By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 02, 2022 at 5:01 PM

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The city of Oak Creek has seen a lot of changes, new developments and exciting additions over the recent years. Yet one of the most bustling places in town is actually one of the oldest, built before Oak Creek was even “Oak Creek.”

"We were out at one of the new restaurants in the Drexel Town Square, sitting there looking at all the new apartments, condos, hotels, a senior living space – and now the same thing’s going on at Bender Park,” said Bill Nelson, co-owner of The Cellar. “It’s a lot of new faces in the area – so we embrace it.”

And that feels like somewhat the mantra of The Cellar, tucked away at 812 Oakwood Rd.: embracing new and old in the same space, with beloved results. 

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The Cellar’s roots (quite literally; you can see some of the thick tree trunks providing the ceiling for one of the bar’s storage spaces) go back all the way to 1863, when the city of Oak Creek was the town of Oakwood. In its earliest days, the building was – much like today – a hub for the locals, serving as a bar as well as a post office, a dance hall on the third floor and a general store, once located where the tavern’s kitchen stands now. According to Nelson, the train tracks and a well were also nearby, making “Oakwood Hall” as it was called a key gathering place for residents and those passing through alike.  

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"The Studer family, who built it, used to do parties every Christmas Eve and Fourth of July, and they’d cook for everybody,” Nelson said. “Everybody would come, and it would be horses and buggies up and down Oakwood Road.”

The tavern would see a number of new faces at the helm over the next century and beyond. Henry Studer, who built the building, would eventually pass the hall off to Louis Goelzer, his son-in-law and the town clerk. Goelzer and his wife Caroline would pass away in 1954, with several other families taking over the town hotspot afterward until Nelson and Shirley Miksa bought and repaired the bar in 1999. Along the way, Oakwood became the incorporated city of Oak Creek, and Oakwood Hall too evolved into The Cellar, a name that stuck ever since.

“When we bought it in ’99, I thought about changing the name of it and making it my own, but it’s like … keep it,” Nelson recalled. “Everybody knows it as that.”

Nelson’s kept as much of The Cellar’s history alive as possible, retaining much of the original walls, brick, ceilings and other foundational attributes while renovating some of the building’s original features, like the front windows. The legends from the bar’s past can still be found on the walls as well, such as an old photo of Goelzer standing at his post behind the bar (once on the opposite side of the main space but now flipped) surrounded by Miller signage and hiding his right arm, injured in a meat grinder incident. 

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Truly the spirits of The Cellar’s pasts are alive and present – quite literally as, according to Nelson, the bar has its share of ghost stories and haunted interactions. 

“The first thing we think about, when we start doing remodeling or additions or anything, is integrity,” Nelson said. 

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That being said, The Cellar isn’t trapped by its history in amber, unable to adjust or modernize over time. After all, one imagines the original Oakwood Hall didn’t have miniature football helmets and framed autographed jerseys over the taps. Yes, while the dining hall looks fairly traditional, with its historic brick walls, roof and décor, the bar itself looks and feels like a classic cozy neighborhood drinking spot in the 21st century – though a close look reveals several of the walls are the original stone and brick.

Uniforms from legends like Jerry Rice and Giannis plaster the ceiling while a plethora of beer tap handles and mini football helmets – some on-field accurate, others intriguing alternative concepts – dangle from above. So even if you’re not a history buff, there’s plenty to catch your eye at The Cellar.

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That includes possibly the bar’s most eye-catching feature: the outdoor patio space, featuring plentiful seating, lighting, a waterfall feature and even a Jack Daniel’s statue in honor of The Cellar’s prolific Gentleman Jack sales – number one in the country, according to Nelson, amongst bars and restaurants. It’s a lovely outside haven – and very handy for finding new ways to gather over the past several pandemic-impacted years, such as a dog-friendly pop-up beer garden series every other Thursday, returning yet again this year for 12 weeks beginning later this month.

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And the patio’s only growing as The Cellar added a pavilion space just last year, just recently turned into a flexible indoor-outdoor area thanks to some new plastic siding. The result is practically a second cozy neighborhood bar on the premises, with a large TV for the big games, heaters in case the weather gets uncooperative, comfortable space for live musical performances, and a beautiful wooden bar and backdrop complete with barrels from Jack Daniel’s. 

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PHOTO: The Cellar Facebook

Between the patio, the pavilion and the original bar, The Cellar is increasingly ready for anything – a lesson made all the more important after the past few years. But there’s one thing Nelson and company do feel stays constant and reliable: the community the bar’s been a part of for more than a century and that they’ve built onto over the past 20 years.  

"I remember we had our first Lent fish fry, and it was the most fish we’ve ever sold by a long run – and it was right at the start of the pandemic,” recalled Alex Nelson, Bill’s son who runs the kitchen. “It was great to see the community supporting. And from there, things started slowly getting back to normal, the business started expanding and it’s been good.”

With a crowd like that plus a vibe that’s both a little new and a little old, it’s no wonder The Cellar’s been a top-shelf spot for a century and a half – with no end in sight.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.