By Emily Cervone
Living In the Ledge
“I swear, you could make a made-for-TV movie with the stuff that comes out of this place.”
Butch Bates, the day shift bartender at legendary Preston’s Bar in Grand Ledge, excused himself as he greeted his co-worker with a and bear hug. The bar just celebrated its centennial in 2014.
“The best thing about this town, and bar, is that no one has a real name,” said Bates. “I guess Grand Ledge is a cliquey town. I feel like people might be intimidated when they come in here. But they shouldn’t.”
Bates pointed out a few of the local characters at the end of a long, handcrafted wooden bar: “North Dakota,” “Danny Boy,” “Joey,” “Peaches,” “Boozer,” “Whopper,” “Tiny” and “Green,” who were getting their start on mid-afternoon drinking.
“But we do treat everyone like they’re family,” said Bates. “I mean, we even give good-looking women a standing ovation!”
Over the years, Preston’s Bar has established quite the clientele. However, it wasn’t always serving spirits. Established in 1914 by Joe and Lucia Preston, the business has taken on many forms: a fruit stand, an ice cream parlor and a grocery store, said Elvira Cundiff, daughter of the original owners.
Cundiff has seen the bar go through many changes over the years, but still recalled some of the more undocumented times of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“All six of us worked there as young kids,” said Cundiff. “I worked behind the bar at just 13 years old. I would drive to Grand Rapids with my dad every week to pick up fresh produce and bring it back.”
The rule in the family was that everyone had to work in the business until they were married, said Cundiff. However, regardless of the many helping hands, Cundiff still credits her father, Joe, to the reason for its early success.
“My dad was good to everyone,” said Cundiff. “He gave his heart to this place. If someone needed food, clothing, anything—he would give it to them. He had a huge heart.”
After Joe and Lucia Preston had passed, the family continued on the business as normal and strived to uphold the traditions that were previously set. One of the many great-grandchildren, Victor Preston, makes his livelihood at the bar his family owns.
“I started working weekend shifts, then gradually was given more responsibilities,” said Victor Preston. “Now, I’m opening and closing every day.”
Victor Preston said that the bar has evolved immensely since he began working there in high school, particularly with the age range of the customers and their favorite drinks.
“You get the people in their 40s and 50s during the day, who just want bottled beer,” said Victor Preston. “But then you see some in their 20’s, and they want the shots and mixed drinks. And now, we have 12 taps instead of four, with some Michigan-brewed beers. The locals really enjoy supporting those.”
Preston said that the clientele is almost predictable at this point, having established solid relationships over many years with them.
“It’s like clockwork,” said Victor Preston. “I know when they are coming in, what beer they’re getting, where they’re sitting, how many people they will be with, and when they’re leaving.”
Nicole Marker and Jeff Bryant are two of these people, who started their two-year relationship at the bar on Valentine’s Day of 2013.
“It was really quiet and I wanted to play some music, so I headed over to the jukebox,” said Marker. “But so did he. So I asked if he wanted to pick a song, and we’ve been talking ever since.”
Marker and Bryant frequent the bar at least twice a week, but say they wouldn’t normally visit a bar so often if it weren’t for the atmosphere of Preston’s.
“It’s a friendly, hometown bar,” said Bryant. “You know when it will be a chill night, and when it won’t be where you can come in and dance. We like to think of it as our place.”
As for the rowdier nights, employee Candy Ruedisueli says they can compete with just about any college bar around town.
“We have water pong, DJs, Jenga, a dance floor, a jukebox, we sing together,” said Ruedisueli. “We have fun, and it makes them stay—and come back.”
Ruedisueli also waitresses, serving up a surprisingly substantial menu that is a favorite among locals.
“Friday around six, we start getting people who want meals,” said Ruedisueli. “We have freshly-made sandwiches, salads and burgers. I mean, the burgers have only been around since 1980, but the customers love ‘em.”
Including some menu items, only a few things have changed over the years at Preston’s Bar, Victor Preston said. There is a touch-screen jukebox, new chairs and minor remodeling, but they still retain the same structure as it was 100 years ago.
“My grandpa built all of these tables himself,” said Victor Preston. “He put everything into this place. It’s been in the family that long, been here so long—I mean, even through the Great Depression. It kind of amazes me.
“We’re going to keep it going. As long as we possibly can.”
Vic Preston: 517-627-2006
Picture #1: Bates talking to his customers
Picture #2: Locals congregating
Picture #3: Looking into the archives
Picture #4: Recreation at the bar