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A colorful history: The Nestor Tavern, one of Fargo's oldest surviving bars, plans to close

FARGO - The end of the road appears near for the Nestor Tavern, and proprietor Doug DeMinck said his customers have gotten nostalgic."Some of the old customers are asking for bits and pieces of things," he said. "I've got one that wants a section...

Doug DeMinck is the owner of the Nestor Tavern which is closing at the end of the year after decades in business on the edge of downtown Fargo.Dave Wallis / The Forum
Doug DeMinck is the owner of the Nestor Tavern which is closing at the end of the year after decades in business on the edge of downtown Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO - The end of the road appears near for the Nestor Tavern, and proprietor Doug DeMinck said his customers have gotten nostalgic.

"Some of the old customers are asking for bits and pieces of things," he said. "I've got one that wants a section of the bar. I've got another one that wants the Nestor sign on top of the building."

The old bar, known by some as the Nasty, has seen ups and downs.

DeMinck said the Nestor that he bought 12 years ago was kind of a "dive bar." He said he's tried to turn it around as a venue for live original music, from jam bands to hip-hop, though he admits it's had a hard time shaking its reputation.

DeMinck said his lease ends Dec. 1, but he has the option to extend it until March 1, a possibility he's considering. After the Nestor closes, he said, he expects developers at the Kilbourne Group, which owns the property, will raze the building to make room for apartments and retail stores.

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"I'll be sad to see it go, but things move on. One door closes another opens," he said.

Kilbourne, which has been mum about its plans, is known for preserving history, but there isn't much here despite the nostalgia of customers. At least not at 1001 NP Ave. N., the address the Nestor has called home since 1970.

The Nestor as an institution, though, has roots deep in Fargo's history.

The pool hall

The Nestor began life as a tobacco store and a pool hall a few blocks northeast at 614 First Ave. N. when the old C.R. Stone block was still standing. The Polk City Directory for Fargo listed a Nestor Cigar Store in 1913, though it's possible it had been there much longer.

The Nestor's first owner, Frank J. Hughes, had owned a pool hall called Hughes & Cline at the same address as of 1907.

Nestor was, at the time, a popular brand of Egyptian cigarettes.

City liquor-license records don't go back very far, so it's difficult to say when the Nestor became a bar, though it's clearly one of the oldest in town. The City Directory from 1948, when the Nestor was actually listed as a bar instead of a pool hall, suggests the only bars remaining today that are older are the Empire and Bismarck taverns.

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North Dakota was a dry state even before Prohibition, and alcohol wasn't allowed until after Prohibition ended in 1933. The Nestor could have served alcohol legally some time after that, but it continued to be listed as a pool hall.

By 1946, when Sid A. Ackerman, owner of a liquor store, and Herbert J. Franek, a bar manager, bought the business from Hughes, the Forum reported that it had long had a bar and cocktail room.

Ackerman, a former cop, kept a gun under the counter at his store. The Forum reported in 1938 that he held a would-be robber at gunpoint until police arrived. Three years later, he wrestled and held a counterfeiter for police.

Franek, who later sold his interest, had been an orchestra director, business manager for a union, manager of the American Legion's clubroom, the state's first workplace safety inspector and commander of a Legion post.

In 1957, Ackerman sold the business to brothers Delvin and Wilmet "Bill" Swanick. At the time, the Swanicks owned just the Empire, but they and their descendants would go on to own a small empire of alcohol, including the Bismarck, Rick's Bar, Speck's Bar, Royal Liquors and, most recently, the Round Up Saloon.

Under the Swanicks, the Nestor would become a pure tavern.

Swinging new digs

A new era for the Nestor began in 1970.

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The city's Parking Authority bought the C.R. Stone block, razed it - historic preservation was not popular then - and replaced it with a parking lot and a cinema. Downtown was heading downhill, and the city hoped it would get a boost from the project. The cinema was razed in 2001 and replaced with Cityscapes Plaza in 2009.

The Swanick brothers rebuilt the Nestor on an old used-car lot at the edge of downtown on NP Avenue. The interior had "cranberry red wallpaper, light oak paneling and furnishings," The Forum reported. DeMinck added that it was actually velvet wallpaper.

DeMinck said he remembers his dad going there with business associates. "This place was full of suits and ties back then, a businessman's bar when it moved here in the '70s." He said he also heard Penthouse magazine had listed it as one of the Top 10 pick-up joints in the country because it was popular with divorcees.

How the Nestor fell into disrepute isn't clear to him. Maybe it was because businessmen stayed away as society frowned on men drinking after work, he said.

Maybe it had to do with downtown's decline; revitalization didn't really kick into high gear until the early 2000s.

After Brad and Bob Hemerick bought the Nestor from the Swanicks in the late 1990s, DeMinck said they tried a '50s rock and roll theme, but he didn't think that helped.

Maybe being at the edge of downtown made the place a natural magnet for drunks, who make it their last stop after being kicked out of other places downtown.

"In our location here, we still tend to get a lot of police calls," DeMinck said. "We deal with people coming this way and they'll come in and we won't serve them, and they'll get upset because we won't serve them because they're already drunk."

Rough reputation

DeMinck said he tried to change the reputation of the place when he bought it from the Hemericks.

His kids were part of the growing jam band scene in 2005, and those were the bands he booked, he said. "We went with the young hippie kids. They're well-behaved."

Out of that came the Grateful-Dead inspired mural on the Nestor's west wall. Canadian graffiti artist Chris Dyer painted it at the request of a jam-band promoter DeMinck knew. The marching bears popular with Deadheads, though, wore outfits reflecting the variety of music genres the Nestor has come to be known for. It's one of the pieces of the Nestor that can't easily be preserved, which DeMinck said is a shame.

Though he's selling his liquor license to Rick Nymark, the owner of Tailgators Sports Cafe, and has no plans to buy another license, DeMinck said he's not necessarily out of the business yet.

He said he can't say what the future holds yet, but it likely won't involve another bar called the Nestor even though he owns the rights.

It's got such a "negative" ring, he said. "That's part of the downfall of the bar. It became a dive bar, and things happened through the years. I guess a guy got stabbed in the arm here 10 years before I had it," he said. "If you ask people about the Nestor they say, 'That (expletive)? You going there?'"

The Nestor through the years

1907: Hughes & Cline, a pool hall, is listed at 614 First Ave. N. in Polk City Directories.

1913: The Nestor Cigar Store is listed at 614 First Ave. N.

1919: The Nestor is first listed as both cigar store and pool hall. Hughes was likely the owner but wasn't listed as such until 1928.

1932: North Dakota votes to repeal Prohibition, and bars can operate in the open, but hard liquor was banned until 1936 after another vote. The Nestor was not among the first to apply for a hard-liquor license but may have served other alcohol.

1946: Sid A. Ackerman and Herbert J. Franek buy the Nestor from Hughes. A Forum story indicated it was already a bar.

1957: Brothers Wilmet and Delvin Swanick buy the Nestor from Ackerman.

1970: The city forces the Nestor to move to 1001 NP Ave. N., an old used car lot. The city builds a parking lot and cinema on the 600 block of First Avenue.

1998: The Nestor is listed as owned by Brad Hemerick.

2005: Doug DeMinck buys the Nestor.

Sources: Polk City Directories, Forum archives, city of Fargo.

Related Topics: RESTAURANTS AND BARS
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