Wisconsin has more bars than grocery stores, and Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton is no exception.
About five years ago, Jim Drager saw a map with grocery stores in yellow and bars in red. Most states were mostly yellow with dots of red showing the bars. Wisconsin was nearly entirely red with a few yellow dots.
The yellow was probably due to those towns being dry like Richland Center was once, Drager said. Richland Center was dry—it did not allow bars or liquor stores—until 1986 when it was no longer the last remaining dry town in Wisconsin.
Drager, the Wisconsin historic preservation officer, said he was working on a book about historic vacations when it was suggested he do a story about historic bars. “You can’t write about bars without writing about breweries,” he said. The book with co-author Mark Speltz became “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars and Breweries.” Drager and Speltz are also the authors of “Fill’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations.”
Drager said he asked Speltz to work with him and knew he had a co-writer when Speltz said he would have to ask his wife. Drager said he knew Speltz’s wife was a fan of craft beer.
The book when finished had information about 55 taverns and 15 breweries. No bars from Wisconsin Dells are featured, but Jackson Clinic, on Highway K in Juneau County, is. Drager said when he visited Jackson Clinic, he thought it had a dirt floor. However, when the photographer was sent to get photos, the floor was linoleum. Drager and Speltz had asked that places not be cleaned when making the appointment for the photographer, but those instructions weren’t always followed.
Bars proliferate in Wisconsin for several reasons including climate, agriculture, water, location, laws, tax revenues and culture. Drager sad.
Wisconsin was settled by immigrants coming from countries or culture that included drinking beer like Germany and Poland. Once here, the immigrants had access to ice, which was harvested from Wisconsin’s frozen lakes and rivers. Taverns needed ice to keep the beer cold and not have it go bad.
Drager said he emailed local historians to get information about taverns and one email included a photo of a tavern with “ice men” who had delivered ice there. One of the ice men was his grandfather, he said.
Early in Milwaukee’s history it was using 300 million tons of ice a year. Wisconsin produces lots of ice, he said.
Wisconsin also has great water that makes good beer, he said.
Another reason for so many taverns in Wisconsin was agriculture, Drager said. The land and climate were great for growing hops and barley, two agricultural products needed for beer. At one time Sauk City was the leading hops growing region in the country.
Hops are central to beer making, Drager said. They have been added to beer since the 16th Century. Hops are added to kill bacteria, are a preservative, add aroma and can add a bitter taste.
Because of its closeness to Chicago is another reason for so much beer brewing in Wisconsin. Chicago was a rail center, and Milwaukee breweries could ship beer to Chicago and then to the rest of the country.
At one time, Schlitz Brewery used the slogan, “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” That came about after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when thousands of buildings in the city were destroyed including Chicago’s breweries, Drager said. Milwaukee stepped in producing beer and shipping it to Chicago for those who were rebuilding city.
In Wisconsin grocery stores and taverns were linked, he said. An early Wisconsin law allowed stores to have a sampling bar. People could sample up to a quart of beer at the store, he said.
Brewing beer is an art not a science, said Drager. Sampling was allowed because beer was sold in kegs, and people would not buy a keg without sampling it first. The sampling rooms became bigger and bigger and most stores with a bar became taverns.
Early photos show boys in taverns, Drager said. Boys were allowed to drink beer, so they would not die. Water was often unsafe while beer was safe. The boys often received “table beer”—beer that was only 2 percent alcohol.
Boys were also “growler boys” who often delivered beer to people in growlers. At that time growlers were tin pails with lids. By being carried, often in six-packs, the beer would foam and push on the lid, causing a sound like a growl, he said. Although the tin pails have been replaced, and no one has growler boys to deliver, people can still buy a growler which are now made of glass, ceramic and stainless steel and used to transport draft beer from breweries or brewpubs, he said.
Drager said that at the turn of the century, people would drink about three times as much as they do now. They would drink morning, noon and night. Drinking often caused problems. There was no safety net for people such as food pantries, and alcohol was blamed for causing poverty, one reason for the rise of the temperance movement. In 1850, he said, the Baptist women in Baraboo marched for temperance.
The temperance movement was not successful, Drager said because alcohol sales fueled government. Taxes on alcohol provided the major source of government funding until the income tax was approved.
In 1920, Prohibition started, taverns closed, or became restaurants or ice cream parlors. Breweries began brewing nonalcoholic beer or “near beer.” However, beer and liquor were legally sold as a medicine by prescription, which Drager said spurred the growth of the Walgreens chain of drugstores.
When Prohibition started, Wisconsin passed a law allowing local and state law enforcement to help federal officers enforce Prohibition. But in 1928, Governor John Blaine introduced legislation ending Prohibition in Wisconsin and not allowing local and state law enforcement to help the federal officers. The whole country did not end Prohibition until 1933.
After Prohibition, the taverns returned but with one change, women started coming to them. Before the 20th Century, respectable women who frequented taverns might visit a “women’s room” set off from the rest of the bar. Later, those rooms were turned into dining rooms, pool rooms or another use.