You don't know Dick's: The history of the Old North dive bar from the people who lived it

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Walk into Dick's Den on most afternoons and you'll find rows of regulars greeting you from both sides.

On the left, you'll generally find a handful of old timers perched at the bar, many of whom have been customers for decades. On the right, you'll find framed photographs of favored patrons who have died - a collage of colorful characters who helped forge the neighborhood dive's unique personality.

The bar and music venue, established in 1964 by Gahanna politician Dick Warren, has changed slowly and begrudgingly over the course of its 50-plus-year existence (the business only started taking credit cards "six or seven years ago," according to longtime owner John Sondej), making it a model of consistency in an Old North neighborhood that seems constantly in the midst of upheaval.

Here's the story of how Dick's was built, and tales of the wild characters that helped breathe life into it, as told by the people who lived it.

John Sondej (Dick's Den co-owner, 1976-2015):This used to be Tiburzio Bar and the other side was Tiburzio Pizzeria. One brother owned the bar and the other had a pizza shop. Dick [Warren] bought [the bar] in '64, expanded it and turned it into [Dick's Den].

Ron Yednock (Dick's Den bartender, 1970-present): Dick wanted a place to get away from his wife, I think. He was a good ol' boy. He was a sports guy. He loved the Buckeyes. He created this scene - this den - as a place he could go and hang out with his buddies and watch football and drink beer. He kept the prices really low. Over the years we kept that idea together.

Sondej: We started coming here in '68. It was a bunch of old timers in here. There was the pool table in the back and he didn't have any [live] music or anything.We had a good time even though Dick didn't take much care for the place. He used to come in Sunday and empty the money out of the pool table and that was it. Lucky and Thor, they were customers in here, and when the beer truck would come they'd pay for the beer delivery if there wasn't enough money in the register. It was going downhill because of the reputation.

Aaron Snyder (Dick's Den bartender, 1998-present; co-owner, 2015-present): It used to be a really rough place. That's how Dick Warren lost his eye. A fight broke out [in the back room] and he ran back there to break it up and a guy was waiting for him and hit him with a pool cue.

Sondej: [Warren] had to get out of [the bar business]. He was a service director in Gahanna, and they told him to get rid of it if he wanted to stay in politics. [Jim Bryan] and I were both school teachers, so he knew if he gave us a contract he wouldn't have to worry about getting it back. We just said, "Let's buy the place. We can clean it up and it can be something." We ended up buying it in February '76. Then in '78 the building became available to us, so we bought the building, put the big steel beam through [the middle of the room] here, knocked out the wall and put the stage up.

Yednock: There were some pretty unsavory characters hanging around here at first. John and Jim eventually got rid of those thugs and burglars and strong-arm extortionists. But until then I was scared shitless every night. A lot of nights I'd go out the side door. I would get threatened all the time. There used to be a guy hanging around here, Morgan, and his big thing was to sidle up next to somebody and go, "Hey man, buy me a drink. Now buy me another drink." And he'd keep that up until the guy said no, and then he'd beat the shit out of him. He was a really unsavory character. There was always something going on. That pool room, a lot of bartenders wouldn't even go back there.

Sondej: We had the old-time tavern guys, like Winchester Shorty, who was always saying, "Go piss up a rope!" Or George Wills, he ended up having throat cancer, so he had a tube going down his throat that he would pour the whiskey in. We were a shot and a beer bar. We always had the saying "If you shake it we don't make it." It's sort of changed now. You have to deal with it, but back in those days it was: "If you shake it we don't make it"; "Same-day service"; "Service with a sneer." We had one can of mushroom soup [behind the bar], and we had it because the law said you had to have food. No one ever ordered it, but even if they had we wouldn't have given it to them.

Yednock: The first thing Jimmy and John did was hire this guy named Riff Raff, who was this big, really tough guy. This neighborhood was a lot different then. The university didn't reach this far. Between Riff and Jimmy [Bryan] - Jimmy's a little guy, but he's a tough guy - they finally barred all those troublemakers. Then it became a place where you could bring your girlfriend and not be afraid.

Sondej: There were some derelicts in here, and we mainly got them out of here with the tabs. When we took over it was, "You gotta pay your tabs." It would be like $60 and they were like, "I'm not paying that." Go drink somewhere else then. If anybody got in a fight here they were banned for a week - even my business partner. Jim was barred for a week one time. That was much to my chagrin because I had to work his shifts.

Snyder: When [my former boss] found out I got hired at Dick's she lost it. She was like, "You've gotta get out of there," because her uncle was Riff Raff. So she's in full panic mode … because she thinks I'm in this cutthroat place. And I'm like, "It's definitely not that. It's a jazz club. It's not this shady biker bar you think it is."

Joe Diamond rules the stage

Yednock: The stage - that used to be the beer storage space. When they put that stage in it really changed the character of the place and we started to get more music. The original idea was shit-kicking bands on Friday night and jazz on Sunday. Since then, without the intention of becoming a music club, it just kind of evolved [into one]. I was into jazz. I still am. I don't have much tolerance for rock 'n' roll. When I was doing the booking it was almost all jazz. There was some bluegrass, and one notorious rock 'n' roll band I tolerated: Dirty Billy. But he was fun. It was just good dance music.

Tim Ackerman (Dick's Den bartender, 2008-present; co-owner, 2015-present): Anybody I've booked, if they've asked me what I want, I've said, "It's your stage. I'm booking you because I trust you."

Matt Paetsch (musician): The part that's essential here is they've always encouraged musicians to come in and do whatever they want as loud as they want and in whatever direction they want. That night is your night. I think artistically that is absolutely essential now.

Krista Kitty (Dick's Den door/bartender, 1995-present): Joe Diamond used to rule this place. He was a saxophonist, and he would yell at people for being too loud.

Natalie Thomson (Joe Diamond's daughter): My parents got divorced when I was nine, so that was in '74 or '75, and my dad moved into a half double on Norwich. On the other side [of the house] he kept hearing jazz. And it ended up being Ron Yednock. Ron worked at Dick's, and they were trying to get the music going and dad was like, "I'll play some gigs."

Yednock: I lived at 74 W. Norwich, and Joe moved right next door. We were all jazz enthusiasts. We'd turn the music up as loud as we could and Joe heard all this stuff ... and he says, "What's going on over here?" At the time, Joe didn't even have a horn. He'd given it up and was taking computer classes to change his life around. He was an ex-junkie. His wife had divorced him. He was determined to totally change, so he was going to stay totally away from the music scene. But we encouraged him to get smart and get a new horn. And that's what he did. He was a beautiful musician.

Thomson: He was old school, for sure. He grew up in the small town of Newell, West Virginia. When he was young, he started playing the accordion … and then he realized he loved the sax. My grandfather was a cobbler, and the shoe repair shop was the front of their house. If my dad didn't practice his music, my grandmother would grab a piece of leather off the table to smack his hands and make him practice. Before he was old enough to gig, he'd draw on a mustache to get in to play in bars.

Yednock: [Diamond] was a significant part of the history of the place because he was the first player. Before we had a stage he would set up in front of the window. The thing about Joe, he was so tasteful, and such a quality musician, that he attracted a lot of good jazz players. And each one of them had their own project. It wasn't long after that Roger Hines and Stan Smith [started playing here]. But Joe was here every Sunday, and guys would play with him.

Paetsch: I've said this before: I have a degree in jazz from Ohio State, but my education was here. I learned from playing with guys like Joe Diamond and Joe Long and Wally Mitchel and those great bands in the early 2000s. That's where I learned to play music. It was literally in this room on that stage. But Joe was intimidating. He'd turn around and yell at you: "You're playing the wrong fucking notes!" Some guys would deal with it, and some guys wouldn't. But it was Joe's band, so you did what he said or you didn't play. I was young and I wanted to play, so I kept my head down and tried not to get yelled at.

Snyder: I do know Joe Diamond stabbed a guy outside the bar.

Thomson: There were a couple of girls who said, "It's dark and we're afraid to walk alone. Will you walk with us?" So he's walking them home down the alley, but it was a setup and there were a couple guys waiting to jump him. My dad was from New York, and he was a tough guy. Sometimes he'd be packing. He wasn't this night, but he always, always, always had a pocket knife on him, and he always had it sharp as hell. It was so old and so sharp it was almost like a needle at the point.So they jumped him and had him on his side, and this guy is kicking him in the gut, and when he draws back that leg my dad grabs his knife. So the guy thinks he's getting punched in the stomach but my dad is taking that knife and stabbing him. And that went on at least seven times because my dad said, "I brought my arm up seven times." The guy didn't realize it until he saw he was bleeding and he was like, "Something's not right."

Everybody took off, and [my dad] walks across to where the UDF used to be because there was a cop car in the lot. My dad hands him the knife and says, "Follow that siren." Because they lived right there [in the neighborhood] and they called the ambulance, geniuses they were. So the guy had to stay in the hospital a considerable amount of time because his guts were almost falling out. Then he got prosecuted and went to jail. So, yeah, they jumped my dad and kicked him in the stomach and face, but he got his licks in, too.

Paetsch: There are a lot of Joe stories. He did time in New York for drugs, and he knew a lot of those New York cats. He told me he did time with Wilbur Ware, who was a bass player who played with [Thelonious] Monk and those guys. Then [Diamond] hooked up with this woman. He told this story over and over again about how his life went wrong because of her, and she was a witch and she cursed him. I must've heard that story like 50 times.

Thomson: They had a memorial for my dad after he died [in April 2009] and so many people came. My dad made an impression on a lot of people.

Paetsch: The thing is my story is not unique. Lots of musicians have the same story of learning how to play this music in this room in Joe Diamond's band. He was a staple. You went to college and studied academically, and then you came here and played with guys like him and you have to figure it out. He was essential to a lot of guy's careers. He was from New York, and that's what they did in New York. If you've ever seen "Bird" or "Round Midnight," those are pretty accurate things. If you played too long they'd throw a cymbal at you and you'd get gone. Those kinds of situations, that's what he was doing here. He was keeping alive that tradition of small club, small band jazz music. That's just how it was. I don't think I'd be half the player I am now if it wasn't for that band.

The Norwich Marathon

Sondej: Back in the day we always had a party over there [at 74 W. Norwich], and the costs were starting to get out of hand.

Yednock: Those parties were wild. Ten to 12 kegs of beer, 50 bottles of whiskey, 100 pounds of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes. I baked bread. Me and Scott Francis brewed beer specifically for the party. He learned how to make beer in my kitchen. He's in Westerville at [Temperance Row Brewing Co.] now. He was the first craft brewer in town.

Sondej: In 1972 [American runner] Frank Shorter won the [Olympic] Marathon, so we thought, "Let's start something here." We talked to Dick about it and he said sure. The first [Norwich] Marathon was in '73. There were six of us that actually ran the first time. Eventually it got so big we had to cap it at 60 [participants].

Yednock: Nobody was in shape. You started at [Dick's] and drink two shots and two beers … then you'd run out the door to the liquor store to buy a bottle of whiskey. It was 8.2 miles there and back. The first one to return to the bar and finish a pitcher of beer is the winner, and all the girls like him. Then all the whiskey got donated to the party.

Kitty: There were trash cans [set up in the bar] for puking back in the day.

Yednock: I threw up the last time I ran it. I ran outside to get rid of [the beer] and I swear to God it was still cold coming back up. I ran in it 30 years. It was a miracle we got away with that many without somebody getting hit by a car. We were always running out in front of traffic. Guys still do it, but the bar has washed their hands of it.

Sondej: We had the marathon run where the father and son got arrested. It was really snowy and icy and they couldn't run on the sidewalks because it was all piles of snow. They got arrested and taken Downtown.

Ed Harris (longtime regular): It got to be some of the runners were so fast you could not drive to [the liquor store] and back in the traffic faster than they could run it.

Sondej: There were two brothers who ran up to Ledo's [Tavern], hopped in a cab and had the cab take them over to the liquor store. They got their booze and then had the cab drop them off at the old White Castle over there. And two runners still beat them back.

'It's like it never changes'

Synder: We're accepting of all the crazy creatures out there wandering in the world. Until you give us a reason to throw you out ... we have an open door policy to anyone who wants to be a part of our community.

Ackerman: Have you heard about Jack the Dog? There was a dog that used to live across the street behind the UDF. They used to have a hot dog machine in the bar, and every day Jack the Dog would come by and they would give him a hot dog. He would always eat one and then leave, so people started putting money on a tab for him, like, "Ah, put $2 on Jack's tab." There's some story with a baby elephant coming to the bar, too, but I don't know the details with that.

Yednock: The [Columbus Zoo] had a baby elephant they'd take to schools to show the kids, and one day in the '70s they brought the baby elephant into the bar on the way back to the zoo.

Kitty: People will come in that haven't been in for a while and it'll be like, "Whoa, everything is the same." People freaked out when we got a new bar top. They thought we were closing. Then we put the patio in and added a credit card machine and people freaked out. People saw the little Visa/Mastercard sign in the window and were like, "What?"

Yednock: I don't know how night bartenders keep up with the credit cards.

Paetsch: The first time I mentioned not having a credit card machine to [Yednock], he said, "If you're not hip enough to know how much money you're going to spend that night and put it in your pocket before you leave, we don't want you here."

Sondej: If we followed Ron's business practices we'd have been closed a long time ago.

Ackerman: They raised the price on the pool table to 75 cents [from 50 cents] in 2009 and it was like DEFCON 2. We all got called in from home and there was practically a mutiny over the whole thing. OK, OK, we'll put it back to 50 cents. Jimmy's wife told us, "No matter what you do, everybody is going to be upset."

Steven Fox (musician): There's a history. There aren't too many clubs in Columbus that have a history anymore.

Thomson: Very little has been done to it over the years, and there's a familiarity that makes people comfortable. It's like it never changes. It's like home. I know it's a bar, but these two school teachers owned it, and they made it a welcoming place no matter who you were. Young or old, when you walk in that door there's no judgment from anyone for anything. It's this weird little community. You walk in and that wall to the right is covered in [photographs of] deceased patrons who had been going there for years. Even when you're gone, you're remembered. Who does that? Who cares about the customers so much that there's a memorial wall?

Yednock: The strength of this place has always been the regulars. On those nights back when all those roughnecks were hanging here, I could look around and see who I could see that would back me up, and there was always a gang. There was always a group of guys here I knew would back me up, so I could throw my weight around, and I knew it would be OK.

Paetsch: It's a home for a lot of people - and not just musicians. They have stragglers Thanksgiving where people bring food and hang out all day. I'm lucky to have my family, but we're spread out now. We get together at Christmas, but we don't do Thanksgiving, and I still have a place to go. There's a huge sense of community, and there's a pride that goes along with this place. It's a dive bar, sure, but it's always been so much more than that.