Tavern culture remains rich at Hanson’s Pub
By: Daniel Niepow
Fritz Hanson is not afraid to talk politics with strangers. Standing at the end of the bar and smiling through a trimmed grey beard, he listens as his sister Tracy Hanson-Said, the current owner of Hanson’s Pub, explains that I’m a journalism student from UW-Madison. He takes his cue here and dives into the unmentionable:
“So what are you, Dan? A liberal, conservative?”
I take a quick swig of beer, frantically contemplating the best way to navigate the situation. We had barely exchanged the usual pleasantries, and he had already delved into an otherwise taboo topic.
Some folks at the other end of the bar laugh.
“Let’s not talk about politics,” someone says laughing.
“Yeah, let’s discuss religion instead,” another chimes in.
Luckily Fritz decides to elaborate on his own views, temporarily saving me from the uncertainty of divulging my own.
These frank, open conversations exemplify the spirit of tavern culture. For better or worse, it’s a culture that has been a part of Wisconsin’s history from early on. Tonight, I’m spending some time at Hanson’s Pub in North Lake to gain a better understanding of this unique way of life.
Hanson’s Pub is one of the oldest continuously running taverns in Wisconsin. It’s also one of the few bars with an intact brewery—although nothing has been brewed there since Prohibition was enacted in 1919. That changed this September when a few home brewers came in to craft their own beers for the bar’s 150th anniversary party. Tonight Said is having a tasting of these brews.
She pours me a small glass of oatmeal stout as I take a seat next to some regular patrons. I can still taste the warm and somewhat chocolaty flavor of the beer as I shake the hands of a few other men at the end of the bar.
Surveying the interior of the bar, I’m struck by the vastness of the history around me. On the far wall, near the restrooms, hangs a Pabst sign from the late 1800s. And behind the bar, Said still uses an old-fashioned cash register that bears her grandfather’s name. Emblazoned with elaborate floral designs, it dates to about 1908. A clock older than the bar itself hangs above the register.
Hanson’s Brewery and Tavern was built back in 1866 by Danish immigrant Rasmus Frederickson, although it’s believed he began brewing beer as early as 1862. When he died, he left the pub to his nephew Carl Hanson, and it has stayed in the hands of the Hanson family ever since. Although slightly modified due to a fire in 1945, the same structure still stands today.
Even more remarkable, the bar has remained in business the entire time. To stay afloat even during Prohibition the family converted the place into an ice cream parlor and filling station. Said tells me business has been a bit slower recently, but many customers still continue to come back.
Lance Kerwin, seated to my left, is one of those customers. Soft-spoken and polite, he shows a quiet fondness for Hanson’s, where he’s been coming for the past 34 years. The familiar and friendly personalities continue to draw him in. He also likes how both Said and the former owners—her father and uncle—always made an effort to introduce him to any new visitors.
Many of the people I spoke to both in and out of the bar also mentioned a kind of timeless quality about the bar. Said prides herself on not changing anything during her years as owner.