545 N. Milwaukee Avenue - Rittner Building, Lester's Tavern
The Rittner Building, also known as Lester’s Tavern and later the Tap and Tote, has a colorful history. Located at 545 N. Milwaukee Avenue, it was built by John Rittner in 1905. It originally had storefront space, second story living quarters and a separate large barn behind the property. Upon completion Mr. Rittner and his wife occupied the building and opened a saloon. Little information is available for these early years, but his business appeared intact until Libertyville went dry in 1914 and liquor raids forced Rittner to close. After Prohibition John W. Lester opened a tavern in the building that stayed in his family for at least 27 years. Another tavern, Tap N Tote, opened in the space in the 1970s and also became a local hangout. A variety of later businesses included a string of music shops from the 1980s to the early 2000s. For many years the building underwent only minor alterations. In 1995 a portion of the rear building was demolished and a one story rear addition with a secondary storefront was constructed. Although the building has been upgraded, it still retains original historic configurations and elements such as the storefront cornice and window surrounds. An original section of wall can be viewed from the south walkway. The current occupant is the Milwalky Trace restaurant.
Backstory and Context
John Rittner opened a saloon in his new building in 1905. Libertyville went "dry" in 1914, many years before national Prohibition. Rittner stayed in business as a “dry saloon,” but numerous violations forced him to close in 1921. One potential violation occurred in 1917. Rittner was charged with selling liquor in “anti-saloon” territory. A customer who was arrested for public drunkenness blamed Rittner for selling him whiskey, but Rittner swore he only sold the man ginger ale. The Libertyville Independent, May 17, 1917, declared, “Can a man become intoxicated by drinking two glasses of ginger ale?” However, because there were no other witnesses, only one man’s word against the other’s word, Rittner was given the benefit of the doubt and found not guilty. His luck held the following year when he was charged with another liquor violation, but the case was suddenly dismissed. The State’s Attorney dismissed Rittner and fifteen others who were set for trial.
Mr. Rittner’s luck ran out after national Prohibition went in to effect. On March 3, 1921 the Independent Register confirmed that Rittner’s saloon had been closed. Yet again he was charged with the sale of intoxicating beverages, but this time he was found guilty. His place had been raided twice in two weeks and both times large amounts of liquor were found. The saloon was deemed a nuisance. Rittner was fined, jailed and couldn’t or wouldn’t pay a $5,000 bond to “assure the place would be conducted more orderly.”
The judgement was softened the following November and Rittner was allowed to rent his building to other “proper” vendors. J. Smolia and T. Spero formed a partnership and became the new tenants. The Lake County Independent, July 15, 1922, announced the grand opening of their enterprise, Libertyville Department Store, selling men’s, women’s and children’s apparel and Army and Navy dry goods. In 1924 another business opened, Cash and Carry Meat Market, operated by Leonard C. Blank, followed by Cory’s Market in 1927. A fire ignited in the building in 1929 when the tenant was Libertyville Fruit Market and the building owner was Mrs. William O’Neil. Caused by burning soot leaking out of a chimney door, the fire was largely confined to the basement. It was contained by the fire department, in spite of a much criticized delay in attaching a new hose coupling device. The building was intact and proprietors were able to reopen within days.
Prohibition ended in 1933 and John W. Lester was among the first in the area to apply for a liquor license. Mr. Lester was already a fixture in town. For more than twenty years he had operated a variety store, belonged to the Merchants Association and Masonic Lodge and was one of Libertyville’s first firemen. He opened Lester’s Tavern and operated it until his death in 1941. John’s son-in-law Frank Walkington, married to Fern Lester, had often helped in the tavern and he took over the business. Frank retained the tavern’s name and managed it until his death in 1960.
The Tap and Tote tavern took over in the 1970s, but in the 1980s the commercial space took a different direction with Village School of (Folk) Music. The venue continued in the 1990s when John Cavalier opened his music shop, About Music. Later, Karnes Music arrived. Since 2005 upscale restaurants have created a vibrant dining scene in downtown Libertyville. One of the pioneering restaurants was 545 North Bar and Grill, which used the building address in its name. When 545 closed, John Durning and Steve Burns opened Burnsies Uptown. The current occupant, Milwalky Trace moved down the block from 603 Milwaukee Avenue and re-opened at 545 in 2020.
“About Friday Night’s Fire,” Independent Register, February 7, 1929
“Additional Locals,” Libertyville Independent, (Libertyville, Lake County, Ill.: W.J. Smith), 20 Nov 1924, p. 4. http://vitacollections.ca/cmpldnewsindex
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“Fire in the Rittner Bldg. Friday Night,” Independent Register, February 7, 1929
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“John Rittner is freed, State had a week (sic) case,” Libertyville Independent (Libertyville, Lake County, Ill.: W.J. Smith), 17 May 1917, Section 2, p. 9. http://vitacollections.ca/cmpldnewsindex
“John W. Lester, Fireman-Merchant, Dies at Condell,” Independent Register, 19 Jun 1941, p. 1.
Lester’s Tavern, Cook Memorial Library, Cizek Collection, 1955. http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/cookmemo11/id/1271, Illinois Digital Archives
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“State's attorney drops 16 of the 18 liquor cases,” Libertyville Independent (Libertyville, Lake County, Ill.: W.J. Smith), 24 Oct 1918, Section 2, p. 15. http://vitacollections.ca/cmpldnewsindex
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Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society. Libertyville Township Assessor