Not For Sinners, Not For Saints: Bill Pickle’s Bootlegging Roots Live On
Penn Staters did not turn down in the throes of prohibition (1920-33). Instead, they relied on the namesake of an Allen Street staple-to-be, a man who snuck into students’ rooms at all hours of the night providing liquor when saloons were outlawed by the state of Pennsylvania: Bill Pickle — and his mixed legacy lives on.
Long before Tuesday Country Nights, the name Bill Pickle was synonymous with alcohol. “He was a friend not only of all the undergraduates, but of all the recent graduates and the old Alumni. At football games and college festivals, Bill was a busy man. There was a State law against saloons and he had to supply liquor for the whole place,” Dr. Frank Buchanan told the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament in 1948. Photo: Bill Pickle’s Tap Room
Buchanan described Pickle as a charming sinner who he believed had potential to turn saintly. A devout follower of Jesus Christ, Buchanan was attempting to prove to his friend that he needed to solve social problems through Christ instead of Confucius. They decided to pray that Bill Pickle and his family of twelve kids and a wife changes their alcohol-smuggling ways as a test of Christianity’s reach.
Shortly after, Buchanan and his friend ran into Pickle as he was celebrating a win with his recreational baseball team. Rowdy as usual, he was challenging everyone around him to fights as part of post-game festivities. Buchanan’s friend urged him to walk up to Pickle and see if their prayers were answered and if Pickle was a changed man. Legend has it, he held Pickle by the bicep, said “we’ve been praying for you,” and Pickle immediately started crying.
Pickle and Buchanan then embarked on a friendship bound by Jesus, but Pickle was still skeptical until Penn State’s dean paid their way to a student convention in Toronto.
There he heard a story that sounded just like his life, prompting him to change his degenerate behavior. “I’m an old man of sixty-two, and I’ve decided to change my life. I have grandchildren, and I can’t bear to think of them turning on their grandfather like that fosterchild, because all my life I’ve been disobedient to my Heavenly Father. Old Bill will be a different man,” he said.
Pickle stuck to his guns. The students still loved him and his stories, and with his new reputation he became a regular graduation commencement guest with just one requirement: No liquor allowed.
Although seemingly polarizing occurrences, he’s remembered fondly for both his rebellion against prohibition and his change of heart because they stem from the same selflessness.
It’s a Hell of a story, but keep in mind Dr. Frank Buchanan was a man with an agenda who told it at the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament forty years after the fact. A little healthy skepticism surrounding the details of Bill Pickle’s life is fair. More than 100 years after the man captivated Penn State, though, his spirit lives on — through the sinning and the sainting.
Pickle’s server Kyle Covert believes the legend. “If it’s on the wall of Pickle’s, it’s scripture to me,” the hospitality management senior said, “I believe it all 100 percent.”
A man with such a drastic change of heart and alcohol habits might not be thrilled at the prospect of a bar in his name — but his motto was “not for sinners…not for saints.” He was the life of the party with or without the liquor, and that’s the atmosphere Bill Pickle’s Taproom aims to recreate.
“I think he [Pickle] would love it. The people who work at Pickle’s take good care of his bar, and everyone who goes there leaves happy,” Covert said.
Besides, each aspect of Pickle’s personality makes him the figure he is. There’s a little good and bad in all of us, and Bill Pickle’s Tap Room celebrates the gray areas of Bill Pickle’s rebellion every day.
It starts with the servers and bartenders. They aim to emulate Bill Pickle’s fun-loving personality and it shows — they often seem to be having just as much fun behind the bar as the patrons on the other side. “‘Not for saints…not for sinners’ perfectly sums up Pickle’s. It’s a total blast and you can tell the employees are having a lot of fun,” Covert said. “Sometimes I wonder why I work there all day and come back an hour later to stay for the rest of my night, but it really will always be my home in State College.”
According to legend, the core of Bill Pickle’s life was to create a good time for students and his family in both his saint and sinner phases. To him, it was all about the experience — he “did it for the story,” as the contemporary folks say. Chances are you can find Covert and his co-workers, whom he prefers to call family members, dispersed throughout the bar’s perimeters engaging in some kind of tomfoolery. Look a little closer next time you stop by the Allen Street haunt. The smooth operation and relatively quick service the bar consistently exudes is the product of a well-oiled machine. It wouldn’t be possible without the knowing glances, shoulder taps, or seemingly choreographed movements behind the bar.
The staff isn’t afraid to take endearing jabs at their customers either, a vibe that keeps its regulars coming back. This fearlessness has sadly become a rarity in a contemporary world filled with misplaced outrage and trigger-happy lawsuits. It gives Pickle’s a playful personality, one that feels like I’m back at home rolling my eyes at my older brothers. You can feel the legacy of Bill Pickle, his 12 children, and all of the grateful prohibition era students in this aspect.
Covert offered a glimpse into the lives of some Pickle’s staff members when they’re not at work. “We’re a big family. We go to wing nights at Dark Horse, hang out at the Phyrst, and we’re all friends with other State College bar staffs. Sometimes we even do ‘late nights’ where we party with other bars.”
It’s alright if you’ve made a few mistakes here and there. As long as you have pure intentions and a story to tell, you’re welcome at Bill Pickle’s Tap Room — exactly as its namesake would’ve wanted.