Morgenroth's gave Milwaukee a home for beer and bets
"Anyone who ever stopped at Morgenroth's Saloon on West Water Street next to the Empress Burlesque Theater for a sandwich and a beer always stopped in again when they had a chance. It was the greatest of all saloons, with the huge spotless back bar mirror, the cherry woodwork, chrome hardware and tall, shiny pilsener glasses that were only filled with Pabst Blue Ribbon."
– Ray Keyes, writing in The Milwaukee Journal, April 3, 1985
If you wanted a Miller High Life or "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous" you were out of luck, but John Morgenroth's downtown emporium offered a unique menu of compensating diversions that made it top of the list in old-timer Ray Keyes' 1985 rhapsody about famous local watering holes in the Milwaukee Journal.
Behind the stained-glass windows on the ground floor at 228 W. Water St. (later 756 N. Plankinton Ave.) was the long, gleaming bar where patrons could avail themselves of a sumptuous free lunch of roast beef and ham. On the third floor was a gym where many of the greatest boxers in history – including Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel, Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard – trained when they were in town.
Between them on the second floor was what really made Morgenroth's what the newspapers referred to as "Milwaukee's sporting headquarters": A roulette wheel, dice and card games, news tickers reporting results from horse tracks and ballparks around the country and the opportunity to lay down a bet on the next big fight, the next election for president and even whether the sun would shine tomorrow.
"...Morgenroth's was to the betting man of Milwaukee what Lloyd's [of London] is to the insurance 'game,'" noted the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1931. "Bets would be taken or made there on almost anything."
"For years, around election time, the best way to find how the wind was blowing was to visit Morgenroth's and look over the odds," said the Journal. "National, state and city elections – you could always get a wager, one way or another, at John's. Big men and little gathered to lay a little something. It's been an institution, nothing less."
Born on Christmas Day in 1865, as a young man John C. Morgenroth worked as a puddler in a Bay View steel mill for $20 a week. He was earnest, industrious and very conservative in his habits, dress and demeanor, which made him the polar opposite of his older brother, Charles, who fancied expensive clothes, nights out on the town, gambling and just about anything in a skirt. In the 1890s, Charles convinced John to go into the saloon business with him, and the first Morgenroth's opened at 210 W. Water St.
Charles eventually contracted a disease of a venereal nature that proved fatal, leaving his staid brother to run the show. In 1912, John moved Morgenroth's down the street and for the next 19 years it was the epicenter of Milwaukee's drinking, gambling, sports and political cultures.
The proprietor was known as "Honest John," with no ironic connotation. Morgenroth wasn't a big gambler himself, and when he did clean up betting on President Woodrow Wilson's re-election in 1916, he used the money to buy up a lot of property near his South Wentworth Avenue residence and turn it over to relatives.
Family members weren't the only ones to benefit from Honest John's epic generosity. If a patron lost more than he could afford on the second floor and came to the owner with a sob story about the wife and kids at home, Morgenroth refunded his losses with one condition: that the loser take his business elsewhere from then on.
"Generous to a fault, he gave without regard to creed or class," eulogized the Sentinel upon Morgenroth's death in 1935. "Funeral expenses for scores of friends and friends of friends came out of John Morgenroth's pocket. He was usually available for a 'touch' for weddings, divorces, emergency trips. Many Milwaukeeans owe their educations to timely aid from him..."
The weigh-ins for all the big fights in Milwaukee in the first third of the 20th century were always held at Morgenroth's, and West Water Street was always clogged with fans there to watch the boxers train at the gym. Only a couple hundred could squeeze inside, and hundreds more milled around out front when a top name was working out there. Once when local lightweight star Richie Mitchell stopped outside Morgenroth's to chat with former champion Ad Wolgast, the cops had to come and unravel the traffic snarl caused by the rubber-neckers.
The beer sold at Morgenroth's for a nickel a glass was strictly Pabst Blue Ribbon because Milwaukee beer baron Fred Pabst was a regular customer and even had his own reserved table. Honest John was loyal to Pabst but not awed by him. Pabst was on hand one day when another customer loudly inquired of the proprietor, "Why don't you sell Blatz in here?"
With one eye on Pabst, Morgenroth dryly replied, "Because flies will not land in that beer."
Prohibition put a crimp in the downstairs trade, but business on the second floor continued at a lively pace until it came to light in 1929 that Morgenroth's casino was an open secret around town in spite of laws against gambling because Honest John had friends in high places.
"Mayor D.W. Hoan ... admitted that he sold American Metal Products company stock to John Morgenroth, long regarded as Milwaukee's 'immune' gambling house keeper," reported a front-page story in the Sentinel on Nov. 26, 1930.
Part owner of and attorney for American Metal Products, Hoan received an annual salary from the company even while serving as the city's elected chief executive. At Hoan's personal invitation, tendered in his office at City Hall, Morgenroth and members of his family invested $23,000 in AMP. Hoan also sold stock in AMP to Harry McCrory, captain of detectives in the Milwaukee Police Dept.
Under questioning before a Common Council investigating committee, Mayor Hoan conceded that he was aware that "election, horse race and baseball bets were placed" at Morgenroth's, and that "such things were never stopped by any city attorney or chief of police." But he called the notion that he intended anything sinister or underhanded "political bunk."
"...We are compelled to believe that the mayor is much denser in sizing up how such things look than the Dan Hoan we thought we knew," scolded a subsequent Journal editorial titled "Mayor Hoan and Morgenroth." "But it will occur to anyone looking back on events now that, whatever the mayor's intentions and whatever the extent of his knowledge, he was, by his acts, placing in the same business boat with himself the proprietor of a gambling house and the man among whose duties was breaking up gambling."
The upshot of the imbroglio was that the vice squad suddenly started paying more official attention to Morgenroth's. A series of raids commenced, and about two weeks after one in early July of 1931 nabbed 42 patrons of the second floor, Honest John announced that he would go out of business on Sept. 1.
"It isn't going to seem like the same town," lamented the Journal's two-column obituary for the greatest of all saloons.
John Morgenroth died four years to the day his establishment closed its doors. It's probably a safe bet he would be mortified to know that in 1962 his landmark building once dedicated to good times, frivolity, high stakes plunging, long shots and sure things was demolished to make it easier for sensible folk to throw their money away at the American State Bank next door.
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