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Tired of being "tolerated" by straight bars, and being exploited by gay bars with straight male owners, the lesbian bar Sugar Shack was opened in May 1975 by JoAnn Kilsdonk, with business partner Sharon Dixon (who later opened Fannies). Advertisements for The Sugar Shack (which first appeared in the July 1976 issue of the GPU News) advertised it as "A bar owned and operated BY and FOR women".
Sugar Shack becomes incredibly popular-- attracting women from across the Tri-State Area who have nothing like this at home-- often to the point of exceeding the bar's 150-person capacity. "Women were thrilled to know their dollars were staying within the community, for the first time," said Sharon Dixon. "That meant a lot, back then."
Cory Scott, the son of the owner, recalls working there as a boy, and attending Brewers games tailgate parties co-sponsored by Sugar Shack and the M & M Club (which opened within weeks of Sugar Shack).
The August 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" describes the business as follows: "Women, women, women! And lots of room to mingle. By and for gay women."
The Sugar Shack was sold around 1985 to Dotie, who for a time reopened it as a lesbian bar named D.K.'s Tavern. But that was not to last long; the business was sold once more in late 1987 to Al Thomas, who eventually reopened it as a men's gay bar, The Triangle, which was to survive at least 20 years.
In a rare interview Sharon gave to LGBT historian Michail Takach in 2017, she outlines much of the inside story and history of the Sugar Shack. Michail's article tells the story:
Sharon and her partner Joann Kilsdonk opened the Sugar Shack (135 E. National Ave.) in 1975 with the full support of Alderwoman Mary Ann McNulty. The Sugar Shack was the first bar in Milwaukee history owned by lesbians for lesbians. And it was an immediate success.
"It wasn't a big space, but we'd still have 150 women in there at a time," said Sharon. "The women would come from all over Wisconsin and northern Illinois, several days a week. They were just so happy to have a space of their own, and owners who knew what they wanted. They were giving their dollars to members of their own community for the first time."
"Of course, guys would come and cause trouble for us. One night, we tried to throw out some rowdy men who refused to leave. They threatened to tear the bar apart. Joann and I got on the loudspeaker, cut off the jukebox and said 'Hey ladies, these guys want us to know what we're going to do if they won't leave.'
"Suddenly, the women closed in around them, and the guys started backing out the door. The next thing I know, the guys are running west down National Avenue with this huge mob of women chasing them. One of them dropped their ID, and one of the local beat cops offered to take it home to him.
"As it turned out, the guy's father was a police officer. When he got his son's ID back, he asked where the police found it. The officer said, 'we found it in a woman's gay bar, where he and buddies went to beat up the lesbians.' The father's face got tomato red, he ground his teeth and steam started coming out of his ears. We never did see his son or his buddies again!"
In 1979, Sharon and Joann separated, and Joann kept the business running another two years. When Joann sold the Sugar Shack in 1981, Sharon decided it was time to open a new business (and she eventually opened Fannies in 1982 or 1983).
JoAnn Kilsdonk Lott passed away in November 2019.
Credits: thanks to the son of the bar's owner, Cory Scott, for some information;
Sharon Dixon interview courtesy Michail Takach.
Web site concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: May-2021.
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