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A Famous Outlaw, Other Gems Uncovered in a Shabby Old Tavern

Old Timber Inn, Cincinnati

By Editor-in-Chief David Lee Cummings in Cincinnati, Ohio.

So, there’s this establishment called the Old Timber Inn I used to drive by nearly every single day for about a decade. The building it sits in looks like a huge rundown old house, with a three-story turret and grubby exterior, that’s seen better days. It’s a place my wife, Qristina, and I used to joke that we’d never want to visit because of the rough shape it’s in and who our minds conjured up would patronize it.

Last night a friend invited me out for a beer at the Old Timber Inn. I didn’t recognize the name and only realized exactly where I was going when my phone’s GPS led me there. I entered the place with some trepidation, expecting the regulars inside to give me dirty looks or some such trouble.

I regret now that I had any preconceptions about the place. I judged a book by its cover.

The two gentlemen—besides my friend, Roger, and his brother, Randy, who met me there—inside the bar were very cordial. The bartender, whom I guess is in his sixties or seventies, was taciturn but friendly. The other gentleman, whom I guess is in his fifties or sixties, was extremely loquacious and shared a fascinating history of the Old Timber Inn and the surrounding area. I know a bit of the history of the area, as well, and shared what I knew with him. It was an enjoyable exchange.

Chester Park, Cincinnati

Aerial view of Chester Park, Cincinnati

As we sat at the bar, decked out much like any typical local tavern that’s been around for years—drab brown low-backed vinyl-covered swiveling bar stools, matching brown bar counter top sprinkled with a few crumbs and round water stains, piles of miscellaneous clutter behind the bar, faded printout of “Absolutely no one allowed behind the bar unless you work here” on yellowing paper curling at the edges taped to a cabinet door, an old black and white TV show playing on a vintage TV mounted just below the ceiling, Keno machine blinking away next to a lace-curtained window facing the street—I shared my knowledge of Chester Park, a formerly affluent area consisting of an amusement park similar to Coney Island that later came to be known as Winton Place and today Spring Grove Village. The gentleman, whose name I never got, shared tidbits of complementary history, including the fact that the Old Timber Inn’s building had been built in the 1800s and was a favorite stop for people riding the train that ran by it. He also offered up a fascinating fact about the area’s water supply.

“This area is full artesian springs,” he said. “People from Northside would come here and get their water. No one had to pay for any drinking water. That is, until the city got a hold of the land and built the water works right over the springs and started charging for it.

“Imagine that, having to pay for something that should be free.”

Even more fascinating was something he shared about what is likely the building’s most famous patron. He mentioned a certain outlaw had stopped in for a drink—and there was a photo to prove it. I asked if I could see this photo; he led me to a back room. He pushed open a door and we entered a large room full of furniture, equipment, framed pictures, and numerous knickknacks all piled up haphazardly.

“He’s got all kinds of stuff stored in here,” he said to me, referring to the bartender and owner of the bar.

“I can imagine, as old as this place is,” I replied.

“Of course! This place has been around for a long time.”

Initially he struggled to find the photo. Then, when digging through a pile of framed pictures, he said, “Here it is,” and held up a large picture frame with an old sepia-toned, but surprisingly clear and detailed, photo.

Jesse James at the Old Timber Inn in Cincinnati

Jesse James and his gang standing before the bar at the Old Timber Inn, Cincinnati

“There he is, right there.” He pointed at a man in the photo. “Jesse James and his gang.”

“The Jesse James?” I leaned in to get a good look at the man he pointed at.

“There’s a certification of authenticity on the back of the frame.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s the same bar as out there?”

“Yes, he [the bartender] is able to tell by the gas lights in the photo. He knows where the pipe still hangs from the ceiling”(which is now covered by a drop ceiling). “From that pipe, he can tell where Jesse James was standing.”

We returned to the bar, and from what I could tell, I believe I sat pretty close to where Jesse James is standing in the photo. It filled me with a sense of awe and discovery—and regret about the disappointing ideas I had about the place for so long based on the building’s battered exterior. Who knew it was a hidden gem containing so much wondrous history within its haggard old walls?

When it came time to leave, I finished off my Coors Light and tried to settle up my tab. I asked my friend if the bar took plastic, as I didn’t have any cash on me, and he said he thought it was cash only. I asked the bartender.

“Yes, we take credit cards,” he said. “You only had the two beers?” He waved his hand at me. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I had only one,” I said. “But let me pay for it.”

The bartender insisted on giving me the beer for free, despite my protests. I asked my friend if he had any cash on him and he threw down the two dollars he had in his wallet, after paying his own tab, which covered only two-thirds of my three-dollar beer.

“Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it,” the bartender insisted.

Finally I acquiesced and thanked him for the beer and the other gentleman for the history lesson, and walked out into the late afternoon sunshine with a new perspective on an area I lived in for a decade, tangibly realizing there’s way more to it—or anything in the universe, for that matter—than unchallenged preconceptions will ever allow me or anyone else to know.

Thank goodness my friend likes bars that others may label “dives.” He’s introduced me to a few of them, and I have no worries, and even eagerness, about returning to every one of them. With most eagerness I will definitely return to the Old Timber Inn, for another history lesson—and to settle up my tab.

David Lee Cummings David Lee Cummings
David is the editor-in-chief of Vox Humana. His passions include new experiences, new places, different cultures, befriending foreigners, international cuisines, and a cool pool on a hot summer's day. He works in digital advertising on some of the world's largest brands and spends his free time applying his professional learnings to Vox Humana and other charitable projects. David is also a technophile and hopes to live long enough to witness the moment of technological singularity.

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