After Setting 'em Up for 64 Years, Martha Van Holsbeke Has a Fine Head on Her Beer and Her Shoulders

updated 02/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/01/1988 01:00AM

Elbow benders at the Midway Tavern in Mishawaka, Ind. (pop. 40,000), never need to feel self-conscious about pouring out their troubles to the bartender. Being a great-grandmother of 89, she's surely heard it all before.

Martha Van Holsbeke has been tending bar for 64 years now, ever since she and her husband, Cyriel, bought the Midway in 1924. She works from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., then heads to her house, right next door, for a little pre-bedtime TV watching and weight lifting. She took up the latter six years ago, using bean cans before she got real weights. Martha stands only 4'11", but Mishawakans look up to her—she thwarted some bikers who looked like trouble by simply locking the bar door whenever they showed up. She keeps a sharp eye on the customers at the 15 chrome-and-Leatherette stools and six tables, speedily mops up every spill on her 30-foot mahogany bar and, when someone puts Dance Little Bird by the Tweets on the jukebox, she will even kick up a nifty polka.

"Being a bartender is hard work," says Martha. "You walk back and forth, pour drinks, make people feel comfortable." That includes people like Al Ca-pone, who used to drop by during his early days. "He was just like any other customer," says Martha. "A nice guy, nice looking and good-hearted. But then later, well...he got in that bootleg business." Actually, Martha got into that a bit during Prohibition, when she and Cyriel turned out their own wine and beer, but that's just because they had learned to look out for themselves. Martha came to Indiana from Koewacht, Holland, in 1920 with her mother, her father, a shoemaker, and five siblings, and she married Cyriel in 1922. He worked at the Studebaker plant in nearby South Bend and Martha at a shirt factory until they bought the Midway. Cyriel died in 1946, and she and daughters Toni and Albertina have run the place ever since. Martha married retired factory worker Archie Van Holsbeke in 1948; he died in 1960.

Martha was recently named "Tavern Owner of the Year" by the Indiana Licensed Beverage Association, but accolades like that aren't what sustain her. She is kept young, she says, by "a love of people. You must learn to put a smile on your face and your troubles behind you. I work hard and don't worry about stress." Now, who wouldn't drink to that?

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