For generations of Western New Yorkers, the Swannie House has been a fixture, a gateway to the Old First Ward, a short walk from the home of the Buffalo Sabres, in the shadow of General Mills, a reminder of Buffalo's historic past and an integral piece of a once and still-industrialized neighborhood building a future.
Since the pandemic, Debbie Wiles-Fetterman was the face of the Swannie House. And its heart. After owning it for over 40 years, her husband Tim Wiles had to stop pulling regular shifts. So her death earlier this month forced its temporary closing.
But the Swannie House tradition, which began shortly after the Civil War, will live on: It will open for business on Saturday.
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It had been closed since March 8, the day after Wiles-Fetterman's death, and was announced via a short Facebook post: "The Swannie House is closed until further notice. Thank you for your support." Though her name was not mentioned, virtually every comment that followed acknowledged her death, many with anecdotes about happy memories and good times.
Joe Allman, who started working at Swannie House at 16, as a dishwasher, 30 years ago, is now a main bartender, and Swannie House’s longest tenured worker. He said kindness is what people remember about the woman who tried to cure every ail that came her way.
“Customers and employees, everybody the same," he said.
Wiles-Fetterman grew up in Lancaster, one of four children of Marge and Harry “Bill” Fetterman. She graduated from Lancaster High School in 1989. Her restaurant career included a server stint at Gabriel’s Gate while she worked toward her dental assistant certificate at the University at Buffalo. She graduated and registered it on July 15, 2010.
Her husband already owned the bar before they got married, and she started working at Swannie House after they met. It was the second marriage for both, introducing her children, AJ, Mara and Trey Santana, to his, Jacob Wiles, Sammy Wiles and Maria Bell.
When Tim Wiles stopped working several years ago due to illness, “Debbie stepped right up to be just like her husband,” Allman said.
That meant following in the tradition of the owners who came before, standing behind the polished mahogany bar, lining up frosty bottles of Labatts and shots of Crown Royal. But she would also run outside with a bowl of fresh water when customers brought their dogs and parked them outside, Allman said.
At her funeral, Allman did one more solid for his former boss, helping carry her casket.
“I’ll miss her,” Allman said.
The Swannie House story dates to the late 1800s. According to a 2021 story by Steve Cichon, the widely recounted version of events purports that a Polish immigrant named John Swanerski shortened his name upon opening the tavern so that it might better appeal to the Irish immigrants who filled the neighborhood around the corner of Michigan and Ohio streets.
Some of that might not be true, Cichon found; there's no record of anyone named Swanerski – or anyone with a name even close – living in or emigrating to Buffalo, ever. But since at least 1866, the Swanney family had been running a boarding house (with a tavern on the ground floor) in the First Ward.
The Swannie House celebrates that history on its walls. Among the framed photographs and Buffalo memorabilia hangs an article summoning the memory of a particular night in the bar’s history.
The laminated Toronto Sun story is veteran National Hockey League journalist Mike Zeisberger’s homage to Jim Kelley, the longtime Buffalo News hockey writer who died in 2010, centered around a night at the Swannie House.
Tied to its history, Zeisberger returns to the bar whenever he can. On March 5, he was pleased to induct Edmonton hockey scribe Mark Spector to ranks of Swannie fans, and meet its public face, Wiles-Fetterman.
Sitting at the bar, they chatted with her about the history of the establishment, how the neighborhood had and had not changed, and about the cool Cheerios sweatshirt she was donning, which she revealed came from the General Mills complex across the bridge.
“It was a great night of pure Buffalo hospitality,” said Zeisberger. He said that made the news of Wiles-Fetterman’s sudden death so much more shocking.
"Unbelievable," he said. "She was so welcoming."
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