Tavern League: inside Sessler’s, Red Room

My father, as far as I could tell, wasn’t much of a drinker – but he liked to swing into one or more toasty shoreline taverns after a day of ice fishing on Lake Winnebago.

The men told their fish stories and took turns buying a round. “I’ll take a soda,” my dad would say, and that turned into “I’ll take a candy bar” if he had enough fizz. Little girls like me, in the 1960s, were thrilled to tag along and indulge the same way.

So while looking at the dozens of simple but splendid photos inside of “Tavern League,” a new book by Carl Covey (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $29.95), I lingered over a shot in which assorted candy bars sat below shelves of family photos at Sessler’s in Meeme, an unincorporated community in southern Manitowoc County.

I don’t see Meeme on my state highway map, and you won’t find much about Sessler’s online, although a New Orleans fan at yelp.com describes the tavern as “a lonesome country bar” and “a fantastic time capsule of life in eastern Wisconsin.” I can’t say it better than that.

Near the pool table is wall art of dogs playing poker. The only TV is a vintage Zenith set whose screen width might extend a dozen inches. Customers are as likely to order a Baumeister root beer from Kewaunee, an hour away, as they are to hoist a Miller Lite.

This business began as an overnight stagecoach stop for weary travelers in 1847; a framed photo shows a couple of hundred people attending a picnic there in 1890. The Sessler family took over in 1909, and the reigning matriarch is 92-year-old Val Sessler.

A state government proclamation in 2009 praised the longstanding “fine food and hospitality” of Sessler’s, thanks to the work of Val and husband John, now deceased. Val’s portrait as a fetching 27-year-old hangs behind the bar. The proclamation hangs near an old-time jukebox.

I caught a glimpse of Val during my first visit to Sessler’s. On Saturdays you’re most likely to encounter Bob “You Can Spell That Either Way” Albright, a good-humored nephew who has helped behind the bar almost 50 years. While we talk, his cousin Darlene works the kitchen with her mother, Betty, who is Val’s sister.

“We serve a lot of burgers and chili,” Bob says. “Lobster tail – not so much.” He chuckles and steals a glance at bar’s end, where three guys from the neighborhood nurse their sodas while waiting for lunch.

Cheeseburgers arrive on hardrolls and cost all of $1.85. Fish figures into the menu on Fridays. A small sign – “pears, $5 a box” – will stay up until the goods are gone. “Some farmer brings ’em in,” Bob explains, with a shrug.

The regulars here – farmers, retirees, scrap yard workers and others – have figured out how to stagger their visits so everybody gets a seat at the cozy bar. Some are most likely to visit at 10:30 or 11 a.m.; doors close by 10 p.m. or earlier.

As for unincorporated Meeme (Bob says “MEE-mee,” but the pronunciation is “MEEM” just a half-hour south), it’s an obscure community with multiple personalities. The first thing you’ll see is Circle B Bison Ranch, a well-manicured property whose driveway is lined with statues that resemble Greek gods. Elsewhere are rustic animal carvings.

Then comes B&B Metals Processing, a scrap yard with astounding height – heaps of metal loom several stories high. Bob says twisted ruins from Miller Park’s roof collapse, during construction in 1999, are among the salvaged materials to make their way here.

Almost in the scrap yard’s shadow is Sessler’s, a two-story white house with a simple “food” sign hand-printed in thick black letters, hanging below a weathered Hamms sign.

Look for an ordinary building with extraordinary staying power, its owners quietly going about their business without an itch to change with the times.

Each photo in “Tavern League” is a little mystery, and that is the beauty of the book. The photographer, a longtime advertising still photographer who retired to Hudson, seeks and captures the stoic and timeless nature of life in longtime Wisconsin saloons.

Another quick example: Brothers Nick and Joe Hoffman are the third generation to run The Red Room in downtown Sturgeon Bay. “We’ve long been a ship building bar, a working man’s bar – a place where payroll checks would be cashed on Thursdays and Fridays,” Nick says.

“Our goal is to keep it in the family 100 years.”

Their grandfather opened the tavern in 1949, and now dad Harley has retired. Red Room burgers “are a big deal,” Nick says, thanks to the prime-quality meat that comes from Marchant’s, a local butcher shop.

The brothers say the bar’s basement contains treasures that have yet to be discovered. Case in point: They’ve found evidence that 35-packs of Blatz used to sell for $2, plus 10 cents for sales tax and a 60-cent deposit because the bottles were returnable.

With the release of “Tavern League,” places like The Red Room and Sessler’s gain the potential for new clientele and appreciation. Most of the book’s locations are small towns that lack glitz and pretense but are rich with history and character. Content is all about photos; text merely identifies the tavern location.

For more about the work of photographer Carl Corey, consult www.carlcorey.com. He leads a July 1-13, 2012, photo trip abroad, titled “Mongolian Nomads” The itinerary includes sheep and goat herders to monasteries. The cost is $7,975. For more: www.toursabroadchina.com.

Find out more about “Tavern League” at www.wisconsinhistory.org.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.