Turning 40 Family Tavern Tour

Patti See, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Interlopers who move to Wisconsin are often amazed at the number of taverns. When I travel anywhere, to Minnesota or China, I’m struck by the lack of them. I recently spent 35 days in southern China, the first week looking for a bar. We finally found Ryan’s Place, run by a 300-pound goatee-wearing Canadian who modeled his business after that other famous expatriate bar, Rick’s Place. Ryan’s no Humphrey Bogart and Zhuhai no Casablanca. Still, a couple of travelers from Eau Claire settled in at the bar, and Matilda—a Mongolian barmaid—served us frosty glasses of Tiger Beer, complained about her boss, and asked my advice on how she should turn down drunken American men. Just like at home.

    In his book The Great Good Place (1989), sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about the necessity of having a “third place.” Oldenburg’s subtitle “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day” describes exactly what I was missing when I taught in China. Besides home (No. 1 place) and work (No. 2), your third place is an “anchor” to community life. Oldenburg says a third place must be inexpensive and highly accessible or close to home or work, involve regulars who also congregate there, and be welcoming and comfortable. Though important, food and drink aren’t essential, but you must meet both new and old friends at your third place.

Looking back, I see that my third place has always been a bar. I’m a child of the 1970s and 80s who grew up going to family taverns and supper clubs with my parents and siblings. I get nostalgic over the scent of Pine-Sol mixed with cigarette smoke and perfume, a jukebox playing “Good Hearted Woman” or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

    Today if parents took their kids to a bar that didn’t serve food, Social Services would show up. But back then, in a small town like Chippewa Falls, it was perfectly acceptable for many parents – especially German-American ones like mine – to include their children in tavern life. We’d take a Sunday afternoon drive and stop at a bar on the way home. Children ate Slim Jims and drank ice cold Orange Crush, played pinball or air hockey with the other kids. Parents shared a pitcher of Leinie’s and slipped their kids money for the jukebox if they promised to play Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.

The supper clubs of my youth still bring soothing thoughts: dark-paneled walls, tin beer signs (Leinenkugel’s and Hamm’s “from the Land of Sky Blue Waters” and none of them lit up); relish trays of celery, carrots, radishes, and a communal dip; bread basket with white rolls and crackers in plastic and pats of butter; fried fish on Friday nights and prime rib on Saturdays; waitresses in polyester dresses who greeted each table with “how are youse guys?” Besides the specials, other menu options were a rack of BBQ ribs as long as your arm, half or quarter fried chicken, frog legs, or slabs of steak—all served with a baked potato the size of your head. At the bar before dinner Dad might have a brandy old-fashioned and Mom a Mogen David mixed with Sprite (never called a “wine spritzer”). Afterward we’d go back to the bar for Pink Squirrels or Grasshoppers, made with real Wisconsin ice cream and minimal alcohol, and the kids would beg for a sip.

Since the colonial period, taverns have influenced the growth of American towns. For nearly a century they offered the only other social outlet besides church. Wisconsin still has more bars per capita than any other state, a tradition that began with the hundreds of German breweries that appeared in small towns in the mid-to-late-1800s. These became what one historian calls “nerve centers” where townsfolk gathered for weddings and wakes or simply weekly parties. Finding a watering hole is part of our heritage, since almost 43% of the state’s current population descends from German roots. Germans call the comfort found in a family tavern “gemütlichkeit.” Its closest English translation is “coziness,” a warmth projected in many Wisconsin tavern names: Laff-A-Lot Dance Hall, Happy Jack’s, Jolly Farmer Bar, The Welcome Matt. These are “clubs” in the VFW not the New York City sense of the word. Even the most recent Eau Claire/Chippewa Falls area phonebook lists “taverns,” not “bars” or “clubs.”