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by Karen Donley-Hayes ’86, ’06
Anyone who has spent time in the Hiram community over the last 50 years probably knows “Friendly Bob’s”. For many, the familiarity is born of personal experience; for others – especially in the last couple decades – the familiarity is handed down, passed on as part of Hiram lore and community legacy, a colorful history weaving together Hiram, beer, Garrettsville Beverage and the store’s “friendly” father and son proprietors, Bob Schnell Sr. and Bob Schnell Jr.
Garrettsville Beverage opened in 1958 and was the local purveyor of beer, wine and liquor until the shop was sold in 1988. During those 30 years, the store welcomed and employed Hiram students, staff and community members, generating strong connections. Those connections – not only the individual friendships, but also the Schnells’ connection to the College – didn’t dissipate when the shop closed.
The friendship and personal connections transcended the business name – even the local colloquiality – and both Bobs knew friendship and camaraderie beyond the store walls. Although Bob Sr. died in 1996, Bob Jr. still lives on the family farm in Hiram, and he fondly remembers the small-town atmosphere, the local history and gregarious nature of the community.
“We sold beer and wine,” he says. “It was the only place around, unless someone wanted to drive farther away. So we kind of had a lock on it there for a while, locally at least … That was our advantage, I guess.”
The addition of a walk-in cooler also provided something not available elsewhere. With the size of the business and relatively small volume of customers, “we’d never get rich doing this,” Schnell says, “and to stay in business, you had to do something.” There was only so much cold beer available, and Schnell saw a great opportunity to put in a walk-in cooler right next door.
The addition was well-received – and well-visited. “It made a really big difference for us; it was always packed [with people]. It was always about 40 degrees in there.”
The cooler was a prime illustration of a critical aspect of the small community relationships: trust. “That was a big issue. Inventory control then isn’t what it is now with bar codes and everything. That cooler was always open, people were always going in and out of there,” he says. “Maybe some people did pilfer stuff, but very, very seldom. One time, I got a letter from a couple of former college kids – I don’t remember who they were – but they sent me some money with a letter that said, ‘We went in there and we took some beer and here’s the money for that.’ They sent me money a year or two later.”
“Some of the seniors would come in on a Saturday and sit in the cooler and drink beers. They’d pile ’em up and pay for them when they left. They’d sit in there all afternoon.”
Bob Sr., was the original “Friendly Bob,” a moniker conveniently interchangeable with Bob Jr. Schnell says after his father bought the store in 1958, “he ran it, but he liked his time off. I got out of the service in 1969 and I started working in 1970. I worked more, and he worked less.”
The store placed ads in Hiram yearbooks and other publications, congratulating the graduating classes. The taglines changed very little over the years: “Home of ‘Friendly Bob.’” “Let Bob help you adjust to college life.”
One of the things Bob Jr. thinks about now that he never really thought about back then, was receipts and accounting. “People would come in and buy things, bring it up and set it on the counter,” he says. We’d just write it out on the bag, and that was it. No one ever questioned it. Nobody questioned our math or anything. That would never happen now, but back then it was just how it was. No one ever asked us to double-check our math.”
Hiram faculty and staff, not just students, were regular patrons. Schnell recounts fond memories and relays amusing anecdotes. “They would come in, and we’d sit around in the afternoon and have a beer; I remember Hale Chatfield, John Koritansky, Yuksel Ismail…” and the times when “Thom Worden ’76 and Rich Pejeau ’66 and I would go down to the basement and play pingpong. Then if someone came in, we’d run back upstairs and wait on them … It’s not quite the same way anymore. It was trusting, like I said. About me adding up the prices, about [leaving the store open while they were downstairs].”
The current business – Randall’s – has changed the look and feel of the building, including putting in outside seating and an open oven between the bridge and the building. Schnell notes, Randall’s “always doing things in there. He’s got steps now going down to the creek. I remember real early on, we’d take all the cardboard boxes down to the creek and burn them.”
So what is Friendly Bob’s connection with Hiram – then and continuing now and in the future? The name is part of the Hiram culture; even folks who came after the store closed have heard of “Friendly Bob’s”. Silver Creek is also a thread that runs through the history of Hiram, the Schnells and Friendly Bob’s store, literally and figuratively. The creek’s headwaters are just north of the Village of Hiram, and flow through the Schnell family property, then through sections of the Field Station property, then into Garrettsville and past the back door of the beverage store. Schnell has made the land and these resources available to current students and Field Station staff for projects and hands-on research. And he’s arranged that when he’s gone, his land becomes part of the Field Station. It’s a valuable opportunity because Silver Creek is one of Ohio’s only remaining cold-water streams. This adds more of the rare waterway to the Field Station; in 2010, the stream’s headwaters were donated to the College through the gift of 37 acres, creating the Masters-Beal Wetland Research Preserve.
The stream changes course itself all the time, Schnell says. “I’ve seen big changes, ox-bows and whatever, in the 60 years or so I’ve walked this property. Probably the biggest change starting in 1954.” And because there’s not much development adjacent to his land, he says he sees wildlife all the time, including coyotes, big blue herons, king fishers, owl and deer.
“My grandfather bought this piece of property in 1926,” he says. “My grandfather’s wish was always that if something happened [to him], he wanted the college to have [the property]; and my dad had those wishes, and I do too.”