In 1880, the spot where Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium – once known as War Memorial Stadium – stands, was on the far outskirts of the city.
The big landmark along Jefferson Street between Best and Dodge wasn’t “The Rockpile,” but was across the street from the stadium where the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center now stands.
The school was built on what was once the campus of the Gerhard Lang Brewery. Built in 1875, the brewery was marked as No. 57 on the 1880 map.
It would be another 10 years before there was any activity on the land on the other side of Jefferson Avenue.
In 1880, the Prospect Hill Reservoir was still Buffalo’s primary source for drinking water. Located at Niagara and Connecticut streets, the original reservoir spot has been the home of the Connecticut Street Armory for more than 100 years.In 1893, the new Prospect Reservoir started serving as Buffalo’s stand-by water source on Jefferson Avenue.
A generation later, that second reservoir would be replaced by War Memorial Stadium as a Depression-era WPA project.
It might have been the birth of the modern tailgate party in Buffalo.
A few days before the grand opening of the brand new Rich Stadium in 1973, the Buffalo Bills put fans on notice that they’d no longer be able to take their own six-packs of beer into the stadium, as they’d been able to do the previous 13 seasons at the Rockpile.
Noting that the changes were being made “for the safety of the fans,” Bills General Manager Robert Lustig told United Press International that the Bills were falling in line with “almost all other major league football stadiums,” and added that War Memorial Stadium was, in part, bring-your-own-beer because there weren’t adequate concession facilities in the 1937-built stadium.
While the more cynical among us might see dollar signs behind the safety warning, the ban was likely a long time coming after a handful of well-publicized incidents at Buffalo’s city-owned entertainment venues.
In response to what Larry Felser called “one of the most inept performances ever put on by a Buffalo football team,” several hundred fans at a 1962 game showered the field at the Rockpile with thousands of beer cans.
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Two years later, Buffalo Police called it a “near riot” when fans at The Aud hurled empty beer and pop bottles at the stage and at police when a music act failed to show.
Given those two incidents, Police Commissioner William Schneider requested that city lawmakers pass an ordinance barring people from bringing beer into city-owned Memorial Auditorium and War Memorial Stadium.
When Rich Stadium was built in 1973, there was a proposed law before the Erie County Legislature looking to ban fans from carrying beer into the stadium. A petition against the law gained nearly 5,000 signatures, but the Bills rule made the law unnecessary.
Starting with the Bills move to Orchard Park, if you wanted to have a few of your own beers for the game, you had to have them in the parking lot before you went in the gates. And out in the open farmland country of suburbia, there was plenty of room to have a few beers and spread out.
Tailgating at the Rockpile was different. People parked on city streets or on the tiny front lawns of the people who lived around the stadium. Maybe there were a few kids throwing around a football or older guys chomping on cigars, drinking coffee from a Thermos and reading the newspaper, grabbing their six-packs only as they walked into the stadium — not draining them before.
Over the 43 years since the Bills stopped allowing fans to BYOB, Buffalo’s love of football and beer and Buffaloness has evolved into its own unique cultural experience — the tailgate party like none other.
Everyday Buffalonians, groundskeepers at War Memorial Stadium, and the mayor (helped by a future mayor) were featured getting outdoor spaces ready for summer in The Buffalo Evening News on April 25, 1969.
War Memorial was the home of the Bisons from 1960 to ’69 and from 1979 to ’87.
Mayor Frank Sedita and the man who followed him as mayor, Stanley Makowski, planted a tree in front of City Hall in celebration of Arbor Day.