Last summer I got a call from a documentary filmmaker who had seen an article I’d written in Wisconsin People and Ideas magazine called “Supper Club State: A Brief Cultural History of the Wisconsin Institution.”
Jason Smith of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, which publishes the magazine, had seen a few of my articles in the Chicago Tribune and TravelWisconsin.com, and invited me to write an article, which ended up being a 10-page article-photo package that took a few months to research.
When talking to supper club owners all over the state, I was impressed that these community institutions had survived—and even thrived—for decades despite changing food tastes, liquor habits and smoking laws. These dining-drinking-and-sometimes-dancing establishments were pillars of the community, where family celebrations, club gathering, business meetings, political rallies, social events and other vital functions took place.
I can't say it any better than Ed Thompson, a former boxer and owner of the Tee Pee Supper Club in Tomah, two-time mayor of the city, a 2002 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate and brother of former Gov. Tommy Thompson. In an interview, he said: “The supper club is a gathering place where people can see their neighbors, families, and friends and meet new ones—in that way, it’s like a church."
In 1997 Ed was arrested for video gambling in his supper club. During the trial, he refused to plead guilty as a crusade of sorts on behalf of tavern and supper club owners in competition with large Indian casinos. In the end a jury wouldn’t convict him, and each tavern in the state could have up to five video gaming machines in their establishments.
“They banded together,” Ed says of the jury in his trial. “It wasn’t about Ed Thompson and the Tee Pee—it was about Tomah and the Tee Pee.”
Rewind to the film
When Holly DeRuyter, a Green Bay native and filmmaker living in Chicago, called, I had just been asked by the Wisconsin Historical Society to give a presentation on the history of Wisconsin supper clubs.
Last September I presented my research and a slide show at the Society’s museum on Capitol Square in Madison. Holly filmed the sold-out event in the WHS ongoing series, Taste Traditions of Wisconsin.
The event included 45th Parallel Spirits of New Richmond with grain-to-glass distiller Paul Werni making classic cocktails. Crandall’s, which once operated as a supper club in Madison at the location of the current Tornado Steak House, catered the event with choice of fish fry, a Wisconsin classic, and London Broil. Elegant Foods of Madison provided the dessert.
Hudson photographer Carl Corey shared with me a slide show of his Wisconsin taverns series, which ran in a small theater off the main room. Brewmaster Kirby Nelson of Capital Brewery in Middleton gave a short presentation on the creation of its craft Supper Club Ale, available to the audience. I displayed a small collection of artifacts from western Wisconsin supper clubs, and the owners of Wally’s Spot in Green Bay and Smoky’s Club of Madison brought a few historical items.
After my presentation, I moderated a panel of old-school and newly minted supper club owners, including Tom Adamany from Wally's Spot in Green Bay, Tom Schmock from Smoky's Club in Madison, Mary Radigan from Ray Radigan's in Kenosha, Rob Swearingen from Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander and president of the Wisconsin Tavern League, Jennifer DeBolt from the Old Fashioned, which blends Wisconsin supper club and tavern traditions, in Madison.
Last Tuesday, Holly and her crew, Amanda Clifford and Lindsay Kralovetz, made it up to the St. Croix Valley, and I took them on a brief tour of some supper clubs then and now.
I want to say a big thanks to Sheena and Jerry Peterson and Paul Belisle, owners of the Valley House between North Hudson and Houlton, where we shot most of my interview, and to Dana Smith of Bob Smith’s Sports Club in Hudson for agreeing to be a last-minute-in-case-of-rain site. Fortunately it didn’t rain, so were able to shoot at the old Buckhorn site and at the former Holcomb’s site in Houlton. Our last stop was the River’s Edge in Somerset; many thanks to John Raleigh who instructed Lindsay, on summer hiatus from Harpo Inc., how to make a proper Old Fashioned behind the bar after he played several numbers on piano and accordian for us.
I’ll be writing about St. Croix Valley supper clubs for Patch in the future, as Sheena has graciously offered to gather together a group of folks who worked at or owned establishments. Names like the Highlander, Hennes, JR Ranch, Buckhorn, Terrace and others came up, so I'm looking forward to sharing some lively history of these establishments.
In the meantime, enjoy some photos with captions from the shoot. Information and the trailer for Holly’s forthcoming film, “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club,” can be found on the film’s website and Facebook page.