If you ask the man behind the bar about his life, he will tell you about surviving the Great Depression and the wars that saved his business.
If you ask him why he stayed in this town of 50 souls all these years, he will tell you about the people who have walked through the front door.
Along a back road in Sauk County, just when you think you are lost, the small town of Leland appears after a few bends in the road.
It resembles an old western town where a scattering of houses sprang up next to two bars and a church during a land rush.
But inside Sprecher’s, on the other side of the long wooden bar, is the history of this small community. He stands with a smile on his face each day and a story at the ready for anyone who walks in.
His name is Edwin, but you should call him Junior.
“My grandfather lived about 5 miles from here,” he said on a Tuesday afternoon. “And my dad came over when this was for sale, about 1900, and he purchased it as a general store.”
Since then, Sprecher’s has only had two owners over the past 111-plus years, and the Swiss family name dates back to the 1850s in these parts.
Walking into the bar, there is a collage of old photographs that show the way things used to be — which is not that different from today.
The old, wood slat ceiling and walls are the same, covered with a pair of giant horns and plenty of items for sale.
For a bar, the alcohol is not that noticeable.
“I know when I took this over you couldn’t be drinking,” Junior said, adding that his father wasn’t a drinker, either. “You just sell merchandise.”
Prohibition changed things for the Sprecher family. And selling alcohol after the law was repealed was a way to survive after 1933.
Working inside of Sprecher’s, where he has been most of his 85 years, Junior paints a picture of a life dedicated to people.
His stories about growing up are often funny, and show his toughness — like the days when he was a rising young pugilist, taking boxing matches to win something sweet from a local drugstore. The more he fought, the more he could get.
“I wasn’t fighting for an ice cream cone anymore,” he said of having a few matches under his belt. “I wanted a malt, or nothin’.”
Back in the 1930s, entertainment revolved around listening to boxing matches on the radio for Junior and his classmates.
Iconic fights between Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling were happening, and James J. Braddock — whose life was chronicled in the movie “Cinderella Man” — was on top.
It was boxing’s heyday, and a scrappy Junior Sprecher, all of 8 years old, was taking on all comers when egged on by schoolmates who offered ice cream if he won.
“It was mostly rassling around and a few punches and it would be over,” he said.
As more fights came, he wanted more than an ice cream cone — he wanted a malt.
“I got a hold of this kid and told him what was up. I said, ‘One of these days if a malt comes up I’ll beat you,’” Junior said. “I will take you down in the first round, and I will let you take me down in the second round. In the third round we will make (the fight) look really good.”
After the fight, Junior had his opponent meet him in the back alley near the drugstore. And when the spectators left, the two shared the malt.
But Junior’s boxing days started long before that — when his father moved the family from Leland to Sioux City, Iowa.
The general store wasn’t as profitable anymore with the Great Depression in full swing, so the family set out to run a store in Iowa. That lasted three years before bad times followed there and the grocery delivery business dried up.
“They got laid off and they couldn’t pay. Everything was on credit then,” Junior said of the vast amount of railroad workers who shopped at the store. “And my dad never really got over that.”
On his way to Sunday school in Iowa one day, Junior decided to try out his boxing after being taunted by four boys in a tree house.
He said he would take all of them on, but not at once. When he was walking home, the four ganged up on him.
Junior came home with his clothes dirty and faced another lecture from his mother, Anna.
“You know ma, I’m going to get each one of them, one at a time,” he said. “And I got all but one. I couldn’t catch him. But I settled the score. That’s how I got into fighting.”
There’s a room attached to Sprecher’s Bar that many people remember as a dance hall.
When the Sprechers went to Iowa in the early 1930s, they rented the general store in Leland to a group of German musicians who had put a floor and a stage in the room.
The renters also sold moonshine out of the basement — until they were caught.
“A couple of years ago we had a lady stop by and said she remembered coming to dances (here). And they had some home brew in the basement,” said Junior’s daughter Amy, who works at Sprecher’s.
But when Prohibition ended, and business dried up in Iowa, Edwin Sr. decided to bring his family back to Leland, the place where they still owned a building. He petitioned the town board to get a liquor license for the old general store.
“Opened up a bar and been running this as a tavern ever since,” Junior said.
“We never really went back into the store business, (but) sold farmer’s gloves, jackets.”
There were plenty of tough times in the early days running the bar. Junior’s mother passed away in 1934, and his older siblings moved on.
Soon, the place was run by only Edwin Sr., with Junior helping out. His father had been a teacher, as well, near Durward’s Glen and another school by Reedsburg.
To earn money, Junior started selling fishing rods and reels and created a sporting goods area in the bar. Since his father couldn’t pay him a salary, this was his money.
“And I sold a lot of fishing tackle,” he said. “Deer hunting picked up and I got into selling rifles.”
He still does today.
The powder plant
Along U.S. Highway 12 between Baraboo and Sauk City sits the last remains of a savior for Sprecher’s Bar.
The 1930s were tough times, but when World War II started and the Badger Army Ammunition Plant opened just 11 miles down the road, Leland suddenly was booming.
“Put a big shot into everybody’s arm,” Junior said.
Women were now at work, and buying on the way to and from their jobs.
“We opened in the morning when they got here, about 8 o’clock. And had a little lunch for them, and they got a few supplies.”
During the war, many things were rationed, including cigarettes. So Junior’s father came up with the idea of Cigarette Night at the bar on Wednesdays, where everybody had a chance to purchase a pack.
“We would only get 15, 16 cartons every two weeks,” Junior said.
And they started holding dances in the room where the musicians built the stage.
They had a dance for a shower one Saturday, and a wedding dance the next weekend.
“That way you got two dances out of a marriage,” Junior said. “They got married during The Depression, too.”
With business booming, and little help, Junior lost out on an opportunity to follow a dream.
He was introduced to a boxing coach in Madison and found a ride there once a week to work out. He also had a chance to go to the university, where boxing was king.
But after a conference with his father, who told him he wasn’t feeling well enough to handle the business by himself, Junior’s dreams were dashed.
“We had all these dances going, the powder plant was running, business was booming,” Junior said. “I went down and told the coach I appreciated the opportunity, but I was going to come back.”
Junior never got to start school in Madison, however.
“It’s a hard act following in your dad’s footsteps,” he said.
Almost the soldier
If he was going to help run a bar, it was going to be a successful venture, the young Junior Sprecher thought.
Having had to pass on a chance at boxing, Junior cracked down on the way his father did business — letting people charge, a practice that was often common.
“We can’t operate that way anymore,” he said. “And we’re not going to go broke again,” he said. “Sixty-one years later and I’m still here.”
Toward the end of World War II, Junior received draft papers to enter the military.
He was shipped out to Chicago, but his father, who was in poor health, declared a family hardship. Junior found himself back in Leland.
After the war, Junior was operating the bar a lot. He was trying to run the dances, but only drawing cheapskates, he said, who were not willing to pay the 50 cents admission.
Soldiers also soon came to the area, back home looking to start new careers.
“Farm land doubled during the war,” Junior said. “Then a depression hit again during the ‘50s and a lot of them lost (the farm).”
In 1950, Junior also lost his father.
All in the family
Pictures along the back bar show the early days at Sprecher’s, with Junior in knickerbocker clothing sitting on the bar with his father standing behind him.
Along the walls is the history of the Sprecher family in photos — from early farmsteads to 19th century relatives.
But the family portraits are really a history of this small town. And on any given day, Junior can be found behind the bar talking to customers, sharing some of those stories and photos.
“I’m just a kid, see. That’s why they call me Junior,” he said, holding up a photograph when he was 7.
Sharing the same name as his father, Junior seemed fitting. But at an early age he was called Jim, after his middle name James. His mother didn’t approve because they had a horse with that name.
Inside Sprecher’s, the conversation is as important as what’s on tap. There’s not a big menu — with the popular sandwich called Junior, with summer sausage and cheese.
One story Junior likes to tell is how he was born in the back room of the bar, delivered by his father. He was only a little more than 4 pounds.
“I said, ‘How did you keep me alive?”
His father told him that he placed him on the cook stove to stay warm until the doctor arrived three hours later.
“Well, now Dad, I know why I’m half baked,” Junior said with a laugh.
Throughout the years when the powder plant reopened, business boomed.
Without the plant, the bar has survived on the dedication of Junior, who with his late wife Dona raised three children.
Today, Sprecher’s is a stop for hunters and those traveling the back roads, wanting a piece of nostalgia and good conversation.
Junior said his wife tried to get him to quit the business a long time ago.
But he says, this isn’t really work: It’s always been play. People are his life, and every day someone new walks through the door he hasn’t met.
“My wife would say, ‘How can you come back in here every day, seven days a week, and do this over and over?
“I said, ‘I was born here. This is all I know, is people.’ And to me they are always interesting.”
If You Go
Sprecher’s Bar is located in Leland, a town of about 50 people along Highway C in Sauk County.
Along U.S. Highway 12 near Prairie du Sac — across from the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant — take Highway C 11 miles. Sprecher’s will be on the left.
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