Photos: Butch’s Bar, Life, Lost To Fire In Sturgeon Bay

Tragedy in Sturgeon Bay.

One person is dead, one is injured and another remains unaccounted for after a fire early Tuesday morning at Butch’s Bar in downtown Sturgeon Bay

The drone photography of Paul Haan underscores the enormous loss this week in Door County as the bar was consumed in flames.

I passed this building at least once a day as I went about my life during the years working at WDOR AM/FM. When working in my other role as a politico in Door County I would go into this bar and pass out campaign lit and shake hands for the Democratic blue-collar vote at election time. The owner at the time was a union man and a Democratic member of the county organization.

Conservative Republicans, Like Ron Johnson, Play To Under-Educated Base

There seems to be a race underway in the nation where elected conservative Republicans seek to dive deeper into absurdity in an attempt to be nuttier than the previous one.

In Wisconsin, we were offered more outlandish buffoonery from Senator Ron Johnson who stated in a town hall meeting he had an idea about combatting COVID.

“Standard gargle, mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus. If you get it, you may reduce viral replication. Why not try all these things?” (For the record this is not actual science and rebuked by medical professionals.)

Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie posed his family in front of a decorated tree with all hefting military-type assault weapons for a Christmas greeting, shortly after the Oxford High School gun massacre.

Meanwhile, Tom McMillin, a Republican from Oakland Township, proposed in a social media post that mandatory school attendance be removed in Michigan. He is a member of the Michigan State Board of Education!

I recall during my years as Door County Democratic Chairperson talking with a wide array of people at events such as the annual fair or when campaigning door-to-door for local candidates. At times, I encountered some of the most unbelievable sets of views and ideas that could be imagined. So what is being reported, all too often, in our newspapers and online is not new. Right-wing lunacy has long-been part of our political narrative.

What is so troubling now, however, is that instead of the tin-foil hatted folks being aberrations in the party they now are the base of the GOP. But that is not how I first came to know conservatives.

In my teenage years, I started watching Firing Line with William F. Buckley. He was a conservative with a vocabulary that reached out through the television set and made me sit up and pay attention. In my rural upbringing reasoned approaches to the world seemed utterly sound to me. Then I graduated from high school, left home, and encountered the world.

My first job was working in radio broadcasting in Door County. With a red streak that then ran very deep, the local politics was not for a faint-hearted liberal Democrat. I found, however, that the vast majority on the other side of the aisle were logical and reasoned with varying points and perspectives about the issues of the day.

The conspiracy-laden John Birch Society and the truly unhinged Posse Comitatus crowd were in the county, and not ashamed to spill their views when answering their front door during an election year. Tigerton Dells was then a topic in Wisconsin and those headlines concerning the Posse seemed to embolden that segment of the electorate. I was soon most aware that enlightenment liberalism was not spread evenly across our state.

But that element was a narrow sliver of the whole. Today, however, the under-educated within the GOP revel in their status and expect the rest of us to meet them at that level. Republican officeholders encourage the ridiculous ideas and notions so as to retain power, rather than seeking to better inform and lift up the voters.

There have always been times of great transition and uncertainty in the nation where politicians have used fear to spin a message and gain office. Today class divisions and market revolutions, continuing demand for power and rights among groups from Blacks to transgenders, along with a shifting electorate that is more brown and diverse provide the combustible elements for current conservative pols.

But what is most dismaying is the low level that conservative Republicans will dive into when playing to their base. Such tactics are dangerous to a democracy that does rely on educated citizens to make sound decisions about the path forward for a nation.

John Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Though he penned that public education should be at the heart of that state’s understanding of government, it is easy to see how elected officeholders can, and should, also be teachers and ones who impart facts to the citizenry. He wrote that “wisdom and knowledge . . . diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

I wish conservative Republicans would ponder the role they need to play when speaking to their base of support.

And so it goes.

Sadness Mars Holiday Tradition, Waukesha Children Deprived Of Magical Feeling At Parade

It was a jarring end to a very nice day in Wisconsin.

Sunshine had allowed for people to get outdoors in the afternoon and feel the brisk winds while some people took the warm weather as a sign to–at last–put up outdoor decorations. I noticed others raking lawns and terraces in the afternoon and kids out biking again before winter snows finally arrive. Everyone seemed to be outside and smiling.

And it was, without doubt, that same sense of uplift from such weather that people were feeling as they gathered in Waukesha for the best type of parade there can be—especially if you are a kid. The Christmas parade!

As we sat down for dinner on the isthmus we heard the devastating news.

We turned on the television and saw terrified people, with debris left all about after an SUV drove through the ones participating in the parade, or watching from the sidewalks. As I write some details are emerging with reports of more than 20 people injured, and some killed. The vehicle was located and photos show the horror that played out with the damage to the front end. The driver is in custody.

Of all the images that have poured out on Twitter, there was one, above all, that punches the hardest.

The news of who died has not been released as of this posting. But I can not help but consider that a child–not necessarily the one in the above stroller–left for that Christmas parade with pure excitement on the face, but will never go home again.

The speeding vehicle was simply appalling, and whoever was driving, utterly reprehensible. There have been enough raw nerves, pain, suffering, and stresses for our society in this state over the past weeks. No one should now need to endure this horrific crime ramping up to the holiday season.

I feel for all of the victims, but especially the children. How can that not be the case?

I know the following will sound hokey, but it is how I feel.

When I worked at WDOR our station annually broadcast over the radio a Christmas parade. Ed Allen, Sr. would create the theater of the mind as the sights and sounds were placed into words for the listeners throughout the Door County peninsula. And of course, he would chat with all sorts of people who attended. The best conversations were with kids who might otherwise have been taken aback by a news camera, but there was nothing to be afraid of from a microphone!

So Ed would engage them in banter and it was always the highlight to hear the expressions of delight coming from youngsters who were at that age when Christmas was magical.

It should have been the same for the boys and girls tonight in Waukesha, too.

It was not.

What a dreadful way to start the holiday season.

And so it goes.

“Naked Radio” Making Smiles Galore In Door County

A good friend came back from Door County and told James she had watched a play stating, “I laughed so hard and thought of Gregory at WDOR!”

I quipped back to James, upon learning the title of the show. “Well, radio announcers do it on the air!”

Our friend was talking about a getaway weekend where she thoroughly enjoyed Naked Radio.

When a small radio station gets swallowed up by a corporate parent, the local DJs are relegated to obscurity. But when a snowstorm knocks out the county and the station loses its tie to the pre-programmed feed, the guys have to punt, and a rejuvenated station brings back spontaneity and joy to the community it serves.

From the writers who brought you Cheeseheads, the MusicalMuskie Love, and No Bones About It. Dave Hudson and Paul Libman have created magic once again.

Libman’s prolific career composing for advertisers has left him with an exceptional skill for writing jingles, which fill the score with catchy, memorable, and often hilarious songs.

The name (Naked Radio), according to Hudson, has a double meaning. The first is the radio station itself is laid bare in the storm without the insulation of the corporate broadcasts. The other meaning suggests things get a bit unhinged in the station, though Hudson reassures us the play will be fit for Northern Sky’s usual audience. “Well hey, we’re on the radio, you can’t see us.”

I would absolutely love to see this comedy.

My years in radio were written about in my book Walking Up The Ramp (which is a phrase for the time/temp and add-ons over the musical intro to the song with my ending any talking as soon as the singer hits the first syllable.) One of the fond memories I had–though clothed–was with wild weather when on air.

My first night alone at the station a massive thunderstorm knocked WDOR AM/FM off the air. I had no knowledge of how to turn the station ‘back on’.

Back home when the power went off due to a storm, we logically called the electric company, and alerted them to the problem. Who would have guessed that listeners would call a radio station to alert announcers they were off the air? Did people really think broadcasters at a studio would not know when they were no longer transmitting something over the airwaves? Grateful for the help, did I really need the extra stress of answering the phone? The five telephone lines lit up before me. Five little orange buttons on the face of the telephone blinked frenetically, and I was suddenly fielding calls from very well-intentioned people. “Yes, thank you for your call. We are indeed experiencing a bit of technical difficulty. Things should be back to normal soon.

Yes. I appreciate your call. Do have a good evening.

Hello. WDOR. Yes, thank you for your call…”

At the same time, I was of course trying to figure what was to be done to set things back on course. I felt a nervous sweat trickle down my back.

I have fond memories, however, of winter snowstorms.

Were snowstorms to have occurred while I was on the air, there would have been a flurry of contact with listeners. First, there would have been the usual report from the local police about the road conditions, urging caution with the slick streets. I would have listened, and yawned as I had heard if many times before, but thought to myself that the well-intentioned law enforcement official did not provide the type of information I wanted.

Rather, I would wait for the man who called himself ‘the Egg Harbor Reporter’ to dial me up and give some gripping account of how a car nearly wiped out at the curve where he lived, or how many inches had stacked up on his mailbox. (The Egg Harbor Reporter performed his job earnestly. I can still hear his slow deadpan delivery of the information he called to share.)

Egg Harbor Reporter: “Hey Trevor, it is coming down mighty heavy right now.”

Me: “It is snowing huge flakes here, too.”

Egg Harbor Reporter: “The dog wanted to go outside but once I opened the door he only was interested in being outside for a minute. I can’t blame him. I cannot even see the bird feeder up in the tree; it is blowing so hard. Have the scanner on and there are lots of slide-offs. Today is when you want to have a wrecker service.” With that he would give a hearty chuckle. “Say, what happens if you cannot make it home and have to stay at the station?”

Me: “I call in the military for an airdrop of food!”

Egg Harbor Reporter: “You have any Kenny Rogers handy to play for me?”

Me: “With or without Dolly?”

Egg Harbor Reporter: “Well, everything is better with Dolly.”

Me: “Will do. Let me know if things get really interesting up your way.”

The Egg Harbor Reporter was a clear favorite of mine, and often had a song request. I am not sure the man ever slept, as he had a reason to call and chat about the weather every chance he got, and I must say he was highly entertaining. He wasn’t the only one, though. I also loved to hear from the folks on Sunday when snow piled up who had made it over the ‘Brussels’ Hill’ in Southern Door County as they came back from church but wanted me to alert others to take another route.

Perhaps the best account of the local streets in Sturgeon Bay came from the lady who from time to time delivered a baked good from her oven to me at the station as she went to church. She would pop into the back door of the studio, thank me for the Southern gospel music I played starting at six o’clock in the morning, update me on the streets in winter, and drop off some wonderful sweet. Some people are nice to the person who delivers their morning paper, but she appreciated her local neighborhood radio announcer.

If you have the opportunity to see the Naked Radio play please do so. As one of the reviews noted….“It’s part warm remembrance and part regret about the vast disconnect that technology and simplification and instant gratification have brought – but mostly a clever, if soft-paced, offering of entertainment.”

And so it goes.

WDOR Radio At Christmas Time

Among the best times at WDOR radio (Sturgeon Bay) was the Christmas season when it seemed cookies and sweets were always on the desk area in the middle part of the building. Late afternoons we aired Letters To Santa, and my first ever beef cooked medium rare—at a holiday party thrown by the GM–alerted me how mom needed to stop making meat gray! (She never did.)

The record collection of seasonal music over the previous 40 years made for a spirited sound for weeks on-air. And Keta Steebs from the local newspaper (Door County Advocate) calling and asking to have a seasonal drink for the holidays which meant as much talking local politics as anything else.

When I saw this pic (below) my mind flew back and smiles abounded. Life has been good. And radio continues to have a special place in my heart. As does the Allen family who thought I had what they wanted at their station.

Blue Door County

There were plenty of reasons to smile on election night in Wisconsin. One of the moments that brought a cheer from this home was seeing the news report that Door County, long deep Red and conservative, had again flipped Blue. Having lived there while working in radio, and serving as Democratic County Chair in the mid-80s meant that even though there was angst to be found in other places around the nation I found genuine pleasure in the land of fish boils.

Door County had seen the light in 2008 and 2012 when it supported Barack Obama, but turned wild in 2016 when it threw its votes to Donald Trump. But knowing that the trend lines in the county were shaped by new arrivals over the years and they are becoming more socially aware with a diverse population meant I had hope going into the election. But as we know hope and reality are very different things when ballots are counted.

Living in Sturgeon Bay, and spending lots of time in the northern parts of the county where sunsets and incredible lake breezes made for fond memories, also allowed me insight into how conservative the peninsula truly was. I heard from friends who grew up there that no one with a liberal view expressed it in church or on a bowling league without being aware that a loss of friends and being slighted was a very real outcome.

I was not concerned about living there for decades so I joined up with the local Democratic Party–small though it was–wrote letters to the editor of the paper and was not shy about supporting the principles of the party. That upfront energy in time allowed for my being elected as chairman of the party. We had a great membership that knew uphill slogging in local elections had to be undertaken again and again.

So I was truly pleased this past week when Door County voted for Joe Biden with 49.93% of the vote (10,044). The loser, Donald Trump received 48.48% and (9,752). It was not a landslide, but it was a win.

Dorothy Mosgaller, one of the 1960 Kennedy voters, a long-time activist, and a staunch advocate on my behalf, would have smiled and in her soft voice say, ‘This is what happens if you just keep plugging along’.

She is absolutely correct.

The local businesses have no problem taking cash from Chicago liberals who vacation in the county. But when it comes to accepting their responsibility for electing people who will shape more inclusive social policy, equitable taxation, and fighters for climate change legislation they are absent.

So it is up to the new arrivals who over the decades have infiltrated ‘the locals’ and bring their voting patterns with them that will move the county forward. As 2008, 2012, and this past week demonstrates.

And so it goes.

Al Johnson’s Restaurant Victory At The Supreme Court

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When I lived in Door County I thought the scene rather unique with goats on top of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant.  I often took friends to see the goats and was amused that everyone wanted a picture.  However, to make sure that no one else has goats on restaurant roofs the Johnson’s obtained a trademark.  That made news and legal woes for other restaurants.

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant has always known how to get what it wants.  They proved that when they were able to lure then-Governor Tommy Thompson to their establishment for a ‘re-opening.’  Representative Lary Swoboda was there too, as was this blogger who was then working with the local Democrat.  There were also enough Green Bay news crews on hand to make one think Elvis was inside the restaurant having a waffle. (Or a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.)

While working with Swoboda I can assure all that Al Johnson’s phone calls were expected to be responded to at once.  Truth is of course they were not.  Those who expect others to jump rarely get rewarded.   But when you have goats on the roof you just expect a higher level of service from everyone.

Including the Supreme Court.

Al Johnson’s Swedish restaurant has been a popular attraction for anyone traveling to Door County for its grass-covered roof and its herd of grass trimmers.

But a lawsuit by a New York attorney against Al Johnson’s sought to cancel the “Goats on a roof of grass” trademark owned by the well-known restaurant in Sister Bay.

That years-long petition has been denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s decision not to hear the case has ended the debate.

A federal circuit court ruled Bank didn’t have any standing to bring the lawsuit, since he didn’t have a legitimate commercial interest, such as a competing trademark, and he didn’t suffer any damages from the claimed “disparaging remarks” about goats.

That court also ordered Bank to pay costs and attorneys fees to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant for bringing a frivolous lawsuit, pointing out that Bank petitioned the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board three times — which were all dismissed for lack of standing — then appealed to federal court making the same arguments.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the “goats on a roof of grass” will continue to graze.

Keta Steebs Recalled Life With Old-Fashioned Charm

It is time to share some memories of a truly great lady.  This past week one of Keta Steebs’ newspaper columns was reprinted in a Northeastern Wisconsin paper and it caused me to go back in time.

There are some in Door County who understood that I had a ‘crush’ on Keta, even though she was ‘slightly’ older than me.   I was the new hire at WDOR Radio, and she was the established writer at the local paper, the Door County Advocate.   She seemed to know everybody, and better yet, everything about everybody.  Just the type of person I needed to know when starting out in both broadcasting and local politics.  To be around her meant that others would soon flock and amazing conversations would follow.  She has that type of personality that drew others near.

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I have met only a rare handful that can turn heads when they enter a room, and Keta could.  That struck me at the age of 20 as quite impressive.  I most enjoyed talking with her during some very long and tedious county board meetings that we covered for our respective newsrooms.  Many a time all she wanted was a cigarette, and I just wanted an adjournment of the proceedings.  We would laugh and kid each other about all sorts of things, and shared political sentiments that made us kindred spirits in staunchly conservative Door County.

Being a part of the Door County media I knew the writers at the local newspaper and had the pleasure of trading gossip and insights during the weekly lunches named ‘Pen-n-Mic Club’ where we would all sit and review the world and local scene.  I recall that Keta would sit at another table with a few other women, and I would look over and wonder if she knew the guys at my table were talking about lots of stuff other than sports.  I made sure of that! I so wanted her to be close by and hear her memorable and hard-to-miss laugh.  As I said, I had a ‘crush’ on this lady.

Her columns, when reading again after the years since her death, are as warm and spirited as when first published.  Like this one I came across a few days ago.  I think you will enjoy it.

After weeks of scrubbing, painting and stocking shelves, Herman and Keta Steebs opened Happy Herman’s Market the week before Christmas in 1956. John Kopitzke ran a half-page ad in the Door Reminder and, as Keta said, “inadvertently became our first customer by buying a nickel candy bar.”

Keta’s brother-in-law, Wesley Landstrom, made a huge, plywood Santa Claus sleigh cutout for the store’s roof, and it won second prize in the Lions Club competition. Keta’s sister, Delores Landstrom, helped out in the store.

The following description of the early days of Happy Herman’s was written by Keta for a local newspaper. Her son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, Kathy, provided the copy.

Opening night saw our first employee, Harriet ‘Sis’ Seaquist manning the checkout, yours truly helping Herman at the meat counter and gobs of customers jamming our aisles. The event was an unqualified success.

Our suppliers, the Plumb & Nelson Company of Manitowoc, Mrs. Karl’s Bakery, Pleck Dairy, Dick Brothers Bakery, Fairmont Ice Cream and two Green Bay produce companies all chipped in with prizes, adding a bit of a fillip to the occasion. Although our little store only had three aisles, we were able to carry some of everything. Space on the bread rack – limited as it was – was fought over daily by our competing bread men: Dale Seiler of Mrs. Karl’s and Gene Kasten of Dick Brothers.

Herman’s Market prided itself on its meat and, to justify that claim, Herman bought nothing but the best, using the oldest, least-popular cuts for our personal use. Equipped with a frying pan, slow cooker and Nesco roaster, Herman made such savory, good-smelling meals that our morning regulars – Wes Staver, Alma Bunda, Emma Pahl and Joe D’Louey – would copy his recipes and have the same meal themselves. One Ellison Bay couple – she thrifty, he not – drove in every other day to see what was cooking. While she shopped for the basics, he loaded his cart with gourmet foods and choice steaks.

Our meat first got a taste of the limelight when I decided to walk in the Fall Festival parade leading Ed Koessl’s cow – proclaiming “The Only Meat Fresher than Herman’s” – down Main Street. The cow showed her disapproval by stepping on my foot, laying me low for days. That same year, 1957, was the year our good friends Rita and Earl Willems opened their bowling alley, encouraging every business in the area to sponsor teams. Thanks to my bad foot, Herman’s Market was in the cellar all year.

But everything else was coming up roses. In 1962, in order to do needed remodeling, we bought – rather than continuing to rent – that homely little concrete building from owner Anna Peterson, who, with her niece, Eunice, had once used it as a tea room.

Before then – between the time Herman’s Market opened and Earl Willems bought a rotisserie to serve roast chicken to his growing number of bowlers – a major event took place. Ellsworth “Andy” Anderson, owner of Masterfreeze, a freezer-cooler operation, moved his factory directly across the street. Were we ever happy! Not only did business pick up, but Andy and Herman worked out a deal trading groceries for a new walk-in freezer-cooler, which, to my knowledge, may still be there.

Life was full and rich in those still-young years but, by 1968, the handwriting was on the wall. Blessed by then with two young sons but burdened with an unprofitable business (chains could sell cheaper than we could buy), we got out while the going was good.

Painful as the process was, it was inevitable. The mid-sixties, we belatedly learned, was not a propitious time for shoestring operations. Nor for stores prone to extending credit to customers who shopped elsewhere when they had money. But then, I never was good in arithmetic. The store was leased to George Brunns, and the Steebs’ farm home was rented.

What Keta had been good in since high school, however – when she penned essays for college students – was writing, and she soon had a job on the Women’s Desk of the Green Bay Press Gazette. She loved it, but Herman and their two little boys, Scott and Patrick, missed Sister Bay. “I came home every night to three long faces,” Keta wrote.

“Remember how in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy kept repeating, ‘There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home’? Well, substitute ‘Sister Bay’ for ‘home,’ and you’ll have an idea of what I heard night after night. Fortunately, relief was in sight.

“Just as I was about to resort to a heavier dose of Valium, the miracle occurred, the clouds disappeared, the sun came from behind the clouds. Herman’s Market had a new owner, and that owner wanted Herman to run his old store. A Sturgeon Bay newspaper could use my services, and our home, thanks to an understanding renter, became available.”

Although the Steebs boys weren’t very old when Herman and Keta ran Happy Herman’s Market, Scott has one vivid memory.

“Little bags of Frito corn chips had a prize inside – a little eraser in the shape of the Frito Bandito. I took one to school, and all the other first- or second-graders were really impressed. I thought if I took enough erasers for everyone, I’d be really popular. So, I opened every bag in the store to get the erasers. My parents were not happy!”

The building that once housed Happy Herman’s Market is now Grasse’s Grill.

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