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New owners keep Dick's Bar and Grill's lucky streak alive

New owners Carol Raley and Rochelle LaBlanc pose for a photo in Dick’s Bar and Grill’s 70-seat restaurant area. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)1 / 3
Former owner Paul Kremer, who still owns the building that houses Dick’s Bar and Grill, takes a break for a photo in December. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
A lucky-charm llama face graces Dick’s Bar and Grill’s main sign above Walnut Street. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)3 / 3

We’ll never know for sure whether the 1877 llama exhibition brought Dick’s Bar and Grill the 138 years of good fortune that followed –- but the owner at the time knew he was onto a good thing.

“B.A. Rice, the tavern owner, found himself to be one ‘lucky dog’ … because of the extra dollars the llamas created,” the bar’s historical fact sheet notes of the celebrated event, which came after Rice let a weary St. Croix river-boat traveler keep his four-llama cargo out back.

“An unusual and rare sight, the llamas were the center of attention for the next couple of days, and people came from far and wide to see them.”

Thirteen owners and five name changes later, Dick’s Bar and Grill, located at 111 Walnut St., has thrived through thick and thin to become Wisconsin’s oldest continuously running saloon.

The latest harbinger of good fortune for the future: new owners Carol Raley and Rochelle LaBlanc, who bought Dick’s from previous owner Paul Kremer in December with silent partner Sharon Raley, Carol’s mother-in-law. Raley’s husband Eric also helps out.

“Paul wanted it to go to someone who would really honor the tradition and the history of this place,” LaBlanc explains. “Had it been anyone else but Carol who wanted to buy it, he wouldn’t have sold.”

Adds Raley, who started as a waitress in 1997 while an art student at UW-River Falls and soon found herself managing the business for the next 17 years: “Why fix something that’s not broken? We don’t plan to change anything — besides maybe a little paint.”

Lucky dogs

The llamas are still the landmark tavern and restaurant’s good luck charm, gracing the labels of Dick’s exclusive “Lucky Dog” beers, its employee T-shirts and its Walnut Street entrance sign, which also notes the year the bar first opened: 1860.

Live llamas are still brought in for the bar’s annual Llama Party, part of a year-round menu of special events that has always been part and parcel of the bar’s popularity, especially during the Kremer family’s ownership starting in 1982.

Asked about Dick’s other secrets of success after 155 years, LaBlanc, who arrived as a bartender “six or seven” years ago, replies: “Oh, it’s our customers, our clientele — definitely. It’s also our staff, which is just amazing. We’re all kind of a family here. … A lot of customers come just to see the bartenders and wait staff.

“Our customers are family too. It’s all different kinds of people. So many families come in for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have all sorts of other people that come in all year, and they all kind of hang out here together.”

There’s a 70-seat restaurant at the 5,000-square-foot tavern’s east end for those who just want a meal. The main bar’s at the west end, and there’s a large mixing space in the middle.

There’s also live music a few times a month, DJ nights every Sunday and regular restaurant specials, which first gained notoriety when Mary Jane Brunelle, wife of former owner and tavern namesake Dick Brunelle, debuted her famous hot dago meatball sandwiches in the 1950s.

True to the 1877 llama-exhibition tradition, Dick’s Bar and Grill’s event calendar still brings the business’s clientele together at least once a month. Typically, events benefit for charities and community groups, but sometimes they’re just for fun, like this year’s annual Super Bowl Tailgate Party.

Here’s a sampling of the rest:

—The Jan. 17 annual One Block Fun Run, which drew more than 200 and raised about $4,000 for United Cerebral Palsy.

—February’s annual Chili Cook Off, an April Beach Party and an August Golf Tournament that benefits Hudson’s Fire Department, EMTs and Police Department.

—The second annual Hot Wheels Tournament in March, featuring the popular miniature racing cars that many customers first played with as kids. “Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe the people that showed up for that one,” LaBlanc says.

New additions this year will include euchre and bean bag tournaments, a dart league and possibly a Golden Tee League. For a complete list, check out the Dick’s Bar and Grill website: There are also regular reminders and photos on the bar’s Facebook page.

“Some people come just for the events, and others are here all the time. Our events are a huge deal here,” LaBlanc notes.

Joint efforts

Raley adds that many events are joint efforts with other Hudson bars and businesses –- a rarity in some other towns.

“All the other bars downtown have been super-supportive. That’s really one of the cool things we have here –- getting together with others,” she says.

“We make an effort to keep things really different where events are concerned. If we know people love them, we won’t change a thing.”

Before the tavern even existed, its location was already a popular Hudson gathering spot between 1853 and 1866, originally in Hendee’s Hall, one of Hudson’s first downtown buildings.

Hudson’s council and militia members met there often, and in 1855, “the most famous entertainers of the frontier, the Hutchinson Family Singers” performed on the Hendee’s Hall stage.

By 1860, the building evolved into a saloon owned by Frank Keep, but, sadly, it burned to the ground in the great 1867 fire that devastated most downtown businesses. Even more sadly, Keep’s saloon was blamed as the cause.

Ever the survivor, though, Dick’s Bar and Grill — then called the St. Croix Tavern — managed to stay in business after a fast rebuild.

Decades later, it survived Prohibition by serving “near beer,” which was often spiced with pure alcohol sold by the local pharmacist, the fact sheet says.

Unlike many other downtown stalwarts, Dick’s Bar and Grill also flourished after the old Hwy. 12 St. Croix Landing and Toll Bridge, which had brought a steady flow of people and vehicles from Minnesota to Hudson near the tavern, was replaced by the Interstate 94 bridge beginning in 1951.

The rest, as they say, is history — or, as the fact sheet’s final timeline notation attests: “2014 — Still lucky after all these years.”

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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