It is a staple of the local music scene, yet somehow it remains unknown to many. It was by chance that I found my own way to it. Many years ago, in the days of the big bands at the Woodfire in Dowagiac, I came to know the musician Tom Moore. Over set-break discussion, he told me tales of the fantastic venue just off the corner of Smith and West 4th Street in Mishawaka, Indiana, of a blues bar embedded in a building that once housed Prohibition-Era rebellion, and hosted the likes of Al Capone.
The Midway Tavern, known also as Martha’s Midway, uses the tagline “keeping the blues alive” and it is a statement beyond marketing. Friday and Saturday nights, the venue plays host to some of the most talented musicians in the region and those traveling through. On a cold day this recent Winter, proprietor Albertina Wassenhove sat with me to recount tales of the music, her family, and the legend that is the Midway Tavern. She stands before me at a proud 88 years, the survivor of four cancers and a stroke, still working any evening a musician is playing and often on other nights. She was recently the honoree of an appreciation night at the tavern, celebrating her continued energy and involvement. She emphasized to me the importance of keeping busy and interested, telling me how it has kept her young and alive.
“I think people that retire and don’t find something have more of chance of dying than other people,” she said.
She described to me the history that led her to operating the venue. Her parents, who came to the United States from Belgium in the 1920s, acquired the bar where her father had been a frequent patron. The owner at the time, frustrated with the interactions between his wife and some of his customers, offered them the business and the building, even helping them to finance it. Early on, the establishment became marked with the personality of her mother, Martha. As Albertina explained, her mother did most of the work behind the bar while her father would socialize with the customers.
Albertina described her earliest memories of the venue. Her mother would not allow anyone under 21, including her, inside. Instead, she was forced to peek in from an adjacent doorway. The rule was lifted, however, when music was playing.
“That’s where I learned to dance,” Albertina said.
She became more involved at the age of 21, helping to tend bar and wait tables, along with her husband, stopping only to raise her children. When Martha died at the age of 91, Albertina and her sister took over the operation. Eventually, in 2003, she would come to run the bar entirely herself.
The Midway Tavern evolved over the decades to become the staple music venue it is now. The front section has the bar and holds pool tables and dart boards for the tournaments that occur multiple days each week. The back section holds the stage, plentiful tables and booths, and, of course, the dance floor. Once a space with a dirt floor and a pot bellied stove, it was remodeled in 1933 and remains largely in the same condition as it was then. Over the years, the music came and went, with the room closed for part of the 60s and used as a game space for people playing Belgian versions of bowling, darts, and archery. Albertina opened it back up in the 1980s, after being approached by a local musician.
“Somebody came in and wanted to know if they could use the back room to practice,” she said. “I thought, gee, that sounds pretty good.”
(Part 2 will continue in next week)
These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.