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It’s hard to imagine anyone could forget a place that’s been here longer than darn near everything else, but these are strange times.
It’s with that in mind that I’m here to remind you about Landmark 1850, 5905 S. Howell Ave.
The cream city brick tavern near General Mitchell International Airport is surely among the oldest bars in the city and state, having been built according to some sources in the 1840s, though owner Joe Halser says 1850.
The State of Wisconsin dates to 1848 and the City of Milwaukee was chartered in 1846.
“Originally called the New Cologne House, the Italianate-inspired saloon was built in the late 1840s,” notes the recent book, “Germans in Milwaukee,” written by Jill Florence Lackey and Rick Petrie. “It originally functioned as a weighing station and inn for farmers traveling between Racine and Milwaukee counties.
“Stories circulated that many Racine farmers who imbibed too much beer in the saloon after selling their produce in Milwaukee, fell sound asleep in their horse-drawn wagons on the way home to their farms. Fortunately, as the tales go, the horses knew the routes of their sleeping masters and were able to deliver them safely home. Other stories circulated over the years that the inn had become a brothel, was haunted, and served as a pharmacy for ‘quack medicine’ on its second floor.”
As best we can tell, at the moment, it’s just a tavern and restaurant with nary a trace of quack medicine or other shenanigans.
Owner Halser bought it in 1983 and set to work completely renovating it with an eye toward recreating saloons of an earlier age, more specifically the late 19th century.
Inside you’ll find everything from cast iron radiators and an imposing potbelly stove, to a vintage ice box to a pressed tin ceiling, stained glass and a vintage bar.
If you prefer the fresh air, there’s a patio out front, in the shadow of the recreated “New Coeln House” sign above the door.
I ask Halser if there are special challenges to running Milwaukee’s oldest bar and he demurs.
“Running the oldest bar in Milwaukee probably isn’t that much different than any bar,” he says. “It does help business some. People come to see the old building and we sell a lot of T-shirts that say ‘Milwaukee’s oldest tavern’.”
Currently, Landmark offers a rotating selection on 11 taps, Halser says.
“German beers are very popular for us,” he adds. (I'd think it's a kolsch would be the natural choice thanks to the Cologne connection.)
Also very popular are Wisconsin cheese curds and, natch, the Friday fish fry.
“We have baked or fried cod and lake perch,” says Halser. “It’s a light breading so not very greasy. We do specials with the crab cakes and spicy shrimp tacos. We do offer grilled or fried shrimp. Customers love the perch.”
As you might expect, the past year has been among the most challenging that Halser has seen in his nearly 40 years at Landmark 1850.
“The past year was horrible,” he says. “We had to close with very short notice. All the food and beer had to be disposed of. We didn’t open when we were allowed to because we knew we would lose less money by being closed.
“When we opened the business was terrible. People were afraid to go out. Now after a year and three months things seem to be picking up.”
But Halser has not allowed the pandemic to temper his love for his historic tavern.
“It’s been here for 171 years and that’s quite amazing, because things do have to end some time,” he says.
“But I hope not in my time.”
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 OnMilwaukee.com 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 can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.