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If Walls Could Talk: Big Bear Cafe

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Big Bear Cafe is a lovely coffee shop which has warmed up Bloomingdale residents since 2007. It’s a favorite of many in the neighborhood and, for better or worse, people in other neighborhoods (this Portlandia clip is very àpropos).

It’s Friday afternoon and we’re on the cusp of a chilly, rainy weekend. So, let me say that there’s no better place to go for a nice hot chocolate, chai or cup of joe than Big Bear. Get there early if you plan on relaxing with the paper (or iPad), because half the neighborhood will probably have the same idea.

Since I’m always in a coffee mood and want to hit up a different part of the city, my next “If Walls Could Talk” will be about the neighborhood hang out at 1700 1st St. NW.

Big Bear Cafe
Big Bear Cafe

Thanks to Flickr user quinnums for this great photo. Check out the other awesome Bloomingdale photos she has on Flickr. This is awesome and so is this. Oh, and this one. I don’t know Quinn, but she takes some nice pictures. Maybe I can do the history on some of those houses.

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A stolen harness and a grand jury

Here is an old story I found in the Washington Post, dating back to December 16th, 1894:

John Russell, colored, was brought before Judge Miller yesterday on the charge of grand larceny of a set of harness [sic] worth $50 from the stable of William J. Holtman, of 1700 First street northwest, on July 12 last. Officer Foley found the harness in the possession of William Hancock, of Fourth and Wilson streets, who said he brought it from Douglas Chicester, living at 342 Pomeroy street. From the latter, the harness was traced to Russell. The court sent the case to the grand jury, remanding Russell in default of $300 bonds.

Wilson and Pomeroy streets (between 6th and 7th St. NW) are long gone, but these were in the neighborhoods around Howard University. And $300 sounds awfully steep for bail on a $50 charge.

Stop that horse!

This is a wild story, which probably wasn’t that rare when it happened back in 1910. This was on July 21st. John Schamil, of 1700 1st St. NW was the owner of a horse that went crazy and bolted through the city for two miles, pulling a buggy behind him.

Aresta, aged 5 years, the daughter of John O’Regan, an automobile merchant of 1354 Girard street northwest, had a narrow escape from death, four persons were thrown to the pavement, receiving slight injuries, and two policemen had a struggle with a maddened horse, which had traversed 2 miles of the city’s streets last night in a wild dash.

Samuel Posey, a clerk, of the Olympia apartment house, Fourteenth and Euclid streets northwest, was the first person struck by the horse. This happened at Fourteenth and Fairmont streets. Mr. Posey was thrown to the street with great force, and was treated by a physician. His injuries are not serious.

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At Fourteenth and Euclid streets, Mrs. O’Regan was crossing Fourteenth street with her baby. The mother, in an attempt to keep the horse from striking the little girl, shoved the baby carriage across the car tracks. A front wheel of the buggy struck the baby carriage, throwing the occupant out. Mrs. O’Regan, was struck by the horse, and received slight injuries. The child, apparently, was not hurt.

With one shaft dangling at its side, the animal was captured at Fifteenth and Pennsylvania avenue northwest, as it was about to dash into the windows of the Regent Hotel, by Bicycle Policemen Nolan and Cullinane, of the First precinct. It was turned over to its owner, John D. Schamil, of 1700 First street northwest.

Mark this down as something you’ll never see in Washington today. I can just imagine a giant steed thundering down the 14th St. hill, from Columbia Heights, down to U St., all along the way having shocked onlookers jump out of the way. It reminds me of this post about the Columbia Heights fire trucks.

Everything must go

The September 7th, 1910 Washington Post had a notice of an auction of all possessions from the grocery store at 1700 1st St. NW. This is clearly not good for the proprietor of the store, and it sounds like some major disagreement between the property owner and grocery store operator. And this story involved the horse owner from the previous story.

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By virtue of a decree passed in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in the case of Edith B. Fenton vs. John D. Schamel, Equity No. 29563, we will sell at public auction, in front of premises No. 1700 First street northwest, on FRIDAY, THE 9TH DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 1910, at 4:30 o’clock p.m., the following, namely: The stock of goods, fixtures, two wagons, one horse, harness, and good will of the grocery business heretofore conducted on said premises under the name of Schamel & Co., together with the unexpired portion of the lease of said premises, except as to the apartment on the second floor thereof, and a rental agreement to a stable in Reeves court heretofore used and occupied by said firm.

TERMS OF SALE–All the purchase money to be paid in cash. $100 deposit required upon acceptance of bid. All conveyancing, notary fees, and recording at purchaser’s cost. Terms to be compiled with [sic] within 10 days, or receivers may advertise and sell at the purchaser’s risk and cost after five days’ previous advertisement of such resale published in some newspaper of Washington, D.C.

WM. J. BACON, Jr.,

Ouch, things area really looking bleak for John Schamel (same guy, different spelling as the earlier horse story).

Digging through the papers, it appears as if Schamel and Fenton were business partners in the grocery store and this partnership was being dissolved in the courts.

This wasn’t the end of John’s bad luck, because in the police blotter from February 3rd, 1916 his bicycle (valued at $10) was listed as having been stolen from the Columbia Heights Arcade (where DC USA now stands). Poor John. His bad luck ended July 25th of that year when he died at the age of 35, leaving behind his wife of 15 years, Elizabeth. She would go on to live 24 more years.

You might think that was the end, but it’s not. It turns out that John’s premature expiration was due to asphyxiation caused by escaping ammonia fumes at work. That sounds like a horrible way to die. At the time, he was in the employ as the superintendent of the Old Dutch Market at 7th St. and Florida Ave. NW and Elizabeth filed a wrongful death lawsuit against them in the amount of $10,000.

Below is a photo of an Old Dutch Market (there were a few in the city) at 20th and P St. NW. Greater Greater Washington did a post on this particular one, caddy corner from Pizzeria Paradiso. The building on the left (with the car in front) is now the CVS on Dupont Circle.

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Old Dutch Market at 20th and P St. NW
Old Dutch Market at 20th and P St. NW

Ernest bought a Ford

Antique bronze cash register
Antique bronze cash register

Back in the good old days, the paper would include a list of people who had recently purchased and licensed an automobile in the District. The whole city would know your name, where you lived, and what kind of car you just purchased (they could probably gauge your wealth as a result). On October 24th, 1917 — while the world embroiled in global war — license number 60958 was granted to Ernest D. Thorne for his recently purchased Ford. I’m sure that automobile was a great source of pride for Ernest, his wife, and three sons. It was likely his mode of transportation to his job as a supply clerk at a local bakery.

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Another story about Ernest … his grocery store at 1700 1st St. NW was also ransacked on December 5th, 1925 when robbers forced entry through the front door and stole the bronze cash register, which was valued at an astounding $250.

Three youths rob a grocer and his wife

The September 11th, 1952 edition of the Post has small article on a robbery that happened in front of, what is now, Big Bear Cafe.

A grocer at 1700 1st st. nw. reported to police Tuesday that, he and his wife were about to enter their parked car after closing the store when three youths robbed them of about $150.

Carl Kaplan, 53, said one youth held and choked him while the second went through his pockets and found $120, the day’s receipts. The third bandit knocked down Mrs. Kaplan and, as she screamed, the took her purse containing $30, Kaplan said.

Sounds very similar to the muggings you hear of today, but now there are guns involved and the bounty is often an iPhone and cash.

Robber gets $200

Sounds like this corner was a hotbed for criminal activity and I’m guessing that’s because the grocery store was a cash business and any manager closing up for the night was an easy and attractive victim. There’s another mention of a mugging, this time on December. 23rd, 1967.

Jack Mehlman, 35, manager of the Big Bear Market, 1700 1st st. nw., was forced to give an armed bandit $200 shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday, police reported.

First, an afternoon mugging? That’s not good. Second, Big Bear Market? I’m going to guess that at least handful of the readers did not know the current name is a derivation of the former name. It’s really nice to see local business owners with an appreciation for history and continuity in the District.

Filling in some gaps

Here are a few more shorter stories that I came across while scanning newspaper archives.

In a July, 1928 article on the local real estate boom, it’s noted that Oscar Diskin purchased the commercial property.

In 1943, David Gilbert was running the grocery store at 1700 1st St. NW and he was fined $25 when he failed to appear in municipal court to answer charges of having flies on fruit, cakes, pies and meat. This was in an article that mentioned a rash of dirty groceries in the city being cracked down on by the D.C. Health Department.

On March 25th, 1951, the District Selective Service System ordered 89 regular draftees and 56 delinquents to report for induction. Neal McClain Jr. of 1700 1st St. NW was listed among the men, but it doesn’t mention which group he was associated with.

I came across a short notice in the November 10th, 1994 Post, which stated that the owners of Big Bear Market, Sang In Lee and Sung Nyun Lee, were banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from accepting food stamps in their store for a full year. Apparently, they had been accepting food stamps as payment for sandwich bags, toilet paper and household cleaning product. Food stamps are only authorized as payment for food products as outlined by the USDA. That said, it’s probably a product of their willingness to support the community. I say that because there is a long article in November of 1995 which talks about how Mr. Lee was a lovable neighborhood man who would do things like allow local kids to buy on credit while their parents were at work, or allow people that ran out of cash to pay at the end of the month. So, those food stamps were being accepted in an attempt to help out their neighbors.

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UPDATE: Thanks to our reader @IMGoph, you can out a photo (circa 2004) of the building prior to it becoming a coffee shop.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Stu from Big Bear Cafe for sending another cool photo. This is from Shorpy (of course) and it’s at 1st St. and Florida Ave. NW. Maybe this is the triangle in front of Big Bear? I can’t really tell.

1st St. and Florida Ave. NW (1916)
1st St. and Florida Ave. NW (1916)
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Enjoy daily

Ghosts of DC stories.