By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
OLD ASHIPPUN, Wis. (AP) — This has not been an easy year for Barbara Lund and her two brothers, Jim and Tom Wittnebel.
Their mother, Lorraine Wittnebel, died in February at the age of 93. In August, they lost their sister, Joyce Kleist, to cancer. She was 69.
Now the home where Lund and her siblings grew up is empty, save for the Oakland Cabinet Grand piano that didn’t sell in the estate sale held in July.
This is where generations of Wittnebels have gathered for holiday meals, birthdays, graduation and confirmation celebrations and hands of rummy. Once a year in the fall, the basement was turned into a family butcher shop. It wasn’t unusual to see a cow, a couple of hogs and, in a good year, a few deer made into hamburger, steaks, chops and homemade sausage.
But the family’s heritage is also tied to the two-story tavern — attached to the front of the house — that was started by their grandfather in 1906. Lund’s parents operated the bar from the 1940s to 1987. In the past 30 years, though, it has been used only for the occasional family gathering. The front and back bar, a wooden walk-in beer cooler with a single tap handle and 10 bar stools look much the same as they did more than 100 years ago. Earlier this month, though, they were removed from the bar room, loaded onto a truck and given to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Now, if things work out, many more people will get to experience the ambience of the rural, roadside tavern north of Oconomowoc, where cigars and pickled pigs feet were once sold along with 2-ounce pours of Muscatel and bottles of Lithia beer that were delivered from West Bend in wooden crates.
The Historical Society is now looking to have an exhibit that will put the the bar to use again somewhere in the state. That possibility has given a welcome turn to what has otherwise been a tiring and emotionally draining year for the Wittnebel family, who are now tackling the difficult task of cleaning out their mother’s house.
“My mother never threw anything away. The upstairs was packed with stuff, all of which, in her own mind, she felt would bring large amounts of money that she could pass on to her children,” Lund told the Wisconsin State Journal . “But perhaps the most valuable part of this estate is being donated. The irony does not pass me by but I think it’s just lovely.”
Earlier this month, the Wittnebels and the Historical Society invited the press in to get a look at the tavern before its fixtures were removed. Out of the glare of television cameras, the fixtures were taken out into fresh air for the first time in over 100 years. They were packed onto a truck to be stored by the state until a plan could be made for the entire collection, which was likely purchased as a set from the A. Lange Manufacturing Co. in Milwaukee.
The bar’s linoleum floor, as well as a wooden floor in an upstairs corridor once used for card parties and dartball tournaments, will remain along Highway 67 for new owners. But the tavern’s centerpieces, which include a metal foot-rail on the front bar, will go to the Historical Society.
The society is now brewing beer at Old World Wisconsin. Later this month, it will get the keys to a new 188,000-square-foot State Archive Preservation Facility, which has been under construction for the last two years on Madison’s Near East Side.
“For the family, it’s about honoring the memory of their parents and their grandparents,” said Jim Draeger, an architectural historian for the Historical Society. “They get to have their story continue to live on. That’s the motivation of people like them who are generous in donating something. They want that story to live because this has been a big part of their life. They have great stories of hanging out here.”
Draeger, who in 2012 helped write “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars and Breweries,” was clearly in his element earlier this month, bellying up to the bar. But instead of hoisting a cold one, he breathed in the history of an establishment that was founded 14 years before the start of Prohibition.
The bar was originally in what is now the house’s dining room. Not long after Frank and Fanny Wittnebel had opened the doors, though, they added the bar room and upstairs corridor, which is accessed from an outside door or from an upstairs bedroom.
The earliest documented dance at the tavern took place in 1919. The tavern has also served as the venue for a poultry show and was a popular place for keno, the last game of which was played in 1942. Sheepshead tournaments were popular here while the beer selections over the years included Old Timers, Rhinelander, Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Old Style.
“Bars like this are really rare today,” said Draeger. “There are a few handfuls of them in Wisconsin that are of this vintage and this original. There just aren’t very many of them anymore.”
This year’s Christmas season will be the first in decades that spritz cookies won’t be baked in the house’s kitchen. But there was a cooler full of bottled water and cans of Busch Light, as well as homemade chocolate-chip cookies, a vegetable tray, fruit platter, cheese, crackers and beef sausage made by Tom Wittnebel, who has been using a recipe from the now closed Neitzel’s grocery store.
Wittnebel, 67, a retired stone mason and former baseball all-star in the Rock River League, lives near an employee of Old World Wisconsin. It was from that employee that Wittnebel the historic site was looking for a bar that could be used as part of a planned working brewery. Wittnebel later got in touch with Joe Kapler, curator of cultural history at the Historical Society, and the deal was done, although it’s still unclear if the bar will be used at the historic site in Eagle.
“I just happened to know somebody who knew someone,” Wittnebel said. “It’s going to a good place. It’s important that the bar is going to stay in Wisconsin.”
Over the years, the house and its bar have helped give rise to many now-fond memories.
Lund learned to play piano in the dining room of the house. Her love of music eventually led to a 29-year career as an elementary school music teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools system.
“This was a gathering place,” said Lund, as her eyes moistened and her voice cracked, knowing the family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations will take place elsewhere this year. “But out of every end there’s a new beginning. It feels good but it’s still sad.”