"Wildwood" was a women's (largely lesbian) bar located at 13th and Walnut Avenue during the 1960s. Various contributors report that Wildwood's toilets and sinks were not always working, and the bar sometimes was lit only by candles. (More about that below.) The bar was owned by Norman Ver Bruggen from 1959 to early 1963, when it was sold to Wilbert German for its last year of existence.
Recalling the clientele of Wildwood, Josie Carter, the gender nonconforming queen who led Wisconin's first LGBTQ uprising, said, "The women at the Wildwood were huge, mean old Amazons. They were the original bull dykes. They'd fight truck drivers in the street outside the bar. They'd ask, 'Is this man bothering you?' And if he was, they'd throw him, literally pick him up and throw him, out the front door."
Another Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project contributor remembers, "My date and I kept getting cat called by an old drunk man at the bar. One of the regulars said, 'knock it off or you’ll be sorry.' He asked her, 'Yeah? What are you going to do?' So this woman goes into the bathroom, returns with the ceramic toilet tank cover, and smashes it over his head. And then she said, 'who’s sorry now?'"
"This sets a tone for exactly how rough and dangerous womens bars were before liberation," said this Project's Curator, Michail Takach. He included 'Wildwood' as one of the groundbreaking lesbian bars featured on the 4th episode of the "Be Seen" radio podcast series.
Takach also has documented "German's Wildwood" (as it was called for the last year of its existence) as a butch lesbian bar only-- men were not welcome, but drag queens were(!) Only one likely photo is known, and the building no longer exists. (This had to be a remarkably rough area back then, because everything was bulldozed in a 1960s urban renewal project.)
Michail Takach wrote up an account of the primary owner of 'The Wildwood' during its 'lesbian bar' phase for the Facebook group in September, 2022. His account:
September 1963: three "thrill killers" and the wife of a Milwaukee policeman go on a scandalous crime spree in Milwaukee, achieving three robberies of over $11,000. The quartet admitted to wearing theatrical makeup and wigs while robbing inner city banks and groceries with sawed-off shotguns "just for the fun of it."
One of the "thrill killers" is Norman Ver Bruggen, 45, former owner of the Wildwood Tavern, Milwaukee's legendary lesbian bar from 1959 to 1964.
Prior to October 1959, the Wildwood had been a family tavern owned by the DeVere family. The DeVeres sold the bar and retired to Florida after the tragic death of their 19-year-old daughter. By 1959, the neighborhood was changing -- rapidly -- and many property owners awaited renewal buyouts. VerBruggen added the Wildwood to a collection of inner city taverns, including locations at 2015 W. Vliet, 1300 W. Clybourn and N. 3rd St.
VerBruggen was apparently not exactly a smart man. In February 1960, two of his bar licenses were suspended after he hired hoodlums to burglarize them for insurance money. VerBruggen denied any involvement with the scheme, but Alderman Fred Meyers (head of the license committee) argued he was "not a fit person to operate a tavern." VerBruggen had been recently convicted of allowing minors and homosexuals to gather at the Wildwood, as well as health code violations.
(The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project has received testimonials from women who remember the Wildwood's toilets and sinks not working, and the bar sometimes being lit only by candles, which may have been connected with these health code violations.)
Josie Carter described the Wildwood as the "gathering place of the Amazons." This was a hangout for extremely butch women seeking same, although all women were welcome and fiercely protected -- sometimes violently so -- against obnoxious male harassment. Josie shared that she saw, on more than one occasion, men physically thrown out the front door for harassing women.
Ver Bruggen separated from his wife Nina in 1948. Considering his legal and financial problems, it's not clear what inspired him to operate a gay-friendly tavern, much less one that became so synonymous with butch lesbians. His story is another reminder that many early gay bar operators weren't the finest or most upstanding citizens -- and that most early gay bars were extremely shadowy places. On one hand, Ver Bruggen's criminal history might have made him sympathetic to the criminalized gay community; on the other hand, he was exploiting and profiting from a community who had few safe places to go. This "punching down" was sadly common at the time.
Ver Bruggen sold the bar to Wilbert German in early 1963, who ran the bar as German's Wildwood for another year. Norman Ver Bruggen was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his crimes, with probation and possible sentencing up to 45 years. He was discharged and moved to Las Vegas.
On June 25, 1964, the notoriously homophobic Judge Christ T. Seraphim asked the license committee to close down German's Wildwood as it was a long-time blight on the community. WIlbert German had been fined in 1963 for violating obscenity laws (!) and allowing minors and "intoxicated persons" to gather at the bar. Alderwoman Vel Phillips criticized Seraphim for his bias -- although news articles didn't say exactly what he was biased against, Milwaukee read between the lines.
Today, the site of the Wildwood Tavern (1430 W. Walnut St.) is a MCTS bus garage. Neither Walnut Street nor this neighborhood look anything like it did in 1964. All sense of place from the Wildwood's era has been completely erased.
Any additional information about the Wildwood Tavern would be greatly appreciated. As we move farther and farther away from the 1960s, the chances of answering any of our open questions become slimmer and slimmer.
Credits: seb site concept, contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Major information contributed by Michail Takach.
Last updated: September-2022.
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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.