Michigan record-breaker: 78 years bartending went 'fast'

John Russell
Special to The Detroit News
The world's longest-serving bartender, 99-year-old Clarise Kramer Cadarett Grzenkowicz, draws a beer at the 94-year-old Maplewood Tavern.

Alpena — Clarise Kramer Cadarette Grzenkowicz has poured a drink or two in her day.

She'll tell you about it over a beer.

Grzenkowicz was a teenager living on her family’s small farm when she met Henry Lee Cadarette, whose family owned a small tavern down the road, just seven miles north of Alpena. She married Cadarette at age 20, and they began their lives together.

She then began what would become a lifetime of greeting customers at the Maplewood Tavern.

Almost eight decades later, Grzenkowicz is still there.

“I fell in love with this place and never left,” the now 99-year-old said. “I never got past the eighth grade. We were too far out from Alpena, and there was no school bus. I didn’t know what else to do, so I stayed. It’s been wonderful.”

In 2011, Grzenkowicz was honored by the Guinness World Records as being the world’s longest-serving bartender. She was 92 years young then and in her 71st year of bartending. 

She’s still serving beers after 78 years at the tavern, and she'll turn 100 next June.

“It goes fast,” Grzenkowicz said. “I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends.” 

She remarried in 1971 after Henry died in 1964. She had two children with her first husband and helped raise four stepchildren with her second husband, Julian Grzenkowicz, who died in 2004.

Her tavern sits in Michigan farm country. It features an old satellite dish with the tavern’s name painted on it, a gravel parking lot and beer signs in the windows.

The interior walls and ceiling are covered in memorabilia, plaques honoring Grzenkowicz from the township, the state of Michigan and Guinness World Records. The walls also are covered with photographs from years past. There are 127 guitars and one banjo hanging over the dance floor with everything from cowboy hats to a display of antique cigarette lighters adorning surrounding walls.

Grzenkowicz’s son, Henry Cadarette, 70, a co-owner with his mother, and daughter, Carole Cadarette, 76, both work in the tavern and both play in the jam sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.

Music begins at 6 p.m., and the dancers immediately take the floor. Within a couple of tunes, the dance floor becomes a sea of moving bodies. The dancing is still hand-to-hand, as their parents and grandparents danced.

The Maplewood Tavern features a dance floor with 127 guitars and uncountable memorabilia hanging from the ceiling.

More than three generations have danced on the original wooden floor.

“It’s early, and it’s why so many come to this place on weekends,” said Carole Cadarette, who plays keyboard and sings.

Henry Cadarette notes the tavern only plays country and "we don’t allow no riff-raff or drunks.”

The beer is cheap and cold. There's no air conditioning, but fans run in several places, moving air around that smells of fresh popcorn.

Fred and Kelly Purol of Brighton visited recently as part of a group of cyclists out of Metro Detroit. The tour group has made the tavern an annual stop, where they can park, ride back roads and return to the tavern for friendship and cold beer.

"We love this place,” said Kelly Purol. “Clarise is a special person, and we look forward to coming here each year.” 

Deb Stevens lives across the road from the tavern and visits often.

“I used to come here as a kid,” Stevens said. “Now I come for cheap beer and to visit with the family. I love it here.”

The tavern has been on French Road since 1924.

“It was first called the Maplewood Inn, surrounded by maple trees,” Grzenkowicz said. “The state didn’t want us to rent rooms, so this place became the Maplewood Tavern.”

During Prohibition, the tavern had live music and became a popular dance hall.

“You could have three dances for a quarter,” Grzenkowicz recalled. “We were the largest dance hall in northeast Michigan. We even had bands come up from Detroit.”

At the end of Prohibition in December 1933, the tavern brought in tables and chairs and began selling beer and wine. In 1956, it started selling liquor.

"That was when I took over the bar," Grzenkowicz said. "We don‘t do food, too many costs and regulations.”

She has raised two children and four stepchildren and worked every day she could at the tavern. She still has a twinkle in her eyes when she talks about the place.

Grzenkowicz is in good health, though she has hearing aids and speaks in a whisper now.

Her Guinness Book fame started over a discussion at the bar in 2010. 

Family friend and patron Shirley Dietlin questioned why Clarise wasn’t in the record books.

“I was sitting by the bar, watching Clarise, and wondered why she hadn’t been recognized for her longevity," she said.

"Later, I was on the computer, and we collected all the necessary paperwork and submitted it all to Guinness World Records, the organization that recognizes achievements around the world. The idea just popped into my head. We had a huge party when the plaque arrived. I just did it because I love her so much.”

To become a record-holder, standards must be met, documents verified and personal accounts submitted. Proof that the honor goes to the correct recipient is unassailable.

The paperwork from Guinness World Records reads: “She has been described as a 'super' and a 'deserving' lady who you will find smiling behind the bar and ready to serve the beverage of your choice.”

The honor was presented in May 2011, when she was recognized as the world’s “longest career as a bartender.” They proudly hung the plaque on the wall where it can be viewed by everyone.

“I wasn‘t sure I wanted the recognition,” Grzenkowicz said. "I didn’t know if I wanted to say anything, but I did anyway.”

Rachel Gluck of Guinness World Records in New York confirmed the honor bestowed upon Grzenkowicz.

“After researching within our database, I can confirm that Clarice J. Kramer Cadarette Grzenkowicz currently holds the title for the longest career as a bartender.”

The honor still applies to this quiet, unassuming woman.

“It’s been a good life,” she said, “lots of good friends and great memories.”

Dietlin doesn’t think the world record was enough.

“I’ve been writing to Willie Nelson,” she said. “I told him to come visit. It can be during the week if that time would work better.”

The Maplewood Tavern is located on French Road north of Alpena and is open 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. The tavern closes in October and reopens every year in June. 

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.