It was quiet at Drea’s Tavern on St. Patrick’s Day.  It might seem unusual for an Irish bar to have so few souls stop in the third week of March, but there were reasons.

“It’s tough to have it during the middle of the week,” bartender Larry Drea said.  “So few people can get time off.”

That is why the tavern’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration is usually on the Sunday before, just after Mass at nearby St. Patrick’s Church, which, along with Drea’s and Our Lady of the Fields Shrine, serve as the cultural centers for the Irish community of the crossroads area of Loreto, Wisconsin.  That allows people from all over—from the residents of Loreto to those Irish from Southwestern Wisconsin, Madison, Iowa, you name it—to pack Drea’s for the festivities.

Such a celebration has been going on for 57 years, almost the same time that Larry has been tending bar.  The establishment has been in his family even longer.  Becoming an institution has afforded the pub some insulation that other rural taverns unfortunately do not enjoy in this day and age.

Drea’s is a stop on a mini “world tour,” or pub crawl, that begins at Nachreiner’s in predominantly German-settled Bear Creek, followed by a stop at Welch’s before arriving at Drea’s.  My family has made the tour every time we have come this way to cut alfalfa on my father’s land.  A day together in the hot sun is followed by a night hitting the taverns for food, spirits, pool, pinball, and jukeboxes.  Not much has changed inside Drea’s since I was a small lad.

Much has changed in the surrounding area, however.  Nachreiner’s and Welch’s are gone, and Drea’s is practically the only tavern left between Spring Green and Bear Valley.  The loss of family farms and the passing away of longtime customers has depleted the clientele.  And Ronald Reagan and Mothers Against Drunk Driving did not help matters much either when they forced the states to adopt a drinking age of 21 under threat of losing their highway funds.  Thus, Wisconsin’s traditional drinking age of 18, the same age at which one can vote or be drafted, was scrapped, and two generations of potential customers’ habits and loyalties were altered forever.  They did not stop drinking, mind you; they just did not go to the taverns.

Despite the fact that both states have roughly the same populations and European cultural influences, Wisconsin has nearly three-times as many establishments—12,500 in all—that sell liquor by the drink as Minnesota.  You can find taverns and watering holes like Drea’s all across the state in the most unlikely locations.  “Location, location, location” may mean something to the real-estate industry, but not in the tavern business.  In Wisconsin, at crossroads like Loreto, county highways, unincorporated towns and villages, remote woods, or neighborhood blocks, chances are, you will find a tavern.  Taverns were located near the workingmen, who would spend time and money after a day in hay fields, or entertain themselves on weekends.

Alas, today, fewer workingmen mean fewer taverns, or at least an aging clientele.  The younger crowd goes to clubs in big cities for dancing, live entertainment, or sports (big-screen TV’s with the game on, darts, pool, and video games).  So how does a tavern owner attract customers, especially when entertainment choices, both in and outside the home, seem so limitless?

He could try gambling.  Many Wisconsin tavern owners have installed video-poker machines with payouts to attract customers, just as gambling on Indian reservations took off after the 1988 Indian Gaming Act.  The state frowned on that, however, and began a crackdown when it turned out that local sheriffs were looking the other way.  The 2002 governor’s race grew out of this struggle.  Ed Thompson, brother of former Wisconsin governor and Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thompson, had video-poker machines in his Tomah supper club, the Tee-Pee.  State Attorney General Jim Doyle began confiscating video-poker machines, including a few at the Tee-Pee during a 1997 raid.  An incensed Thompson fought back with the help of the state’s 4,600-member Tavern League.  The local district attorney for Monroe County could not find an unbiased jury to try the case, and the charges were dropped.  The state subsequently changed the law to allow taverns a limited number of machines for amusement only.  Thompson became a libertarian hero, embarrassed his brother, was elected mayor of Tomah, and ran for governor.  Doyle went on to become governor, beating Thompson.

If gambling isn’t the salvation of taverns, then maybe naked women are.  A few rural taverns are becoming strip joints—or, to use the current euphemism, “gentlemen’s clubs”—to keep the doors open.  One such place is the Border Lounge, located near the Mississippi River in Hager City.  Throughout much of the 1990’s, the Trenton Township government tried to keep the lounge from operating as a “gentlemen’s club.”  Townships not interested in seeing their taverns turn into such “clubs” passed resolutions banning nude dancing altogether.  However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision back in 1998, declared such resolutions unconstitutional because of their “restrictiveness.”  Unable to restrict this kind of entertainment in their own jurisdictions, and given the costs of litigation (Trenton Township had to pay $115,000 in a settlement with the club) and their limited resources, many townships have backed away from trying to stop the spread of strip joints across rural Wisconsin.  For a while, the Trenton township board did deny the “club” its liquor license, hoping that fruit juices and root beer would keep customers away.  When that did not work, they threw in the towel.

It was never uncommon to see rural or small-town strip joints, especially in Northern Wisconsin.  In Hurley, they, are considered a local institution, complete with their own section on Silver Street.  Such places, however, used to be located next to rough and sometimes lawless mining and lumber camps.  When people hear “strip joint,” they think of a seedy, inner-city block—not of rolling hills, pastures, churches, and small schools.  For strip joints, however, as for the old taverns they inherit, “location, location, location” doesn’t seem to matter.