by Barbara Sherf
After 65 years on Bethlehem Pike in the heart of Flourtown, regulars of Cisco’s Bar and Grille will not be able to order the infamous cheesesteak hoagie or pose with the iconic moose head as of Jan. 2, when as the popular pub is closing.
While those same locals can share with you their traditions around kissing the moose, it was in the rear living space where the daughter of local legend James “Jim” Cisco, and niece of Tony Cisco, a light heavyweight boxer from Norristown, shared some hidden history.
In two separate interviews spanning several hours, Joanne Cisco Olszewski pieced together the story of how three generations of her family met in bars.
“My mother and father met at Uncle Tony’s bar in Norristown in the early 1940s,” Olszewski said. “They came together over their mutual love of classical music and later learned they were both taking private voice lessons. Nan was a soprano and Jim was a baritone.
“I was working at our bar on weekends while in high school and Bernie, a former Navy veteran, came in to watch the 1959 Army-Navy game. We married in 1962 and in 2012 celebrated our 50th anniversary. It is ironic that our daughter Sandra also met her husband Pat, then a landscape business owner, when he came in for lunch.”
Bernie, now 80, retired from Prudential Insurance in 1992 and immediately became an active participant in the bar business. He is well known for telling exiting customers, “Thanks for stopping!” Bernie quipped that he didn’t realize when he married Joanne “he was also marrying into the bar business.”
Photos of the late Tony Cisco (Ciaccio), a Norristown resident and light heavyweight fighter (39-30-9 with 6 KOs) in the late ’30s and early ‘4s line the walls along with photos of Jim Cisco and James, Jr., avid sportsmen. Tony’s younger brother Hank Cisco fought briefly but later became a professional referee. Both have been inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame. In the late 1950s, Jim and Nan petitioned the courts and changed the family name from Ciaccio to Cisco.
Joanne went on: “My father was in the Coast Guard in World War II and my mother and I, just an infant, lived in the apartment over McNally’s Tavern in Chestnut Hill. After the war was over, Dad opened up a luncheonette on Ridge Pike in the panhandle of Springfield Township.
“In 1949 the local chief of police talked him into looking at a location in Flourtown he thought would be more promising. They moved, obtained a liquor license three years later and the rest is history – Cisco’s Bar & Grille was born.”
According to documents prepared by members of the Springfield Township Historical Society, the original land dates back to 1741 and was sold by descendants of William Penn. In the mid 1700s, a log cabin was built on the original nine acres, and eventually a two-story stone building was erected in 1812. In 1873 a peaked roof was added to the structure. The bottom floor was used as a saddle and harness shop. In the 1930s Joseph Quigley started a small store on the first floor and the property was eventually sold to James and Ann Ciaccio on June 29, 1956.
Among his many community efforts, Jim Cisco loved the outdoors and helped save Erdenheim’s Hillcrest Pond, sponsoring cleanups and trout stocking at his own expense. In 1964 his conservation and environmental efforts were recognized by the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson. In 1994, Jim Cisco was recognized for his service by the Springfield Township Parks and Recreation Board. Before his death in 1997, the area around the pond he and the Friends of Hillcrest Pond cleaned and stocked on Montgomery Avenue in Erdenheim was named Cisco Park.
“My dad was pretty amazing.,” Olszewski said. “He didn’t even graduate from high school, but he could talk to people from behind that bar. My mother was the softer side. She made soups and salads and was an equal business partner with my Dad.” .
The famous elk and moose heads are evident in the front of the pub. The mounted “Freddy the Fox” is in the rear area. They are remnants of a hunting club in Philadelphia that was closing down and brought to Jim Cisco by a friend by the name of Jack “Bubbles “Reeves.
“Many people just assumed my father killed the animals, but that’s not the case,” Olszewski revealed. “My father was really into fishing, as you can see in the photos. He was a conservationist and was very active in the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association. My brother, Jim Jr., nicknamed ‘Timber,’ lives in a log cabin in Lycoming County.”
The Olszewski’s’ other daughters, Laura and Christine, live out of town and are not involved in the business. They plan to visit for the final week, as well as Joanne’s sister Dianne Cisco Yeater, who lives in Cape Cod.
Joanne and Bernie moved to Delaware and then to the Baltimore area before returning to Montgomery County. When Anne Cisco became ill in1983, they returned to help run the business. Anne, known as Nan, died in 1989 before the couple was able to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Daughter Sandra “Sandy” Olszewski Durkin, of Lafayette Hill, who has remained in the family business, was prepping for a big Friday night and chatted about the closing.
“It’s bittersweet because we have been here for so long and have impacted so many people,” she said. “I did not expect the outpouring from people who have come in since the ’70s, and it’s a testament to my parents and grandparents. We have had people come back from Florida and Seattle and even St. Louis to see us off.“
The Olszewski’s’ will remain living in the space at the rear of the bar.
“This is home – this is where I grew up and we love being back in Flourtown,” she said, adding that while they had several offers to buy the establishment, they just want to live there with a lower impact rental use of the front space. “I can imagine a consignment shop or an antiques shop or even a professional office.”
Durkin has been taking contact information from longtime customers who want a bit of history once the establishment closes. The place is filled with history, including an original sign in the back office with the prices of sandwiches.
“In the ’60s a small hoagie was going for 45 cents and it now sells for $4.50,” Durkin said. “Customers have been great and are lining up for some piece of memorabilia. Several people want to buy the moose head and others are interested in the license plates.”
Sandy has been keeping a list of names and numbers of possible purchasers.
“It’s actually been heartwarming to have been part of a family business like this and everyone has a story to share,” she added.
At one time the Flourtown Fire Company was housed in the building right next door, and Joanne remembered her father, who was a volunteer, helping every time a call would go out.
“He wrote down the location of the fire on a chalkboard and opened the firehouse doors manually for the arriving fireman,” Olszewski said .
Christopher Manning, 39, president of the Flourtown Fire Company, chatting at the newer firehouse two doors away, remembered going to the pub with his father, John Manning, who also was active in the fire company.
“My oldest memory is of my Dad taking us Cisco’s to bring hoagies to the Phillies games,” he said. “We then used to come here after high school bonfires, and I even rented the second-floor apartment for a while. The old firehouse used to be right next door, so we were and are all regulars.
“Even now it’s convenient. The crew is always looking for a decent quick meal and that’s the place. I can eat a hoagie here early in the day, and the guys will walk in and say ‘where’s my hoagie’ because they smell it even four hours later. We’re really going to miss it.”
There were lots of laughs and stories throughout this past weekend around the bar and in the wooden booths with the holiday-decorated moose looking out over the standing-room-only crowd.