Erin Petersen
A portrait of the past

Wisconsin’s tavern history and culture

By - Aug 24th, 2011 04:00 am
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On an especially lovely summer evening last Thursday, a few dozen Milwaukeeans gathered in Bay View to share a few (local) beers and learn about our state’s tavern culture. Organized by Historic Milwaukee, Inc., the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and Hey Man, Cool! Digital Productions, the Tavern League: Milwaukee  event was held at the Palomino Bar – an apt setting.

While Wisconsin is known for its beer, the subject of the evening was the culture that evolved around our state’s brewing tradition – a culture that was created in bars.

“Bars are great places,” said Jim Draeger, an architectural historian with the Wisconsin Historical Society, who is currently working on a book exploring taverns and breweries, slated for 2012. “[Bars] helped define the culture of Wisconsin…we are a tavern state.” Draeger  added that Wisconsin has more taverns than grocery stores per capita – a comment that illicited a few “woos” from the crowd.

Draeger commented that much of our state’s drinking culture is attributed to early European immigrants, who brought their own imbibing traditions stateside over a century ago. That, and Wisconsin has great, pure water – an essential ingredient in beer.

Historically, the corner bar was more than just a place to grab a quick beer.  It was a social club, a place to commune with your neighbors, and to unwind after a hard day’s work. They were places where workers, political and labor groups met and socialized.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of drinking done. As Draeger pointed out, many taverns were also places of debauchery, with loose regulations and often excessive indulgence in liquor and, um, other worldy pleasures, if you get my drift. Such excess led to Prohibition in 1919, although history would tell us that the illegality of alcohol did little to curb drinking during the time period.

“People drank as much or more during prohibition,” Draeger said.

Taverns reopened after Prohibition was repealed in the 1930s, although very few original taverns still exist today. Roughly 75% of Wisconsin’s early 20th century bars are long gone by now, according to Draeger, for which there are myriad explanations — stricter drunk driving laws mean more people stay at home and new technology creates competition between the “old timer” bars and those catering to a younger crowd.

While it may have dwindled over the years, though, Wisconsin’s old-timer taverns have far from disappeared. Photographer Carl Corey’s newest work, Tavern League, is evidence of that, offering a photographic tour of some of the state’s oldest bars.

Operating under the theory that every incorporated town, village or city in Wisconsin is home to at least one tavern, Corey set out on the road to find proof. The resulting project is an immense and rich collection of images, capturing turn-of-the-century working class taverns, luxury lounges from a bygone era, and corner bars from all across the state.

Using only natural light, Corey’s images are imbued with a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. You can almost feel the vinyl bar stools soften under your weight as you belly up to the u-shaped bar of Club 53 in Amery. You can taste the Sunday potluck dinners during football season at places like The Sidetrack Saloon in Roberts. Essentially, his photos make the viewer feel like they’d been there before, and I suppose that can also be the strange magic of taverns like this. They are all different, and yet, they are all the same. These are the places where beer is cheap and mostly domestic, where Kessler is the house whiskey,  and where the person behind the bar knows every detail of the community.

While Milwaukee have its fair share of upscale lounges, dance clubs and frat boy bars, it’s also home to many of the aforementioned taverns, which have weathered the years unchanged. Bars that didn’t install an Internet jukebox, rip up the carpeting to make way for a dance floor, or add martinis to the menu. Bars like Riverwest’s Gee Willickers, the neighbhorhood’s oldest operating tavern, and the subject of a new audio documentary by Hey Man, Cool! Productions, a collaborative project of local historians Erin Dorbin and Matthew Prigge.

Gee Willickers: Portrait of a Milwaukee Corner Bar documents the 122 year history as a working class tavern, and talks to the very affable Randy Langlois, who’s owned the space since 1987. The sounds of glasses clinking, beers being cracked, and the random dings from several game machines fills your ears. Then there’s the jukebox, which in my opinion, is the best in the city. A dollar goes a long way, and will get you everything from LeadBelly to Lover Boy, and so much in between. Throughout the ten-minute doc, there’s a friendly sort of revelry in the air as Randy describes his loyal patrons the humble Midwestern ethos of a place like Gee Willickers.

“I’m very fortunate to be a part of Riverwest, and the people that come in here do right by me,” said Langlois. “And I just hope I can return the favor.”

Though Milwaukee (and Wisconsin, for that matter) may have earned itself a boozy reputation over the years, taverns like Gee Willickers – and bar owners like Randy – uphold a much larger tradition. As Jim Draeger said earlier in the evening, “taverns aren’t about drinking. They’re about people.”

For more information on historic Wisconsin taverns, visit Historic Milwaukee, Inc. or the Wisconsin Historical Society. To view images from Carl Corey’s Tavern League, click here. To hear the full audio documentary, visit Hey Man, Cool! on SoundCloud. 

Categories: Life & Leisure

2 thoughts on “A portrait of the past: Wisconsin’s tavern history and culture”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I found your site while looking for references to the Milwaukee tavern my grandfather owned in the 1950’s. It was called The White Rose Tavern. I do not know the street it was on, but my grandmother sold it in the late fifties or early 60’s. Can you tell me if the building still exists or what is in its place today?

  2. William Weller says:

    To: Erin Petersen….I am writing to ask you if you would like to write an article about a special group of people from the Milwaukee area who are coming together for a celebration of a Club called, “The Jabberwocky.” “The Jab” was a place in West Allis famous in the 80’s where radio DJ’s, Band Members and those who followed the R&R scene would frequent. It was the 3rd point of the “Triangle of R&R” which included “The Palms” and “Sunset Bowl” which brought many bands from the Milwaukee area and also from MN, and IL…Those who were (and still are) a part of the Jabberwocky Family are a special breed and will be celebrating our good times at a place called “Flannery’s Pub” located at 425 E. Wells Street…I am the host and former entertainment agent for “The Jab” and would love to see either you or a representative of your publication come to our event on March 26th from 6-9PM! Thank You for taking time to read my request! Billy Weller….Tele#: 414.617.4316

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