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The Hiawatha: the bar that polka built
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The Hiawatha: the bar that polka built

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STURTEVANT — The landmark tavern by the tracks has something to celebrate this year.

The Hiawatha Bar and Grill, 9809 Durand Ave., is about to hold a two-day celebration of 50 years as the Hiawatha with the Bower family.

According to Nicole Redmann’s book, “Sturtevant, Wisconsin, the First 100 Years, 1907-2007,” the original Hiawatha building — greatly expanded since then — was built in the early 20th century. The first occupant was Schlitz Brewing Co.

After several changes of name and ownership, the business was given the name Hiawatha in 1950 for the Milwaukee Road train that came through Sturtevant.

In late 1966 brothers Lee and Tom Bower, who both worked at American Motors Co., and their wives bought the bar for $52,000, Redmann wrote. That’s the year from which current owner Tammy Graceffa, daughter of Lee Bower, dates the Hiawatha as five decades old.

After the Bowers had run the Hiawatha for 33 years, Lee’s daughters, Graceffa and Terry Dillard, took over the bar as partners in 1999.

Graceffa bought out Dillard last year. However, Dillard stays involved and is the caterer for Hiawatha events.

Polka music is a thread that runs through the last 50 years at the Hiawatha. “Polka music built this place,” Dillard declared.

For 20 years, from 1966-86, Tom and Lee Bower played weekly polka concerts with their band, The Bower Boys. The band started with four members and grew to six, said Tom, who played accordion, with Lee playing bass.

The Hiawatha still hosts polka dances “sporadically,” Graceffa said, with variety dances on Mondays and a monthly Sunday polka dance.

Improvements

With the 50th anniversary events approaching, Graceffa and her boyfriend, Jason Matelski, have been making improvements to the Hiawatha, inside and out. Inside, they redid the dance hall and substantially expanded the stage. “Bands just didn’t have anyplace to move,” Graceffa remarked.

Outdoors, they fenced in the two horseshoe pits, removed them and replaced them with four new ones, and are now building a pavilion for outdoor events and bands.

Hiawatha has 12 beers on tap, and the Bower family still pride themselves on their burgers and wings.

Perhaps the tavern’s most-unusual historical tidbit was the Hiawatha Guzzlers Club, which was founded in 1968 and lasted about 15 years, with members meeting weekly. The initiation, and a requirement from each member on his birthday, was to drink a 72-ounce beer — equal to a six-pack — from a gigantic mug which had the challenge, “Bet you can’t,” printed on it.

Every member had his own metal mug at the bar with his name on it, Dillard recalled. The club limited itself to 30 members and had a waiting list, Tom Bower said.

The Guzzlers Club also did a lot of charitable work, he said, including holding an annual Christmas party for children.

Looking at her uncle, Graceffa said seriously, “I want to bring that back. I do.”

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Michael "Mick" Burke covers business and the Village of Sturtevant. He is the proud father of two daughters and owner of a fantastic, although rug-chewing, German shepherd dog.

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