Thursday, September 13, 2012

midwest cultural tours - taverns

On Monday, Jon and I returned from a two-week trip to the Midwest. The trip began and ended in Minneapolis, but most of our time was spent in Wisconsin, in small towns nestled among rolling hills, bluffs, outcroppings and valleys that make up what is know as the Driftless Region. We explored sites and attractions I have never visited before. Some were taverns that dot the backroads of the area.

Along the driveway to Babe's Country Club.

Bar Culture

When we arrived in Wonewoc (pop. 816) late Friday afternoon at the start of the Labor Day weekend, my brother and his wife immediately suggested we go for a fish fry at a tavern in a small crossroads town of Lime Ridge (pop. 162). We piled into the Buick that used to belong to my dad and headed out. Though the tavern wasn't crowded, the wait for food was an hour (mostly due to takeout orders), but we placed our food orders and ordered drinks. Pam ordered an Old Fashioned and since it's the official mixed drink of Wisconsin (you thought it was chocolate milk?), I quickly followed her lead. Sweet, tall and cold. It was a perfect way to take in the atmosphere while waiting for our food. Almost every bar in Wisconsin will offer a fish fry on Friday nights. Don't bother ordering a burger; it's not on the menu. What kind of fish will you get? At Lime Ridge, it was cod. Sometimes you'll get perch, but more often it's cod.

While we chatted and waited for our food, the big screen tvs were playing a movie I'd never seen. More distracting than a sporting event, I almost got caught up in the plot as I sipped my Old Fashioned. When Pam ordered another, the bartender served it then said she should try the whiskey version (we were drinking the brandy version - I've heard that Wisconsinites consume more brandy than any other state). He should have suggested that before serving her BOF, but he did offer us a taste of one he'd just mixed for himself and it was tasty.

A cheese appetizer and cole slaw kept us busy until the fish came. And it only took 45 minutes, not an hour! I ordered the tater tots with my fish. It was a hearty plate load of food and Jon & I should have done what Mike & Pam did: shared a plate. Live and learn. But it was delicious and reminded me of the many fish fries I've gone to when I lived in Wisconsin.

On our final evening in Wisconsin, after a week of visiting with family and exploring the countryside, Mike suggested visiting a few bars. I've meant to go to Babe's Country Club for years. It's out on a back road, a handful of miles from any town. My dad used to go there on occasion, but I had never been there. We planned to hit a few other bars on our tour, but the first one didn't pan out - The Summit was closed for a private party. We could have crashed the wedding, but the place looked pretty crowded, upping the chances that we'd see someone one of us knew.

As we drove toward Babe's, lightning appeared in the western sky and it began raining large drops. Mike reminded me before we went inside to not ask to see a beer menu. Jon paused to pet a cat hanging around at the front door, then we made our way inside where a woman who seemed a bit drunk came up to Pam and told everyone how she and Pam had gone to school together and that Pam was always the instigator of trouble. It was a little awkward for a moment, but the guys and one other woman at the bar were more interested in the Badgers/Oregon State game on the satellite tv and the woman quickly left us alone and remained on her cell phone for the rest of our time there.

I ordered what everyone else did, High Life, and looked at the crowd. Four or five guys and a woman at the long end of the L-shaped bar; the four of us on the short end, eyes all glued to the game. This is where Jon would say "four beers for six bucks!" Yes, but it's not IPA. It's still Miller. The storm picked up and in the final minute of the Badger game, which they were losing at 7-10, the satellite went out and the guys at the bar roared. They could no longer bar-stool coach the game and one tried in vain to bring up the game on a his phone. Such is rural life with its spotty cell service. When the sat. returned, the game was over and we were ready to head to a bar called Little Summit.

We'd heard there was a hay ride that night, and we caught up with them at Little Summit. A John Deere tractor with dual wheels and a wagon filled with a layer of hay bales was parked across the road. In the puddle-filled dirt lot, we parked next to a couple of Harleys and went in. It was a full house, but they had a beer selection (I saw Guinness in the case!). Jon had a Pabst (in honor of my dad, he said) and I ordered a Blue Moon. People ignored the 'Please don't sit on the pool table' signs and a few stood just outside the open doorway to smoke while rain fell and the breeze blew the smoke into the bar. (I would later catch the view of the orange-painted sunset from that doorway after the crowd left.)

Turns out Pam's brother was one of the hay wagoneers and he appeared to be the only one with full rain gear. Good thing, because they'd started in Hillsboro*, stopped at Babe's and would be continuing to a little dive called Jackson's Clinic. When they loaded up to leave Little Summit, it was raining. As we passed the wagon on the road it looked pretty awful, though Mike assured me they had drinks in a cooler and didn't mind. Before we pulled into Jackson's Clinic Mike and Pam said they hadn't been there in years and that the place always has fights.

The outside wasn't well lit and it felt like we were walking up to a much-neglected farm out-building. We walked through an open door into a room with a pool table, past the jukebox and down a few steps through a doorway to the main bar. We ordered MGD, except for Jon who again went for the PBR. I got my beer and looked around at the crowd, then began wandering back to the steps. I turned to take in the view of the bar. That's when I saw the bras displayed from the ceiling. I touched Jon's arm 'I just noticed those.' I gestured toward the ceiling. A tall guy looked at me incredulously. 'I'm short. I don't see things high up,' I explained. 'You should put yours up there.' I must have reached for Jon again. I didn't have a quick comeback. Then he commented on our beer choices: like mine was not as good a choice as Jon's. I let the comment slide and the guy walked past. I had to remind myself that I was just a tourist here. Brings this video to mind.

Jackson's Clinic

While the four of us played a game of pool (50 cents), the hayride crowd showed up, wet and thirsty. They filed through the pool room and down the steps. After our game, we stepped outside into the rain-freshened air. A picnic table sat in the grass, soaked. Through the trees, I was sure there was a view, but it was getting dark now. Pam & I went back into the bar and noticed a bench we could stand on to see above the crowd. From our new vantage, it was the same as any bar: people who knew each other; a few strangers; sitting or standing around, maybe enjoying each others' company. Maybe just trying to forget the week. The music was too loud for conversation, but we tried. Mostly, we observed.

Jon said he needed a Harley-Davidson shirt to fit in at Jackson's Clinic. I assured him that wearing a his red pullover and cap told people he was a Badger fan and that made him fit in (not to mention he has an awesome beard right now). But he's probably right - none of us really fit in there.

As we were leaving, Mike told us that while Pam and I had been keeping an eye on the crowd inside, there had been a fight outside. I guess that's to be expected at Jackson's Clinic. We headed back to Wonewoc and as we drove down Highway 33 I noticed the storm clouds had cleared revealing a star-filled sky. We were ready for a late dinner of grilled t-bone and baked potato. The next day, Jon and I would be driving back to Minneapolis on our way home to Anchorage.

*Edited to reflect that the hayride began in Hillsboro. We thought it began in Wonewow.


Gus said...

Hey, Rose! Thanks for posting the pic of the Clinic. And yeah, that line in the video pretty much says it. "Everyone hates a tourist." But on the other hand, from what I've heard, tourists are a lot of their business. Everyone wants to say they've been there.

Katey Schultz said...

Awesome, Rose! So great to read about a true Midwesterner's take on The Driftless region, and to see pics, too. Lovely descriptions.

corinne said...

You've given me more ideas for our trip to Wisconsin next month. My mom probably won't be interested in the backroads bar tour, and i'll give the MGD a miss, but I'll definitely have to try an Old-Fashioned. I love driving through those little towns. Last time we stopped in the little local museums.

bikegirl said...

Yes, Gus. A love-hate relationship, I'd say.
Thanks, Katey & Corinne. And here's a new write-up on the place, though without the bra-shot. Thanks, Pam, for sending this article.