The Special Role of the Bar in Wisconsin Culture

Bottoms UpJim Draeger, State Historic Preservation Officer of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and Mark Speltz co-authored a beautiful book about Wisconsin’s tavern culture, Bottoms Up:  A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars & Breweries. They’ll join us for a special seminar at the 2014 Door County Beer Festival, and we were curious, what made a historic preservation officer turn his attention to the state’s bar scene?

We shot a few questions at Drager to find the answers.

Q: Why a book on bars?

A: Breweries and taverns are a distinct part of the Wisconsin experience. Their numbers and history set our state apart from the rest of the country and are a part of our cultural identity. We are the Tavern State. Since I have always been interested in what makes Wisconsin special, bars and breweries seemed like natural topic. I have been a fan of great taverns all of my adult life and wanted to write something that celebrated their history without overlooking their short-comings.

I also like good beer.

Q: Why has the culture of beer and bars taken root more strongly in Wisconsin than in other states?

A: The answer is part geography and part ethnicity. Wisconsin had pure water, plenty of ice, and great cropland for growing grains and hops. Its closeness to Chicago’s great rail connections allowed Wisconsin breweries to reach nationwide. Wisconsin was also home to large numbers of European settlers, most notably Germans, Poles, and Irish, who came from beer drinking cultures.

Q: How does this make our culture different than other regions?

Jim DraegerA: Wisconsin ranks about 6th in the nation in alcohol consumption, but more of those people choose to drink in taverns rather than at home, making the tavern an important institution.  The tavern is an extension of our living rooms, facilitating socialization with our friends and neighbors in the same way that a coffee shop might.

Q: What are some of the roles that these places fill in our communities that get overlooked? Historically, what are some of the important niches they’ve filled?

A: Taverns are important places for political and social discourse.  Many 19th century political leaders were tavern owners because the tavern allowed them to have the ear of the people.  As an important social hub, taverns have allowed people to band together for mutual aid.

For example, collections to finance medical care for people without other means and other types of fundraisers have always been part of the tavern experience. We find jobs, learn the local gossip and make and strengthen friendships in taverns.  

In a state with a tough winter climate, the tavern allows us to escape our homes for somewhere that does not have an agenda or a purpose.

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