De Pere’s 4th generation Union Hotel quietly begins 100th year

Closing time at the Union Hotel’s restaurant is 9 p.m. in downtown De Pere. Decades ago, that was because of the butcher, who worked halfway down the block.

If a customer wanted a steak, you’d call for a fresh cut from the butcher, then send somebody to fetch the order. The butcher shop closed at 9 o’clock, so dinner orders stopped then too.

But even when refrigeration was added in the 1940s – so the restaurant could store, age and cut its own meat – the rule about quitting time remained.

McKim Boyd tells a story about Vince Lombardi arriving at 9:10 with a couple of guys from New York. They didn’t get served. “I don’t care who’s out there,” the cook growled, and the legendary coach never returned.

Other Green Bay Packer greats – Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler and others from the 1960s Ice Bowl era – still quietly make their way to this local landmark that doesn’t advertise and in some ways freezes time.

The Union Hotel begins its 100th year as a family business this month. That’s one year older than the Packers. McKim and two sisters – Mary and Ann Boyd – are the fourth generation who run the enterprise.

One simple neon sign marks the spot, and it’s not clear which side of the Cream City brick building is the entrance, but McKim feels no need to make it easier.

“People like finding us, discovering us,” he says. As a great-uncle used to say, “if you have to advertise, you must be hurting or doing something wrong.”

Great-grandfather August Maternowski was 48 when he bought the property, in part swapping it for one of his farms, near Oconto. McKim says the father of 12 wanted his five daughters “to have something to do.”

So the girls and their mother – Antonia – brought hearty, from-scratch cooking from the farm to their city boarders. A mix of short- and long-term stays filled 24 guestrooms, just up a hill from the railroad station.

Rural high school students stayed for $4 per week, including breakfast and dinner, because it was far easier than a 10-mile commute, one way. August built an adjacent brick barn with hayloft, for the horses of travelers.

Soon the public was eating at Union Hotel, too, hearty meals of roast beef or chicken and big bowls of mashed potatoes, before lining up for a wedge of fresh-baked pie.

So business was good. What began under Nic Altmayer’s ownership as 11 guestrooms in 1883 eventually grew to 34. Additions expanded the hotel to three stories. The earliest guests used a bathhouse down the block, until a shower was installed in the hotel basement, and now each floor has at least one bathroom.

During Prohibition, McKim says local law enforcement was lax, so feds “were all over town but couldn’t be here all the time.” In Union Hotel was a hidden still, but customers were allowed only one serving of the hootch, to prevent arousing suspicion as they toddled home.

After the booze ban ended, a $2,000 remodeling job turned the property into an art deco destination for fine dining and dancing. A modest investment? McKim says you could buy a three-bedroom house for $5,000 at the time.

He is a self-made historian and keen detective who studies tax records, family correspondence, nuances in old photos and more to build an accurate record of all the hotel represents.

The building’s 1883 steam heating system remains. So does the last operating phone booth left in its original place in Wisconsin.

Covering walls in the main dining room is 1961 wallpaper with a French country theme; owners chose to restore instead of replace it. Cooling in the kitchen are dozens of dinner rolls, made with a generations-old family recipe.

Today’s supper-club-style dinners begin with a relish tray that includes a housemade ham salad and liver paté. Add a fat wine list: In the cellar are 350 bottles, about 70 percent domestic.

McKim is the oldest of eight kids and, from an earlier life, math teacher and track coach. Ask about his neckties: About 1,000 fill hotel closets, and many are generations-old hand-me-downs. Keeping and wearing them is an expected tradition.

That’s also why a retro “G” carpet design remains in one of the bedrooms. Gerald “Dad” Braisher, longtime equipment manager for the Packers, lived at Union Hotel almost 40 years, until 1981. Carpet in his room was a nod to the team’s former logo, which the tenant helped design in the 1960s.

As pay for pro football players improved during the 1970s, McKim says he saw less and less of them, but coaches, trainers, front office staff and others still make their way for a cocktail or meal.

That includes Ted Thompson, general manager. “He’s said ‘I’d come in more often, if I could eat at the bar,’ ” McKim says.

His response? “Guess we won’t see you as often then.”

Feel free to order food at the cocktail counter, but you’ll be guided to a dining table when it’s ready. Rules are rules, and with time and tenaciousness, a few turn into storied traditions.

Union Hotel and Restaurant, 200 N. Broadway St., De Pere, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Overnight rates start at $30 for a basic room with shared bath; a two-room suite with private bath starts at $109. Call to make reservations.

The restaurant is closed on major holidays, Super Bowl Sunday and two weeks in July. Dining hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5:15-9 p.m. Reservations are not taken, except for when costumed carolers entertain during the Christmas season., 920-336-6131