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Photographer Documents Wisconsin’s Disappearing Taverns as a ‘Cultural Identity’

March 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jo Garrett of Wisconsin Public Television reports on tavern culture, a rapidly disappearing hallmark of Midwestern community identity that one photographer has set out to document.
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TRANSCRIPT

This segment was originally produced for Wisconsin Public Television‘s “In Wisconsin” series. You can watch the full version here.

JEFFREY BROWN: For those stations not taking a pledge break, we have a story about a fast disappearing way of life in the Midwest: tavern culture.

Tonight’s story comes from Jo Garrett of Wisconsin Public Television.

CARL COREY: Wisconsin’s cultural identity has been defined a lot by the tavern. But I think Wisconsin, by far, is — is like the tavern state.

WOMAN: These photos are part of an exhibit called The Wisconsin Tavern League. The artist is the nationally known still photographer, Carl Corey, of Hudson.

CARL COREY: I was in a couple of bars, one in Milwaukee called At Random and another one in Frederick called Booze and Bowl. And the experience of going in there informed me or alerted me to the fact that there’s something interesting in these taverns.

JO GARRETT: For two years, Corey traveled the state, often in is camper, and in the company of his dog, Cheddar. He set about to document Wisconsin taverns. We met him in one of his favorites, The Red Room in Dodgeville.

CARL COREY: The only other state that I think has the mentality of the tavern as community as much as Wisconsin is Pennsylvania. It’s — yes, Pennsylvania has got a very similar demographic and attitude about the community and taverns and where we go to meet.

Growing up in Chicago, we would come to Wisconsin and visit people, and we’d always go to a tavern. I mean I’m — I was 10 years old, 11 years old. We’d go to the tavern, and I’d play pinball, and my folks might have one or two drinks the whole night, but they’d sit there and talk with everybody, you know, from the area.

And it’s something that’s — it had been embedded in my mind.

I was trying to document the place that this interaction occurs in and the owners that allow that place to exist, because that’s what I think is going away.

A lot of the taverns I photographed as recently as a year ago are already closed. And I wanted to save it, historically, because it’s changing.

LAURIE UREN: I’ve owned the place nine years and probably worked here 23 years or so.

JO GARRETT: Laurie Uren, owner of the Red Room Bar & Restaurant.

CARL COREY: And I guess the main thing that attracted me here was Laurie’s, you know, she’s got a vivacious personality. She’s engaging. She’s very friendly and nice. And you can tell she really loves this place.

LAURIE UREN: How was everything here?

CARL COREY: It was good.

LAURIE UREN: How was your sandwich?

CARL COREY: It was very good.

LAURIE UREN: Thank you. All right.

CARL COREY: (INAUDIBLE).

LAURIE UREN: You betcha.

Yes?

CARL COREY: I want to get some bread pudding.

LAURIE UREN: OK.

CARL COREY: All right?

LAURIE UREN: You bet.

CARL COREY: You know, she makes it welcoming and comfortable for people.

LAURIE UREN: I think because we all care about each other. We’re all hometown people and, you know, we’re so close that if somebody doesn’t show, we’re kind of wondering where they are and maybe somebody should go check on them and…

LAURIE UREN: We’re going to make you be in all the parades and wave, wave.

MAN: The new mascot.

LAURIE UREN: Oh, funny.

LAURIE UREN: Yes, it’s pretty tight.

Come on, good news.

CARL COREY: Yes, it’s a very difficult business to be in.

KELLY UREN: That is eau lingerie.

CARL COREY: And the kids don’t come, the younger people don’t come to these places to meet and socialize. They do it all online, primarily, you know, Facebook and Internet and I don’t know, LinkedIn and all those, you know, Twitter this and Twitter that. It’s kind of a shame, because there’s no face-to-face like this.

JO GARRETT: We saw some of that face-to-face in action. A guy came over. He wanted to talk about Corey’s trailer, parked outside.

MAN: I just like the Air Tran. That’s great.

MAN: But for not pulling, you know, a heavy trailer or…

CARL COREY: One of the things that you lose is the ability to actually socialize and to have that kind of decorum and, you know, the ability to come up to someone and introduce yourself and talk to them and respect them and listen to them and learn from that.

MAN: Well, nice meeting you.

I’ll let you get back to your lunch.

CARL COREY: Thank you.

What’s your name?

MAN: Byron.

CARL COREY: Byron? I’m Carl.

MAN: Pleased to meet you.

Good luck to you.

CARL COREY: All right, thanks, man.

JO GARRETT: These places provide a particular kind of sustenance, connection, conversation, often served up with a side of sweet memories — something they’ve been doing at the Red Room for decades.

Waitress Kelly Uren.

KELLY UREN: The ’30s I’m guessing. Yes. Long before me, so. I have to talk to some of the card boys out there. Some of them actually — and down the line, like they’re — they remember their parents coming, you know, and playing cards and — and the bowling alley downstairs and setting pins and whatnot. That’s where your stories are. I’m too young to have that memory yet, but…

MAN: Here’s one of his original bar chips. It says, Red Room Bar, Dodgeville, Wis., good for five cents in trade. That’s what a beer cost in 1938.

CARL COREY: There’s a wall and there’s a photo of that wall that has graffiti from kids who were pin setters from — from the ’30s and ’40s. And they’ve scratched their name in there and the year and such. You know, we hear some of them are here today. They come in here regularly still, 60 years later, 70 years later, because they’re, you know, 75, 80 year old guys. And it’s pretty cool. I mean this place has been here for them.

MAN: The owners treat you real well. It’s homey.

CARL COREY: It’s the best bread pudding I ever had, no B.S. It’s really good.

LISA UREN: It goes good with your beer, right?

MAN: (INAUDIBLE).

JO GARRETT: Wisconsin’s taverns, something happens here — something Corey captures in the Wisconsin Tavern League.

LISA UREN: Here, we have a connection, all of us.

You’re face-to-face and you can see people for what they are.

CARL COREY: And I want people to understand that — that they’re environments that are unique, that are there for them and that it’s quite possible that they won’t be here in years to come. I guess I wanted to save them, to document them and to save them in pictures the way I see them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carl Corey’s photographs of Midwestern bars and their patrons and owners will be published in a book this fall by the state historical society. It’s called “Wisconsin Tavern League.”

For more on this story and others by Wisconsin Public Television, you can follow a link posted on our website, newshour.pbs.org.