Harbor Inn is the very picture of a “hole-in-the-wall” bar. Located on the bayside of Somerset Street, it’s easy to miss if passed by on a night when jukebox tunes aren’t emanating from the inside, although that isn’t very often. The dive has weathered every storm to hit Ocean City for 87 years now – longer, if you count the fact that the building itself was built in the 1800s – but its future is fuzzy, and regulars wonder if the bar will someday be able to celebrate its long-awaited centennial anniversary.
A piece of Ocean City history
“She’s hanging in here ’cause she don’t want it to change. She doesn’t want someone to come in, buy it out and change this corner of OC.”
Buddy Groff has been bartending at the Harbor Inn for almost a decade. He mentions the bar’s current owner, Sheree Musson, and how she’s received offers from businesspeople looking to buy out the Inn and the surrounding three buildings that Musson also owns. Groff says that Musson was once offered a million dollars for the lots, an offer that she declined.
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Harbor Inn has always been owned by women, since the mid-1920s when Musson’s grandparents, Irish and Emma Farrell, first opened the building as a market. This was during prohibition, when they couldn’t legally sell alcohol. Now, decades later, the truth comes out.
“Trust me, they were selling liquor before prohibition,” Groff said with a laugh, adding that the bar claims the oldest existing liquor license in Maryland (it officially became a bar in 1935, two years after prohibition ended).
When asked to recount a story from the bar’s days of yore, Musson smirks and says, “If walls could talk, they’d probably tell a lot.” But she and Groff both have a favorite story from Harbor Inn’s early days, passed down from the older generations.
“Years ago when my grandmother first opened it up, she was friends with the Chief of Police,” Musson said. “It was really originally a little market for the marina over here, and she would pour whiskey in Coca Cola bottles and put them in the counters where the candy or whatever was sold.”
The moral of the story is, essentially, that it pays to have friends in high places: the Chief of Police would call up Emma Farrell whenever the police were coming to raid the place, and she’d put the illegal Coke bottles in a cart and wheel them around the block until the cops were gone.
“She remembered when the Inlet was cut through,” Musson said of her late grandmother. “She used to sit and talk to the customers and tell ‘em stories all about Ocean City, which I’m kind of glad to be a part of, growing up here. I can remember when Ocean City wasn’t passed 33rd street. “
The locals’ favorite dive
Wayne Short moved to Ocean City from Essex 40 years ago, and he’s been a regular at Harbor Inn ever since.
“I came down on spring break, I just ain’t left yet,” he says, perched on the stool where he watches customers weave in and out while he downs a pitcher of Landshark. Short lives in one of the other buildings that Musson owns, but he picks up his mail right at the bar. Ever the character, he once trained an iguana, Hillary, that he had registered as a service animal.
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Ocean City is known for being a family-friendly resort, but the town has a vibrant and exciting nightlife scene in the summer. Sometimes it just seems criminal to sit out on the beach without a Piña Colada in one hand and an orange crush in the other, and with so many bars lining the streets of Coastal Highway, it can be hard to decide where to get your drink of choice.
“What’s up with the Barbies?” a customer asks, pointing to the mostly-naked dolls sitting on top of a TV behind the bar.
“He collects ’em,” Short answers, motioning toward Buddy.
Groff doesn’t actually collect them, but he and Short quip back-and-forth like this all night. The Barbies belong to bartender Dawn Ramashka, Groff says, whose friends bring them in to her for “dates.”
While at first glance the dive appears to be decked out in the expected beer brand paraphernalia, it also sports its own unique, personal touches. There’s the naked Barbies, for one, but there’s also the picture of Groff with the guitarist from heavy metal band Jackyl (“I asked him for a picture and he said he’d only do it if we took it under the ‘Dumbasses’ sign,” Groff recalled) and framed newspaper clippings on the wall, media coverage from Harbor Inn’s 80th anniversary three years ago.
A lot of blood, sweat and tears has been poured into this place over the years. More recently, the bar underwent renovations after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, but even with a fresh coat of paint and remodeled bathrooms, Harbor Inn never really changes.
“It’s really been kind of the same since the beginning – as far as the storms coming through, we’ve lost the flooring and things like that,” Musson said. “But we haven’t changed it a lot. We haven’t had to.”
The bar has always been owned by the same family, but Musson says that her children have no interest in taking over the business someday. Her main concern is that, if she sells Harbor Inn, the oldest bar in Ocean City will cease to exist, or else become a place that she doesn’t recognize.
Two young women stumble in through the side door, evidently hitting the next stop on their Friday night bar crawl. Groff invites them to put something on the jukebox, and one of them chooses Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” It’s not a song you would expect to hear in a place like this, where classic rock is in regular rotation, but Harbor Inn defies expectation all the time.