By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 28, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

It must be a somewhat daunting task breathing new life into a tavern that a year after its closing is still so closely associated with its former owner. But Foga and Rob Zellermayer don’t seem worried.

The Zellermayers just opened Busby’s, a new bar in the former Romans Pub, 3475 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., on the southern edge of Bay View, a block from St. Francis.

Foga and Rob Zellermayer, owners of Busby's.

The bar was owned and operated by Mike Romans from 1978 until his passing last summer, and whether or not you were on Romans’ good side – which determined how you experienced the place (he was heard to quip, “the sign says ‘open,’ not ‘welcome’”) – Mike’s presence was inescapable. So was his contribution to the local craft beer scene for his curation of the tap bar's lines.

But the new owners have a lot of experience, too, and are also well-known in the local hospitality world. They know what they’re doing.

“We want to honor the history of the building and honor what he brought to the building,” says Rob Zellermayer.

“Once we got wrapped up in researching the history of the building, it helped to keep us motivated that we're really stewards of the history of it. The Trochtas (before Romans) had two generations of ownership.”

“We’re trying to capture the spirit of the building more than trying to capture one man,” adds Foga.

The site before 1875
A print showing the site, looking west, before 1875. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Busby's)

The spirit of the building appears to date to 1885 when Henry W. Bennett acquired the land from the estate of German immigrant and Milwaukee pioneer Francis Vollmer, who arrived in the area in 1840.

Vollmer, for whom a nearby street is named, landed in Baltimore as a teenager in 1838 and at the age of 20 headed west to the frontier that was the Milwaukee area. Thirteen years later he went to Prairie du Chien and stayed for six years before returning to this area and settling in the Town of Lake, where he farmed and ran a boarding house near St. Francis Seminary.

Meanwhile, Bennett, born in Jefferson County, New York in 1835, was also part of a pioneering South Side farming family. His parents Russell and Claressa Bennett built the landmark house on the hill at 3317 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in 1855.

Presumably done with the farming life, Bennett built the tavern on the site in 1885 as a stagecoach stop and roadhouse, which likely would’ve been a lucrative business on what was a main route between two burgeoning settlements: Milwaukee and Chicago. It was also conveniently located near a railroad.

Legend holds that although the roadhouse was not a tied house, Schlitz paid the cost of the furnishings, which could mean the brewery had an exclusivity agreement.

Whether or not Bennett ran or rented out the roadhouse isn't clear. But for whatever reason, the building was sold seven years later by the Savings and Investment Association of Milwaukee – from which Bennett presumably had a mortgage – to yet another interesting figure.

An undated image of the interior. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Busby's)
A similar view today.

Born in Bavaria in 1842, Wenzel Clemens came to Milwaukee 10 years later and in 1869 married another German immigrant, Agnes Hermes.

In the 1870s he was working as a cooper, but by the following decade, Clemens had a tavern and hall on 12th and Cherry and there he became immersed in politics, hosting so many meetings that the tavern became known as the Democratic Party campaign headquarters.

Clemens was less of a perennial candidate than a man behind the scenes during campaigns like those of George Peck for mayor and later governor. Later, at the time of his death, newspapers would note, admiringly, that “he never accepted any political job.”

Though records suggest Clemens bought the Bennett place on the South Side in 1892, it wasn’t until early August of 1895 that this notice appeared in a local newspaper: “Mr. Wenzel Clemens invites his friends to the opening of his new saloon in St. Francis next Sunday.”


Clemens was still running the saloon in 1900 when he built a house nearby on Delaware Avenue, where he lived with his wife and their daughter’s family until he died in 1925, “almost penniless despite the opportunities for wealth he had during his life,” the Journal wrote.

By the time he passed away, Clemens had long since retired, selling the saloon in 1907 to Jacob and Anna (Burgermeister) Budnik, who since 1891 had owned and operated Park Hall on 9th and Mineral in Walker's Point.

The Budniks were also immigrants, from Bohemia, who had first gone to small Ellsworth, Kansas to farm before arriving in Milwaukee, where Budnik initially worked as a blacksmith.

On Jan. 19, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol and perhaps the Budniks – by then in their mid-60s – saw the writing on the wall because by that summer, they were looking to sell their tavern and suggested it would make a good spot for a grocery or drug store.


Taking them up on the offer were Anton and Katherine Trochta, who would kick off a sort of modest dynasty at the building. However, they didn’t take the advice of the Budniks – who retired and moved up to the East Side to live with their daughter Helen and her family on Bartlett Avenue – on potential uses for the space.

Anton was also born in Bohemia and arrived in Milwaukee in 1906. Four years later, living in Cudahy, Trochta married Katherine Payer and by 1917, perhaps even earlier, the Trochtas operated a tavern on Barnard Avenue in Cudahy.

With Prohibition on the horizon, going into effect at the start of 1920, the Trochtas opted to open a soft drinks parlor. But the Trochtas’ place was, like most “soft drinks parlors” at the time, anything but dry.

Porch roof
Fixing (or building?) the porch roof. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Busby's)

By April 1922, newspapers carried a report of the Anton Trochta’s second bust by federal “dry agents.”

“A healthy young brewery was found in the saloon of Anton Trochta, Chicago Rd. St. Francis by state and federal prohibition agents who raided,” noted the Journal, listing that 40 gallons of beer was found brewing, 30 more cases already brewed, plus three gallons of wine and two gallons of moonshine.

However, the day Anton was to surrender himself to police to serve the 30 days in the house of correction to which he’d been sentenced – along with a hefty $200 fine – did not begin well.

Trochta's. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Lisa Schultz)

“Misfortune apparently walloped Anton Trochta St. Francis saloonkeeper with one hand and caressed him with the other,” the Journal wrote in late May. “Arrested for a second offense violation of the Severson law, he was sentenced to 30 days in the house of correction and fined $200. The judge granted Anton a stay of execution to arrange his business affairs preparatory to serving the sentence.

“Last Saturday, after Anton had bade his wife goodbye and climbed into his auto to start downtown to surrender himself to the sheriff and start serving his sentence, he attempted to turn his machine around in front of his home. An interurban car crashed into the machine, demolishing it, and sending Anton to the Mount Sinai Hospital with possible internal injuries, a broken collarbone and minor afflictions.”

Interior 1941
An interior view, 1941. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Busby's)

His attorneys asked for the case to be reopened in light of the accident and for parole for their client. The judge demurred.

“The law looks upon second offense Severson law violation as more serious than burglary in the night time, the judge said, because it provides no means of parole,” the Journal wrote. “‘However, I’ll grant another stay of execution of 30 days and recommend a pardon to the governor’,” the judge promised.

In 1925, the Trochtas did some work, including putting on a small addition to the rear of the building and installed new plumbing throughout the structure, which included the family’s apartment above the bar.

Old exterior
Two views of the old exterior hidden in an addition.
Old exteriorX

Sometime in the 1920s, with Prohibition still the law of the land, the Trochtas paid off their mortgage on the place, but in 1932, Anton Trochta, who by then had seven children with Katherine, died at just 42 years old.

Katherine (sometimes spelled Catherine) kept the place going. In 1935 she built a sort of lean-to-like frame addition to the north for bathrooms. Even today if you go into the basement steps used for deliveries, you will find yourself in this addition, which was just tacked onto the exterior of the building. Thus, in there you’ll find the original clapboard exterior.


In 1937, Katherine widened a doorway between the barroom and the back room, installing an arch that remains today. Look down and you can see the changes "memorialized" in the hardwood floors (pictured above).

Soon after, she altered the facade, which previously had a recessed entrance. You can see a clue inside the bar by looking up above the front door at the ceiling.


Nine years later, in 1946, Katherine sold the bar to her daughter Katherine and son-in-law Robert Underberg for $13,100 on a land contract that was paid off in 1953, less than a month before Katherine Trochta’s passing that December.

A few years later the Underbergs were fined for apparently selling liquor on primary election day, but it was explained that the tavern was closed and the men inside who were drinking whiskey had been helping clean the place.

“Judge Thaddeus J. Pruss ordered police to watch the tavern on election day and report any violations to him,” the Journal reported. A few months later, the charges were dismissed.

In the mid-'70s, the Underbergs he first rented the tavern to Larry and Marilyn Nord – who ran the L&M Tap – and then sold it to them for $59,000 in July 1977.

But the Nord era was extremely short-lived as in December 1978 they sold the building to Mike Romans and Michael West.

A few years later, the Journal shared this reminiscence from reader Gregory E. Thiele:

“I would like to tell you about a tavern I remember my grandfather and father always talking about. I remember being in the tavern on Sunday afternoons and watching my grandfather playing sheepshead at an old oak table with some old men from the neighborhood ... The tavern was owned and operated by a family named Trochta, which was also the name of the tavern. Later the tavern name was changed to Underberg’s. It remained that name until a few years ago when it was changed to Romans’ Pub.”

For the next 45 years, Romans lorded over the bar, lived upstairs and cooked his meals in a kitchen behind the tavern. Though he told OnMilwaukee in 2004 that “it's loaded with secret compartments for when they had to hide their liquor (during Prohibition); there are all sorts of trap doors, false walls and secret hiding spots,” Rob Zellermayer says he hasn’t found these features.

Around 1997, Romans decided to focus on craft beer as a way to differentiate his place from the many “shot and a beer” taverns that dotted his neighborhood. When he passed, it was that pioneering dedication to microbrews for which many expressed appreciation.

In addition to offering more than two dozen rotating draft beers, Romans also installed a British-style beer engine, glycol-cooled lines and a custom gas blender that were manifestations of a dedication to top-notch beer.

The Zellermayers plan to maintain that dedication. As such, Romans’ regulars will find much is familiar.

The facade is the same outside. Inside, the layout of the place is also the same. There is still a devotion to craft beer (Rob has experience at places like Sugar Maple and Palm Tavern), the deck will be open when weather permits. You'll recognize furniture, including the Swiss-style chairs in the barroom.

swiss chairX

But there will be changes, too. The Zellermayers will allow customers on the grass outside (gasp!) and serve New Glarus beers, though there still won’t likely be Spotted Cow on tap. They’ll put a focus on classic cocktails, too. But even those will nod to Romans.

“Very true to what he always did,” Rob says, “we’re going to be highlighting a mix of import and American craft beer. We are going to introduce new classic cocktails. One of Mike's favorite cocktails was a Manhattan. So we are going to do true to the letter of the law, traditional cocktails that you would've seen poured here in the ‘40s

“Then with our wine program, very much in the spirit of craft beer, we are going to be rotating it heavily. So just like craft beer, a guest can come a couple times in a week and see new offerings. It'll be a small but really explorative list of wine.”

They have made some changes to the bar itself, which I should note is named for one of their three beloved pooches. Busby, a pitbull, was given that name in honor of legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby.

“Not so much change as we just kind of put some love into it,” says Rob, “to put new energy into the old tavern. One of the greatest examples of the work we've done is turn what were nearly black foot rails into shiny brass again, with a lot of elbow grease. We did new paint, a lot of plaster repair.”


“Fun things like putting outlets where they belong instead of using extension cords,” adds Foga. “We were able to find a bunch of old documentation, original deeds and things like that.”

Those have been framed and adorn the walls of the bar.

back roomX

The back room has some new furniture, the back bar was refinished as were tables that were used at the 2007 Oktoberfest in Munich.

In the back is the residential kitchen that Romans used when he lived upstairs, but that will change. The Zellermayers’ son will live upstairs for now, though they plan to move in once they become empty nesters. So, they will install a proper kitchen up there when they renovate the four-bedroom apartment.

Before that, they will convert the current kitchen into a commercial one.

“We just want to do deli sandwiches and soups and really great fresh food just to keep people enjoying their pints,” Rob says. “Just to compliment the beverage program.”

But first of all, they will put on a new roof. Then comes the kitchen, then the apartment.

“(The apartment) is fine enough for a 20-year-old now, but eventually we're going to want to upgrade it so that we'll move in,” says Rob, eager to become a part of the neighborhood. “We want to retire to Bay View. That's the goal.

“This building has a welcoming energy and the plants, being open earlier in the day, that's our effort to really symbolize that spirit. It is a welcoming bar.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.