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Family keeps Poplar Grove tradition


Dispatch/Argus Photo By Chuck Thomas

John Bernard shows a still owned by his grandfather, John Weaver, who opened Poplar Grove on the Rock River to move his whiskey making operation out of the view of prohibitionists.

MOLINE -- You almost expect to find Hemingway standing at the bar, drinking rum and weaving another tale about nabbing the big fish. The rustic river-camp atmosphere of Poplar Grove is as timeless as the antiques and Indian artifacts that fill the place.

Poplar Grove opened in 1927 when John Weaver moved from his farm off 23rd Avenue to the edge of the Rock River. There, he built a wood frame restaurant and house.

The restaurant still thrives in the hands of his grandson, John Bernard, and his family, the third and fourth generations to operate it.

Not much has changed over the years, except now liquor is legal and chicken dinners have given way to the best hand-breaded pan-fried tenderloins in town.

``There's no phone in the tavern even today,'' John Bernard, who lives two doors down from the tavern, said. ``If anyone really wants to get word through to someone, they can call the house.''

The sense of anonymity is deliberate, a tradition the Bernards aren't willing to surrender. John Weaver made whiskey during Prohibition and the popularity of his product made him too noticeable to authorities. That's when he moved to the more isolated riverfront.

``This was very much the country then,'' John Bernard said. ``The site was perfect for whiskey-making. They could throw the mash in the river and no one could smell the whiskey cooking in the still. There were no boats on the Rock in those days except for occasional barges. People fished from shore. It was perfect.''

In the '20s and early '30s, Poplar Grove opened only for big banquets. The restaurant became known for its catfish and chicken dinners and local companies and fraternal organizations, as well as the Moline fire and police departments, held big picnics there.

John Weaver's wife, Elsie, would kill and cook as many as 100 chickens for one of those feasts. The rest of the time, the place was closed.

The restaurant was handed down to John Weaver's son-in-law, George Bernard, then to John Bernard and his wife, Sharon, who took over duties in the kitchen in the late '50s and early '60s.

It was under Sharon Bernard's initiative that the menu changed to the more casual sandwich menu, featuring tenderloins and delicious hamburgers. The Friday night catfish dinners still are a big draw.

Today we live in more lawful times, but Poplar Grove's whiskey mash still remains on view in a corner of the restaurant, next to the huge stone fireplace John Weaver built.

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 2, 1998)

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