Among the dingy storefronts on Caroline Street, the lone illuminated beer sign seemed like a beacon to Davis Mead.
It was the spring of 1970 and Saratoga Springs was in rough shape. The Kefauver Senate investigative committee hearings of the 1950s had shuttered the city’s casinos, fire destroyed the city’s Convention Hall and the grand hotels on Broadway had been torn down.
The city was pocked with vacant buildings and empty lots that collected refuse. A scattering of bars dotted downtown; most were on the main drag, and few catered to the younger crowd.
Mead was traveling from New York City with Tom Malone, Dale Easter and another friend when they stopped in Saratoga Springs to try their luck with the women from Skidmore College — then an all-female college with a knack for attracting young men. But after getting pitched from a Broadway bar for their motley appearance, the foursome decided to head back home to Burlington, Vermont.
That’s when Mead saw the sign poking out from the corner of Caroline and Broadway. The bar known locally as The Bar With No Name was a black light-washed hole in the wall, but one that lured them in.
“We weren’t there 10 minutes before he said his dad wanted to sell it, and did we know anyone in the bar business who might be interested?” Mead recalled.
Then-owner Bud Brophy was looking to get out of the bar business. He even closed up shop during August to sell tip sheets at Saratoga Race Course.
The result was a shabby bar that didn’t appear to have much of a future. Brophy hadn’t paid rent for the spot in over a year and was ready to take an offer — just about any offer.
Two weeks later, Malone, Mead and Easter returned to the Spa City to deal. Brophy asked each man to write down what they thought to be a fair offer, put all three in a hat and pulled out one.
He drew Malone’s offer of $14,000, the highest of the three.
The new business partners put about $8,000 down and were still pulling together the rest when Brophy offered a new deal about a month later: Come up with $4,000 for him to buy a boat and the bar would be all theirs.
The group opened the bar in June 1970 and quickly watched the business flourish. Joined three months later by Easter — a friend of Malone from their college days at the University of Vermont — the group established a bar that became the place to be in Saratoga Springs.
“The Tin & Lint took off like a skyrocket,” Mead said. “As far as I know, not one day has it operated in the red.”
The Tin & Lint quickly became an icon of the counterculture movement, but also a melting pot where locals blended with college students; where a bizarre blend of bikers, college professors, writers and musicians mingled over beers and the latest acid rock on the jukebox.
“When I went in there when they first opened, it was an entirely different crowd than I saw anywhere in town,” said Hud Armstrong, who tended bar there for stints in the 1970s and late 1980s. “It was a very active place, one of those go-to places — the kind that happen only once in a while.”
What the group didn’t realize at the time was their business venture would transform Caroline Street’s makeup from a grungy side street into a bustling commercial corridor some consider the Spa City’s Bourbon Street. Today, the Tin & Lint is first among dozens of restaurants and bars that line either side of the thoroughfare.
“When we bought the place, there were three liquor licenses on Caroline Street from beginning to end,” Mead said. “Now, I can’t even count them.”
The impact created by the small corner bar in the basement of the Walbridge building also radiated to other areas of the city. As Caroline Street flourished, so did the rest of the city’s nightlife.
The resurgence brought by the Tin & Lint spread down Caroline Street to another hulking building that became Gaffney’s Restaurant, a business Mead built after venturing out on his own. The two businesses’ successes helped rebuild confidence in downtown.
“They carried the rejuvenation,” said Joe Dalton, who headed the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce for 40 years. “They were a start.”
In 1970, Caroline Street was an eclectic collection of small businesses: a print shop, a women’s clothing store, a paint shop, a Chinese restaurant and a corner grocer among them. Outside the Bar With No Name, the Turf bar was the only other saloon in operation, and it catered to an older crowd that didn’t identify with the Vietnam-era counterculture that had emerged nationally in the late 1960s.
Mead, Malone and Easter knew each other from the bar business in Burlington. Together, they saw an opportunity to fill a void left by aging downtown business owners who were leaving in droves.
“When we first came here, three out of five storefronts were empty,” Easter said.
The group made an astute decision to staff their new venture with locals, including Jim Stanley, a bearded bulldog of a man they found playing pool in the upstairs bar at the Rip Van Dam Hotel. A Saratoga Springs native, Stanley had deep connections in the city that helped smooth over some of the angst that arose from a group of outsiders looking to open a new bar. He also had a demeanor fit for keeping order — something that would come in handy as the bar grew in popularity.
“They needed someone from town,” recalled Stanley, who went from being the bar’s bouncer in 1970 to its owner 20 years later. “They needed someone who wasn’t bashful.”
The Tin & Lint became a gathering point for some of the focal characters of the 1970s. American political and social activist Abbie Hoffman and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jimmy Breslin stopped in for drinks. Songwriter Don McLean was known to scroll notes on bar napkins while tipping beers, a habit that started an enduring legend that he penned his iconic song “American Pie” while in a stupor at the bar — a legend he has since denied. Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band frequented the bar and on at least one occasion, was forcefully ejected by Stanley.
The Tin & Lint’s identification with the counterculture movement was also initially viewed with distrust by some in the city — something that threatened to snuff the business out of existence early on. After less than two years in business, the bar landed in the cross hairs of a drug crackdown that swept through the city after a high-profile overdose.
Though the Tin & Lint was never raided, city police pinpointed the bar as the source of the problem. And based on spurious allegations, the state Liquor Authority moved to revoke the bar’s license permanently.
“They were going to make a big example of this den of inequity on Caroline Street,” recalled Easter.
But the resilient owners refused to back down and took the battle to the state Court of Appeals, Easter said, where they ultimately got the revocation reduced to a six-month suspension. When the Tin & Lint reopened in January 1972, the business that had been steady came back in force.
“You couldn’t move in there,” he said. “It made us famous and jammed the place full of people.”
By 1974, Mead decided to branch out on his own. Malone and Easter bought out his share of the business, and he used the proceeds to purchase the Gaffney building.
Mead initially planned to open a small bar and restaurant on Caroline Street named after the building. Then he discovered the owner of the adjacent Turf bar had essentially been operating out of the building under the misguided impression he owned the spot.
“He had no lease, no nothing,” Mead said.
By expanding into the Turf, he was able to expand the kitchen, grow the bar and build outdoor seating off to the side. The move was the first of many that would solidify Gaffney’s as a popular nightlife destination for downtown.
Still, Caroline Street needed work, and city leaders seemed unwilling to help the growing bar industry spruce up its image without help from the businesses themselves. In May 1980, a group of businesses chipped in to throw a bash known as the Caroline Street Block Party, which became a fundraiser and beer-soaked annual rite of spring that helped spur cosmetic improvements.
Mead sold the business in 1982 to John Baker, a young entrepreneur who had watched the emergence of Caroline Street through his college years. Specifically, he watched how the three Tin & Lint owners had taken a simple business model and used it to transform a swath of the city into something vibrant.
“They were guys to look up to,” he said. “They were mentors.”
As the new owner, Baker’s first order of business was to add outdoor seating, and in 1983, he transformed a piece of scrub land hemmed in by a snow fence into what is now called the Gaffney’s garden — a space routinely packed with customers on weekends from spring until fall.
Among the original Tin & Lint owners, none still own restaurants or bars. Easter and Malone opened Professor Moriarty’s above the Tin & Lint in 1984 and sold their share of the bar to Stanley in 1990.
Easter bought out Malone during the 1990s and eventually sold the restaurant in 2007. Now, he teaches flying lessons and works part-time at an area horse farm — a job he does to pass the time.
Malone left the city for a spell, but has since returned to the area. His former business partners say he mainly keeps to himself.
Mead was a part-owner of Siro’s Restaurant near Saratoga Race Course for 25 years until the group sold the business to a collection of downstate investors in 2010. Now, he works a seasonal job in a small wine bar in Florida and mans a parimutuel window during the Saratoga meet — a job that allows him to escape the oppressive heat down South.
Stanley, who still tends bar, continues to operate the Tin & Lint much like it did 44 years ago when he first started working the door. And to date, the bar is still a favorite among the college crowd that frequents Caroline Street.
“I was standing outside the bar having a cigarette a few years ago and this young couple comes bouncing down the street with a couple of kids,” Armstrong said. “The little girl points to the Tin & Lint and asks ‘What’s that?’ The mother, without skipping a beat, says ‘That’s where your father spent four years of college.’ ”