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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Bars & Clubs

Bryant's is a Milwaukee institution and one of the best bars in Wisconsin. (PHOTO: Mark Fay)

In Bars & Clubs

This stunning image of B.J. Wentker's in Burlington is on the cover of "Bottoms Up." (PHOTO: Mark Fay)

"Bottoms Up": From Bryant's to a barn basement bar and beyond


Four years ago, authors Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz teamed up to create, "Fill'er Up," a tour of historic filling station architecture around Wisconsin.

Draeger, an architectural historian at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and Speltz, a senior historian at American Girl, showed us the great Wisconsin art deco places, the whimsical gas-dispensing pagodas and the sprawling, modern gas megamarts of today. Photographs by Mark Fay brought it all to visual life in photographs that leaped off the page.

The trio returns this month with "Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars & Breweries," an absolutely gorgeous hardcover book published by The Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

There are familiar places like Wolski's, Kegel's Inn and Holler House, alongside a few dozen other gems from around the Badger State. There's a bar located in a circus tent and one in the basement of a dairy barn.

There's a tavern inhabiting what appear to be two ramshackle outbuildings and one in a farmhouse at the end of a long gravel driveway.

Along the way, Draeger and Speltz explore Wisconsin's brewing history, too, and trace the close connections between breweries and taverns in the state.

I was able to talk to the authors about the new book, about working together and about some of the gems they discovered on the road to "Bottoms Up."

OnMilwaukee.com: I was a big fan of your previous book about filling stations around the state. This one has a similar theme, doesn't it? Fueling stations for people this time. Was that a natural progression in a sense?

Jim Draeger: I think the message of their order is "Don't Drink and Drive – Drive, Then Drink." In both books, we define what buildings look like by placing them in the history of the times that built them. By looking critically at historic architecture, we can see how the culture of any moment of time is embodied in its buildings. Architecture is our lens that allows us to focus on Wisconsin's shared past. Gas stations and taverns both celebrate our interest in humble buildings that are sometimes unassuming, but a significant part of our lives. Taverns define Wisconsin, so we wanted to explore why.

OMC: How did you go about selecting the bars that made the final cut? Was there a longer list that required whittling?

JD: We weeded through hundreds of suggestions and through about a year and a half of weekend road trips, we visited about 350 taverns. At each stop, we asked bartenders and customers for other must see taverns. A few real gems like the Institute Bar in Institute and Hec's Tavern in Ashland came from tavern goers. I do a lot of public speaking for my job at the Wisconsin Historical Society, so each time I spoke, I asked for tavern tips.

All of those suggestions were put into a spreadsheet and we spent weekends making loops through Wisconsin. I drove and Mark navigated and kept track of our list. We took snapshots of nearly 150 contenders gathering information from owners and customers and took them back to sort and discuss before selecting the 55 that became featured taverns in the book.

At each stop, our question was "if you drove a few hours just to see this tavern or brewery, would you be disappointed?" recognizing that once we published the book, people might just do that. Many great bars were left on the cutting room floor due to constraints on the size of the completed book.

Mark Speltz: Another interesting tip was Jackson Clinic which is south of Mauston in Central Wisconsin. The original owner attached a one-room schoolhouse to a farm outbuilding in 1954 and it's been an important local watering hole ever since. The irony that one of the owners had attended class inside the schoolhouse decades earlier was too good to pass up.

OMC: Because there are vintage places, newer places, places that appear to inhabit double wide trailers ... I'd love to hear about what made you decide to include the ones you did. That is, what makes a great Wisconsin bar?

JD: We looked for geographic diversity, so we could represent the history of the state. We also selected taverns that expressed the historical and architectural evolution of taverns from the earliest extant buildings to the taverns and brewpubs of today.

Everyone who has spent time in taverns has their own typology: old-timers taverns, biker bars, gay bars, funky bars, weird bars, townie bars, we wanted to capture that crazy diversity of styles and types in a way that allows the reader to see how their favorite watering hole might fit into the choices in the book.

A great Wisconsin bar is really in the eyes of the beholder because our experiences and interests are all so diverse. We liked the places that were true to what they were, relatively intact from their period of creation, and told interesting stories that illuminated the time in which they were created.

MS: To build on Jim's thoughts – just as any reader of "Fill'er Up" began paying more attention to the humble utilitarian roadside buildings, "Bottoms Up" readers will see bars in a new light. It's safe to say that those who imbibe on our new book will find future tavern visits even more enriching.

OMC: Were there some that you knew from the get-go you'd include?

MS: We were tipped off to Bryant's Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee by a friend and we are forever grateful. This place has the history, recipes and the right vibe.

JD: (Also) in Milwaukee, Wolski's and Kegels Inn were two obvious choices for reasons clear to your readers. Tom's Burned-Down Café on Madeline Island is such an outrageous ruin, there was no doubt that it would find a place. Housed in an open-air circus tent, it expresses a sense of irreverence and humor that has always been part of the tavern experience. The Badger Bar in Platteville is an intact and original turn-of-the-century saloons, strongly reminiscent of the taverns commonplace during my youth, but now increasingly rare.

MS: Though you asked about bars, Milwaukee's brewing giants Miller and Pabst both had unique stories we knew we'd want to tell as well. It's hard to cover Pabst's glorious past in a couple of spreads, but the historic preservation and redevelopment angle is one we surely wanted to highlight.

OMC: Similarly, were there some you had no idea about but that once you saw them they were immediate inclusions?

JD: You bet! The Barn Tavern in Lena, which has been in the basement of a Wisconsin dairy barn since 1933, seemed so quintessential, wrapping up our beer, brats and cheese Wisconsin culture in a single building. Also, nothing is more local than a tavern that doesn't even have a bar sign. Heine's Tavern was a complete surprise. In the tiny town of Minnesota Junction, we turned at a faded backlit plastic bar sign down a long gravel driveway to find an old farmhouse tucked away in the trees. It was remote and difficult to find. When we walked in the door, we found one of the best Art Deco interiors we have ever seen with a pink and black back bar, replete with a nude bubble dancer mirror. It was startling and unexpected.

MS: Heine's was extra special because our research uncovered a racy past and validated our hunch that the remote location and lit-up risqué mirror was about more than selling beer or cocktails. We were looking for a good roadhouse/speakeasy to include and this one did not disappoint.

OMC: If you could only drink in one of these places for the rest of your life, which would it be and why?

JD: For me, of all the bars in Wisconsin, my desert island tavern would be Wolski's. Tucked into its neighborhood, it is the perfect embodiment of that corner tap that has been at the core of our tavern-going experience. It has a warm, welcoming glow and friendly regular customers. I visit Milwaukee infrequently, but I always try to make a stop at Wolski's. The last time I visited, one of the regulars said, "Hey, welcome back. How have you been?" That little moment describes the perfect tavern to me.

MS: If I couldn't find Wolski's or forgot the password to the Safe House, I'd make a beeline for the Holler House to party with Marcy Skowronski.

OMC: What did you learn along the way? What do we have to learn from our tavern patrimony here in Wisconsin?

JD: Well, we learned a whole bookload of stuff and now we get to share it with our readers. To me, two things stand out. First, the complex and interdependent relationship between taverns and breweries. They are interconnected in ways that I had never imagined. Second, the relationship between women and taverns and how that changed over time as a result of Temperance, Prohibition, cocktail culture and the women's rights movement is an interesting part of the story.

OMC: Are you guys working together on another project?

JD: I am working on a solo book on the history of Northern Wisconsin resorts and summer houses, while Mark tends to his lovely little daughter Marie. I can't speak for Mark, but I would love to write another book together. We have become fast friends in the process of these past two books and our skill sets are complementary, but distinct. It takes years of working together to write a book, so we have had many great entertaining, amusing and illuminating experiences together.

MS: Researching and writing about the past is a side project for both of us. We can squeeze it into our busy lives because we don't hunt, brew beer or make cheese. Exploring the past is key to who I am so I am sure it won't be more than a few years before Jim and I collaborate again. The possibilities are endless but topping a book on Wisconsin's bars and breweries could be tough.


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