The chipping red paint on the door of Peggy’s Tavern may not appear promising at first glance, but a step through the portal reveals the character that has been built within the walls of the bar since it opened in 1935.
It operates under the new ownership of Tom and Annie Baldwin. The Baldwins took over the bar when former owner Mark Graziano was confronted with two federal felony charges, an event in which the tavern nearly lost its liquor license.
The space has been moderately remodeled to include cushioned booths in a side room that serves as an extension of the main seating area. The bar’s history as a campus staple is depicted in framed black and white photographs that cover the walls of the small room, ranging from a portrait of former mascot Porterhouse to previous generations of Drake cheerleaders and athletes.
On a Tuesday night, the bar opens at 8 p.m., but the lights don’t dim until at least 9 p.m., when the only souls in sight are a few student regulars and several bartenders doing their homework before the late crowd rushes into the tavern.
Drake senior Mary Krenzen, a psychology and English double major, was one of the bartenders working on her assignments before karaoke night began. Krenzen has been a bartender at Peggy’s for over a year. She was contacted by the current manager, Donnie Pham, last winter when the bar reopened.
“The lure of free drinks when I’m not working was kind of hard to pass up,” Krenzen said with a smile. “Working at Peggy’s has saved me a ton of money.”
Although the free drinks serve as a bonus for Krenzen and the rest of the student bartenders, the late nights and inconsistent tips could serve as a downside to an otherwise ideal job for those who are not accustomed to a hectic schedule and often little sleep.
“I was working at the Boys and Girls Club, and I had night classes. And it was just a lot of back and forth,” Krenzen said, referring to her time before working at Peggy’s. “It just seemed like something that would fit better for me because I’m kind of a night owl anyway.”
When Krenzen accepted the job, the mixed reactions shown by her parents and peers failed to affect her excitement at the prospect of working at the campus bar with the close-knit group of bartenders she now calls her friends.
“My parents weren’t thrilled when I started bartending, but now they’ve both been here, and they’ve both seen it, they love it,” Krenze said. “People usually think that it’s pretty cool, and they ask if I’m going to do it after I graduate.”
This fall, Krenzen will head to Denver to start law school, and she has already been offered internships and contacts by Peggy’s regulars and Drake alumni. The tavern’s traditions, like the dollar bills of Drake grads that fill the clear ceiling panels, and its ability to connect past and future generations of Drake students separates Peggy’s from other Des Moines bars.
“There’s actually this older couple that comes in every once in a while, they met working at Peggy’s,” Krenzen said. “Their dollar bills are right above the bar so they’ll point them out to people.”
The bar’s ability to act as a gathering place of the extended Drake community is a factor that current manager Pham took into account when hiring a staff of student bartenders.
Pham, who became the tavern’s manager in 2015 after the bar reopened, graduated from Drake in 2011 and formerly bartended at several of the Baldwins’ pubs, including Wellman’s Pub and Rooftop and Mickey’s Irish Pub. Pham exclusively hired student bartenders to secure the bar’s place as a campus staple and bring in more alumni and friends of employees, especially during Relays.
“You meet alumni who come back for Peggy’s, and they talk a lot about the memories they made here, whether they were working or whether they were drinking, and the fun times they had here with their friends,” Pham said. “I think Mary will definitely contribute to that later down the line.”
During Relays, the number of alumni increases tenfold. Each year, former Drake students return for memories, drinks and collectible mugs decorated with the bar’s Relays slogan, which changes every year.
“You’ll always see a lot of alumni and people who specifically come back for Peggy’s and for Relays,” Pham said. “It’s an amazing time here at Relays, and I really do feel like if you went to Drake, Peggy’s is your Relays bar.”
The annual athletic holiday brings the bar enough popularity that a tent is added to the back of the bar to increase space for alumni and campus visitors.
“The Peggy’s tent is the alumni destination,” Pham said. “Everybody makes it back here at night for the Peggy’s tent-that’s where you need to be, that’s where everyone meets up.”
Drake sophomore Larry Wilbon was hired at Peggy’s last fall and has not yet experienced Relays from behind the bar. On a typical night, Wilbon sees a different side of campus under the dim lights of the tavern. Away from the pressures of schoolwork and responsibilities, the atmosphere of the bar is created by students through the music on a jukebox.
“You get to choose the music, and the people who are there can create their own atmosphere, which is a really cool thing,” Wilbon said. “One of the things I love the most is being able to play off of the crowd’s atmosphere.”
Wilbon understands that even after he graduates, Peggy’s will exist as an integral part of the Drake experience and as a symbol of the successes and struggles of the students who walk the chipping red door every night.
“It’s Peggy’s, it’s the place people’s parents and grandparents have walked through,” Wilbon said. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of love that’s been through that place, and we all get to reap the benefits of that by working there.”
Peggy’s Tavern is located at 3020 Forest Avenue in Des Moines and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.