Those gathered to mark Vassar Bar co-owner Mary Cheek’s 96th birthday included (front row from left) Karen Warner and Cheek, and (back row) Nick Colosky, Sally McGrath Reid, Cari Baker, Cookie Newton and Dale Newton. Cheek and her late husband, Gwen Cheek, bought the Town Clock tavern in Vassar in 1955, later relocating the bar up the street where it’s now known as the Vassar Bar.

Perch dinners? Mary Cheek has made a few

You could say time has been kind to the woman who, with her husband, bought Vassar’s Town Clock tavern in 1955.

Mary Cheek, who came to Vassar that year and moved the business – now the Vassar Bar – down the block in the early 1960s, marked her 96th birthday July 31.

“I always enjoyed working here,” said Cheek, known for the lake perch dinners she served with potato “home fries” that she sliced and cooked for, well, decades.

Cheek worked at Vassar Bar until age 87.

“I used to come in three hours a day and work in the kitchen for nothing – just for something to do,” said Cheek, co-owner of the bar at 120 E. Huron Ave. (M-15) operated by her daughter and son-in-law, Karen and Jerry Warner.

“I stopped doing that when I had my knee replaced,” Cheek said. “I gave up work, reluctantly, but I gave it up.”

The Town Clock was on the northwest corner of Huron Avenue and Main Street in downtown Vassar, in a building now owned by Mike Young of Mike Young Buick GMC in Frankenmuth. The building’s signature clock still projects from an exterior wall.

Cheek, whose husband was the late Gwen Cheek, has guided one of the longest-operating family-owned businesses in Vassar.

“I am proud of that, but it’s been rough the last few years,” said Cheek, whose business also has been known as the Vassar Liquor Bar due to the venerable neon “Liquor Bar” sign projecting above the M-15 sidewalk. 

“It was much busier years ago, but there wasn’t all this stuff going on inside the bar,” she said. “There weren’t all these video games in the bar. People came to the bar to hang out and visit with their friends. You don’t have to do that in the bar now.”

Vassar Bar still serves sandwiches, hamburgers and soup, along with daily specials. 

Karen Warner “buys her ground chuck from Norm’s Market in Richville and keeps it fresh all the time,” Cheek said.

Vassar Bar will start serving fried lake perch dinners on Friday nights – a tavern tradition – in September. The dinners, which include fresh-baked bread and coleslaw in addition to home fries, weren’t served during the past couple months.

But they’re appreciated beyond Vassar.

“My daughter received the most beautiful letter from a couple from Marlette,” Cheek said. “They happened to stop in here on a Friday night and they had perch. And the woman wrote that ‘I’ve just got to tell you it was the best perch I’ve ever eaten. That thin, thin crust on your perch was so good. And I could tell the home fries were homemade.’

“We cut them up from scratch. Karen cooks them the day before and slices them up, and then browns them on the grill when she gets an order.”

Cheek, who grew up in Mount Pleasant and whose parents operated the Broadway Bar once located next to the Broadway Theatre there, visits her Vassar Bar regularly.

“My daughter Mary (Kuhnle) picks me up every day at 11 a.m. on weekdays and we come down and have lunch every day,” said Cheek, who still prepares potato salad and cookies served at Vassar Bar.

“My one granddaughter says the only potato salad she’ll eat is mine,” Cheek said. “We called the woman who owns the jewelry store (in Vassar) and she came over and got two orders to go, because she loves the potato salad.”

Vassar Bar’s grilled Italian steak sandwiches “still sell well,” said Cheek, who also recommends the chicken noodle soup.

“My favorite is the rolled-cabbage soup,” Cheek said. “Karen ate it someplace and it was so good that she came home and started experimenting to make her own. She does more intricate stuff than me. I’ve gotta be quick, quick, quick.”

Various well-wishers greeted Cheek at her surprise birthday party at the Vassar Bar, including Dale and Cookie Newton of Tuscola Township, Sally McGrath Reid and Cari Baker of Cass City, Jim and Cindi Atwood of Vassar, and Cheek’s great-grandson, Nick Colosky, 20, of Vassar.

Some took turns posing with Cheek outside beneath the “Liquor Bar” sign. In the early 1960s, when the Cheeks relocated the Town Clock to the spot of what is now the Vassar Bar, they sought to promote the fact the establishment sold liquor as well as beer.

“All the bars were just taverns (selling beer) then,” Karen Warner said. “So my dad wanted everybody to know they could get a mixed drink here, and that’s why he put the ‘Liquor Bar’ sign out front.”

Bud Bender, 80, of Juniata Township, didn’t attend the July 31 birthday party but said he visited the Town Clock as a young man, recalling the time Gwen Cheek told him about one Thanksgiving night some Detroit Lions visited the bar following their football game earlier that day in Detroit.

“Gwen and Mary lived above the Town Clock and Gwen had a lady operating the bar at night,” Bender said. “Gwen told her, ‘I’m going up to bed; if you’re not busy by a certain time, close the door.’ He got upstairs and was in bed, and all of a sudden he heard a bunch of noise.

“He got dressed and went down there and there were all these players from the Lions football team. They came on a bus, I believe, heading north on M-15.”

Mary Cheek smiled at the story.

“I wasn’t down there in the bar, but I can vaguely remember Gwen telling me about some players with a team that stopped by,” Cheek said.

When asked if the Lions won that Thanksgiving Day game, Bender paused.

“I’m not sure of that,” he said.

Cheek recalled the time about 25 men took over the Town Clock.

“They were a bunch of strangers, and all of a sudden they busted into a song that was the most beautiful-sounding thing. They were a choir from someplace, headed for a spot where they had a gig.”

In its heyday, the Town Clock and, later, Vassar Liquor Bar (now Vassar Bar), served its share of perch in a city that was home to Eaton Foundry and the IGA grocery-chain warehouse. Both industries eventually closed or left town.

“When we came to town, perch was three pounds for $1, and we went through 50 pounds on a Friday and Saturday,” Cheek said. “It was a lot of work. But the price has gone sky-high, up to $15 a pound.”

Bender, a 1957 Vassar High School graduate, recalled the Vassar of his youth with fondness.

“I used to carry out groceries for A&P (on M-15) in Vassar, and later for Dean MacKay who ran a store across the street there,” Bender. “I knew everybody downtown.

“Dean MacKay was a heck of a guy. I quit A&P and went over to work for him. He was the best boss I ever had.”

Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer. He can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com. 

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