(Oct. 10, 2014) One of Ocean City’s downtown institutions celebrated its golden anniversary this year.
Wicomico Street’s Cork Bar has been part of the Wilkins family for the past 50 years and, like its walls packed with photos and other mementos, the site holds memories for the four generations who have called it home.
“You never have weekends off, never have holidays,” said Billy Wilkins, who took over behind the bar in 1989. “It’s not for everybody, but we enjoy it.”
When asked what has changed in five decades his father Gordon Wilkins replied, “Not much.”
“That’s why we’ve got a good customers base. Each time they come in they come back,” he said.
Gordon’s father Maurice Wilkins and his partner John Matzcho bought the Cork Bar in 1963, when Ocean City only extended north from the inlet to about 30th Street, he said.
When they raised the building’s three garage doors the next year the bar opened for business.
In fact, it was not until 1992, when glass doors replaced the garage-style entrance, that the Cork Bar became a year-round business.
When Maurice became sick Gordon’s wife Martha Wilkins left work at Ocean City Elementary School to work the bar full time. That was more than 30 years ago and, in 1998, her husband retired from Delmarva Power and joined her at the Cork Bar.
With a major overhaul on the aging building in 2007 came the addition of a kitchen, keeping customers in who used to pop out for snack – though they’re still welcome to bring back a bucket of Thrasher’s fries or Fisher’s popcorn, Martha said.
That same year the Wilkins family bought out their partner and the bar truly became a family operation.
Gordon has seen many things change through the Cork Bar window over the years.
“People used to come in and give their kids two bucks to go down to the Boardwalk. Now it’s 20,” he said.
Other things – like the Cork Bar’s frosted mugs and infamous “Woo Woo” shooters – haven’t changed.
The bar still stands testament to many of Maryland’s fallen firefighters, with helmets brought in by family members hanging on the walls and badges from nearly 30 fire companies serving as décor. Gordon and Maurice both served as volunteer firefighters, Billy explained.
Another Cork Bar tradition is taping dollar bills to the ceiling, which is more than a mere bar trick.
“When the dollars start to fall they go to a local charity,” said Billy’s sister and bar bookkeeper Wendy DiBuo, who started the Autistic Children’s Support Group of Worcester County after raising her own child with autism.
The falling dollars often add up to more than $4,000 in a year, Gordon said.
Patrons have become “like family” at the Cork Bar, where longtime workers have learned when to expect certain crowds, Wendy said.
“Different people come at certain times, and we look forward to them,” she said.
“Even the tourists that come in here are pretty much locals to this bar,” Gordon said.
When Martha had a kidney transplant earlier this year, her customer’s response proved that sentiment.
“We had customers send cards,” said Wendy, who was her mother’s donor.
The Cork Bar has hosted many receptions and even one wedding for its loyal customers over the years, she said.
Now that Gordon and Martha have grandchildren, a fourth generation of Wilkins is making its way into the family business. Some of the funniest moments have been when those grandchildren asked for overtime or a raise, Martha said.
While little else has changed, Gordon finally conceded to accepting credit cards this year after the Cork Bar survived 49 years as a cash-only business with an ATM machine inside.
“I never wanted to work here,” said Billy, sitting around the bar with his family Tuesday morning. After one season working at the Cork Bar, he never left.
“I couldn’t believe they were paying me to work. It was so much fun,” he said.
More than 20 years later, Billy is still behind the bar, Gordon and Martha still work the day shift, and Cork Bar still serves beer in frosted mugs 365 days a year.