One night at Peggy’s Tavern
Alle Amos and her friend eagerly grabbed a handful of brightly colored dry-erase markers from Peggy’s Tavern bartender Lauren Stanton.
Pushing their drinks aside, the pair quietly conspired as to what they should write on the glow-in-the-dark board. After all, their handiwork would hang behind the bar for at least the rest of the night.
Finally, Amos settled on, “If you can read this, you’re not ready for Relays,” paired with a countdown, “10 days to Relays.” Amos, 22, grabbed her beer and took a big swig.
“I feel good about that,” she said, admiring her creation.
In a city flourishing with craft beer bars and trendy cocktail spots (even a “sexy vampire” speakeasy), Peggy’s represents a decidedly different end of the nightlife spectrum. It’s a dive bar in the truest sense, but on a recent Friday night it was peppered with young people dressed in perfectly ripped jeans and short summer frocks. There was also, inexplicably, a group of men wearing, let’s call them … bold, Hawaiian shirts and shorts. At least one fellow gussied up his floral print top with a navy sport coat.
The wood-paneled bar and an earth-toned mural depicting a sort of polka/Oktoberfest scene may have screamed grandpa’s rumpus room, but the clientele looked more like extras in a Miley Cyrus music video.
Peggy’s certainly isn’t the only pub that’s popular and attracts younger people, but having been open for more than 80 years, it’s a Drake University student stalwart. Over the decades, it has become a hot spot to party before or after the Drake Relays, which kick off Sunday.
Owners Annie and Tom Baldwin purchased Peggy’s in the fall of 2014 due, in part, to the tavern’s Relays traditions. Longtime players in the Des Moines bar scene, the Baldwins also own or are part-owners of Mickey’s Irish Pub on Court Avenue, Shotgun Betty’s in West Des Moines and Wellman’s pubs in Des Moines and West Des Moines.
Starting Sunday, the small parking lot behind Peggy’s will turn into an outside lounge, and merchandise, including the famous “Peggy’s cups” bearing this year’s slogan, will be on sale. (Annie Baldwin is keeping the 2016 slogan a secret until then.)
“The bar has been around since 1935, so everybody who grew up in Des Moines, including my parents who went to Drake, have their Peggy’s stories,” Baldwin said. “My dad told me it was the first bar he ever went into. Now, that’s a memory! And I think that’s probably true for a lot of people when it comes to Peggy’s.”
The idea of “tradition” comes up a lot when talking about the lore of this hole-in-the-wall. Being open for nearly a century means people from all walks of life have passed through the watering hole’s doors.
“I feel like I am a part of something greater by working here, you know,” Stanton, 21, said from behind the bar. Peggy’s has “been open (almost) 100 years and there is just so much character in here.”
Alex Krcmar, a Drake University junior from Chicago, agreed: “The history is the coolest aspect of this place. It feels like we are carrying on the past when we come in here.”
Peggy’s roots in the area go back to the mid-1930s, according to Des Moines Register archives.
“The story goes that a woman named Peggy opened a cafe in what had been a butcher shop,” a 2011 Register story reads. “She married Harlan ‘Boots’ Fleming, who converted the cafe to a bar after her death.
“A handful of owners since Fleming have maintained the character of the place,” the story continues. “About all that’s changed has been the addition of hard liquor to what had been a choice of beer only, and the music, which has become more current.” (On Friday, Justin Bieber’s “Where Are U Now” blasted over Peggy’s speakers.)
Like her predecessors, Baldwin intends to maintain the bar’s “character.”
“I always tell people we will re-tile the floor or update the bathrooms or something like that,” she said, “but we wouldn’t dream of touching anything sentimental.”
Nostalgia literally hangs from the ceiling at Peggy’s, where almost every inch is covered with a patchwork of signed and decorated dollar bills. The exact origins of this dollar tradition are hard to pin down. An older couple told bouncer Philip DeGraffenreid, 22, that the dollars used to be stapled to the back of the bar before they moved up to the ceiling, he said.
“There are specific (ceiling) tiles for the football team or fraternities or sororities,” he said, estimating the total number of bills is somewhere in the thousands. “Now you have to be asked to put your dollar up there because they’re running out of space.”
A senior, DeGraffenreid is hoping he gets asked to leave a buck this year.
Just blocks off Greek Street, Drake’s fraternity and sorority hub, this bar — at least on Friday nights — is packed with college kids. The sign out front, “You can always retake a class, but you can never relive a party,” and the side room covered in Drake-centric photos are dead giveaways for the tavern’s normal clientele.
And, yes, being a college bar, Peggy’s has had its share of issues in the past. In 2014, the city council denied the bar a liquor license renewal when it was under previous ownership. The Baldwins have maintained their license since December 2014, according to the city clerk’s office.
Being five years out of college and hanging out in Peggy’s on Friday felt like being a foreign object dropped into an ant farm: You were noticed and not exactly wanted. But among each other, the students seemed cordial, many flitting from conversation to conversation.
Most employees were hired after simply hanging around the bar around long enough, Stanton said, so they know the patrons very well.
Like a Des Moines version of “Cheers,” Peggy’s is a place where everybody knows your name.
“I love the community here and the relationships I’ve built here,” said Amos. “These people are some of my best friends and to get to see them every week is pretty special.”
She paused: “It just feels like home.”
3020 Forest Ave.; Call 515–633–0475 for hours and specials.
Originally published at www.desmoinesregister.com on April 19, 2016.