Closing a dive bar is an achievement to be sure, but Wolski’s Tavern in Milwaukee has elevated the feat to more mythic status, “I Closed Wolski’s” bumper stickers and t-shirts serving as trophies recognizing the achievement. Spotting the iconic “I Closed Wolski’s” sticker is certainly a viable Milwaukee pastime but the phenomenon extends well beyond Wisconsin, the sticker popping up around the world thanks to globe-trotting patrons.
Stickers cannot be purchased at Wolski’s Tavern and are rather earned by sticking around until the dive bar’s closing time or thereabouts. Stickers were first distributed in 1973, their longevity evidence that their creation is probably one of the great dive bar marketing decisions of all time. A framed photo exists within Wolski’s Tavern of one of the dive bar’s stickers affixed to a throne used by Saddam Hussein as one example of the sticker’s worldliness.
What looks like a fairly standard neighborhood pub from its nondescript exterior is anything but, the Milwaukee dive bar operating since 1908 under the ownership of a single family. On Milwaukee’s Lower East Side, the titular Wolski, Bernard, came to own what was once a dry good store on the city’s Brady Street for free thanks to damage from a fire. Instead of standing pat on Brady, Wolski decided to move the entire building to Pulaski Street where he opened the tavern that still operates today.
After passing ownership to his three sons, the location is still Wolski family-owned today by Bernard (great-grandson) and Dennis Bonder (Bernard’s younger brother). Current plans include eventually passing ownership to nephews Sean McCarthy and Nick Olson to continue the chain of family operation. The bar itself offers the classic dive bar experience, worn wooden floors and beer ledges jutting out from the dive bar’s ancient walls. String lights drape in and around the bar area, everything under a handful of flags suspended by the ceiling and fueled by free popcorn. The antique register behind the bar provide one of the hints of the longevity of Wolski’s.