Staging A Comeback

Kevin Noonan

, Community

The Jackson Inn was nearly sold. Then a local band stepped in to add a feature that has given it new life.

After 50 years, two heart attacks, a case of diabetes and too many lean times, Fred Bourdon had had enough. He was finally ready to sell the historic and iconic Jackson Inn, which had been in his family for four generations.

“Then I got rejuvenated,” he says. “Then I got a new lease on life.”

That lease came courtesy of a local band, The Cocks, a New Castle-based group that used to play occasional gigs at the tavern at the corner of Lancaster Pike and DuPont Road. They loved playing there and one day approached Bourdon with an idea – let them build a stage and hold open mic nights once a week and see if live music could help boost business.

And Bourdon says it has – beyond his wildest dreams.

“I never imagined I would see something like this,” he says. “It’s such an amazing feeling to see so many people here and see how much fun they’re having. But I certainly can’t take any of the credit. It all goes to those guys.”

Those guys—The Cocks—consist of Mark Stallard (guitar), Phil Young (guitar and bass) and Pete Romano (drums). And not only did they come up with the idea for the corner stage, they actually built it themselves, with lumber that Bourdon purchased after a friend, Steve Ganzler, donated $500 to the project.

“It’s just such a great place and has so much atmosphere, we thought it would be perfect as a place where local musicians could get together and just play for the fun of it,” Romano says. “There just aren’t many places like that around here, and the response has been great, even better than we hoped.”

A Musicians’ Community

Carrying on the spirit that permeates the local musical community, The Cocks (thecocksonline.com) even allow open mic musicians to use their gear, and different members of The Cocks will even grab their instruments and back up the musicians if they request it.

“Musicians have a special community, because we know how hard it is to find gigs and make some kind of a living off of it,” Stallard says. “There’s a bond we share and that’s been evident with this [open mic on the new stage].”

And everyone agrees that the Jackson Inn has a unique vibe that makes playing live music there special, even though that vibe is worn and faded.

“You can feel the history in this place and the acoustics are also great,” says Young, who also has a solo recording out (go to philyoungsongs.com for more information). “The fact that this place hasn’t changed in decades is great and gives it a special feeling that you just don’t get in most places that are kind of sterile. It’s still basically a dive, and I mean that as a compliment.”

The history dates back to 1820, when the Jackson Inn was a stop-over for freight drivers on the road between Lancaster and Wilmington. They would pull over their Conestoga wagons for a bite to eat or a few libations. It was named after president Andrew Jackson, who stopped there in 1828 during his presidential campaign.

And how many bars in Wilmington can say that Andrew Jackson was a customer?

Razed and Rebuilt in ‘59

It stayed that way until 1959, when Lancaster Avenue and DuPont Road were widened to accommodate the growing traffic of post-World War II Wilmington. The original building was razed and the new one erected on the old parking lot.

Little has changed since then—actually, nothing had changed until The Cocks approached Bourdon with the idea of building the stage. He liked the idea—after all, he had nothing to lose—and his only concern was losing booths where the stage would be erected. But when The Cocks told him they could simply move the booths to an empty wall space, the owner was convinced.

Fred Bourdon has owned the Jackson Inn for 50 years. Photo by Matt Urban.

“After that, I just left it in their hands,” says Bourdon, who is also a professional photographer (contact him at freddieBourdon1@gmail.com). “I told them to do whatever they want, because I did what I could for 50 years and it just wasn’t enough. I thought the Jackson Inn had seen it all, but what these guys have done is amazing. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see this place packed again, and I know those people are here for the music.”

One of those people is Brian Gillespie, a 37-year-old from Newark. He heard about the open mic night from a friend and decided to check it out. And now he says he’ll be back.

“There’s just no place around here to hear good, live music like this, where the musicians are creating on the spot,” he says. “I used to go to the jam sessions at the Bottle and Cork [in Dewey Beach] when I was younger, and that was fun. But most of the people were there just to drink and party and the music was secondary. Here, the music is the main attraction and the audience is much more attentive and respectful toward the musicians. I love it.”

Bartender Eva Hughes has worked at the Jackson Inn for, as she puts it, “forever,” and, like any good bartender, she knows all the regulars by name. The bigger crowds have forced her to learn a lot more names, not to mention work a lot harder, but she also loves it.

“This has been unbelievable,” she says. “And the best part is that so many of these new customers are younger. We’ve always had a loyal group of people who came here, but to see so many new faces is just amazing. And you have to give all the credit to The Cocks. They’re just regular guys who love music and helping other musicians, and that’s been the real key to this. When people come here, whether it’s to play or just listen, they’re treated with respect.”

And that has given Bourdon—who was ready to close the book on the Jackson Inn—a new perspective on his family’s historic property.

“Now,” he says, “I want to see how the story ends.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.