A Butcher, A Barber and Ma’s Tavern: The Shestokas Story

My grandfather was a Lithuanian immigrant. He had left Lithuania in the early 20th Century, primarily to avoid conscription into the army of the Russian occupiers of his homeland. It was understood that the Russians treated the conscripts from occupied lands in a manner that made military life unbearable.

He did a short stint in the coal mines of Pennsylvania as did many Lithuanians.  It did not take him long to find his way and work on a farm in Wisconsin. John Shestokas saved every penny he could from his work.  Ultimately made his way to Chicago.

There he would meet my grandmother who had been among the Lithuanians working in Chicago’s stockyards.  Upton Sinclair would write about the stockyards and the Lithuanian workers there. Decades later her grandchildren, for whom Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was mandatory reading in school, would ask her about her work in the stockyard.  The children told her what Sinclair had to say about the working conditions and sanitation at the meat slaughtering and prep facilities.

Barbara Shestokas and Upton Sinclair

Barbara Shestokas told her grandchildren that Upton Sinclair was a liar.  She had worked the “bacon room”.  Hair nets were mandatory as were fresh smocks.  All the facilities were cleaned regularly.  The pay was fair and the conditions were good.  Her pay was enough not only to support herself and her daughter, but she was able to save money as well.

John Shestokas would meet Barbara Pocius, how that happened is lost to history.  Between them however they had saved enough to purchase a small building slightly southeast of what would become Midway Airport, at the corner of 64th Place and Major in Chicago.

Creation of a Mini Conglomerate

Much like Lithuanians waste not a single portion of a hog (there are recipes for tongue, brains and knuckles), John and Barbara made use of every inch of that building.  ON that small city lot, John cut hair as a barber, butchered meat and prepped the chickens raised in the backyard, and turned the front portion into a neighborhood tavern.  Barbara took charge of the upstairs which housed not only the family, but the boarders they took in, for whom she would regularly prepare meals.

John and Barbara ran a butcher shop, barber shop, raised chickens, a full service bed and breakfast, a tavern and a neighborhood social club.  Just a few blocks away along 65th Street, was a booming factory district which employed many at businesses that were once American goliaths like Continental Can and Bethlehem steel.  John and Barbara worked hard to meet the needs of those employed nearby.

Through his travels in life, John had learned many languages. It is said he could speak at least five:  Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Latvian and English. His language skills would play a role in doing business beyond the tiny conglomerate at 64th and Major.

Chicago had proven to be a magnet for the Lithuanian diaspora.  To this day, it is said that the greatest concentration of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania is in the Chicago area. The influx started in the late 1800’s and was large enough in 1906 to garner Upton Sinclair’s attention.  By 1933 there were Lithuanian owned businesses catering to the Lithuanian immigrants.

Much of that community was insular, with many lacking the language skills of John Shestokas. So John ultimately became a bridge.  He would buy beer for “Ma’s Tavern” as their place became known.  However he bought much more than was needed at “Ma’s” because most of the other Lithuanian tavern owners had limited English skills, and the beer suppliers didn’t speak Lithuanian.

Schlitz Beer, Sold from the Trunk

John’s primary beer supplier was a Schlitz wholesaler, Johnny Fredericks.  John would buy the inventory needed for “Ma’s” and then fill the garage with as much Schlitz as he could afford.  This worked well as John would put the extra beer in the trunk of his car and deliver it to other Lithuanian tavern owners.  This worked well for Fredericks as, of course, he spoke no Lithuanian.

Among the best potential business days in “Ma’s Tavern” were the paydays for the workers of the nearby factories and railyards. The reality of the times required planning to make such business opportunities successful.

In the 1930’s banking was much less sophisticated than today. There were no ATM machines or cash stations, and actual banks were rare, and the banks that did exist had limited hours of operation. (There was an old phrase “banker’s hours” that reflected the restricted access to banking services.)

The end result was that when paychecks were handed out at factories, railyards and meat plants, often late on a Friday, the soonest there would be access to cash for the workers might not be until Monday.

The Check Cashing Service

In order to do payday and weekend business, John and Barbara began to offer another service at their tavern. They began to cash paychecks. There was no fee for the service, since frequently much of the check would be spent either in the tavern, on eggs from the chickens, fresh meat butchered by John or getting a haircut.

Which brings up another point related to limited banking services. There was a need for weekend beer for not only “Ma’s Tavern” but for other Lithuanian bar owners.  The Schlitz aspect of the Shestokas enterprise on 64th Place was booming.  It had grown so much that at one point John Shestokas would write a check for beer purchases to Johnny Fredericks for $3000.00.

Apparently Mr. Fredericks was in a hurry to pay a bill he owed to the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company.  Fredericks endorsed John’s check and sent it up to Milwaukee, and the Schlitz accountants promptly deposited John’s check.

As luck would have it, with the cashing of payroll checks, the necessity for those checks to clear before becoming available in John’s bank account, the need to get the cash receipts to the bank and the swiftness of the Milwaukee bank presenting John’s check for clearance:



The people from Schlitz, of course, got in contact with their wholesaler, Mr. Fredericks, in order to secure payment.  However, the action they took was interesting.

$3,000 was an incredible amount of money in 1933. By some calculations it is the equivalent of $70,000 in 2023 dollars. Clearly it was important for the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. to collect this money. Strangely the Schlitz representatives did not ask Fredericks for the unpaid $3000.00. They asked Fredericks to tell them about John Shestokas. They wanted to learn more about this man who was buying so much beer.

They asked Fredericks: Who is this John Shestokas? Fredericks told them about “Ma’s Tavern” on 64th Place and the deliveries to other Lithuanian tavern owners from the trunk of John’s car.

The response of the men from Schlitz was to visit “Ma’s Tavern”. They met John and Barbara and presented the check. John apologized profusely (likely in multiple languages). They then walked to the bank at 63rd and Central, a place where John was both well-known and respected. The bounced check was quickly converted to cash and given to the Schlitz representatives.

John and the men from Schlitz returned to the tavern and over a beer, John was asked if he would like to be a Schlitz wholesaler buying directly from the brewery with a defined territory of his own.

So was born J&A Shestokas, as John became an official wholesaler with his eldest son.  Later it would be Shestokas Brothers as my dad would join his brother after serving in the Navy in World War II. Still later, it would be Shestokas Distributing. The wholesale business was launched with a bounced check.  It would last over 60 years and through that time employ over 500 people.

From a Free America to a Permission Society

In 21st Century America it’s likely that any one of the following: selling beer out of your car trunk, raising chickens for food in the backyard (guarded by a Great Dane), cutting hair in a side room, or having the equivalent of an unlicensed B&B would have you fined and imprisoned. Bouncing a $70,000 check will now get you a subpoena and a lawsuit not a new business partner.

Much of what John and Barbara did would, over three generations, positively impact thousands, not just the 500 that would work in the business, but their families as well. Most of their enterprises would now be illegal.

The story of John and Barbara is a tale of how people can prosper when left to their own devices, and how society flourishes when people are free.

The Upton Sinclair part of the story is cautionary. From Barbara’s take on her time at the stockyard, Sinclair’s stories of misery, woe and dangers to public health were vastly overblown.  It is a repetitive story of government growth based upon government “protecting” people. The granddaddy of federal bureaucracy, the FDA, was birthed by Sinclair’s work.

The John and Barbara story grew in a world of freedom, in a country they loved and likely understood better than any American today. John escaped conscription by the army of an occupying power, and Barbara was sent from her home at 15 before eight of her brothers and sisters were slaughtered by communists. They knew and savored freedom and made the most of it.



For Further Reading