Before Whitey’s, East Grand Forks began a saloon town populated by Minnesota lumberjacks and farmhands working the broad plains of the Red River Valley. Liquor trade developed on the Minnesota side of the line as North Dakota was “dry”. Liquor trade became the town’s primary industry to much disgust of “proper-folk”.
In 1925, 19-year-old Edwin “Whitey” Larson opened the Coney Island Lunch Room. The Coney Island featured bootleg alcohol, a few slot machines, as well as an occasional Coney Island hot dog. Tiny in comparison to most of the 40 nightclubs and restaurants lining DeMers Avenue, Whitey, however, helped make East Grand Forks famous throughout the Northwest as “Little Chicago.”
In 1930, Whitey built the first stainless steel horseshoe bar in the U.S. and appropriately named his business, “Whitey’s Wonderbar.” Liquor sales complemented slot machines and dice games while business prospered. In 1939, the Saturday Evening Post and Time Magazine featured Whitey’s Wonderbar for its art deco design and style.
The original Wonderbar remains a prominent architectural example, featured at Sickies Garage Burgers & Brews.
In 1942, fire damaged the building. After repair, business renamed to Whitey’s Cafe and Lounge. Emphasis shifted to food as law-abiding citizenry scrutinized local gambling. Consequentially, change proved wise as local gambling industry ended in 1947.
A flood in 1997 inundated the the building with nearly 6 feet of water. As a result, the business rebuilt 3 doors up the block from the destroyed building. Crews salvaged the famed Wonderbar, art deco interior, along with most of the artifacts.
Today, Whitey’s Underground features original decor and atmosphere. Whitey’s remains a piece of East Grand Forks history, enjoyable by future generations.