People, Place, and Time

Telling my family's stories

Muehlbauers saw passing of free lunch, but Grandma, 87, is still cook

An era will end officially at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday when Muehlbauer Saloon at 242 E. Pittsburgh St. closes for the last time – after 53 years in business. 

It was opened across the street from the present location in 1900 by Mr. and Mrs. Muehlbauer, a young couple from Bavaria. He died four years later and his widow, Frances, carried on the business and reared her three children in the process.

She’s still alert and active as a cricket, but sad that she has had to sell to the city her dingy building with its immaculately scrubbed interior. It will be torn down to allow widening of the street. At 87 she is still the cook; her son Joseph is the bartender and co-manager, a job he’s held for 38 years, and his wife shares the management and the work.

Tomorrow: Chili

“Tomorrow is the day for chili,” the elder Mrs. Muehlbauer remarked. “I’ll make it as usual. Friday was scrubbing day, so naturally we scrubbed. We don’t want to let down until the end.”

The customers standing along the bar were sad, too. They sipped their beer and swapped reminisces with Joe, recalling the old days and the factors that have made Muehlbauer’s place unique.

They named a few of the things the place hasn’t got:

Barstools. People stand as they did at the turn of the century.

Cash register. At first, Joe explained, they couldn’t afford one. Then they found that a drawer behind the bar serves quite well.

No mixed drinks

Mixed drinks. You drink beer, or you have a shot with it. That’s that. And Joe, who is cheerful and friendly, nevertheless is proud of his record of never having taken a drink while on duty. 

Drunks. The Muehlbauers won’t serve them.

Night hours. They close promptly at 6:30.

And you’ll have to let Grandma – her customers call her that – explain this one: There’s no swearing. She says, smiling fondly at the line of men in overalls: 

“We always have served the very best people – the working men from around here. After I had to take it over alone, I still never had any trouble with any of them. They knew I wasn’t out to cheat them, and I knew they wanted to do right by me. But sometimes a man would forget and swear and I’d just say, ‘Please. I’ve got children here. I don’t want them to hear bad talk. I don’t like to hear it either!’

“So they quit, and they told new customers, and after a few years it had got to be a habit, nobody swearing in here.”

Joe says proudly that he managed to sell beer for a nickel until late 1950. Even so, he and his mother regretted they’d had to give up serving a full hot lunch free with purchase of two 5 cent beers, as they did early in the century.

But they did hold on to one record. Right up to closing time Tuesday, they’ll be serving Grandma’s soup for 5 cents a bowl, and ham, pork or egg sandwiches for 15 cents.

$112,000 Saved

Only last week Joe sadly notified the members of his Christmas Savings Club that they’ll have to deal directly with the bank after this. Despite the lack of cash register and accountant-type bookkeeping, in the last 13 years, Muehlbauer patrons have saved nearly $112,000 by taking advantage of his free savings.

When he cashed their paychecks, they authorized him to hold back $1 to $25. This was banked, tallies kept, and sometimes when a man was laid off for awhile, Joe carried him along, making the weekly payments out of his own till until the wages started again.

The Muehlbauers are moving next week to a home they have bought at 3915 W. Oklahoma Av. Joe isn’t sure what he will do in the future. Perhaps he’ll find another suitable tavern that they can operate together. As for Grandma, she simply wouldn’t think of retiring. She’d hate it. She’s worked all her life, and at 87 it’s no time to form new habits.

From the Milwaukee Sentinel, 6/1953

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About Hattifattener

Age: 37 Lives: All over the place. Education: PhD, linguistics, UBC.

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This entry was posted on October 19, 2010 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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