Tapping Into the Past

lots of taverns have history, but the Amber Inn’s goes all the way back to 1881

Blake Fischer, photos by Andrea Paulseth

CHEERS TO THAT! What we now know as the Amber Inn has been a saloon of some kind at 840 E. Madison St. for more than 130 years – a unique achievement for any local business.
CHEERS TO THAT! What we now know as the Amber Inn has been a saloon of some kind at 840 E. Madison St. for more than 130 years – a unique achievement for any local business.

If you have lived in or spent any extended amount of time in Eau Claire – especially in the Water Street area – you know how fast the appearance and location of architecture can change. One day your favorite burger joint is suddenly an insurance agency, or that building you admire every day on your way to work or school is suddenly gone to make space for a new apartment complex or parking lot. With all the changes that Eau Claire’s architecture has gone through over the years, have you ever wondered what was in that building before – and possibly even before that?

As a result of the city’s ever-changing economy, very few Eau Claire buildings have continuously housed the same type of businesses, or even stayed true to their original structures. This means that few of Eau Claire’s most popular and oldest taverns were originally bars. Some used to be small businesses, such as hardware stores and horse stables, while in some cases totally new buildings were put up on previously occupied plots of land. While the majority of Eau Claire’s taverns were not always taverns, a small handful of bars can proudly claim to have remained drinking establishments since they were first built. The venerable Amber Inn Bar and Grill is one of the taverns in Eau Claire that belongs on this elite list.

The Amber Inn has stood at 840 E. Madison St. since 1881. Established by the Walter’s Brewing Co. during the height of the lumbering era, the Amber Inn catered to the large population of people working in the lumber industry who were seeking entertainment and – well, let’s be honest –“female companionship.” Such brewery-owned bars were very common during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were operated and maintained by brewery employees, who primarily served the working-class citizens of their communities.

As the result of the city’s ever-changing economy, very few Eau Claire buildings have continuously housed the same type of businesses, or even stayed true to their original structures.

As the lumber industry faded out to make room for the industrial era, the Amber Inn hosted industry workers and tourists alike. What makes the Amber Inn – as well as Eau Claire – stand out in history is the Yellowstone Trail. The Yellowstone Trail was one of the first identifiable major marked roads connecting the East and West coasts of the United Stations. The trail was established in 1912 by an independent group of citizens who wanted to promote tourism. The Yellowstone Trail cut through the middle of Wisconsin, into Minneapolis, and through the West and Northwest to the Pacific Ocean.

What makes the Yellowstone Trail significant to Eau Claire and the Amber Inn is that the trail went right down East Madison Street past the tavern. With the introduction of mass-produced automobiles came tourists. With Wisconsin’s vast wildlife and recreational possibilities, visitors came and brought their wallets with them. The increasing popularity of automobiles also brought promotional events to Eau Claire, such as the annual cross-country automobile race on the Yellowstone Trail. According to a 2012 guide published by the Yellowstone Trail Association, during one such relay race in 1916, a driver on his way from Chippewa Falls took a corner too sharply and wrapped one of his wheels around a telephone pole at the intersection of East Madison and Putnam streets, about a block from the Amber Inn.

During Prohibition, the Amber Inn served as Geo. Berg Soft Drinks from about 1919 until 1935, when the name was changed to just Geo. Berg Beverages. The Amber Inn’s current owner, Orville Johnson, describes the era in this way: “During Prohibition the bar commercially sold root beer, but they would spike the root beer with either 3.2 beer or ‘near beer’ as well as with a bottle of corn whisky which was kept under the bar. The basement of the Amber Inn saw the majority of the alcohol-fueled activities, as the upstairs quarters housed guests, as well as ‘social business’ during Prohibition.”

The structure of the Amber Inn has remained relatively unchanged since its original construction in 1881. A very small 10-foot addition has been added on the side of the building to house a much-needed refrigeration unit; however, this does not take away from the historical integrity of the building’s original two-story rectangular shape.

Today, the Amber Inn – which Johnson bought and re-named in 1982 – serves as a popular dining destination where customers can enjoy great fish fries and burgers. And, in addition to eating and drinking, visitors can drink in the rustic, vintage atmosphere, which showcases some of Eau Claire’s exciting history with framed photos of the establishment in the late 1800s in addition to early 20th century maps of Eau Claire. I encourage you to take advantage of this local piece of history and check out the Amber Inn for yourself.

The Amber Inn then ...
The Amber Inn (then).

Amber Inn: Names Changes through the Years

1881-1910: Walter Brewing Co. tavern
1910-13: Nels C. Tomsen Saloon 
1914-19: Edward Engebretson Saloon
1920-34: Geo. Berg Soft Drinks
1935-36: Geo. Berg Beverages 
1939-52: Gort’s Tavern
1954-55: Indianhead Tavern
1956-81: Sarge’s Alibi Tavern
1982-present: Amber Inn

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