go downtown. If not, you stay home,” Mr. Chrysler said. “There is life on Put-in-Bay besides Delaware Avenue.”
Place to unwind
Island visitors are serious about seeing it through to the end.
A bride-to-be cradles a small cooler while waiting for the ferry, downing a last Jell-O shot before boarding the Jet ferry to the mainland.
A guy on the boat hands out beers to whoever will take them — a Jet Express crew member sighs heavily as he collects them from the guilty parties.
“It’s not like we need more,” one woman pontificates.
That’s one aspect of Put-in-Bay, Mr. Chrysler said. “Everyone needs a place to go to wind down, let their hair down, take a little time out of their busy lives, and we’re that place,” he said.
Contact Roberta Gedert at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6081.
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