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Customers remember beloved times at historic Hank Dietle’s

Hank Dietle’s Tavern recently burned.  FILE PHOTOHank Dietle’s Tavern recently burned. FILE PHOTO  ROCKVILLE— The 102 year-old general store-turned-tavern that sat along Rockville Pike was often described as the Montgomery County’s oldest dive bar.

Longtime residents often recounted legends of the place that was a road stop for tight-knit group counterculture rebels, a refuge that sheltered bikers, rockers and all manner of miscreants. But the real story of Hank Dietle’s, which caught fire and burned last week, is much more complex.

Some of the stories about Hank Dietle’s – which boasted a legendary reputation as a stop for bikers, rowdy rock bands and locals alike – are true. But the Rockville Pike landmark often defied its stereotypical description as a rough dive bar, and was just as likely to be described as a family-friendly neighborhood bar and a welcoming watering hole open to every class of citizen under the sun.

“People were really friendly more or less, once you walked through the door, everybody was on the same level,” Geno Duvall, a longtime Dietle’s regular. “I mean we had everybody, from homeless people coming in here to nuclear scientists that worked up at the nuclear power plants up there.”

Hank Dietle’s, quintessential old-Rockville relic, caught fire last week after someone left a lit cigarette on the outside porch. The century-old, mostly wooden building caught fire and nearly totally burned down. But while early estimates were grim about the future of the bar – in an unsurprising move – days after the fire, the bar’s regulars began working day and night on rebuilding it.

A week after the fire destroyed most of the beloved 102 year-old tavern, Hank Dietle’s regular customers were back where they usually were – at the bar they all called home. After County firefighters estimated that the fire – which started from a lit cigarette – caused $500,000 worth of damage, Hank Dietle’s regulars spent day and night scraping and shoveling burn debris in preparation to rebuild their beloved tavern

As Duvall scraped ashes, he recounted his personal history of Dietle’s saying the bar was a haven for biker gangs who’d pull up to the tavern on classic motorcycles ready to fight in the 1970s. 

“The 70s was kind of wild. You know, a couple little biker groups that were around in the area would hang out here – there was a little bit of fighting going on back then,” Duvall said. “That’s when everybody went outside and punched each other a few times…you know you just took it outside, settled it and it was over.”

But it was more than the rough-and-tumble biker bar Duvall said. Dietle’s grew into a place that became a unique gathering spot of Montgomery County’s increasingly stratified social classes, a home welcome to all. Perhaps surprisingly, the 70s biker bar was also a spot for families. Duvall said his daughter Shauna who now lives in Florida makes a point to accompany her father to Dietle’s every time she comes back to Montgomery County.

Much has changed in the last 50 years in the spot surrounding Dietle’s in the Southern portion of incorporated Rockville – the new luxury condos, a sparkling world-class symphonic venue at Strathmore, the construction and destruction of White Flint Mall and even the name of the area which has been rebranded as “North Bethesda.”

Even as new establishments have attracted the often wealthy and educated people who’ve moved in droves to that part of Rockville in the last 50 years – people who’d rather the area be known as “North Bethesda” – Dietle’s and its loyal clientele have weathered the demographic changes. 

Even as many things changed along the portion along Rockville Pike where it stood for over a century, the glowing white Coca-Cola sign that reads “Hank Dietle’s Cold Beer” remained lit each night along MD-355. A welcoming beacon attracting decades of thirsty patrons, the sign still stands, having somehow survived the fire.

Dietle’s iconic sign is what first attracted Baltimore native and County transplant Dennis Bennaman and his son John to the bar. While not a native to Montgomery County, Dennis recognized Dietle’s as a landmark that reminded him of now-defunct diners of the 1950s that were once ubiquitous in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore where he grew up, even as the diners turned one by one into Starbucks and parking lots.

While Dennis and his family have lived in the County since 2004, he first became a regular at Dietle’s in 2014, who had resisted the urge to come into Dietle’s for too long. Since then they would make regular visit to Dietle’s, sit in the booth where John among many other carved their initials and have their usual – a soda and a bag of chips.

“Neither one of us was drinkers, so I said ‘let’s go get a bag of chips and a soda,’ we came in and that’s all we did,” Dennis Bennaman said.

Dietle’s originally was opened as a general store by Edward Offutt in 1916 as a general store with two Gulf gas pumps, home to Montgomery County’s first license to sell alcohol issued after prohibition ended in the early 1930s.

In between breaks of helping to rebuild to clean up the ashes left by the fire, Dennis can’t resist the urge to pull out his phone and show photos and YouTube videos of bands that have played here – a common ritual of nostalgia that many copy.

John, 25, has become an unofficial expert on Dietle’s. He knows the history, the layout of the building and instantly recognizes the tavern’s heir Susan Dietle.

Susan Dietle-Riffle travelled from Calvert County Sunday to see what remained of her father’s tavern.

In the 1950s, Hank Dietle took over control of the general store that had first opened in 1916, and after renaming it after himself, turned it into the bar it is known as today. The Dietle family owned several other establishments around the County in places like Montgomery Hills and Silver Spring, though none of them are still around.

Susan said she remembered how happy her father was at his tavern, a place where family and friends would gather. She came up and toured the burned still standing inside, saying she had to see the damage for herself.

“He loved this place, he loved this,” Susan said.

Susan toured the black-charred inside of her father’s bar, a place she did spend much time when was a kid, but later when she was older would come and hang with friends. 

Susan made an impromptu visit Sunday, walking through the tavern eventually making her way to the front of building to take a look at the famous sign that bears her father’s name. After seeing the half-burned sign with her father’s name, mostly untouched by the fire, Susan smiled saying she was glad to see her father’s name remained.

“His name made it through the burning of the sign, that tells me something right there,” Susan said. 

When Susan arrived Sunday she was greeted by Kensington resident Tony Huniak, the soft spoken nowproprietor of Hank Dietle’s. 

When Huniak took over control of the bar on New Year’s Eve 1996, he made one request to the Dietle family – that he could keep the name, for which the Dietle family happily granted him permission. 

Huniak, who is reluctant to do interviews, is among the first to greet every person who stops by his tavern to pay their respects. While all of Dietle’s regulars may not all know one another, they all know Huniak, who is always at the bar night and day, even after the fire. 

Huniak, along with many of the other regulars have begun a slow rebuild of the bar. There’s no guarantee that place will be rebuilt, but Huniak said he is hopeful that something can be done, even though he knows it won’t be exactly the same. In an organic community effort, Kiti Gartner started a GoFundMe page for the bar in hopes to raise $20,000, even though it will likely take much more money to fully rebuild the tavern with firefighters estimating the fire caused $500,000 in damage. So far the GoFundMe has raised more than $12,000 by the publication of this article. 

“Right now I don’t have a clue, besides cleaning out debris,” Huniak said about the timeline of the rebuild. 

Huniak is unsure of what it will take to rebuild the bar as he said he’s waiting for an estimate from an architect. While friends have connected him with plumbers and wood workers who have pledged their services to rebuild Dietle’s, Huniak said it is still too early to determine whether it will be enough as he does not have enough funds himself to pay to rebuild the tavern. 

Behind where the bar used to be are two black-charred refrigerators with glass doors. Inside are four shelves stocked with beer, seemingly untouched by the fire, the cardboard six-pack holder containers, the paper labels of the glass bottles are clean with only a little bit dust and ash on them. 

Howard, a regular at Dietle’s, who was scraping off the remains of the charred floor, said the beer was safe to drink even after surviving the fire, and that Dietle’s regulars who are now cleaning up the remains of their beloved bar spent the day at Dietle’s like many others – enjoying a beer with friends.

@neal_earley

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