When co-author Mark Speltz and I set out to find 70 of Wisconsin's most historically and architecturally unique bars and breweries to help tell our state's beer and bar culture history for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, we knew that we would find some interesting stories along the way. For about a year, we gathered tips on interesting places. We built a list of prospects, organized by place, and mapped out a strategy to visit them in a series of weekend excursions. Over the course of about 6 months, Mark and I crisscrossed the state in my Audi TT armed with a GPS unit, a spreadsheet of tips, and a couple of cameras. Our record day included 27 bar visits, with just a head duck in the door or drive by of many more.
Some taverns like the Casino in LaCrosse and Wolski's Tavern in Milwaukee were like familiar friends. We revisited them anyway, making sure they were still the wonderful places we remembered them to be. We took notes, visited with owners, gathering information later corroborated by our research.
We discovered other bars by mere chance. Our oddest accidental discovery was Heine's Tavern in Minnesota Junction. At the end of a long day, we passed through this tiny historic railroad town just south of Waupun on Highway 26. We cruised along the main roads and found nothing noteworthy, passing through to our next stop in Juneau. The 1850's Inn is a great intact bar and one of many worthy places that simply never made the book due to our space limitations. A helpful off-duty bartender became interested in our project and talked us into turning around for another pass at Minnesota Junction. She told us to head north, take the first right, watch for a faded 1960s backlit plastic bar sign with nothing on it and take a left. The directions alone were enticing enough to back track, and the arrival proved just as interesting. After a trip down a long gravel drive, we arrived at a remote tavern in an old house with an overstuffed parking lot filled with pickup trucks and snowmobiles. We found the inside packed tight with people, forcing us to hold our cameras over our heads to take our scouting shots. The pink and black Art Deco bar signaled that this place had an interesting and colorful history, which our later research bore out.
Another chance discovery came when a friend and I passed through Waterford on a day trip in Racine. As we headed out of Waterford, he said, "Hey, did you see that bar." "No," I said as I started to speed up. "You had better turn around," he replied. I swung around and headed back, and we discovered The Bunker, a jaw dropping military-themed bar that is both wartime scrapyard, and a touching and personal tribute to veterans' lives. Despite the ominous sign on the door reading "University of South Vietnam School of Warfare," we received the warmest welcome of any of the bars we visited.
For some taverns, the journey itself is a reward. Tom's Burned Down Cafe on Madeline Island is a car ferry ride from Bayfield. Once we disembarked the ferry boat and walked up the hill, we were greeted by a carnival of a bar - open air, under a circus tent, just exploding with fun and irreverence. The trip to Nelson's Hall on Washington Island also involves a ferry ride, but the winding, loopy road to from Gils Rock to the ferry landing is just as memorable. It was a thrilling ride in a two-seater sports car with the top down.
A few bars were so strikingly original, that their place in the book was virtually assured on first sight. Passing through Lena as we headed north from Green Bay, we stopped in at the Hunter and Fisherman's tavern, which earned a sidebar in the book due to its extraordinary collection of mounted and stuffed wildlife. We asked the owner where else we might stop and were directed to the Barn Tavern on the outskirts of town. Located since 1933 in a converted dairy barn, it was a must-pick. As we walked in, I was transported back into a memory, long forgotten. I had been there before as a wayward teen looking for a business-hungry bar willing to serve a few high-schoolers of dubious character. Thankfully, the statute of limitations has long since passed on that little attempted digression.
Read more about our travels and learn the fascinating story of how Wisconsin became a tavern state, in "Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries." And, create a journey of your own using the Bottom's Up Map of the places we discovered- and uncovered- for the book. Remember: Read Responsibly!