The bear on the Main Street fountain represents the village of Geneseo. But notice the solitary focus of its gaze – the front door of Kelly's Saloon.
Don Heit does the same thing every morning at eight when he opens the bar. It's hard to separate the place from the soft-spoken man that helps run it. His narrative runs into Kelly's, and vice versa.
Heit began working at Kelly's when he moved to Geneseo about 25 years ago, just five years after Kelly's opened. He worked as a miner and was transferred to dig out the salt deposits near Geneseo. Since his late teens, Heit has worked in coal, salt and zinc mines across the United States and Canada. Much of the time he was 1200-1400 feet underground. He says he felt "almost like a groundhog," but didn't mind the unusual work environment.
Stop in for a drink today at Kelly's and you'll get a good picture of how it was when he started out. "If you would've come in here in 1985 – nothing has changed in this bar," Heit says.
Looking around, he revels in the names covering the walls, chairs, doorframes and bathrooms. Looking up at the ceiling, he exclaims, "I think the reason it's yellow is because of when they smoked in here – it used to be white!"
Heit walks around pointing out appliances he's worked on through the years, but he reassures that he only fixes them enough so they work – never to the point of changing too much.
There is the cigarette machine, the old General Electric refrigerators that "kachunk" when he opens them and the jukebox stocked with Neil Diamond CDs. "It's probably the best one in town, but it's as old as the hills," he says.
Kelly's is open 365 days a year, and Don has seen most of them. "Even Christmas Eve we're open," he says. "[People] come in after church – and before."
Those are the regulars. They sit at the bar with crosswords, boiled eggs and cocktails. Heit calls out names like Smitty and Butterball as men walk through the door. He doesn't ask what they are drinking – just pours the usuals.
Part of why Heit has stayed at Kelly's so long is because the business welcomes the whole town. "It's not a college bar and it's not a townie bar – it's both," he says. "You know, certain bars cater to certain people, but not Kelly's – it caters to everybody."
Heit has seen a parade come and go through that front door – new faces every year, and some old. "I remember all the people that used to come in here," he says. "Then they come back – they come off Wall Street and everything, every profession, but they still come back to Kelly's." He laughs that having a drink at Kelly's is a graduation requirement in this town.
Sometimes, Heit says, people try to recreate what Kelly's has developed over time. He says it's impossible. "I mean, how could you make a place like this … it just grew."
Heit retired from his mining days last month and figures he'll move back to Canada, where he grew up. He will be missed, but a part of him will remain. The bear will remember him, and so will Kelly's regulars. The same goes for all of us – every 21-year-old clutching his first stiff drink from Kelly's, and every senior nursing a beer, thinking about what lies ahead.