- Historic Sites
America’s most impressive historic survivors just may be our taverns—because they’ve had to do it all on their own, by offering you exactly the same kind of comfort they did your great-grandfather
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
Such eccentricities—sandwiches accompanied by mints, hand-set bowling alleys—can be maintained only by people with passion, and fortunately passion is what taverns arouse in many of their owners. Take, for example, Chuck Bigler, proprietor of Puempel’s Olde Tavern, in the modest Swiss-settled town of New Glarus, Wisconsin. A car dealer by trade, Bigler told us that the tavern’s previous owner, Otto Puempel, whose family ran the bar for 99 years, had been like a grandfather to him. During Otto’s youth Puempel’s was a railroad workers’ boardinghouse, where a bed and meals cooked by Otto’s mother, Bertha, went for 60 cents a day. In 1913 an itinerant artist by the name of Albert Struebin stayed for six months to paint the walls with heartfelt scenes of the old country, such as Appenzeller Musik , depicting Puempel’s mother’s hometown, and Andreas Hofer , homage to an Austrian patriot, who is immortalized resisting arrest by Napoleon’s troops. On Otto’s retirement at the age of 88, Bigler and his wife, Lessia, bought Puempel’s rather than risk seeing it transmogrified into “a modern bar with video games and lots of noise,” and they continue to run it in the traditional manner. They maintain the original icebox (now electrically chilled), and allow no jukebox, video games, or fried foods, the last banned for fear that smoke from the fryer could damage the 1912 cherry wood bar and Struebin’s murals. Seeing the tavern as a project for their retirement, the Biglers treat it like a coddled offspring, lovingly sweeping the century-old hardwood dance floor, which has felt the tap and scrape of millions of feet, and polishing the tables, on which locals still play the Swiss card game Yass. Their biggest regret is being unable to restore the murals; the $35,000 price tag is too steep for such a modest establishment.
Why is this bar so important to Bigler? His reasons are part personal, part altruistic. “My grandma and grandpa ran a tavern in town for 40 years, and I saw the back bar chopped up for firewood.” He adds: “And the history of the tavern is the history of America.”
But beyond century-old bar tops and age-darkened murals, it is the embrace of community that marks the traditional American tavern, making it a place where people feel free both to revel in good times and to close ranks in bad. The afternoon we walked into the New York City bar d.b.a., September 12, 2001, the air in Lower Manhattan was acrid with smoke and dust, and the city’s comforting cacophony was distorted by sirens and the bellow of police bullhorns, d.b.a. was a magnet for people eager to crowd around the bar for human contact, even though all eyes were on the TV and no one exchanged a word.
Normally, d.b.a. is a place that perfectly reflects its East Village surroundings: Advertising executives arrive in the early evening, black-clad hipsters come in after 10, and the afternoon brings a steady mix of locals and sojourners. But not this day. As the owner, Ray Deter, told how 24 hours earlier people covered head to toe in white dust, looking like so many walking statues, had streamed in asking for water, a young man in a designer sweater and a goatee moved off to take a call on his cell phone. When he returned, he took a sip of Grey Goose and started to weep. Neither we nor our temporary family assembled at the bar found this display of emotion at all out of place.