With a long tenure in a single location, it’s not surprising that Kegel’s Inn, 5901 W. National Ave., in West Allis, has a historic vibe. Thanks to some recent discoveries, the long-running German restaurant is about to put more of its history on view.
Kegel’s dates to 1924 but the current look of the building, designed by architect Mark Pfaller “in the English style,” was opened in late March 1933 by John Kegel.
The Kegels hired Darmstadt-born painter Peter Gries – who arrived in Milwaukee from Germany around 1926 – to begin muraling the interior and the artist worked on the images from 1933 until 1945.
As I wrote in a more in-depth history of Kegel’s here, John T. Kegel was born in Sveti Jurij ob Šcavnici (St. Georgen an der Stainz) in Slovenia in 1892 and arrived in Milwaukee in 1911, taking jobs in factories, including the Nash Body Corp., and working as a milkman.
Once here, he met Anna Bevc, who was born in an area where Croatia borders Slovenia, and they married in 1915. In 1924, the couple opened a soft drink parlor in the corner space of what has been Kegel’s ever since and lived in an apartment in the back. An adjoining building to the west was rented out to a tailor, an ice cream shop and other tenants.
In 1927, an ad noted that Kegel’s Inn also sold candy and cigars and offered "light lunch."
That same year, Anna was busted for selling alcohol during Prohibition, and even now current owner Julian Kegel can show you the basement room where some of the hootch was made. That room was accessed by a trap door that could be closed remotely via a button behind the bar.
Recently, Kegel – John and Anna’s great-grandson – who bought the business a few years ago with his wife Stephanie, uncovered some historical gems.
“We purchased the building in October and we’re going through old stuff in the basement and stumbled into a treasure trove of our heritage,” Kegel says. “Old photographs took most of my attention until I found this old comic.”
Kegel is talking about a 1934 invitation to a first anniversary party for the new and improved Kegel’s. Like the building, the cartoon design – which shows a clear Popeye influence – appears to be the work of architect Pfaller, who signed it at the lower right.
The comic was especially meaningful for Kegel because his late father Chris Kegel owned Wheel & Sprocket – now owned by Julian’s brother Noel – which was famous for its cartoon advertisements that ran every week in the newspaper.
“If you’re familiar with Wheel and Sprocket, you’ll probably be no stranger to the Sunday comic section where my dad Chris and his partner Frank (Tamel) adventured through bike fiction superhero land for decades as their main source of advertising.”
What no one knew – and perhaps its was coincidental – was that those comics were rooted in the original family business.
“Everyone thought it was so creative, it’s good to know that comics have just been in our blood,” says Kegel.
“This comic is from 1934 after one year of the new build-out from Kegel’s Place, a speakeasy, into Kegel’s Inn, the restaurant and apartments. It really goes to show how deep the connection is to our German roots,” says Kegel.
“You’ll notice the invite to all of the contractors who helped build the restaurant, probably with money stashed in shoe boxes because no banks would touch liquor money during Prohibition. There is also a notable newspaper clipping from 1933 that claims Kegel’s Inn to be the largest tavern built since the return of beer. Super cool.”
In addition to the old photographs, newspaper clipping and that comic, the Kegels also found some old menus. Many of the items are undated and unidentified, although some offer clues, like this menu, dated 1943:
Kegel says that many of the items will find pride of place on the walls of the restaurant or upstairs in the former apartments that are now operated by the Kegels as Airbnbs.
“We’ll do a history wall either upstairs or in the restaurant,” he says, “but definitely on the website.”
Here are a few more of the historical items:
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.