By Sabrina Hornung
Exhibit recreates and examines the iconic bar’s legacy
There’s something to be said about a good bar. The really good ones serve as a sort of community living room, bringing folks from all walks of life under one roof. If you’re really lucky, these sacred spaces can even serve as a cultural hub.
Ralph’s Corner Bar in Moorhead just so happened to be one of those spaces before it was demolished in 2005. Not only was it the oldest bar in the area: it became a rock n’roll destination, a creative hub and overall home for the countercultural weirdos and misfits of F-M, and we mean that as a positive.
This month, the much-awaited Ralph's Corner Bar exhibition opens at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County (HCSCC.) The folks at HCSCC have spent hours collecting histories and artifacts to recreate the iconic barroom. HCSCC will be partnering with Jade Presents for a variety of music events to celebrate the exhibition.
What made Ralph’s so special, and what inspired the curators to recreate this iconic music destination?
We had the opportunity to chat with Markus Krueger, HCSCC Programming Director, about the upcoming exhibit. And interestingly enough, it started out with mention of a Ralph’s urinal that wound up in a Jamestown ball diamond of all places…
Markus Krueger: So it's weird. With this exhibit, we were trying to find all these things, and just talking to people and finding out where they are. You know, we all have our holy grail items that we wanted to find. And then we'd find it and then we'd look for another holy grail item and we find that and so that's one of the cool things about this exhibit – it's not just an ordinary bar.” There have been a lot of bars over time that have closed in Moorhead over the past 150 years that we've been a town. I think for the Pink Pussycat we got like a swizzle stick. But for Ralph’s, with a lot of help we have most of the furniture accounted for.
High Plains Reader: That is so wild! Why do you think that was?
MK: It was the center of a community of people and so many different kinds of people. We've done over 40 recorded interviews with people and that doesn't even count like a million or at least 100 informal interviews, and just me engaging with the Ralph’s Facebook group.
What everybody always says is that Ralph’s had such a variety of different people. It was a place for misfits, it was a working class bar, it was a classic Minnesota neighborhood dive bar, and it was probably the most important independent music venue between Missoula and Minneapolis. It's cheers and CBGBs at the same time.
It was a special place where all of these different groups got along together. It was a place where you could be openly gay in the 90s and these tables of people who would normally be just persecuted throughout town would become friends with, you know, the mechanics in the next table over, or the punks in the next table over. When you're at Ralph's, everybody's just kind of mingling together. And it was important to a lot of people.
HPR: What initially drew you to curate an entire exhibit surrounding Ralph’s and the Ralph’s experience?
MK: Jacinta Zens and Ryan Anderson were both Ralph's regulars, and they approached us. They asked us if we'd be interested in doing an exhibit about artwork inspired by Ralph's or something about art and the artists who grew up in Ralph’s. There's a lot of them like Lonnie Unitas, Amy Jo and Aesthetic Apparatus. We could easily have done that, but then we thought, what we really are is a history museum.
And there is so much history in this one building. When it was destroyed by order of the city in 2005 it was the oldest bar in Fargo Moorhead. Before that, it was a saloon, and it was a speakeasy. We knew all these stories. We knew so much of the old stuff because it's always been a place of interest.
Mark Piehl, the archivist and our greatest local historian – this was his bar in the 80s. And this was my bar, the first bar I've ever loved. And so, we've always been interested in the history of the place, but what we didn't know was the recent history.
We knew what we saw from our booths, everything in living memory. And so, to tell that story, we needed the help of everybody. So we interviewed a lot of people, we call them “history harvests.” We went out to the old Kirby's, now Rustica, and we just invited everybody to come and bring your Ralph’s stuff. We document it, scan your photos and give them right back to you. We want to know what posters you have.
Then we did maybe a dozen short interviews with people about Ralph's and then the second history harvest was at Junkyard and First Avenue promo and Sol Ave kitchen, so we worked with local businesses to let us take over their spaces and conduct interviews. Those interviews led us to pinpoint certain people who we knew we had to talk to. And through all of these interviews we pieced together not just the living history of Ralph’s, but also what was it about this place that was important?
That was the thing that we kept asking ourselves. It's like, Why? Why are we making an exhibit about this place? We know it's important, but what is it about it? The exhibit is trying to answer that question of WHY this place? Why should anybody care about this dive bar in Moorhead that was torn down 17 years ago?
HPR: How did Ralph’s become such a music destination? Along with our local heroes, big names like the White Stripes, Green Day and Elliot Smith managed to come through town.
MK: Bob and Don Wood were the owners. Don bought the building next door and to the north of his dad's historic bar. He bought that in 1984. They did a remodel in about like 1987/88 to connect those two buildings, because they were separate buildings. Then there was a band called Second Wind. A lot of their members still play together as the Deb Jenkins Band. They hung out at Ralph’s and were regulars. They asked Bob and Don if they could use the back room as a practice space for their band practices and those turned into performances, so they were probably the first band that played at Our Place. Well, I'll get back to that. I'll have to modify that.
The next really important thing was Bubba. There was a bartender named Bubba Scott Garmin– He was hired in 1991. He was a punk and he got permission from Bob, who was the bar manager, to start booking punk shows in the backroom.
The big legacy that Bubba instilled in Ralph’s culture was booking shows and just having it be a preeminent destination for punk bands – for bands of a certain kind of sound. I guess it starts off with punk. To play for gas money while traveling across the country, between Missoula and Minneapolis, that's a long drive. So you need another tank of gas and a place to stay for free. Hopefully.
I would hang out in the back, at the back door, before I was 21, listen to the music and try to hear it from there. I'm not the only one who did that. There's so many stories that people have of listening to God Head Silo when you're 16 years old out the back door or the John Spencer Blues Explosion, or something like that. So I guess Ralph’s was a part of growing up as a counterculture kid in Moorhead. Ralph’s was part of my cultural life before I even set foot in it. It was where the music was. It was like a countercultural hub.
It wasn't just music, it was art. One of my favorite portions of this exhibit is the art of the rock poster. All those posters that hung on the walls of Ralph's were made by MSUM art majors. Some of them were in bands, some of them were friends of the bands, but they just used their creativity and their artistic expression to be part of this cultural hub, they made band posters, they made rock posters. Some of them today are pretty big deals on a national level. So it was visual arts, it was literary arts, this was the bar where college professors and students drank together. You’d find a lot of professors in the booths. Tom McGrath was an MSUM professor and a poet. He would pretty much teach classes there–or maybe semi official classes.
17 years later, a lot of these creative types that were hanging out at Ralph’s grew up to be community leaders, in business or in government or in culture, in the arts or and music, so it's fun to revisit it 17 years later, and now that we all have gray hairs it's time to look back at that –it's time to look at punk music, for example, as a historical movement in American culture that should be examined in a History Museum.
It should also be stressed that at the same time, this was totally a working class bar. It opened at 7am, so the Crystal Sugar workers getting off the overnight shift and all the other people getting off their overnight shifts could come to Ralph’s at 8am and then the five o'clock crew and the family of regulars from all walks of life that just met there became family.
HPR: What's it like as a historian going back and revisiting memories, interviewing your peers and seeing events you lived through unfold as history?
MK: That is interesting…you're making me think now. With alcohol history, the history of bars relates to our community's relationship with alcohol, whether it's during the saloon era or pre-prohibition, prohibition or the 1960s, it's a topic of interest of mine. With the Ralph’s exhibit, I am able to ask myself okay, what do I wish that somebody could tell me about the Midway Saloon in 1910? And I wish somebody could tell me what it was like to be at the Rex Hotel in 1930, back when it was a speakeasy. What was it like to be in a Moorhead speakeasy?
What I can tell people is, I want to gather those kinds of stories for what it was like to be a Minnesota neighborhood bar in 1985 in Moorhead at Ralph's. What was it like to be at a punk show? What was it like to be in a punk band in western Minnesota in 1990-92?
And what was it like to be a punk growing up in Hallock, Minnesota? So in one sense, being a historian can kind of give me some questions that I want to answer, because I wish somebody could tell me that about the bars of old.
HPR: I saw that Chris Orth, neon artist and fellow Ralph’s regular, recently shared a poster in the Ralph’s Facebook group for a play at Moorhead High School that was influenced by the Ralph’s neon sign.
MK: Yes, that is total serendipity right there. Moorhead High didn't know that we were doing the Ralph's exhibit. We didn't know that they were doing “Rock of Ages” a play that is about rock and roll.
We're putting that poster in the exhibit because it's an example of the legacy of Ralph’s and our community. If you're talking about rock and roll, if you're talking about music, a shorthand visual for that is the Ralph's sign and everybody in town is gonna understand. So it's really a part of our visual culture. It's the route sign that equals music.
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