Singer-songwriter Ray Fogg opens the season in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, as the Round House Bar holds its annual ‘whiskey light’ celebration. ‘All the friends of this harbor will reunite, look for the whiskey light,’ he sang.
THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio —The first flicker of one small, neon-red light shining inside a boisterous bar signifies that party season has started once again on South Bass Island.
Hundreds of revelers on Sunday packed Put-in-Bay’s Round House Bar, long a popular watering hole, and roared as they raised their glasses toward the bar’s red, white, and blue canopy-covered ceiling.
They came to reunite with friends, shake off the hard winter, and cheer the Round House’s reopening and spring’s symbolic return.
One April day, the whiskey light — a modest sign hanging in the bar’s arched window that spells out “whiskey” in capital letters — switches on announcing the bar is open for business.
The annual event carries some of the same high spirits and expectations of a New Year’s Eve ball drop. It holds the promise of a new season and more parties to come.
PHOTO GALLERY: Put-in-Bay’s Round House Bar
The whiskey light even has its own anthem, performed to applause by singer and songwriter Ray Fogg as the big moment took place.
“All the friends of this harbor will reunite, look for the whiskey light,” he sang.
A few hours before that light glowed, Jordan Davenport of Catawba Island flashed a thumbs-up sign as he sat on the front porch and put the day’s festivities into a snapshot perspective: When the sign goes on, it’s the “beginning of summer.”
Exactly how long people have been gathering at Round House to observe the tradition is not clear. At some point, what had been a small celebration shared among islanders began to attract visitors looking to toast warmer weather and future good times.
“Round House took what was just opening the Round House and turned it into an event,” said Maggie Beckford, executive director of the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, in a telephone interview a couple of days before the big event.
She worked at the bar for a couple of seasons in the late 1980s, back when the tradition was a smaller but still significant occasion.
“The whiskey light’s pretty much synonymous with the Round House on the island,” she said.
The bar actually opened for the first time this season on Saturday, but Sunday’s lighting made it official and drew throngs of visitors who boarded the Miller Ferry for a trip to the island.
“It’s the beginning of the year, it’s the beginning of the season. It’s just absolutely necessary to be here,” said Shanda Slack of Gibsonburg.
She came with a group of about a dozen others who visited Put-in-Bay. Many of the village’s shops and hangouts were still dark, but several businesses and bars welcomed patrons.
Locals and tourists spilled out of the Round House and onto its porch and patio. They wore nautical stripes and Hawaiian shirts — a friendly, if tipsy, crowd.
One man donned Mardi Gras beads, and another sat at a table with a blue beer bucket on his head.
Tom and Phyllis Ackworth came from Youngstown to see the celebration. He wore a Frosty Bar hat to honor another popular island spot and a Round House sweatshirt.
“We wanted to just experience it since we come up here all the time,” Ms. Ackworth said.
The Round House boasts a unique history, beyond the lore of its iconic light. As its name suggests, the circular building features a big, bulbous dome. It opened in 1873 as the Columbia Restaurant, where patrons enjoyed beer, wine, and popular treats such as cottage cheese and ice cream, according the Round House’s Web site.
A photograph from about 1890 shows the building with a banner strung across the street touting its name as the Round House. Signs on the porch advertised “all kinds of bottled goods.”
In the 1880s, streetcars stopped in front of the Round House, which offered tea service.
The originally white building was painted red by the McCann family, who purchased it in the 1950s and still own it.
Last spring, New York artist Scott LoBaido repainted the front with a red, white, and blue flag motif in recognition of the Round House’s 140th anniversary and the Battle of Lake Erie bicentennial.
For many, such as John Roesch of Columbus, a trip to Put-in-Bay is family tradition. He’s been coming to the island since he was a child. He ice fishes from a shanty during the winter — the one that just ended brought the best ice he’s seen in 25 years — and boats here in the summer.
Sunday, he spent some time enjoying the Round House’s unique vibe.
“It’s now time to put on some shorts,” he said of the timing and attraction of the whiskey light event.
“It’s kind of a cult following. It’s like it’s written in the wind, you know. It’s actually just a good excuse to get out of the house.”