Erin Petersen

A tavern crawl of “historic” proportions

By - May 13th, 2011 04:00 am
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In a city like Milwaukee, the pub crawl is something of a rite of passage, but when you combine our fair city’s penchant for fermented beverages with a one-of-a-kind glimpse into its historic past, well, that’s something different entirely. And that’s just a taste of what you might experience with Historic Milwaukee, Inc. this weekend.

HMI selected Riverwest as the site for this year’s Spaces & Traces Event (which takes place Saturday, May 21), a day-long immersion into various Milwaukee neighborhoods to offer a unique view of the people and places that define it. But this is no ordinary tour — 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of Spaces & Traces, and this Saturday, HMI plans to kick off the celebration with an historic tavern crawl through this year’s featured neighborhood.

While most pub crawls are an exercise in sustained inebriation, don’t be surprised if HMI’s tavern tour is a little different. Oh, there will be beer (and plenty of it), but in between sips of complimentary Lakefront brews, attendees will get a rare look at Riverwest’s past via the historic architecture that peppers the tight-knit enclave.

“The tavern Crawl and [Spaces & Traces] are featuring popular style architecture…how working-class people build neighborhoods over time, and how that creates neighborhood identity,” says Anna-Marie Opgenorth, Executive Director of HMI.

In a conversation in late March, Opgenorth said HMI chose the neighborhood for its rich cultural heritage, but also for its collective commitment to sustainability, preservation and social change.

“Riverwest is not what it seems; it is not defined by how it is often perceived. There is a strong sense of heritage, an openness to change, a commitment to today and an excitement for the future,” she says.

Organized by HMI staff members Matthew Prigge and Erin Dorbin,along with a committed group of volunteers, the tavern crawl will visit Stonefly Brewery, Falcon Bowl, Tracks, Nessun Dorma, Linneman’s, The Uptowner, Gee Willickers (personal note: Best. Jukebox. Ever.), and the recently-opened Riverwest Public House between 5 and 9:30 p.m. Participants can “crawl” in whichever order they choose, and will receive a map at the beginning of the night with information on special talks or events that will take place along the route. At each stop, crawlers can enjoy complimentary Lakefront beer while reading up on the historic significance of the ground they’re standing on.

If you’ve ever wondered about the story behind Milwaukee’s second-oldest bowling alley, or that sleepy corner bar that’s been serving up drinks for 122 years, HMI will sate your curiosity.

“Every one of those spaces has a historic impact, whether its because they are important today, or important to the history and culture of the neighbhorhood,” Opgenorth says of the tavern selection.

Every building has a story to tell, and HMI wants to give those structures a voice. Maybe you’ve seen a show at Linneman’s or in the balmy back room of The Uptowner, or knocked down a few pins at Falcon Bowl back in the day.

While said places may be beloved for their come-as-you-are ethos and cheap drinks, these same buildings (and in fact, all the taverns on the route) played an interesting role in Milwaukee’s history. They were places where workers gathered to share a cold drink after a long day in union shops. They were pharmacies, speakeasies and places for communities to congregate. They were discotheques and railroad stops and the first bars to serve up Lakefront beer.

In homage to that first delivery of Lakefront beer, co-founder Jim Klisch will re-enact a barrel roll, beginning at the brewery’s original location on E. Chambers St. and continuing on to Nessun Dorma — formerly the Gordon Park Pub and also the first tavern to serve Lakefront beer.

“The first barrels were hand-delivered, rolled to spots like the Gordon Park Pub, Linneman’s, and the Tracks Tavern on a small, wooden cart,” says Matthew Prigge.”On busy nights, the brewery could even offer self-service. If a nearby bar ran out of Lakefront brew, a bartender could walk over to the brewery and pick up a fresh barrel, carrying it all the way back.”

While the tavern crawl offers a taste of Riverwest, both literally and figuratively, it’s really just the appetizer to the Spaces & Traces entree, which delves even further into Riverwest to make connections between the past, the present and the future of Milwaukee’s most diverse neighborhood.

“These events are meant to connect people to the community, and doing that through history is very effective,” says Opgenorth. “It helps us understand that we’re part of something bigger.”

HMI’s Historic Tavern Crawl takes place, Saturday, May 14 from 5-9:30 p.m. Participants can register online or at any of the taverns listed above. A champagne toast in honor of the Spaces & Traces 30th anniversary will take place at 7 p.m. at Stonefly (735 E. Center St.).  People who sign up for the tavern crawl and the Spaces & Traces event will receive discounted tickets to both events (valued at $100, it’s a steal!). Volunteers are still needed! Click here or call 414.277.7795 for more information.

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