Barley Island brewery in Noblesville closes, leaving ‘family’ behind

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NOBLESVILLE — When Barley Island Brewing regulars call themselves family, they really mean it.

Many customers had their first drink or first date there years ago and continue to come in. Several met their future husbands and wives at the bar. They attended other people’s weddings and funerals, held fundraisers when someone was sick, and birthday parties when they were well.

“You can have a random conversation with a stranger and they become a regular and then your best friend,” said Amy Gustafson, 38, who has been a regular at the bar for 17 years.

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After 23 years living near the courthouse square, the family members feel a little distant. Barley Island owner Jeff Eaton announced he was closing the craft brewery on July 23. He said he couldn’t meet the rental terms to stay with the building’s new owners.

The new owner wants to restore the building

The closure is the latest in a flurry of recent changes for some established businesses in the square as Noblesville rushes to redevelop downtown and entice new restaurants and shops to move in.

A chihuahua inside a car staring its head out of an open window Wednesday, July 6, 2022, drives past the Barley Island Brewing Company in Noblesville.  Barley Island, one of Indiana's first craft brewers, is closing in late July after 23 years.  The bar opened in 1999 but the building was sold a year ago.

Kirk’s Hardware, a mainstay since the early 1950s, closed in late March. Owners Bill and Carrie Prater said they couldn’t find a buyer he trusted to turn it into a hardware store. The owner of Syd’s Bar and Grill announced last month that he had sold the family business after 77 years. The buyer said he plans to stay open as Syd – for now.

Although a 219-apartment building with storefronts named East Bank is being built next to Barley Island, the bar’s new owner said the development was not a factor in his decision. Mike Partin, who has an interest in historic preservation, said he wanted to restore the old building and rent it out, possibly as a restaurant.

A familiar place with a “haunted” history

Barley Island at 639 Conner St. opened in 1999 as one of the state’s first craft breweries in an old building that once housed a bar called The Livery and, before that, an actual livery.

Stickers cover a beer cooler Wednesday, July 6, 2022, inside the Barley Island Brewing Company in Noblesville.  Katie Atkinson, a Barley Island Brewing Company employee for nearly 10 years, says the stickers were given to them or traded at beer shows.

It’s quickly become a favorite haunt of locals and features all the major indicators of a lived-in, but not quite dive neighborhood bar: a standing cooler covered in beer stickers; snapshots of bar regulars framed in the mirror behind the bar; a random moose head above the bar that no one knows how to remove; a dark billiard room with only the lit tables; an unpleasant front door that slams with a thud; a creaking music scene at the front window.

Rumors persist that the building is haunted. Legend has it that a girl was hanged in the stable when the building was liveried and her ghost haunts the bar. Employees report lights going on and off, doors slamming, and cans falling off shelves on their own, among other untraceable noises. Local ghost hunters make it an annual stop on their Halloween visits to haunted places and some regulars have been known to prank tourists by jumping from the shadows.

But customers said it was the living people that set the bar apart.

Help when needed

Its customers and employees have organized fundraisers for those in poor health or for other causes, such as a camp for children with Tourette’s syndrome. They helped families close to homelessness and fed homeless local veterans.

They monitored each other during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, keeping tabs on each other’s health during lockdowns.

A large moose head with beer bottles capping the tips of its antlers is mounted on a wall near a cooler covered in brewery stickers Wednesday, July 6, 2022, at Barley Island Brewing Company in Noblesville.

“We all survived Covid, but it took on its own life form,” Beth Maxwell said. “We are all in denial. We are shocked.

Maxwell met her husband, Mike Maxwell, at the bar in 1999 when she went to see a Grateful Dead cover band there.

“We got married two years later,” she said. “I could name six or more married couples like us. We never had children, so it’s like our family, as it is for many people.

Jen Buzan started hanging out at the brewery when she was 21 and soon met her future husband, Mike. After their 2004 wedding reception at Morse Beach, the wedding party headed to Barley Inn – Buzan still in her wedding dress.

“It’s just a super easy place to make friends,” said Buzan, 43. “It’s one of the only places where, as a woman, I felt comfortable going alone.”

A view of the Hamilton County Courthouse is seen in a reflection on a window of the Barley Island Brewing Company Wednesday, July 6, 2022.

When Mike Buzan had a stroke at the age of 33, the brewery’s popular bartender, Michael Smith, convinced owner Eaton to organize a fundraiser for the Buzans. The Buzans had four children and Mike, a roofer, was their only income.

Eaton’s donated a percentage of sales to the family, and the companies raffled off items such as baseball game tickets. Bands played for free and 150 people attended, raising $10,000. “It was overwhelming,” said Buzan, who barely knew Eaton, “it helped tremendously.”

Amy Gustafson struck up a romantic relationship on Barley Island in 2008 when a friend convinced her to attend Open Mic Night. Brian White was a bartender at the time. He and Gustafson struck up a conversation, and she started coming a few times a week to visit. They eventually became a couple and had a son, Miles.

When White died of an overdose in 2013, support was already on the way from employees and customers who knew him. They planted a tree for him in Forest Park. Gustafson remained a regular.

Major city projects

It’s hard to say whether the new development is pushing out the old because even in the historic square, businesses sometimes spin. But since 2020, city officials said more than $145 million has been invested in downtown redevelopment projects, mostly large apartment buildings with first-floor storefronts.

Katie Atkinson, a Barley Island Brewing Company employee for nearly 10 years, pours a drink Wednesday, July 6, 2022, for bar regular Dwayne Thompson, who moved to Noblesville in 2014. "I met my husband here," said Atkinson. "I was a hostess and he worked in the kitchen."

The owners of one such new business, Primeval Brewing, 960 Logan St., said in 2018 that the booming development convinced them to move to the plaza. This restored building is owned by Partin, who purchased Barley Island.

A few blocks west of Barley Island on Conner Street, the owners of the 9th Street Bistro told IndyStar when they opened that the new Levinson apartment building across the street was one why they had moved in.

The apartment building under construction next to the bar is the site of a former parking lot for Hamilton County Government and Judicial Center employees. These government workers used to come in for a pint of Barfly IPA or Dirty Helen Brown Ale after work, where the bartenders had their drinks memorized and promptly delivered.

“Yes and yes,” they would answer before the bartender even asked the two essential questions. “While drinking?” and “the usual?”

Bartender Kaitlin Pettigrew, 31, said other regulars “always turn up like clockwork, sometimes just to check in, but other times to stay all day”.

“Some of them don’t even drink,” she said.

“Losing its small town atmosphere”

Mike Corbett, a member of the Noblesville Preservation Alliance and occasional guest at Barley Island, said “it’s a shame to see him go,” but doesn’t blame the development.

“I know there will be trips but I don’t know if this is an example. I wouldn’t draw that conclusion,” said Corbett, a three-time mayoral candidate and local publisher.

Beth and Mike Maxwell met on Barley Island in 1999 and married two years later.

Corbin said it was essential for the city to retain the historic elements of downtown while recognizing that change is essential for progress.

“I’m in favor of bringing more people downtown but also respecting history and not tearing down buildings,” Corbett said.

Long-time Barley Island guests insist they are not averse to progress or new ventures, but have said they would like to see the old and the new co-exist.

“I don’t have a problem with novelty, but it’s hard to find places with character,” said Shari Robinson, who has frequented Barley Island for 23 years. “You don’t have to go far to find a number of high-end bars and formulas.”

Buzan agrees.

“I’m super sad it’s closing,” Buzan said. “I feel like Noblesville is losing its small town feel. The bar has a small town vibe that you don’t see anymore. You’d leave work or whatever and walk in there and everything the world would be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?'”

Although Eaton also owns the Deer Creek Pub and Bistro in Cicero, customers said many are unlikely to migrate north to that location after Barley closes on July 23.

It just won’t – can’t be – the same.

“Every place is different and what makes it different is the vibe, heart and soul here,” Shari Robinson said. “There are good people with good hearts. We love the way it feels. This is our ‘Cheers’.

Call IndyStar reporter John Tuohy at 317-444-6418. Email john.tuohy@indystar.com and follow Twitter and Facebook.

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