When I was in high school, I knew a few things about IU.
I knew my parents met here at an apartment near the Varsity Villas. I knew about Bob Knight and Assembly Hall and the five banners. And I knew about Nick’s English Hut.
If my family would come to Bloomington for a football game or campus visit, we’d have lunch at Nick’s. I put the key to my first car on a keychain emblazoned with a red bison holding a frothy mug. Whenever I opened our cabinet at home, I’d see a rusty metal bucket proclaiming in bright red paint, “Nick’s Bucket Brigade.”
There’s something about Nick’s that makes it inseparable from the IU experience. It’s not just the decidedly cream and crimson decor. It’s a more humble bar than other establishments on Kirkwood. It’s a place to sit down and drink a God-fearing pound of American beer out of a jar. It’s inherently Hoosier.
The shots-till-you-drop crowd may drift across the street, but climb the stairs to the Hoosier Room on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll have trouble finding a table. Basketball coaches come and go, administrations change, and students find new places to drink — but Nick’s has been Kirkwood’s constant for close to 90 years.
They dated over cheap Tuesday night steak-and-wine dinner specials at Nick's.
This is the story of a bucket.
Its tin is dark with age, not like the shiny ones people play Sink-the-Biz with today. Under the words “Nick’s Bucket Brigade” is the word “Zero” in my dad’s handwriting.
Nobody is quite sure whose idea it was to bring the buckets to Nick’s. The idea for a drinking club using buckets came from a bar someone visited in Wyoming in the early 1970s. The 120 tin buckets were hung on 120 hooks above the main bar for elite regulars.
Thus, Nick’s Bucket Brigade was born.
It’s one of the most iconic parts of Nick’s. To get a bucket in those early days, you had to earn a bucket. “Only the truly elite, the froth of the beer as it were, have their own buckets,” author Bill Weaver wrote in his Nick’s history, “The College of Beer.” “The easiest way to get your very own personalized bucket is go get somebody to will you their bucket and then kill them.”
“It was a small group of people who had buckets, so it was a tight little club,” my dad, Paul, told me. “When I would go in everyone would have to drink out of pitchers, and I had my bucket.”
"It wasn't a drinking game back then. It was basically a privilege to have that bucket."
I’d like to tell you the number of Dad’s bucket, but I’d probably get disowned for leaking it. It wasn’t until I visited Nick’s on my 21st birthday that I understood just how impressive Dad’s bucket ownership was. I went to the bar with a favorite professor of mine, whose love affair with all things Bloomington — including Nick’s — is legendary among journalism students.
“Would you mind if I get down my bucket?” I asked him.
He looked at me with a glimmer of excitement. “You have a bucket?”
“Well, my Dad does,” I shrugged.
“In all my years in Bloomington,” he said, grinning, “I’ve only known one other person to have a bucket.”
He'll proudly point out a booth in the back, telling you that's where he and his wife had their first date.
Nick Hrisomalos opened Nick's English Hut in 1927. By the time he died in 1953, his little spot was a Bloomington staple. Courtesy photo
Nearly a century ago, a Greek immigrant came to Bloomington.
He operated a small storefront on North Walnut Street selling popcorn and peanuts, but in 1924 he bought a piece of open space on a two-laned brick street under a row of shade trees.
On that land, Nick Hrisomalos would build one of Bloomington’s most iconic storefronts. It started as a sandwich shop with a small grill in back, but after Prohibition ended in 1933, it became Kirkwood’s first bar. He called it Nick’s English Hut.
In the first half of the last century, Nick’s was a small, quiet, calm place. Law students, local politicians, and members of Sigma Nu — who lived just down the street at the time — populated the bar. At the end of the night, Nick would walk through the bar, shouting, “Everybody out, even the Sig-a-ma Nu’s!”
Nick died the day IU won its second NCAA men’s basketball championship, March 17, 1953. His son, Frank, sold the bar to Nick’s regular Dick Barnes in 1957.
Mr. Barnes, as everyone calls him, had started as a Bloomington restaurateur by opening The Pizzeria — Bloomington’s first pizza joint — at Grant and Kirkwood in 1954. By 1972, he had a chain of eateries and bars that would make the Kilroy’s empire of 2014 jealous. But in the mid-1970s, Mr. Barnes sold most of his businesses off to concentrate on the English Hut.
The buckets came to Nick’s under Mr. Barnes’ ownership, but the great exclusivity of the Bucket Brigade ended when buckets became open to the public for Sink-the-Biz in 1996. Now, the buckets aren’t willed from one generation to another. They’re not sought after by students the way they used to be.
Barnes owned The Pizzeria, Pizza Barn, La Tortilla, Davy’s Locker, Ye Olde Regulator, The Gaus Haus, The Refuge Inn and Nick's. Herman B Wells called Barnes the "Mahatma of Kirkwood.".
The game was invented in the mid-1980s when Quarters was banned in the bar. Members of the Bucket Brigade nicknamed the small serving cup after the German battleship Bismarck, hence Sink-the-Biz.
Gregg "Rags" Rago started washing dishes for longtime Nick's owner Dick Barnes in 1979. Rags owns the place now, but can still be found doing dishes and cleaning up the bar.
On a drizzly Thursday afternoon, current owner Gregg “Rags” Rago is cleaning up in the kitchen.
He wears a neon-green Nick’s shirt and matching Crocs with two rolled-up bandanas wrapped around his neck. He keeps a ring full of keys with a Nick’s keychain — the same one I had when I was 16 — in his pocket.
Rags started washing dishes here when he was a teenager in 1979. “I never forget where I came from,” Rags says. “My passion, my life, is Nick’s English Hut. I don’t really know anything different.”
"I'm kind of a steward, a captain of the ship."
Rags sees his role as a steward, a captain of the ship, upholding the tradition his predecessors set before him. He’s made some updates — last summer the downstairs went through a massive renovation — but the spirit of Nick and Mr. Barnes is still front and center. The new bar has stainless steel, granite, hickory wood, and LED lighting, but it’s the exact same size as the old bar — the buckets still hang above, and the original booths Nick Hrisomalos installed in 1927 are still there.
“I can change things because I can, but I want to keep things in a very traditional manner so when people walk in they feel like it’s 1927, 1957, 1977, 2007,” he says. “You know, I’ve come to work every day here for almost 37 years, and I know what Nick’s means. I know it means a lot to other people, too.”
Rags calls it genuineness. He’s made some changes downstairs so families can bring their underage children in before 8 p.m. He sources the food menu from local farmers and the beer from local brewers.
“People call us a bar — we are a bar, we serve alcoholic beverages — but I see us being called a restaurant also,” Rags said. “Nick’s English Hut is Nick’s English Hut. I mean, has anyone else heard of a Nick’s English Hut? No. We’re the only one.”
Rags left a note inside the bar during construction: “To whomever finds this note, May Nick’s English Hut forever flourish & keep the spirits of Nick & Dick ALIVE! 6/24/13 RAGS”
Hoosier fans swarm Kirkwood in December 2011 after IU beat then-No. 1 Kentucky on a buzzer-beating three-pointer. ids file photo
One of the lasting images from the night Christian Watford hit that three to beat Kentucky in 2011 is a grainy, unstable cell phone video shot from the back of the Hoosier Room.
“Shoot the fucking ball!” someone shouts as Watford gets the pass in the final seconds.
Then — for not even a full second — the bar goes silent.
You can’t make out much after that. The ceiling fan makes an appearance for a moment, then you see the bar and red-sleeved arms high in the air. The noise is loud. The whole building seems to be jumping off its foundation.
I was outside that night, along with hundreds of other Hoosiers celebrating the return of IU basketball. I watched the game in an apartment a few blocks from Kirkwood. I didn’t even wait for the shot to clear the net at the end of the game. I saw the ball dip under the rim and ran to the bars.
My parents texted me — with lots of capital letters and exclamation points — and asked how I was celebrating.
Headed toward Nick’s, I told them.
I have the Wat Shot. Dad has the 1981 championship.
After IU beat UNC in the NCAA final, Dad — a photojournalism student — grabbed his camera bag and headed toward campus, where the celebration began with happy Hoosiers jumping into Showalter Fountain.
“The night was, just, everyone was on campus,” he said. “Everyone was at Kirkwood or Showalter Fountain.”
At Nick’s, the management had learned from the 1976 championship when a near-riot broke out in the bar. This time around, they were more cautious of crowds and used plastic cups rather than glass jars. By the end of the night, the only thing left behind the bar was a four-pack of Ballantine Ale.
Dad ran into three of his fraternity brothers from Phi Gamma Delta celebrating outside Nick’s, their arms around each other, holding up No. 1 fingers. Dad squatted down so the “NICK’S” sign was framed between their arms and pressed the shutter.
He was working that spring at a photo store where Panda Express sits on Kirkwood today. Dick Barnes was a regular customer who brought his film in to be developed. Dad made a print of the celebration photo for Mr. Barnes, thinking it might end up on the wall. He joked to his boss at the camera store that he hoped Mr. Barnes would be so impressed with the photo that he’d offer up a bucket.
After that video went viral, Rags says, his insurance came knocking. They were at safe capacity that night, but now you'll find Nick's employees at the entrance to every door, making sure no single room gets too crowded.
They've also had the place structurally tested, proving that the floor of the Hoosier Room — built on top of an old bowling alley — can bounce up to three-quarters of an inch the next time the Hoosiers decide to give us a buzzer-beating victory against a top-ranked team.
One day, Mr. Barnes came in to pick something up at the camera store, and Dad gave him the print.
“This is great,” Mr. Barnes said. “Come in sometime and I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Tell him what you really want,” Dad’s boss said from another part of the store.
“Well,” Dad said. “I was joking that it’d be nice to get a bucket.”
“OK ,” Mr. Barnes said. “Come on in and we’ll get you one.”
He came in to Nick’s the next day, paid a small fee and got the bucket. He kept the decorations simple, just writing “Zero” — his Fiji nickname — on the side. When he moved away from Bloomington years later, he passed his spot in the Brigade to his younger sister and kept the bucket, where it lived in the cabinet at home for 25 years.
One night, before he officially willed it to my Aunt Sallie, Dad came to Nick's and asked for the bucket by number. The bartender looked for the bucket but came back empty handed. He found his little sister and a group of her friends using the bucket in Nick's Attic upstairs. He simply walked up, grabbed the bucket by the handle, thanked her for buying the first bucket-full and walked back downstairs.
Rags holds out Paul Scudder's bucket. Longtime owner Dick Barnes gave the bucket to Scudder after the 1981 men's NCAA basketball championship.
The bucket is no longer in Dad’s cabinet.
A few years back, while I was at freshman orientation, my parents went to Nick’s and found out that not only could anyone order beer from a bucket, but that the shiny new buckets were for sale up front.
“I wasn’t aware of how much the bucket culture was different,” Dad said. “So that’s disappeared. And that’s disappointing.” Dad asked the bartender if he could bring his old rusty bucket back to hang in the bar. The bartender was skeptical at first, before Dad explained the story about the photo and the ’81 championship.
“Well, if Mr. Barnes gave it to you,” he said, “we’ll put your bucket up.”
When I moved back to Bloomington in 2010, my parents took me to lunch at Nick’s. Dad smuggled his bucket back into the bar under a jacket. Once he had placed his order, he scurried over to the main bar downstairs and had it hung.
“To me, that’s one of the things I remember about Nick’s: walking in the front door and seeing all those buckets hanging above the main bar downstairs,” Dad said.
“I knew that when I got mine that I would always have this thing hanging in Nick’s that very few people had and forever tied me to there.”
Dad and I have discussed bringing the bucket back down. I have a Sink-the-Biz set at home with a shiny new bucket that is dentless, paintless, rustless. Dad has thought about putting his old number on there, letting me decorate it. But there’s just something about having that old bucket always a part of Nick’s. More than 30 years after Mr. Barnes handed the bucket to Dad, it’s still there.
That’s why alumni always come back to Nick’s. Every generation will add something new to the place — from Mr. Barnes’ pizza pies to Rags’ newest renovations — but the booths are always the same, the same stained glass is on the wall, the buckets are always hanging above the bar.
“I think every college campus has the quintessential college bar, and that’s what Nick’s is to Bloomington. That’s what Nick’s is for IU,” Dad said. “Other places come and go, and there seems to always be this one that sticks around.”
Likely the only time in Nick's history that someone has smuggled a bucket into the bar.
"If you walked in 30, 40 years ago, to you it might feel the same, feel like you're 21 again."