By all appearances, McGaffer’s is a neighborhood joint with an Irish name, where the owner and patrons have a heart for local causes. However, the tavern has a colorful past. It’s not like there are skeletons in the closet — more like tombstones in the basement. 

Owner Pat Malone said the property where the tavern is located was originally owned by a Jewish cemetery company, Lehman & Gnaedinger. The company purchased the two lots in 1891 and constructed the tavern in 1914. The original owners were Minnie Taylor and her husband, Chris. Malone recalled that Chris died of a heart attack in the bar. He reportedly weighed over 400 pounds, making it difficult to get him out the door. 

In addition to constructing the two-story building that housed the bar, the cemetery company built a garage next door, where they parked the tractors and excavators, used to landscape the cemetery (Malone has since modified his building to accommodate his coolers). Remarkably, though, the company used the tavern’s basement to work on tombstones and craft cemetery benches. The mold for the benches is still there, along with some remnants of headstones and unused marble slabs. There used to be many more cemetery artifacts but they were lost in floods. 

“It was a menagerie,” Malone recalled.

Upstairs, the tavern has also changed over the years. In the rear are stairs leading to the kitchen. Malone said they used to lead to a ground floor apartment. There is also an apartment upstairs. The street entrance to this apartment has a foyer with a floor, whose tiles feature swastikas. Malone doesn’t know why they’re there but speculates that swastikas were displayed in Germany during the reign of Bismarck though the image has a long history in folk culture (including Native American) preceding the Nazis. 

The floor of the basement also displays some unusual features. Half of it remains unfinished, while the other half bears inscriptions from grave markers. Smack in the middle is Malone’s office. It’s actually the former cooler, where ice was used to cool the beer. The Monarch Beer sign is still on the door of the 6 x 6-foot office, evoking the days of five-cent drafts. 

Malone purchased the tavern in 1976. He holds the longest active liquor license in Forest Park. At that time, the cemetery company was known as Silverman & Weiss and it was run by Adolph Winkler, a Catholic. The new barkeep and the old cemetery director became close friends. 

Malone recalled that Winkler’s brother, Richie, had been club champion of the Harlem Golf Club, across the street from the tavern where the mall is located. He was killed in World War II and his name is listed on the plaque in front of St. Bernardine’s, honoring the 17 parishioners “Who made the supreme sacrifice during World War II.” Richard Winkler is listed last, beneath iconic Forest Park names like Mohr and Parichy.

When Malone started operating the tavern, there was a strong cemetery presence. Next door to the west was Soroka Monument Co., operated by Syd Kornick. Berliner Monument Co. was located to the east. 

“My first clean-up man, Joe Lo Bello, also engraved monuments at Berliner,” Malone recalled, “I used to cash the checks of the cemetery workers on Fridays.”

Meanwhile, his friendship with Winkler was memorable. The cemetery manager had one leg and Malone would sometimes help him to his nearby home. On one of these occasions, Winkler’s artificial leg came off and Winkler’s wife had to come out to help. Years later, when his old friend lay dying at Oak Park Hospital, he had one last request, a cold Heineken. Malone smuggled one into the hospital.

In 1994, when Malone was purchasing the property at 7735 Roosevelt for his beer garden, a comprehensive study was made of the property, including environmental tests. The only possible hazard was that herbicides, fertilizers and diesel fuel were once stored in the former cemetery garage. There were no reported spills, so it wasn’t considered a threat to the soil or groundwater. 

The report contains a “Neighborhood Analysis.” It states that the village’s beginnings can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Thousands of city-weary Chicagoans flocked to the village,” the report stated, “turning it into a getaway spot. They came to the Forest Park Amusement Park, the Harlem Race Track and the first public golf course in the metropolitan area. None of these attractions currently remain in operation.” 

When Malone expanded his operation to include a beer garden, he took down the village’s oldest tree to make room. He further extended his holdings to the east, purchasing the former Giannotti’s parking lot in 2001. 

Malone takes pride in owning a piece of Forest Park’s past. A history-lover at heart, he is a longtime member of the Chicago Historical Society. He plans to someday donate the cemetery artifacts in his basement to the Historical Society of Forest Park. 

For the time being, though, he enjoys being surrounded by reminders of the old days: when his tavern was home to the village’s twin industries: honoring the dead and serving drinks. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.