"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com – brought to you by Hornitos, OR-G, Party Armor, Red Stag, Absolut, Fireball and Malibu – is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
From the outside, Shaker's is not unlike many of the bars that line South 2nd Street. Housed in the first floor of one of Walker's Point's historic multi-level buildings, the bar and café makes itself known only with some modest signage and window neons.
Inside, however, patrons will find themselves transported to a completely different time and place – and surrounded by some unique company, if they're lucky.
There's no shortage of fine wine, beer and spirits at Shaker's, but it's the spirits that aren't behind the bar that give the place its notoriety. The ornate, Victorian-style bar is widely known as "Milwaukee's Haunted Bar," so much so that they've claimed the title as a web address. Shaker's Cigar Bar has existed for quarter of a century, but the building – and the land it sits on – has a history all its own.
"When I opened up in 1986, almost out of the gate we had contractors – otherwise rational people – starting to talk about their experiences here. The staff, again almost out of the gate, had talked about things taking place," said owner Bob Weiss. "You can talk to any of the staff and they've got myriad experiences that are as fresh as yesterday or last week that take place."
Quickly realizing the building already came with its own tenants, Weiss began offering informal "ghost" tours. The tours have grown in popularity and have recently taken on a new format to offer patrons a more in-depth experience.
"The tours are very popular. Most Fridays and Saturdays we do five or six tours," said Weiss. "I suppose it's easy to paint this as some sort of charlatanism, but there's no strings attached. It's not a Disney ride; we don't dummy anything up, and there's not anyone jumping out at you. It's all authentic, historical things that can all be documented."
Weiss and his staff have worked extensively to authenticate the bar's regular entities. Digging through stacks of library records and working with Discovery World and the historical society, they've successfully researched intriguing histories of an 8-year-old girl who fell to her death from an apple tree on the grounds before the building was constructed, a bordello girl who was murdered in the third-floor penthouse in the 1920s and others whose spirits have come to reside at Shaker's.
Although the back-stories are as well-researched and objective as the subject of ghosts can be, these paranormal parables are not simply historical leaps made by the bar's staff.
"Over the course of the time that it's been Shaker's, there have been consistent reports from people that are maybe more sensitive that will be a little more in tune, or just people who are not expecting anything, and they hear this, or they feel this, or they sense this," said Amanda Morden, marketing director at Shaker's.
"It's continually brought to the forefront, and we could have people 10 years apart not knowing anything is there, and they're still coming up with the same stories of these particular entities. They match up really well. Coincidentally? Probably not."
And, while skepticism is a natural reaction, supernatural experiences can – and have – happened to staff, patrons and other visitors alike.
"We've had any number of contractors that have come here over the course of time that all have their own stories," said Weiss.
"Beer delivery guys who have gone downstairs – big, beefy guys – have come upstairs and not gone down for their hand carts, not gone down for the empties, they're not going to do this anymore. We've had federal agents that have been here that have pulled out their sidearms because they've got that sensation that something is there, something is not right."
Weiss has heard similar sentiments from guests who stay the night in the third floor penthouse, which Shaker's rents to those looking for a more intense experience.
"Different people have different experiences. We've had people that might go up at 10:30 after the last tour, and by midnight they're here at the bar handing back their key and going, 'We just can't stay here anymore,'" he said. "It has a profound impact on many people, and I would not want to suggest that it's just a little thing, just a shadow in the night. It's not that at all. These are real experiences that people actually encounter."
There's no mistaking the more serious effects of some people's time at Shaker's, but for the most part the bar carries on with business as usual. Fridays and Saturdays are especially busy, bustling with customers partaking in the bar's island-inspired fare, absinthe and prohibition-era cocktails and the popular and entertaining "ghost tours."
"I've had a lot of fun. I've met a lot of people who've had experiences," said tour guide and Shaker's bartender Nick Vollmann.
"It's slowly nudged me toward the direction of believing in the possibilities. The tour is designed to give people the opportunity to decide. We provide testimony, and nothing more."
Believer or skeptic, there's no doubt the best way to enjoy all Shaker's has to offer is with an open mind.
"I have a tendency to be very analytical about things, but there are some things that just defy rational explanation," said Weiss.
"I think that it's rather myopic of our society to think that unless I can see you, you don't exist. It's a big universe, who the heck knows what's out there? We're just providing maybe a glimpse of what we deal with on a daily basis."
Contrary to her natural state of being, Renee Lorenz is a total optimist when it comes to Milwaukee. Since beginning her career with OnMilwaukee.com, her occasional forays into the awesomeness that is the Brew City have turned into an overwhelming desire to discover anything and everything that's new, fun or just ... "different."
Expect her random musings to cover both the new and "new-to-her" aspects of Miltown goings-on, in addition to periodically straying completely off-topic, which usually manifests itself in the form of an obscure movie reference.