Indiana's Oldest Bar Snuffs Out Its Last Cigarette

May 24, 2016

A list of cleaning tasks sits on the bar of the Knickerbocker Saloon
Credit Sarah Fentem / WBAA

People have been drinking—and smoking—inside Lafayette’s Knickerbocker Saloon for almost two centuries. But earlier this spring, the historic bar decided to go smoke-free. However, the transition requires more than posting a “no smoking” sign on the door.

Knickerbocker owner Jeff Hamann says most people just don’t expect or tolerate smoking in public anymore.

And smoking rates have, for the most part, been decreasing in Indiana, dropping 2.5 percent between 2011 and 2014.

But it takes more than changing attitudes to get rid of smoke. 200 years of cigarettes leave a big mess. Hamann has spent two weeks and thousands of dollars deep-cleaning the Knickerbocker, and as his crew cleaned, he watched the color of his white towels change:

“After wiping things down, they have that distinct brownish yellowish color we scrub off the walls and the booths and the chairs,” he says.

Beyond getting rid of the insidious stale smell, many say deep cleaning is necessary to address so-called “thirdhand smoke.” Although research is still new, a growing number of scientists say there are environmental dangers that linger even after people put cigarettes out. Toxins clinging to furniture and walls have been linked to asthma and allergic reactions in adults as well as more serious health problems in children.

Research is still out on how to best get rid of thirdhand smoke, but scientists from the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory say replacing textiles, deep cleaning and repainting—all actions the Knickerbocker is undertaking—can help.

Hamann says the switch has cost thousands of dollars…not only in deep cleaning costs but also in renovations he made to his outdoor patio to appease smoking customers, who can still light up outside.

“It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, and a lot of man hours and a lot of paint, and a lot of Windex and a lot of ammonia, and it’s been challenging,” he says. “I’m not going to fib about that.”

Jeff Hamann and a cleaning crew at the Knickerbocker discuss renovations and cleaning plans
Credit Sarah Fentem / WBAA

 Hamann’s mother died last year from complications related to smoking, another factor he said played into the decision. He says it was a hard call, but ultimately he felt the bar—which received its liquor license in 1835—was due for a change.

Bar manager Debbie Walstra says fewer people expect to be able to smoke inside bars these days…and the change has opened the business to a new customer base.

Anyone can come in as far as when it was smokers, you had to commit to being around smoke for the evening,” she says. “Customers that have cystic fibrosis and whatnot and weren’t able to be around because of the smoke now are coming in.”

She mentions the bar staff feels healthier, and the Knickerbocker has recently hired an employee, also with CF, who hadn’t previously been able to apply because of the irritating smoke.

Indiana law still allows smoking in bars, but cities, such as West Lafayette, and individual owners are free to create more stringent regulations about where cigarettes are allowed.