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Owner vows to rebuild popular northern Wisconsin destination

 A road sign for Gooch's A-One Bar & Grill stands along Highway M, north of Boulder Junction, on Aug. 12. The sign is the only thing that survived a fire at the business last August. The owners of Gooch’s, Laurel and Kevin Gutjahr, plan to rebuild the business and have it open again sometime next year. (Barry Adams/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

A road sign for Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill stands along Highway M, north of Boulder Junction, on Aug. 12. The sign is the only thing that survived a fire at the business last August. The owners of Gooch’s, Laurel and Kevin Gutjahr, plan to rebuild the business and have it open again sometime next year. (Barry Adams/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal

BOULDER JUNCTION, Wis. (AP) — There will be something missing in the Northwoods when hundreds of anglers converge to compete in the 43rd annual World Championship Musky Classic.

That same void will also be felt this winter when snowmobilers from around the country ride across frozen lakes and through the snow-covered forest trails of Vilas County.

There may be plenty of other places in northern Wisconsin to grab a beer, order up a burger or fish fry and plop pickled herring from a salad bar onto a chilled plate. But Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill, which had long operated along Highway M north of Boulder Junction before lost in a fire last month, is already being missed throughout the Midwest.

The circumstances of its demise have only added to the pain for Laurel and Kevin Gutjahr, who could do little but watch last month as their beloved business was incinerated.

“It’s tough. It hasn’t been easy at all,” Kevin Gutjahr told the Wisconsin State Journal as he surveyed the vacant lot that had been home to his bar and restaurant. “This is a chunk of Boulder Junction that’s gone.”

The Gutjahrs had insurance on their business and are planning to rebuild. They’re optimistic they might be able to open sometime next year. Laurel thinks May 1 is a possibility. Kevin is looking at August.

But no matter when the historic business reopens in the self-proclaimed Muskie Capital of the World, it’s all but guaranteed to differ from what it had been before being consumed by fire on Aug. 11.

On its face, Gooch’s had looked like a northern Wisconsin tavern. Inside, though, it was more like a museum — a museum that merely happened to have tap handles, coasters, bar stools and a wide-ranging menu offering pizza, prime rib and pasta.

Among the attractions were more than 300 wildlife mounts, some of them behind glass cases, included wolves, deer, moose, duck, bear, elk and several fish species. This collection not only made the bar stand out from other establishments but also will probably prove all but impossible to replace.

The loss has been felt far and wide.

“It’s affected the whole town. It’s like a landmark in Boulder,” said Julie Bjork, who for the past 21 years has owned the Ice Shanty Drive-In, a seasonal restaurant and ice cream shop in town. “Laurel and Gooch are just great people and they really make you feel welcome. All of us are feeling it. It’s just really sad.”

Crash into power pole

The Vilas County Sheriff’s Office said that just before the fire, which was reported shortly after 1:30 a.m., a 20-year-old Illinois man, driving his grandmother’s 2002 Chevy Tahoe, was doing doughnuts in the parking lot of Gooch’s when he lost control and crashed into a power pole near the bar. The vehicle caught fire and blaze eventually spread to the bar, which had closed about an hour earlier. Despite a response from 20 area fire departments, including some from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the building could not be saved.

“It really is tragic,” said Bill Sherer, who owns a fly fishing shop just down the road from Gooch’s. “He really did well so I’m glad he’s committed to rebuilding.”

Kevin Gutjahr, who lives with Laurel in a home about 75 yards from the bar, said he was awakened by two employees who had heard the commotion in the parking lot from their homes across the street.

Kevin Gutjahr stands on Aug. 23 in the parking lot of Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill near a charred power pole outside his former business. Vilas County Sheriff's Department says a 20-year-old Illinois man was driving recklessly in the parking lot last month when the vehicle he was in caught fire. The blaze spread to the bar and eventually consumed it. (Barry Adams/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Kevin Gutjahr stands on Aug. 23 in the parking lot of Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill near a charred power pole outside his former business. Vilas County Sheriff’s Department says a 20-year-old Illinois man was driving recklessly in the parking lot last month when the vehicle he was in caught fire. The blaze spread to the bar and eventually consumed it. (Barry Adams/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Gutjahr said he ran into the bar to grab a few fire extinguishers to put out the blaze. It was all to no avail. Gutjahr then went to the basement to get a garden hose. By the time he emerged, the fire was too far advanced.

The alleged driver of the Tahoe, whose family has a cabin in the Boulder Junction area, was arrested at the scene, said Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless driving-endangering safety, refusing to complete a sobriety test, and operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

“My husband is definitely depressed and that breaks my heart,” said Laurel Gutjahr. “That kid took more than he could even ever fathom away from us. He will never comprehend it. Nothing will be the same.”

Historic setting

The original part of Gooch’s was built by a local bricklayer and used as “a little saloon for the lumberjacks and railroad men,” according to “Boulder Junction, The Early Years: 1880s to 1950s,” a book published by Boulder Junction’s Friends of the Library. The saloon would become well known thanks in large part to Joe “Shrimp” Wilfer, a Racine native and World War I veteran, who when young had spent summers at a camp on High Lake and purchased the saloon in 1926. In 1932, Gooch’s got its dance hall, with slot machines. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, it had become a popular destination. The dance hall was turned into a wildlife museum during World War II. By 1947, visitors were paying 25 cents each to get close-up views of stuffed bears, timberwolves, deer, porcupines, raccoons and other Northwoods creatures.

Wilfer eventually sold the business. By the 1990s, a series of owners had left the bar in disrepair and struggling to make money. The wildlife mounts were sold off over the years and the business itself became the property in 1998 of Tom and Laurie Thompson, who brought some much-needed stability. Shortly after becoming the owners, the Thompsons hired Kevin Gutjahr, who had come to the area in 1993 from Slinger, in southeastern Wisconsin, to tend bar and work construction jobs to support his hunting and fishing hobbies.

Gutjahr bought the place in 2005 thanks to the financial backing of a longtime customer. Over the years, he installed new wiring, bathrooms and a roof, and made improvements to the kitchen. Gutjahr also began to bring wildlife mounts back into the bar, and in 2008, he met Laurel. They were married in 2014 and had their reception in the former dance hall-turned-dining room.

“Yes, it was a business and we made money. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Kevin Gutjahr said. “But it was a community thing with a lot of history behind it. I guess we’ll just start over, fresh.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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