The old Town just won't be quite the same in West Allis
Eighty years after Prohibition, family is ready to sell 'soda' bar
West Allis — Back in 1927, if you stepped into the grocery store/soda bar (wink wink) that is now Town Beer & Liquor on 84th Street across from the State Fair, you probably would have heard chickens clucking in their coop behind the building and the snort of hogs in their pen.
If you wanted a snort yourself, the proprietors had to recognize you before letting you into the inner sanctum featuring homemade wine and some bootlegged hard stuff. It was Prohibition and a lot of bars operated under the guise of soda fountains.
End of an era
Times have changed, though some eras more quickly than others. Prohibition ended in 1933. And 80 years later, so is one family's ownership of Town Beer & Liquor.
Jerry Kovacich, the third generation owner of the establishment, is retiring. He and his wife have no children, so they're selling the business.
It was his grandparents who founded the business at 903 S. 84th St. in 1927. The business was handed down to his parents and then to him, Kovacich said.
"If grandma and grandpa were here, they'd probably fall over to think that something they started 86 years ago would still be going," Kovacich said.
With the new owners, the Kovacichs' stories of the family business that are intertwined with the history of the neighborhood could be lost soon.
Oh, the stories
But for now, Kovacich is still around to tell the story of how his grandmother made nearly 500 gallons of wine in the basement for their Prohibition customers who wanted something harder than soda pop.
Liquor for the speak-easy came in regular shipments from Chicago bootleggers, Kovacich said.
Although he grew up working in the bar, he was astonished one day when an old-timer told him of how the liquor shipment was late because of the weather one snowy night. His grandmother was anxious because the bar was completely out of the hard stuff.
As the old-timer told it, grandma was much relieved to see two guys dressed to the nines come striding in late that night with the shipment. And to Kovacich's amazement, the old-timer said one of the guys looked for all the world like Al Capone.
Kovacich could hardly believe it but asked his mother about it, anyway.
Her response? "Oh yeah, grandma knew Al Capone very well. She spoke of him often."
But why would the Big Guy be on an ordinary booze run?
Well, it might have something to do with the mysterious house behind the bar, Kovacich speculated. When anyone stepped on the porch of that house, an alarm went off and all the windows and doors were wired, he said.
The family's best guess is that bootleggers used the house and put in alarms to warn of unexpected visits.
His mother again confirmed at least part of that story, as well. As a girl, she had a friend who later lived in the house after its earlier occupants had moved out. The wires and alarms were still there.
Finding the American way
His grandparents' journey is one of immigrants making a life for their families in America.
Both came from Slovania in central Europe. His grandfather, Joseph Kovacich, came in 1913 at the age 20 with $25 in his pocket. He met and married Mary in 1921. They worked at a bar on Milwaukee's south side and eventually were able to buy it.
They came to 84th Street in West Allis in 1927 and became proprietors of the dual business, which (legitimately) sold groceries in addition to the, uh, refreshments available to certain customers.
Despite the speak-easy element, running the business wasn't easy. The family worked hard, raising chickens and pigs that Mary made into food for the neighborhood families.
What's in a name
The business wasn't always known as Town Beer & Liquor, but the original name is now lost from memory, Kovacich said. Eventually, though, after the end of prohibition, the bar was wide open for business, a beer license was obtained and the name of the store became Town Beer Depot.
The "town" part of the name came from the fact that the property was originally in the town of Wauwatosa before it was annexed into the city of West Allis, he explained.
When Jerry's father got out of the military in 1945, he saw that little corner grocery stores were disappearing. Soon afterward, the family business switched over to selling beer and liquor, changing its name to Town Beer & Liquor.
Growing up with the city
While the name is still the same, the street sure isn't. State Fair Park was there in the 1940s, but 84th Street was just a two-lane road and there were only a few houses in the neighborhood behind the business, Kovacich said.
Even in the 1950s, when he grew up, there was lots of space for him and the other kids to play baseball, he said. But as housing boomed, those open fields disappeared one by one.
"Whenever a steam shovel pulled up, we thought, oh no, they're going to start digging our fields," he said.
Commercial growth on 84th Street didn't come until later. Kovacich remembers a gas station next door, now Alarm-Tronics. A grocery store was at 84th and Washington streets. A larger gas station was at Mcmyron Street, where a window tinting business is now. A tiny grocery store was off Schlinger Avenue on 84th, and a car wash was where Scrub-a-Dub is today. There also was an office building and Tews Lime and Cement.
At the time, 84th wasn't as bustling as Greenfield Avenue. Now 84th Street holds four lanes of traffic and is dotted with businesses.
Looking back Kovacich said it has been a lot of work, but rewarding.
"It's been a neat run," he said.
Even after he sells the business, he will come back to visit.
"Most of my customers are not customers, they are friends," he said.
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