Kam's is one classic campus watering hole still standing. It has ranged up and down the 600 block of East Daniel Street for more than eight decades and survived family-business breakups, Prohibition, and a shift in the food-and-drink culture. It survived comic (then-student) Arte Johnson riding a horse into the place one Spring Carnival and professional hedonist (then-student) Hugh Hefner hanging around. It reveled in its standing as one of Playboy's "Top Five" campus bars.
In 1929, Martin, Gordon, and Dick Kamerer opened two pharmacies, one at Lincoln and Nevada and the other at 602 East Daniel (now an Espresso Royale). In the early 1930's, Martin added 608 East Daniel - site of Kamerer's Annex - to their growing business empire. According to John "Jack" Kamerer, Martin, put his two younger brothers through pharmacy school, and they ran the family drugstores. Martin and Helen Kamerer ran Kamerer's Annex, nicknamed Kam's by students. The brothers split up the businesses in the 1930's.
The original Kam's house basement dining room that specialized in fried chicken from birds raised in west Champaign and served to students looking for a good meal before the U of I built dorms and offered meal contracts. During Prohibition, Kam's served near-beer. Martin Kamerer also contracted with the Army Specialized Training Program during World War II to serve late-night snacks of hamburgers, milk shakes, and ice cream to soldiers on campus. And in the 1950's, Kam's brought in a local Italian restaurateur, Dom Buttitta, who made pizza in the basement.
From left, Martin and Helen Kamerer and Helen's brother, Leo Gordon, host the visit of the Budweiser Clydesdales and wagons at Kamerer's Annex (later known as Kam's) in the early 1950's
Long before Kam's gained its reputation as the "Home of the Drinking Illini," a slogan coined in the 1970s by bar manager Mel Coleman, Kam's poured a lot of coffee for bridge-playing students and sold homemade donuts.
From 1959 to the early 1970s, Kam's was owned by Gene Fiedler and Leo Gordon, Helen Kamerer's brother. Down the block from Kam's was a restaurant Marty K's. In 1958, the Kamerer's rented the restaurant to football legend Stan Wallace, who ran it as Stan's Gridiron until 1975.
Jack Kamerer took over the space at 618 East Daniel, demolished an apartment house that shared the lot, and renovated the bar to triple its size. He oversaw the bar and food operations until 1981, when an investor group leased the business, which finally was leased to Eric Meyer. The KAM'S name and Home of the Drinking Illini slogan are part of the deal. The Jack Kamerer family still owns 616-618 East Daniel and its adjoining lot. He said student life and the business changed dramatically in the late 1960's and early 1970's as the U of I loosened its social controls over student life and housing.
In March 1966, Kam's - the neighborhood's foremost student bar, especially for Greeks - was the target of an outrageous and botched raid. Twenty-nine agents with the Illinois Secretary of State's office raided the bar one Friday night. In search of fraudulently altered drivers' licenses, they apprehended some seventy students and charged fifty-two. Neither U of I nor local police were alerted to the raid, which followed correspondence and visits the preceding month to campus by investigators from Secretary of State Paul Powell's office. (Powell later was discredited, postmortem, when a shoebox full of cash was found in his Springfield hotel room.) Resolutions, petitions, rallies, demonstrations, and the inevitable lawsuits followed. One rally featured the ultimate political odd couple: campus leaders of the John Birch Society and Students for a Democratic Society jointly lambasting Powell, who was at Lincoln Square in Urbana to address a luncheon connected to an auto show.
Source: An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus - By Lex Tate, John Franch, Incoronata Inserra