Michael Horne
Bar Exam

George’s Pub Features Singing Bartender

George is 82, sings like Johnny Cash, and takes no guff. Nor do his customers, many retired cops who probably still carry guns.

By - Apr 23rd, 2015 04:26 pm
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George's Pub (Photo by Michael Horne)

George’s Pub (Photo by Michael Horne)

On a recent afternoon things are as usual at George’s Pub in Walker’s Point. The sign in the window still promises “Free Beer Tomorrow!” as it has for countless yesteryears, while the regulars, resigned to paying for their beers today, drink away. Tomorrow never comes, but at a buck a can, a Busch beer is not much more expensive than a free one, so the customers drink up without thinning their wallets too perilously.

At the back of the tiny, single-room tavern, George Vomberg, 82, is fiddling with the karaoke equipment in front of a sign advertising his band, “The Nashville Rejects.” Karaoke is a Friday event here, but even if it’s not Friday, George can burst out into song on a whim. It’s his right — he owns the place. The musical whim is usually country-western flavored, and George has a voice that recalls that of his contemporary, the late Johnny Cash, dead now for over a decade, yet his songs live on.

Done with the fiddling, George returns to the bar that starts at the front window on the south, takes a small bend west and extends as far to the north as it can manage before the rest rooms interrupt the activity. There is room for maybe 10 customers to sit on the brown, swiveling, padded, backed barstools, and George joins them — on the customer side — leaving the bartending duties to another.

A number of the regulars are wearing George’s Pub T-shirts, adorned with the tavern’s name, address (224 E. Washington St.), and an outline of a pistol. Don’t mess with George — or his customers. Behind the bar is a mirrored wall, which serves more to set off a collection of bottles than to provide a means for customers to admire their good looks. Those days are over anyway for most of the regulars. A sign warns that “ID Checked if Young Persons Enter,” which we’re guessing doesn’t happen often.

There is interesting stuff on every wall and on every imaginable surface in the tiny 783-square-foot room. There is Elvis in plaster, countless miniature trucks and action figures, a certificate attesting to George’s status as a Veteran of Foreign Wars (Korea) and and number of stickers that inform the visitor that We Support Our Troops! In the back, through an open door, you can catch a glimpse of a 631 square foot apartment just beyond the bathroom. It’s used for storage now, but it, and a since-razed building located behind the main structure, were used as residences for many years.

Immediately to the east, elevated railroad tracks carry freight and passenger trains to and from the heart of the city, while to the west a cinder block warehouse building is just about a foot away from this blue, 1,414 square foot, 115-year old frame tavern with the American flag aflutter, and the “Budweiser / George’s Pub / OPEN” sign above.

Things settle into the routine, with the old guys talking and a visitor taking in the quiet scene. A tavern phone rings, and things begin to stir here. Within minutes, all is activity, like a factory at the end of a shift, when they used to have factories here, and the workers would perk up and head off to this bar for a drink.

The music gets cued up, a reception committee is formed, George unspools a coil of yellow tickets and heads to the concrete stoop in front, the expectant host. Soon a rumbling comes from the east, accompanied by whoops and hollers. No, this is not the oncoming arrival of a particularly rowdy Amtrak party car, but of a rather improbable vehicle — a bicycle-operated tavern that has traveled the pancake-flat streets of Walkers Point to make a stop at the bar. George’s is a destination for the traveling tavern, and is good for the service’s business.

The dozen or so youthful bar adventurers who alight are great for George’s business, in addition to reducing the average age of the customers by a good two thirds just by walking in. They’ll come in, have a couple, listen to George croon a tune, and be on their way as the old bar settles back into its quiet routine just a block away from the scrapyards of Miller Compressing and just down the street from the recycling places where the empty cans of Busch beer drained by George’s crowd will bring 38 to 45 cents a pound at Bandos or Mill Valley.

For the last couple of years, George’s Pub has a new prominence as the trailhead for a bike path that leads south from its front door, paralleling the railroad tracks headed for Bay View, and giving the hard-to-find industrial tavern new visibility in a post-industrial age.

An 1894 map gives an idea of the neighborhood in its early industrial days. A “saloon” located at this address (and possibly in this building) was one of four on the block, which is not a particularly large or prominent block. Corneille Bros., “mfr’s of saloon bank, office and store fixtures,” was within sight at the southwest corner of what was then Washington and Barclay streets, making shopping for barstools a snap.

Fetching beer was even easier in those pre-prohibition days: E. Kinkert Beer Depot was right across the street. A block away at Scott St., P. Schoenhofen had a brewery and beer depot, in case E. Kinkert was sleeping it off in his beer depot. And, since nobody likes warm beer, the Wisconsin Lakes Ice Company was also within walking distance. What the heck! This was a natural location for a tavern.

In 1891 a $150 barn was built on the site by J. Eggner; no record remains of either. In 1934, John Kobe took out a permit to run the place as a tavern. Its Prohibition-era use, Kobe said, was “Tavern.” In 1949 a Braumeister neon sign was added. Braumeister was “Milwaukee’s Choicest Special Pilsener Beer Brewed in Wisconsin and Illinois.” The brew was “choicest” and “special” in the same way that Busch Light beer is “Clear and Light as Mountain Air.” All head, and no body.

In 1951, perhaps in an attempt to upscale the joint, the Braumeister sign was hauled down by owner Ernst Johnson and a nice Blatz sign replaced it. John and Mary E. Wagner ran the place in 1952, turning it over to Roger Neeb, who put up a Pabst sign in 1958 as the quality of the beers served here crept up with the rising standard of living for factory workers.

But, in 1959, the tireless crews from Everbrite Sign Co. went to work and put up a Blatz sign again, this one emblazoned with the name “Trestle Tap,” which was a good name. Joe Ciganik ran it in 1961, still under the Blatz banner, but now renamed “C+J Tap,” possibly because the new generation didn’t know what a “trestle” was anymore.

In 1965, the place became a Hamm’s bar, quite possibly signaling a decline in quality under the new ownership of David Lavedine. He hung on to the place until 1967 when Burton Buzzell opened the “Footprinter’s Club.” This may have been an inside joke of some sort, since nobody in their right mind would walk through the glass shards and the machine-steel shavings of the recycling district in their bare feet. Those footprints would have been in blood.

In 1974 the assessor took a look around. “Bldgs. in poor condition. Right next to Railroad R[ight] o[f] W[ay]. Bldgs. in poor state of repair. Rotted siding needs maintenance and paint. Int. run down.”

By 1976 the Pabst sign was back and the bar was known as “John Sobrado‘s Trestle Inn,” thus regaining a variant of the old name as well as the Blue Ribbon beer. In 1983 Susanne Fulghum opened “Secrets” here, and this may have been a good call, for if you wanted to keep a secret in this town, especially from your wife, you couldn’t find a much better hideaway than this neighborhood, which by that time had begun to blossom with numerous gay bars, only a few of which remain, including the nearby 200 E. Washington St. bar that is occasionally open, and the Harbor Room on E. Greenfield that still remains.

In 1984, the bar came into the hands of George Vomberg, its current owner, who named it after himself (and a fine choice that was for a place located on Washington St.) and continued the building’s “existing continuous, legal, non-conforming use” as a tavern. Right around that time the bar started filling up with George’s cool artifacts, some salvaged from buildings he himself demolished in an earlier age as a wrecking company employee. (This is also the Demolition District.) Today, decades later, George remains a tough guy, and could still take down an oak tree with his hands. Only nowadays, he’ll grab an ax first to make things easier.

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Photos

The Verdict: George’s Pub

  • Location: 224 E. Washington St.
  • Neighborhood: Walker’s Point
  • Phone number: (414)383-3909
  • Website: None found
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/georgespubmke?fref=ts
  • Twitter: None found
  • Description: Old, simple frame structure serves as long-running hidden tavern located between warehouse and train tracks. Personal magnetism of owner and longtime loyalty of customers creates a bond, and place is welcoming and conversational. T-shirts feature guns; customers, among them current and retired police officers, may indeed carry the real ones as well, so no monkey business here.
  • Food: No. But Blue Jacket, La Merenda and any number of other fine restaurants are nearby. Could probably just sit on the railroad tracks and eat a can of cold beans.
  • Signature Drink: A special Butterscotch shot is said to be the bomb. One dollar cans of Busch and Busch Light. Six packs to go are now $7!
  • Capacity: 25 in 783 square foot tavern built in 1900 or earlier.
  • Restrooms: Women’s, men’s rooms. Just enough to get the job done. Men’s room has racy photographs of women.
  • Year Established: Tavern probably since its beginning. Building doesn’t appear suited for much else, nor does it seem to have been remodeled from an existing residential use. Was one of 4 taverns within a couple hundred feet in 1894.
  • Year Building Constructed: A barn was here in 1891, this building was said to date from 1900 or earlier. A rear cottage was demolished in 1992, and replaced by a metal garage / warehouse building in 2000.
  • Estimated Annual Rent: 783 square foot tavern rents at $22.72 per square foot for a total annual estimated rent of $17,767 according to City Assessor estimates. Property is assessed at $26,800 for the 3,300 square foot lot [$8.12/s.f.] and $183,200 for the 2,230 sq. ft. buildings for a total assessed valuation of $210,000. Taxes are $6,082.02. Unpaid 2013 tax balance of $1,788.71 brings total to $7,467.60 according to Treasurer’s calculations. Operator owns building.
  • Walk Score: 67 out of 100, “Somewhat Walkable.” Rating will doubtless increase with growing retail options in area, including Cermak grocery planned for E. Greenfield Ave. to the south. People pushing shopping carts already a neighborhood fixture near the recycling centers.
  • Transit Score 58 out of 100, “Good Transit”. Blue, Green, 15, 19, 23 bus lines all within a block.
  • Games of Chance: Four amusement machines. Maybe if you ask nicely you can find out if there is a dice cup in the house.
  • Games of Skill: Not enough room for a pool table, and George says they’re just trouble anyway. Who wants to hand a club to any idiot off the street?
  • Aldermanic District: 12th Jose Perez
  • Police District: 2
  • Food District: 12

Hours of Operation

Is Open? Day Open Close Expected Customers Age Restriction
True Sun 12:00 PM 15
True Mon 12:00 PM 9:00PM 15
True Tue 12:00 PM 11:00PM 15
True Wed 12:00 PM 11:00PM 20
True Thu 12:00 PM 11:00PM 15
True Fri 12:00 PM 2:00AM 25
True Sat 12:00 PM 2:00AM 15

3 thoughts on “Bar Exam: George’s Pub Features Singing Bartender”

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a quaint and delightful place, with its philosophical “Free Beer Tomorrow” sign and it its singing owner. I can’t wait to hear George sing like Johnny Cash (I’ll ask him) when I first visit this place! Thanks again, Michael Horne, for revealing Milwaukee’s hidden secrets!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great historic tidbits as usual Horne. And a great column for you. Hm research time….

  3. Melody Stanislawski says:

    Melody says George sounds more like Don Williams 🍻Miss the good old days

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