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Artifacts Recall Old Pony House Saloon



This article appeared in the Journal Herald on June 15, 1968

Artifacts Recall Old Pony House Saloon

By Hubert Meeker


          Let us say farewell to the old Pony House saloon.  About all that is left of it is the hand-carved bar and some other artifacts saved by collector Bill Eicher.

     The little “modernized” brick front last seen on Jefferson street was a far cry from the elegant post-Civil War premises known coast to coast as one of the most resplendent of male watering places.

     Built as a distinguished home by Jonathan Harshman Gorman, it later became a select “English and French School for Young Ladies” before one Jake Ritty installed his saloon nearly a century ago, hiring carvers from Barney and Smith car works to ornament half a ton of Honduras mahogany.

     A lover of bird dogs, Ritty had his animals immortalized on the corners of the 30-foot long bar, as well as casting them in bronze plaques seen on the last façade of the Pony House before wreckers went to work on it as one of the first projects in the Mid-Town Mart urban renewal area.

     History has it that Ritty also turned his saloon into something of an American industrial landmark.  He worked out the first rudimentary cash register.  He also piped water to every table in the house, and used the water power to rotate palm-leaf fans for the comfort of summer customers, a foretaste of air-conditioning.

     The names associated with the Pony House range from Buffalo Bill Cody, who rode his horse right up to the bar, to John Dillinger, who luckily didn’t mix business with pleasure.

     It was also a favorite stop for prize fighters, from early champs like Sullivan, Jeffries and Corbett, right on down to Jack Dempsey, who may well have picked up some ideas for his own Broadway establishment.

     Drinking and gaming were the traditional occupations of the male-only establishment that continued to the present day, although an even wider choice of vices is said to have been available in the early days.

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     THE MAN who saved some of the Pony House treasures is William H. Eicher of Ridgeway road, who can remember being taken to see the Pony House as a boy, an eye-bugging trip from hometown Miamisburg.

     “I had no idea what to do with the bar when I bought it,” said Eicher.  “ I just knew I wanted to preserve it.”

     He now knows what he is going to do with it.  He has literally designed a vacation cottage around it, to be built on Indian Lake.  Inside the Swiss chalet cottage built of fitted cedar logs, the ornately carved bar, with cut glass mirror at the back and the initials of Jake Ritty at the pediment, will be enshrined.

     “The fact that you have saved something like this gives you a certain satisfaction,” said Eicher.  “Of course you have to appreciate its value.  I love wood and I love wood craftsmanship.  Why, you couldn’t reproduce a work like this today for less than $150,000.”

     Hearty Bill Eicher is a typical collector.  He picked up the habit from his father, and explains the collecting bug simply by saying, “I love anything that’s old.”  He seldom misses an antique show, a sale, or the demise of an old building.  As president of United Moving and Storage company, he often has a hand in the breaking up of households and businesses and is sometimes able to combine business and pleasure.

     “I’m not a specialist in anything, but I know something about a lot of things,” is the way Eicher describes his collecting style.  In his home he will proudly and knowingly introduce you to his potpourri of riches.

     Desks, sideboards, baker’s cupboard and dry sinks in every room.  In the dining room a beautiful Early American nine-leaf ash thresher’s table.  In the living room a 1760 curly maple desk.  Clocks everywhere, including several grandfather clocks with wooden works built in Dayton and Cincinnati.  Cut glass, pewter and faience drinking mugs going back a couple hundred years.  An early Garber painting of Dayton’s first fire engine.  The compass that surveyed the Miami-Erie canal.  A Benjamin Frankline broadside advertising for horses for General Braddock’s army.  A big collection of old books and records, including Odell’s Dayton Directory of 1850, the old Miamisburg bulletins of 1868, records of the construction of the Miamisburg-Centerville toll road.  Since his family were land grant settlers in the West Carrollton area, Eicher is particularly interested in local history.

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     BUT THIS collecting instinct is a fascinating bit of human nature to think about.  One can understand the collecting of Ben Franklin memorabilia, for example, for that is rational and pedantic.  But it is a long stretch from Franklin to shot glasses from the Pony House and chorus girls dressing room chairs from the Keith’s theater.  The love of “anything old” is a more deep-seated irrational impulse impossible to explain.

     But it is lodged deeply in human nature and has something to do with man’s tenacious unwillingness to let to of his past, to claim its richness and incorporate it, however diversely and absurdly, into the present.

     It is this important human instinct that modern architecture has by and large failed to accommodate, which may in part explain why contemporary design has had to fight a hard battle to gain even very limited acceptance.

     The brave new world of the Bauhaus has now given way to the systems approach to environmental planning and design.  But it will be no more successful than the Bauhaus unless it incorporates man’s sentimental attachment to his past.  Man finds his identity in his history. Something of the Pony House must find its way into the texture of 1984.