The Best of Butch’s

Reminiscing with those who knew and loved the Sturgeon Bay bar well

“Dive bar” is a negative term for some, one that stops them from ever crossing the threshold. For others, it’s code for a place with earned rights. It’s a term of affection, a mark of authenticity, a badge of honor. It’s hard to define exactly what makes a place a dive bar, but you always know it as soon as you see it. Butch’s Bar in Sturgeon Bay, lost to a tragic fire on Feb. 22, was the quintessential dive bar.

“I know people would never go in because it was a dive bar,” said local musician Chris Bishop. “It was; it was great.”

If you did enter, there were three ways into this bar located in a building that had anchored the corner of 3rd Avenue and Nebraska Street since 1919: through a smoking shed out back, through a side door and through the front. 

The front entrance led either upstairs to the tenant rooms – 20 of them with two bathrooms – or to the heart of the building on the first floor. There was the main bar and another room for music. There was the game room with air hockey, ski ball, darts, foosball and two pinball machines. There were three pool tables and big windows looking out on Nebraska Street. The men’s room had an infamous, bathtub-sized urinal. There was a jukebox and a cigarette machine – maybe one of the last in the city or anywhere.

Liquor was inexpensive – tappers for $2.50, dollar pints, Booker’s Bourbon at $5 a shot (the premium spirit goes for $18 at other places in Door County). Frozen pizzas and gas station–style sandwiches made up the menu.

“He’d microwave the meat and put the bread in the toaster oven,” Bishop said.

“A total classic Wisconsin tavern from the way it was appointed, to the people who hung out there,” said melaniejane, a former musician and current owner of the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay. “It felt like home.” 

melaniejane would visit for a drink made in a tumbler that she took to the bar and the owner kept there just for her. Maybe her dog Toad would be running up and down the bar. Bishop would be served a Pabst with a beef stick in it. Once, he traded a pumpkin for a last-call shot.

“It was such an old, vintage bar,” said Mike Orlock, Door County’s current poet laureate. “Boiled eggs in a jar as if it has been there forever.”

It’s difficult to describe a bar without firsthand knowledge of it, but a group of six people – five musicians and a poet – made it relatively easy. They sat around two pushed-together tables at the Inn at Cedar Crossing in Sturgeon Bay on Saturday, reminiscing about Butch’s. They also talked about Clarence Cumber, the man who owned it and ran it with his son, Dave. 

It seems that just about the only thing Clarence Cumber wouldn’t give was an interview. By all accounts, he’d give everything else, including the shirt off his back. He was also known for giving anyone a chance. He rented his second-floor rooms to second-, and maybe even third-chance people, all men (no women were allowed on the second floor), all on the far downside of luck. 

“Clarence provided an invaluable service to this city by offering affordable housing,” said musician Jamey Clark. “Those people will never find that now. He rented out to people who no one would ever give the time of day to.”

“He was a grumpy grandpa who would give you shit, but you knew he never meant it,” Bishop said.

The place Cumber owned and ran was eclectic, said Mike Orlock, yet felt as familiar as a little family, Nick Orlock said, and it was totally comfortable, Bishop added. For professional local musician Cathy Grier, Butch’s was irreplaceable, mythical and a high-water mark for all places of its kind.

“You’ll never get that again,” she said. “It may be something else, somewhere, but you’ll never get that.”

Well-known drummer and in-demand jammer Clark (The Dirty Deuce, with Rob Atwood and now the drummer for Cathy Grier and the Troublemakers) knew a thing or six about open-jam nights. There had always been one somewhere along 3rd Avenue going back to the late 1980s: The Nautical, Poh’s, Van’s, the Red Room. A void opened in 2016, and Clark filled it with Butch’s Bar Open Jam Night every Wednesday, year-round. The rest is history.

“That room for music was just perfect,” melaniejane said. “All that wood, the high ceiling.”

“There was no precedent, no rules, no holds barred,” Clark said. 

With cheap booze flowing and decibels slamming into eardrums “twice what humans should hear,” Bishop said, pretty much anything went. It was also the glue that bound this group and many others together.

“A lot of musical friendships were made there,” Grier said.  

melaniejane remembered how people packed into Butch’s when Steel Bridge Songfest was happening, practicing and jamming, jumping up and down until the floor literally shook, during the middle of the summer with no air conditioning and “so hot,” she said.

The open-jam nights drew not just musicians, but also poets and writers and even comedians trying out new stand-up material, such as the bartender at the Inn at Cedar Crossing, Jeremy Rosenfeld. 

Those who’ve never experienced the open jam can have a chance to see those who performed at Butch’s over the years through the Butch’s Bar Benefit that Bishop has organized for Wednesday, March 16. All proceeds from the event will go to victims of the fire that burned Butch’s to the ground Feb. 22. (See the related story in the Arts & Entertainment section.

“What we lost is really insignificant compared to the building and the legacy and the homes for the residents,” Clark said. 

True. Also true was the sense of melancholy and sadness expressed by this group. And it’s not insignificant that the open jam is closing. Clark said he doesn’t want to hold it anywhere else because no other venues in Sturgeon Bay offer a plug-in-and-play space. 

“I really feel like something this special isn’t going to happen again,” Clark said. “It’s gone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

And what’s gone, it seems, is the stuff that legends are made of.

“Something has been lost that’s not replaceable,” Bishop said. “It will be the thing you compare other places to for decades to come.”