Shipping out to Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter email@example.com January 6, 2012 3:07PM
Ship pipefitter Earl Hoffman bought the Red Room bar in 1949. It’s now run by (from left) Joe Hoffman, their father Harley Hoffman, and Nick Hoffman. | dave hoekstra for the sun-times
Updated: February 10, 2012 8:17AM
STURGEON BAY, Wis. — Shipbuilding is the right theme to launch a new year of travel.
But the storied shipbuilding history of Sturgeon Bay is a well-kept secret.
Battleships, yachts and cruisers have been built in Sturgeon Bay since 1856. There were five shipyards in Sturgeon Bay between the industry’s peak years of the late 1940s and 1950s. The largest city in Door County (pop. 9,500) features a 20,000-square-foot Door County Maritime Museum along the bay, a great corner bar called the Red Room that has been serving shipyard workers drinks since it opened in the late 1930s and the newly renovated Lodge at Leathem Smith. Smith invented the shipping container, so he knew something about comfortable quarters.
The stone that lies beneath Lake Shore Drive and the stone seawall along Chicago’s waterfront came from Smith’s quarry west of Sturgeon Bay. It arrived in Chicago in the 1930s on Leathem Smith Dock Co. vessels.
Sturgeon Bay is considered drive-by country as tourists motor north through the Door County peninsula. But shipbuilding came here because of easy access to Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay. And the workforce swelled in winter months when area farmers were hired to work in the yards.
I spent New Year’s Eve Eve in Sturgeon Bay. My first port was the Red Room, 66 S. 3rd Ave. ( 743-3913) where I had a Seaburger ($3; cod sandwich). As part of the nautical motif, the sign above the women’s room says “Gulls.”
The Red Room got its name because the outside was all red brick, and the inside was painted red. The building was constructed in 1891 as an opera house.
Ship pipefitter Earl Hoffman bought the bar in 1949. His offspring hope to keep the bar in the Hoffman family for 100 years.
The Red Room is defined by dark cherry wood and eight color transparencies behind the bar that depict Door County vistas. The brown-and-white bar was made by a local guy, appropriately named “Crafty.” The 42-foot-long bar has 18 stools. Second-generation owner Harley Hoffman reflected, ”He built the bar in all one piece in the 1970s. He brought it in the front door. The guys picked up their glasses [of beer]. Stepped back. We took out the old bar. We put the new one down. The guys stepped right back to the bar. They never missed a drink.”
Harley, 65, continued, “My dad had been half-owner of the National Hotel, which was a few blocks down. He was the first president of the pipefitters union in Sturgeon Bay. We had union meetings upstairs. Boilermakers. Pipefitters. Electricians.”
Shipbuilders congregated at the Red Room because Earl had a good reputation. “When the [cherry] orchards were thriving here, if a grower needed 30 pickers, my dad would get them,” Harley said. “He was an organizer. This was the first bar in Door County to serve migrant workers. That goes back to the 1950s, when they had the National, which was a bar, restaurant and hotel. My mother and several ladies used to make 250 lunch boxes a day for the shipyards. And a lunch box was sandwich, dessert, fruit and coffee.”
Electricians and pipefitters still congregate in the upstairs meeting hall.
Nick Hoffman, 32, is third-generation owner of the Red Room with his brother Joe, 38. “The union is very small now,” Nick said while his brother was in the kitchen flipping burgers. “Maybe 20, 25 guys for the whole union. And half of them aren’t even working. We used to open at 6 every morning for the third shift. I’d come in here at 8 in the morning, and it would be like a Friday night.” Harley added, “During the early 1980s, we sold more Pabst Blue Ribbon than anywhere in the state. We had four Pabst commercials filmed here. My dad had a steel union box at the back of the bar, and people paid their union dues here. Plus, they would cash their checks here on Friday night.”
And set sail on a wet weekend.
It’s odd to see a Budweiser sign in front of a bar just 35 miles north of Miller country in Green Bay. Bud Light is the most popular beer, and a pint of Bud can be had for $1. “Budweiser is the only local distributor we have,” Harley said. “All their workers come here.”
The Red Room is also known for its hamburgers ($2.50) and cheeseburgers ($2.75). The meat is purchased every morning from Marchant’s Meats & Sausage, across the Oregon Bridge in Sturgeon Bay.
“We’re not here to change anything,” Nick said. “It’s worked this long. The prices have been the same. The bar has been the same. The only thing my dad did for us was change the bathrooms and add a new back bar and kitchen equipment.” After retirement, Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke was a district manager for Badger Liquors and used to visit the Red Room. A few summers ago, former Cubs manager and fisherman Dusty Baker wandered in during baseball’s All-Star Break. “He was watching his pitcher from the Reds on the big screen,” Nick said. “He was drinking a beer and was a very nice guy.”
The Red Room crowd has shifted from old shipbuilders to young whippersnappers playing Coldplay on the computerized jukebox. What happened?
“Navy contracts went down,” Harley said. “With Bay Shipbuilding, other than repair work, no one is investing money in new shipping.”
You can walk in the shadows of the industry at the Lodge of Leathem Smith, 1640 Memorial Dr. ( 743-5555; TheLodgeAtLS.com), across the street from a canal leading to Lake Michigan. Smith opened the lodge on June 23, 1946, on profits from World War II shipbuilding. The next day, Smith, 59, perished in a squall on the Bay of Green Bay.
Current owners Holly and Paul Meleen have had better luck. The native of Isle, Minn., and the FLW 2010 Walleye Tour Angler of the Year, Meleen and his wife bought the 63-room resort (with 21 suites) out of foreclosure in March. He has accumulated more than $100,000 in FLW (named after Ranger Boat founder Forrest L. Wood) earnings.
“This was the first golf and country club in Sturgeon Bay,” Meleen said. “Royalty stayed here while they had their yachts built. We restored the 2-inch maple floors in the front lobby. They were installed in 1922 [when it was a private yacht club].”
The lodge sits on 13 acres filled with century-old trees. Country-music icon Johnny Cash was a regular at the lodge, although he sang more about trains than boats.
“We actually have a Johnny Cash Suite,” said Meleen, 47. “He’d come here when there was a gap in his tour. He’d spend a week in Door County. Johnny Cash was known for wearing black. The hot tub in that room is black, and the tile work is white and black. The marble fireplace is black.”
Keep the lodge on your radar. Besides being a champion angler and resort owner, Meleen is also head chef. He reinvented the resort’s main dining room as the Kona Bay Fish House. “Although we serve seafood from the Eastern Seaboard, its emphasis is Pacific Rim, mahi and ahi. You can get a cheeseburger or a Kona filet, which is grilled in Kona coffee, and is a 28-day dried piece of tenderloin. We’ll be adding a tiki bar outside. We’re in the process of booking a couple national acts for an outdoor concert series on our property.”
After a long hiatus, Sturgeon Bay’s ship is ready to come in. Again.
Check out vintage photos and stories from the Door County Maritime Museum at blogs.suntimes.com/