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Taverns, Part 2

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

I pulled back the screen door and reached in to grab the brass handle of the inner door, pressing my thumb to unlatch it open. A blast of sunlight cut through the smoke, alerting everyone inside of my arrival. The bartender squinted to distinguish the under-sized silhouette in the doorway. I held up a borrowed shoeshine box and with a smile, was waved in. There was a time when men valued a good shine on their shoes, and neighborhood taverns provided a ready-made clientele. A way for a kid to make a little pocket money, and a lot more interesting than a paper route.

Call ‘em what you want - tap, tavern, bar, pub, saloon, inn, watering hole. Neighborhood, corner, college, or dive, or as my grandfather decorously called it – church. In the era of chains and franchises, the local tavern defies takeovers and buyouts. Liquor license notwithstanding, a business anyone can start but where only the disciplined and vigilant succeed.

Red and Millie’s Tap – George’s Bar – Don’s Bar – Sod and Kay’s – Brass Rail Tavern

When I first came to know them, the styles varied. The newer versions featured lots of chrome and lights, fairly shiny, and bright. Others were eclectic or cabbaged together around some theme or local flavor. But the ones I enjoyed the most were usually old, from the 1950s or before. Aged thickly varnished wooden bar tops. A surface with dull scratches and dents made over many years. Dark brown burns where unattended cigarettes had fallen from the heavy glass ashtrays distributed across the bar end to end. Rising from the middle, tap handles displaying names and logos – Hamms, Pabst, Blatz, Schlitz. Cardboard advertising coasters stacked on the glass rail, sporting the names of a featured brand. Above the bar at one end, a TV for watching mostly baseball and football, or other important televised events.

The back wall, mirrored and obscured by bottles of various sizes and shapes, a jar of pickled eggs, cash register, and other clutter, offered a limited reflective view of the dimly lit establishment, and a way to casually survey the room behind, catching a glimpse or the eyes of other patrons. A juke box, three plays for a quarter, centrally located against a wall, pool table in the back. Payphone or sometimes a phone booth in a distant corner. Cigarette machine near the door. Neon lights in the window humming a death knell for a few lifeless flies on the windowsill.

Dick Derby’s Bar – Chet’s Sports Bar – Flatley’s Pub

These establishments served simultaneously as a social center and sanctuary. A place of celebration or mourning, or an after-work wind down. A gathering spot for planning, conspiracy, and courtship. A place for the telling of stories and lies or seeking and sharing great wisdom. Or for others, a temple for silent meditation, alone, on a Naugahyde stool. A confessionary if you knew the bartender well enough, or a temporary home for a different type of fly, for as long as his coinage held out. A place for numbing the senses.

Spanky’s – Dick’s Bar – Baratti’s – Joe’s Bar

Specialty foods were served by most - Slim Jim, beef jerky, pickled eggs, pork rinds, potato chips, or if the proprietors were industrious, chili and roast beef sandwiches, and a Friday night fish fry. Happy hour might include free popcorn or cannibal sandwiches, and by the mid-70s, most were outfitted with mini ovens for making the ubiquitous Tombstone pizzas.

Dewey’s Bar – Don’s Seldom Inn – The Library – Ella’s

They also served as active recreational centers sponsoring bowling and softball leagues, foosball and shuffleboard tournaments, and for those not fans of team sports, you could always find a cribbage board or play bar dice – anyone can handle ship, captain, crew, right? A few also offered certain other services ranging from baseball/football pools to custom arrangements for betting on “the ponies.” Running for political office? At least one hometown pub was known for hosting local and national campaigners, or the occasional celebrity. A few autographed pictures adorned the walls.

Restrooms had their own character, usually beginning with signage. Men/Women translated to the ubiquitous Bucks/Does, Pointers/Setters, or Rods/Lures or any number of similar gender specific descriptors. Inside, vending machines promoted aphrodisiacs or latex, or you could buy a comb.

Urinals had graffiti and other messages to help you pass the time. Follow the arrows up the wall to see a message on the ceiling informing you of what might be happening to your shoe was popular. I don’t know what the lady’s room offered, although I tried to find out once. One particular men’s room had a little box with a door. The message said, “Peep hole to lady’s rest room now open.” Okay, I was only 11 years old, and I fell for it. I opened the door which activated the loud buzzer so that every adult in the bar knew what I had done. Oh, the shame.

A little place I knew, not far off Mitchell Street in Milwaukee had nickels superglued to the floor and bar top to challenge your power of observation and ability to recover lost coinage. The proprietor, named Dewey, regularly kicked my butt playing nine-ball.

Wild Goose Inn – The Sportsmen’s Bar – Chippewa Tavern

Those catering to the hunting and fishing crowd were and remain a favorite. Trophy fish hanging on the wall, antlers and head mounts, an albino something or other, or maybe a bait shop attached. A poster explaining the sin of shooting does, price of nightcrawlers, minnows, and leeches. A stack of hunting and fishing regs. How’s the fishing? Ask the bartender, or a stooled patron listening in will give you a matter-of-fact report, including which bait to use and the water depth. Find someone amidst the November sea of orange and ask them the question – Did you get your deer? Be prepared to listen to a long-winded story about the one that got away. And as deep winter settled in, talk turns to ice-fishing and snowmobiles. And if you’re there for last call, you’ve probably been there too long.

Moccasin Bar – Pioneer Bar – Elkhorn Lodge

Through the window I watched big snowflakes slowly fall on a bitter cold Sunday night. Colored neon light reflecting off the glass, corners framed with frost. A man and woman, in their late 30s sat at a back table, talking, laughing, sharing a pizza. The bartender, foot propped, watched television with no volume while the juke box played a Doobie Brothers song. Empty stools lined up along the bar neatly. I stood, nursing a beer, my bag and cased shotgun on the floor next to a paper bag containing a couple wrapped, half-frozen grouse. Anxiously, I watched for the Greyhound bus, a scheduled stop for this small northern Wisconsin town and my ride home.

Heads turned as the front door opens, and a man, probably in his late 50s, walked in, stomping the snow from his shoes on the rubber door mat. A cold draft swirled inward around my ankles.

“Am I too late for happy hour?” asked the man as he tossed his coat over a stool.

“It’s always happy hour when you’re here,” replied the bartender wryly as he pitched a coaster down on the bar. “What can I get ya?”

“Boilermaker, and shake of the day,” said the man. “And a bowl of chili if you still got any.”

Dan Zekor

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