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Milk Bar 'was like second home’; it closed more than 40 years ago, but memories flow at reunion

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 8/15/18

Business has been gone for more than 40 years, but memories are fresh

The 34 people who gathered for a reunion at Hoffer Park in Middletown on Aug. 8 didn’t all know each other, but they …

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Milk Bar 'was like second home’; it closed more than 40 years ago, but memories flow at reunion

Posted

Business has been gone for more than 40 years, but memories are fresh

The 34 people who gathered for a reunion at Hoffer Park in Middletown on Aug. 8 didn’t all know each other, but they shared a common bond.

They were all there to celebrate a place called The Milk Bar in Middletown, even though the place went out of business more than 40 years ago. Today, there’s not even a physical trace of its existence.

But Dick Wagner, 81, can immediately take himself back there in his mind’s eye. To the Friday nights when there were stores in uptown Middletown to shop in.

When you could go to a movie, and then get a hamburger and a coke at The Milk Bar — all for 50 cents.

“I practically grew up in the place,” Wagner said of The Milk Bar. He graduated from Middletown Area High School in 1956 and now lives in Londonderry Township near Saturday’s Market.

Friendships began at The Milk Bar. Wagner met Ron Couch at The Milk Bar.

“It was a place away from home” that was as good as home for the teenagers who hung out there, said Couch, a retired state police trooper.

The Milk Bar was on Swatara Street, a street that used to be just south of what is now the intersection of Ann and Union streets in Middletown.

Swatara Street no longer exists, having been eliminated when the road network in the area was redone many years ago.

Today, when you turn left at the light at Union and Ann onto 441, you run into where the Milk Bar was. It was across from where Henderson Tarp Inc. is at 8 Ann St.

Beyond that, all you need is a time machine.

Second set of parents

Wagner remembers going to The Milk Bar as a kid starting in the 1940s. He recalls multiple owners over the years, including a Mr. and Mrs. Hallye, a guy named Mooney Espenshade, and even Wagner’s uncle, who owned The Milk Bar for a period.

But the owners most fondly remembered were Roy and Esther Renn, who owned and operated The Milk Bar from 1955 to 1975, according to Esther’s obituary in the Press & Journal. She died Aug. 23, 2007, at age 93.

Roy Renn died in 1975, which might explain why The Milk Bar faded away at about that time.

Beyond that, folks at the reunion couldn’t say exactly why The Milk Bar closed, or exactly when. Some said it was from damage from Hurricane Agnes in 1972, although The Milk Bar stayed open after the flood.

Others said that the place started losing business in the years after the flood. Others blamed the road project. It might have been a combination of all of this.

People at the reunion talked of the Renns lovingly, like they were a second set of parents to the legions of teens who spent summer nights eating ice cream, sodas  and what-not at The Milk Bar.

“When you didn’t talk to mom and dad, you could talk to Roy and Esther,” Wagner said.

Brenda Via didn’t know Wagner and some of the older folks at the reunion, because she is younger and her heyday at The Milk Bar came later.

But some folks made quite an impression that Via never forgot.

“They had a really great juke box that Ron Couch used to play all the time,” Via said. She couldn’t recall the cost to play a song, but it was a lot cheaper than the $1 you pay at places today.

The Renns let you hang out even if you didn’t have money to buy anything, Via said. Via usually didn’t have any money, unless she was on a date.

“That was back in the days when the guy paid,” she said.

“You could stand outside and talk. Now, that would be loitering,” said Jeannie Welsh, to which her sister Nancy added, “We never heard of the word loitering.”

When Via was in junior high school, she went in half-day sessions. After classes, she and the others headed for The Milk Bar.

One day in November 1963, Via and her friends were walking out of The Milk Bar to go home when a man ran up to them yelling “Did you hear? Did you hear?”

President John F. Kennedy had been shot. “We ran right home,” Via said. No one had yet heard that the president had died.

The tracks

The Milk Bar was south of what people at the reunion called “the tracks.” That referred to the railroad tracks along Brown Street where Karns is today, although Nancy Lou Welsh-Emrich said the dividing line was the underpass at The Blue Room on South Union.

People below the tracks didn’t have as much money as people who lived above the tracks.

“A lot of families were poor, but we still had a good life,” said Nancy Lou’s sister Jeannie, who was at the reunion with a third sister, Donna Welsh Fallinger.

The Milk Bar was the hangout for the kids who lived below the tracks, said Barry Condran, who organized the reunion.

The parents of the kids who lived above the tracks “wouldn’t let them come down” to The Milk Bar, Condran said.

The people above the tracks looked down on the people who lived below, Condran said, pushing his nose up with his finger to emphasize the point.

Some kids from above the tracks came down every once in a while, but 90 percent of the kids who hung out were from below the tracks, said Condran, who lived close to the dividing line on Brown Street. Now 72, Condran lives on North Catherine Street.

The people who lived below the tracks were known as “River Rats,” because they lived close to the Susquehanna River, said Nancy Lou Welsh-Emrich.

The Welshes grew up on Susquehanna Street. Today, Welsh-Emrich lives about a block north, on Pike Street, although she spends her winters in Florida. Jeannie lives in Hershey, and Donna lives between Middletown and Elizabethtown.

“We were never offended by anyone calling us River Rats. We were proud of it, and The Milk Bar was like our second home,” Welsh-Emrich said.

Condran remembers going to The Milk Bar and playing games like hide-and-go-seek. There was a nearby field where you could play baseball or football. There was a swing set with maypoles.

“There was never anything planned ahead of time. It was by the seat of your pants — ‘What are we gonna do tonight?’” Condran said.

Other times, Condran and his pals met at The Milk Bar on the way to adventure elsewhere. They’d ride their mopeds and scooters to Harrisburg, or three or four carloads of kids headed out for a night at the drive-in movies. Or they’d meet at The Milk Bar before going to the dances at the MCSO building on Emaus Street, or to the Progress Fire Hall in Harrisburg.

The Milk Bar had about six booths, and a bar with about eight stools. Roy Renn did a lot of the cooking, while Esther and her waitresses served customers.

Many who hung out ended up working there. Six members of the Welsh family worked there at one time or another, Jeannie Welsh said. Dick Wagner thinks he got his first job there.

You could get hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream sodas, but Condran’s specialty was the “filled hamburgers” on Friday.

“That was our ritual,” Condran said, referring to his wife-to-be Sandy with whom he shared those Fridays. “They took filling and wrapped it in hamburger and put gravy on top. If you didn’t get there early on Friday you were SOL because it went fast.”

He and Sandy married in 1974, before The Milk Bar closed. She died in 2017.

Not looking for trouble

Despite tons of teenagers gathering every night, no one recalled much trouble ever occurring.

“If you were rowdy, they asked you to leave,” Wagner recalls. The worst thing he remembers was when some guy accidentally stepped on Wagner’s little toe and “smashed” it.

Condran said tensions rose when guys from above the tracks came to The Milk Bar and “took our girls.” But he doesn’t remember even a shoving match, let alone a fist fight or worse.

Perhaps the most sinister thing that ever happened at The Milk Bar was something Condran confesses to having been involved in.

He and others at times drove by The Milk Bar and “mooned” the people hanging out outside.

One time the people Condran mooned were his dad and stepmom, who happened to be there that night. Condran didn’t know it at the time — although he quickly found out later. He can laugh about it — today.

Reunion history

The first Milk Bar reunion was nearly 16 years ago, in October 2002 when Esther Renn’s health was starting to fail.

Condran awhile back was going through a collection of his old record albums and 45s, when he came across a framed photo of the group from that first reunion, gathered in front of the main pavilion in Hoffer Park.

Esther appears front and center, in a wheelchair with a red blanket over her legs.

“I thought it would be nice to have another reunion,” so Condran got things going.

Those gathered at this second reunion enjoyed food and cool drinks on a hot summer day, a 1963 trivia contest, “Name That Tune” and “Name That Artist” contests, and door prizes.

In place of the juke box, a loudspeaker blared early rock and roll classics like “Rockin’ Robin” and “The Twist.”

The group posed for another photo, but this time the 34 gathered was less than half those pictured in the 2002 reunion.

“I’m hoping we will have another one, but we can’t wait another 16 years. There will only be two people here,” Condran said.

In fact, after hearing from several people who said they didn’t know about the Aug. 8 reunion, Condran decided to hold the next reunion in October 2019.

He doesn’t want anyone missing out. If you are interested in attending 14 months from now, call Condran at 717-944-0536.