FALMOUTH – What counts as local history? What is a museum? Can a dive bar like Grumpy’s Pub be something of a museum because it has old signs of old businesses that people remember on the wall?
“No real thought was put into any of it,” said Dave Fenstermaker, the owner of Grumpy’s, which has almost 50 signs of Falmouth’s iconic businesses of the past on the walls and ceiling.
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And yet there may be no better single place to go to understand the recent decades of cultural history in Falmouth than Grumpy’s.
“We’re on the Falmouth Historical Society’s walking tour around the Green,” said Fenstermaker.
“No,” he said.
For what it is worth, it is Cape Cod Wave’s opinion that all museums should serve beer.
Start with the sign that isn’t there: “Right now if we are going to hang a sign, we are looking for something that has been a Falmouth icon,” said Fenstermaker, a Falmouth native who graduated from Falmouth High School in 1987.
“So if you know anybody who has the Brothers 4 sign, please let me know,” he said.
The story goes like this: Back when a lot of people who are now older than they think they are were younger than they could have imagined they were, there were two fantastically packed bars across the street from each other in Falmouth Heights – the Brothers 4 and the Casino-By-The-Sea, which was on the beach.
Everyone of a certain age in town remembers those places. The Casino-By-The-Sea sign now hangs in Grumpy’s.
The Casino sign, said Fenstermaker, was dropped off one day by “unknown hooligans.” But the Brothers 4 sign has not yet been located, he said.
The signs evoke stories, and yet as in any bar they blend into the background and become merely wallpaper. But what wallpaper.
“It will be funny when people will notice them,” said Fenstermaker. “There’s so many of them. On occasion, people will look up and ask, ‘When did you get that one?’ And the answer is six years ago.”
“You can spend a lot of time looking at them and not seeing them all,” he said.
Besides the signs on the inside walls and ceiling, there are more signs on the outside walls of the long rectangular warehouse type building, and even more in storage.
“Storage is a very kind word for what we do,” said Fenstermaker. “We have them under the pool table behind the bar, in the hallway, in the shed.”
“I love them all equally,” he said. “Some of them are pretty cool.”
Fenstermaker, with two partners, purchased the bar, then called the Century Irish Pub, in 1998. He, along with his wife Melanie, are now the sole owners of the bar.
When they first got into the old Century Irish Pub, said Fenstermaker, “Every square inch of it was covered with shamrocks and Irish blessings. It was like a shamrock bomb went off in there. I love St. Patrick’s day but none of it was good.”
“We used garden rakes to get the stuff off the walls. The only thing holding the building up was habit,” said Fenstermaker. “The carpenters were falling on their backsides with the amount of shamrocks and thumbtacks stuck to their feet. When they walked, it sounded like they were tap dancing.”
When they finally cleared everything out, “It was just a garden shed inside. It was sheet rocked and painted. They ran out of money and had to open. When they did, “the only thing in the bar that wasn’t white was the bar. There was literally nothing on the walls.”
Part of the building had been built in the 1740s, said Fenstermaker. “We wanted to make it look like the interior of an old barn.”
While the woodwork proceeded, the three owners were having trouble agreeing on how to decorate the long rectangular building. “One person would have been happy with beer signs and liquor signs,” he said, while he favored more antiques.
In the midst of that discussion, one day about a year or so after Grumpy’s opened, Fenstermaker was driving when he saw the owner of Quaker Bonnet taking down the sign to the business.
“I asked him, what are you going to do with that?” recalled Fenstermaker. “He said he was going to throw it in the dumpster. When I offered to take it, he was happy not to have to deal with it.”
Fenstermaker took it to Grumpy’s. “No real thought was put into it. I drove by. I saw the sign. I said to my partners, ‘Look what I got,’ and the reaction was, ‘Oh cool.’ We hung it up.”
A second sign was dropped off. And then a third. “It just happened,” said Fenstermaker. “They came one at a time.”
Most of the signs are donated. Some are found and donated. “A bunch of the signs that are in here actually don’t belong to us. They are on loan,” he said.
“It just started happening,” he said. “There never was a plan. To this day, there is not a plan.”
And yet he reluctantly admits that he has become a collector of Falmouth memorabilia – even now displaying matchbook covers from Falmouth businesses past on the walls. In addition, there are frames of old T-shirts of businesses, such as the Brothers 4.
The walls and ceiling are near full, and now the outside wall is taking on signs. “We’re getting to the point where we’re becoming selective,” he said.
“These aren’t businesses that were around for three or four years and then closed,” he said.
Bartender Chris Stone said, “In the summertime, I’ve had customers come in and say they haven’t been to town for 30 years, and then they’ll look up and see a sign and say, I remember that place.” He smiled. “Pretty cool,” he said.