PERU, Ill. (AP) — Ed Yanka’s been dead for nearly 15 years, but Jon Chamlin is still becoming better acquainted with the man he called his great-uncle.
Chamlin, who resides in Chicago but is from Peru, purchased Yanka’s Tap in mid ’00s. He began restoring it with the help of friends and family.
Yanka was a cousin of Chamlin’s father, Roger, so buying it kept Yanka’s Tap family-owned.
The bar has been in the family for over 100 years through changes to its name and location. The current version opened in 1956 but was preceded by an earlier tavern.
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“Instead of a classic car, it’s a classic bar,” Chamlin said. “You can fit four people in a classic car. You can fit 40 in a classic bar.”
In the process of cleaning up the place, which was closed around the time of Yanka’s death, Chamlin came across paper scraps — documents, drawings and photos — that together painted a picture of a fragile, tormented and talented man Chamlin didn’t know.
“My only memories of him were coming in and getting an orange soda,” Chamlin said while standing in the restored bar. “He was just my uncomfortable uncle.”
Originally, Chamlin was going to clear out Yanka’s Tap for an auction.
The bar had been shuttered for about five years at that point, and it wasn’t in good shape. However, when Chamlin started going through boxes and drawers, the plan changed.
“The best thing that ever happened to this joint is he never cleaned or repaired it,” Chamlin said. “I realized I had this incredible collection of stuff.”
Chamlin found Illinois Valley-related artifacts, such as a re-elect Mayor Donald Baker poster and a Matthiessen State Park pennant.
There were pamphlets about living with depression and self-help notes in the cash register that read, “If I feel inferior, it’s by my own consent,” and, “If someone gives me a bad time, I give it right back.”
Chamlin found and organized hundreds of photo booth self-portraits.
“He wore a toupee, and he would go to a photo booth because he wanted to see how it was hanging,” Chamlin said. “He had a dear dog that he loved, and he even took photos with it.”
Hundreds of postcards sent to Yanka’s Tap over the years from Illinois Valley residents overseas serving their country never made their way to a garbage bin.
Instead, Chamlin found them in the bar’s drawers and filled a picture book.
“Some of them are racy. Some of them are very prejudiced,” Chamlin said. “Some of the postcards are almost blank, and were issued on the battleship. I’ve taken the time to go through those. They’re worth it.”
And then, there were the drawings — thousands of them — using any scrap of paper or frame that was available.
Now, many pieces Yanka drew are displayed at the restored bar. Chamlin said it was like chancing upon a great outsider artist.
“Restoring this place just ticked so many boxes,” Chamlin said. “It was a chance to honor my uncle, who I didn’t understand. It was archaeology. It was art history, and I love art.”
Tom Kujawa of Peru was a regular at Yanka’s Tap when it was open.
Kujawa said Yanka was a couple years ahead of him in school, and the tap was across the street from Kujawa’s dad’s meat market.
“I knew Eddie,” Kujawa said. “He gave me his two-wheel bicycle. I knew him through my dad. It was a nice place. Not too many customers — 12 was a crowd. The Westclox Credit Union used to hang out here. Guys from American Nickeloid would come over here after work.”
He recalled Yanka’s penchant for drawing, too.
“He used to do them in the back of the bar here,” Kujawa said. “He’d have a light and a mirror.”
Kujawa said the restored version of Yanka’s Tap matches his memories of the place fairly closely. Except, he noticed some curtains dotted with a playing card pattern were no longer present.
“He’s recalling things that used to be up in the ’60s,” Chamlin said.
Otherwise, Chamlin tried to keep things as close to the original bar as possible. Most of the interior surfaces, furniture and fixtures are the same. Even the original glassware is intact.
“It was a great place for me,” Kujawa said. “It still looks the same.”
Yanka would sit at the end of the bar and draw throughout the day, Chamlin said.
The sign at the bar’s front door was nearly always flipped to closed.
“Either people walked in and knew it was open, or they didn’t,” Chamlin said.
This narrowed the number of patrons and provided more time for art work, Chamlin said. Meticulous books he found showed there were some days Yanka’s Tap did as little as $12 of business.
He recalled his uncle as being an odd man with a stutter, who was almost always called Eddie or the Kid by the people who knew him.
“It was a pejorative thing,” Chamlin said. “He was definitely on the autistic spectrum but incredibly talented,”
Yanka’s drawings show a willingness to experiment with media and technique. They depict presidents, starlets, cats, dogs, great boxers and Chicago skylines.
“He just drew a lot,” Chamlin said. “He drew everything that he saw.”
Chamlin said he learned a lot about his late relative by going through his art. He found out who Yanka admired, discovered what interested him and was impressed by his aptitude for art.
“I thought his art was amazing,” Chamlin said. “I never knew him like that.”
Source: (LaSalle) News-Tribune, https://bit.ly/2JvdMa1
Information from: News-Tribune, http://www.newstrib.com