By Leigh Ann Rutledge
When rock band Motley Crue announced their final tour they said, “All bad things must come to an end.”
When Chris Jones, Coley’s Reunion committee member, announced the final Coley’s Stag Reunion, he stated, “All good things must come to an end.”
Like Crue fans, Coley’s patrons, friends and family members will have a final blow-out, complete with t-shirts, and a chance to look back on 20 years of reunions.
Those attending the Nov. 24 reunion will share, not only reunion memories but, memories from the original establishment which was called, “An Institution of Higher Learning.”
Coley’s was a place were dignitaries from all over visited and where fathers brought their sons and grandsons, often for their first legal beer. Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes brought an entourage into the bar and praised Coley’s bean soup.
“We figured 20 years is a good time to stop. Everything runs its course,” Jones explained. “Plus, we have all done this for a long time.”
The current reunion committee is comprised of Jones, Lynn Poplin, Denny Roudebush, Scott Tasker and Brad Wheeler.
At one moment the group was somber talking about the final reunion; the next laughing at memories. All agree, what they will miss is the people – enjoying themselves and sharing memories.
The word “memories” is mentioned a lot by the group. The dictionary defines “memory” as retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions, etc., or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences. When you think of the thousands who passed through the original doors or the reunion doors, memories abound.
In 1930, Russel Cole, a young man of 18, just out of high school, opened the business in Carrollton during the depression. After his brother, Henry, returned from WWII, he joined Russel and together they created a tavern that became a Carrollton institution. With only one restroom, women were excluded from Coley’s. Known for hot chili, bean soup and beer, Coley’s was frequented by young and old. After 57 years, the doors to Coley’s closed for good in November 1987.
After the bar closed, Russel and Henry would invite a few people to gather in Russel’s home the day after Thanksgiving. This continued until Russel got older and was not up to hosting the event.
“We began gathering at Russel’s house in 1988,” Chuck Lutton explained. “We ate chili, had some drinks but the main thing we did was bulls**t.”
Once Russel stopped hosting events, Bill Wohlwend, Lutton and Poplin formed a committee and began cooking chili in the parking lot (where Coley’s once stood) or in the alley behind Sweeney’s. Russel would attend along with anyone interested.
In 1997, the committee joined forces with the Carrollton Civic Club and decided to hold an official reunion in the former C&K Shoe Store. Proceeds would go to the Carroll County District Library.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Lutton stated. “It was overwhelming. We sold out of chili within an hour and a half.”
“We bought the town out of ingredients, kidney beans, seasonings,” Poplin added.
They estimate over 300 people attended the first event, including Margaret Mesler, who dressed as a man, so she could attend!
The committee auctioned off 10 numbered bowls resulting in the reunion raising $10,000.
“We really thank Tom Johnson for letting us use the building,” Lutton acknowledged. “He allowed us to put our feet on the ground and test the waters.”
THROUGH THE YEARS
After a successful first reunion, the committee thought of holding one every five years. Instead, they held a second one in 1998 in the Ed Long Inc. building on 2nd St. SE. The reunions continued yearly and were successful, growing bigger each year.
Beginning with the 1998 reunion, proceeds started being donated to the Russel and Henry Cole Scholarship Foundation for scholarships for Carrollton seniors. At last count, profits from reunions and donations from individuals and companies in the area, have allotted more than $65,000 worth of scholarships to Carrollton High School and Buckeye Career Center graduates since the 2001-2002 school year.
Through the work of the committee, the Russel and Henry Cole Scholarship became a permanent scholarship within the Carroll County Foundation. This will allow the scholarship, and Russ and Henry’s name, to continue indefinitely.
Many items have been auctioned during the reunions such as, NASCAR items, photos, an original Lynn Fox painting and bowls. Members figure the bowl marked number one from the first reunion is the item sold for the most money, over $1,000. Former Carrollton resident and television personality Ray Dunlap served as auctioneer several times.
As the years went by, the reunion outgrew Long’s building and a new building was constructed on Jim Long’s property along Canton Rd. The reunion moved to its permanent home in 2012. Coley’s memorabilia are on display inside the building. A portion of the artifacts were donated, the majority are privately owned.
The Coley’s Stag sign is a reproduction crafted by Jim Myers and his employees and is the exact size of the original. The paint and neon work was done by the late Mel Price, his son and other employees. The sign was moved from the Ed Long building to the Canton Rd. location by Mel Wacker Sign Company of Massillon.
In 2016, more than 1,000 people attended the reunion.
“One of the things we are most proud of is we never had any trouble [with people],” Jones noted. “There was a few times it was close, but we were able to talk people off the fence.”
“It’s a fun time,” Lutton added. “The reunion allows for you to all get together and see each other once a year.”
One year, a man from Cleveland saw an advertisement for the reunion and drove down for the day.
Unfortunately the reunions haven’t been all fun and games.
“In 2014, we had a power outage,” Poplin stated. “We had just started getting things ready to open and they said the electric would be out five to six hours.”
Fortunately, Scott Tasker and Corey Yeager were able to rent generators from Grady Rentals.
Once a breaker blew prior to reunion day and all the bean soup spoiled. Everyone had to pitch in and made a new batch.
There was the year of the missing person – when “cut-out” Flo, of Progressive Insurance fame, attended the reunion at the new building. She hasn’t been seen since.
Another time, a man threatened to sue because he had to pay $10 for a collectible bowl with unlimited chili or bean soup. He thought he was getting ripped off.
However, the worst thing that did (and didn’t) happen was when the W.C. Bunting Company factory burned down one week before the reunion. They are the company that manufactures the collectible bowls.
“Fortunately,” Poplin said, “the bowls were not damaged. Even the artwork, which was in a different section of the building survived.”
Everyone was laughing saying, “It was bad. We thought it [fire] was going to give one member a heart attack.”
One of the best things about being associated with the Coley’s Reunion, Jones noted, is “Everyone has had this happen to them. No matter where you are, if you are at an Ohio State game in Indiana and you say you are from Carrollton, they remember Coley’s. So many say I went to that bar with my dad.”
People who frequented Coley’s Stag said it was like a family. No one went there to cause trouble. You respected it like it was your own home.
John Rutledge frequented Coley’s and remembers one time when Henry was making bean soup, he was just pouring ingredients into the pot and he turned to a customer and asked if he had anything in his pockets he wanted to put in the soup. Another time, John took his children in and Henry asked, “What you blokes want?” and they all laughed.
However, John had the opportunity to see another side of Henry. Henry and his wife, Fran, lived beside John and were like grandparents to his children. In their later years, John and his wife, Susan, cared for Henry and Fran.
“They were very caring people. They cared about Carrollton,” John said. “Henry helped in getting the library moved to its current location.”
Bill Wells went to Coley’s pretty much his entire life. The first time he went in was with his grandfather when he was 8-10 years old.
“Of course, when we got home, Mom wasn’t too happy Grandpa Foster had taken me in a bar,” he said.
When he was in high school, he would shoot pool with his friend, Dave Kean at Coley’s. Wells said it was a good time, a place for guys to hang out, but you got set straight if you didn’t follow the rules.
The last night the bar was open Bill bought the Budweiser light with the horses that rotated above the bar for $750. He and wife, Cyndy, had just gotten married when he brought the light home. It was covered in grease and dirty. Cyndy said Bill could put the light up but it had to be cleaned first.
“We cleaned it and hung it over our bar in the kitchen that night,” Wells said. “It’s still there 30 years later.”
Wells has supported reunions, in his words, “By coming to enjoy the reunion and buying chili bowls.” He has purchased every number one bowl each year except one year.
“Bryan Shaw and I were bidding on it and I let it go around $600 or $700,” Wells explained. “Bryan was there with his dad, Tom. After he purchased it, he brought it over and gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it from him but I finally accepted it because Tom and I were good friends.”
Bill ate lunch at Coley’s every Saturday with his dad, son, Chad, and the Brooks boys when they were all working at the junk yard.
“The joke,” he said, “was we had to sell a part so we had money to buy lunch.”
Wells loves the reunions because in the beginning they were a fellowship of the older guys who grew up there. He plans to attend the last reunion.
“It’s going to be a sad time. It meant a lot to us,” Wells said. “I hate to see it end but, like the bar, all good things must end. It will be a sad day and night.”
Coley’s Stag even has influence on people who weren’t even born when it closed or when the first reunion was held. It’s a tradition that carries from generation to generation.
Travis Rutledge, 18, who has attended reunions with his dad, Todd Rutledge, and uncle, Lynn Poplin, said, “Coley’s was a way for me to see how much impact a bar and a hot bowl of chili could make on several generations. It’s amazing to see how even 30 years after it closed, the good ole boys of Carrollton still meet up to celebrate good times in Russ and Henry’s institution of higher learning.”
“Every day senior year Bob Wiley, Dustin Moser and I ate lunch at Coley’s,” said Todd. “We ordered the same thing, two Mountain Dews, a grilled cheese and a bowl of chili. One day it would cost $2.50 the next day $3.95. It just depended on what mood Henry was in. God forbid you question him on the cost.”
The final reunion will run from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. or until they run out of everything. The menu will include chili, bean soup, oyster crackers, ham sandwiches, peanuts, Pepsi products and beer. The final banner, which measures 3×8-foot will be the only item auctioned at the reunion.
T-shirts will be available on a first come, first served basis for $20 each. Guests will have the opportunity to purchase seasoning packets to allow them to make their own “Coley’s chili” at home. Anyone who wants to view pictures from previous reunions, can visit www.coleystag.com.
“We want to thank the entire Carrollton community, individuals who have donated and those who have attended and supported the reunions,” committee members said. “We specifically want to thank the Long family for the generous use of their facilities.”
The committee admits there are so many to thank for their support over the years, including the Carrollton Civic Club and the Cole Family, who gave the committee permission to hold the reunions and use the name.
“We owe them a huge thank you for allowing us to continue the tradition of Coley’s memory,” Jones said.
“There was something special about Russ and Henry,” Lutton said, with a catch in his voice, “and all of us growing up there.”
In the eulogy given at Russel’s funeral the question was asked, “Why and how does a bar generate such loyalty 12 years after it shut down? Why are there reunions for what is now a parking lot?
The answer is simple-people generate loyalty, not places…Memories are important, not places. And memories are portable-where they are shared is not important, but rather the spirit which causes people to want to come together to remember.”
The eulogy closes saying, “One of Russel’s favorite pieces of advice was, ‘Have a good time when you’re young – and then when you are old, you’ll still have the memories.”