BOULDER JUNCTION, Wis. (AP) — There will be something missing in the Northwoods when hundreds of anglers converge to compete in the 43rd annual World Championship Musky Classic.
That same void will also be felt this winter when snowmobilers from around the country ride across frozen lakes and through the snow-covered forest trails of Vilas County.
There are plenty of other places in northern Wisconsin to grab a beer, order up a burger or fish fry and plop pickled herring from a salad bar onto a chilled plate. But the loss of Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill along Highway M north of Boulder Junction is being felt throughout the Midwest.
The circumstances of its demise have only added to the pain for Laurel and Kevin Gutjahr, who could only watch last month as their beloved business was incinerated.
“It’s tough. It hasn’t been easy at all,” Kevin Gutjahr told the Wisconsin State Journal as he surveyed the vacant lot that had been home to his bar and restaurant. “This is a chunk of Boulder Junction that’s gone.”
The Gutjahrs had insurance and are planning to rebuild. Their optimism is pointing to opening sometime next year. Laurel thinks May 1 is doable. Kevin is looking at August.
But regardless of when the historic business reopens in the self-proclaimed Muskie Capital of the World, it’s all but guaranteed to take on a different feel compared to its ambiance before the devastating fire on Aug. 11.
On its face, Gooch’s appeared to be your typical northern Wisconsin tavern but inside was more like a museum that happened to have tap handles, coasters, bar stools and a wide-ranging menu that included pizza, prime rib and pasta.
Its massive collection of over 300 wildlife mounts, some of them behind glass cases, included wolves, deer, moose, duck, bear, elk and several fish species. The collection made the bar stand apart from other establishments and will be impossible to replace, regardless of the insurance settlement. All that remained following the blaze were a set of charred antlers from a moose and a few ram horns. The 8-foot-tall polar bear that had been in the bar on loan from nearby Dairymen’s Country Club survived because it was returned to the resort on Big Crooked Lake in June.
Everything else, like the 168-pound sturgeon that Kevin Gutjahr speared from Lake Winnebago about 15 years ago, and the moose, with a 44-inch-wide rack he shot in Ontario last fall, are gone. So too are the three, 30-inch walleye, the full-body mounts of four black bear that ranged in size from 280 to 500 pounds, and a 10-point albino deer hit by a car near the bar a few years ago.
Gutjahr, 48, who said about half of the mounts in the bar were his, with the remainder owned by five or six others, also lost the very first buck he shot when he was 16.
“It’s affected the whole town. It’s like a landmark in Boulder,” said Julie Bjork, who for the past 21 years has owned the Ice Shanty Drive-In, a seasonal restaurant and ice cream shop in town. “Laurel and Gooch are just great people and they really make you feel welcome. All of us are feeling it. It’s just really sad.”
Crash into power pole
The Vilas County Sheriff’s Office said that just prior to the fire, reported shortly after 1:30 a.m., a 20-year-old Illinois man, driving his grandmother’s 2002 Chevy Tahoe, was doing doughnuts in the parking lot of Gooch’s when he lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a power pole adjacent to the bar. The vehicle caught fire and the fire spread to the pole and then to the bar, which had closed about an hour earlier. Despite a response from 20 area fire departments, including some from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the building could not be saved.
“It really is tragic,” said Bill Sherer, who owns a fly fishing shop just down the road from Gooch’s. “He really did well so I’m glad he’s committed to rebuilding.”
Kevin Gutjahr, who lives with Laurel in a home about 75 yards from the bar, said he was awakened by two employees who live across the street and had heard the commotion in the parking lot. Gutjahr said he ran into the bar to grab a few fire extinguishers to put out the fire in the engine compartment of the Tahoe, but it wasn’t effective. Gutjahr said he then went to the basement to get a garden hose. By the time he emerged, the fire was too far advanced.
The alleged driver of the Tahoe, whose family has a cabin in the Boulder Junction area, was arrested at the scene, said Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless driving-endangering safety, refusing to complete a sobriety test, and operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
“My husband is definitely depressed and that breaks my heart,” said Laurel Gutjahr. “That kid took more than he could even ever fathom away from us. He will never comprehend it. Nothing will be the same.”
The original portion of Gooch’s was constructed by a local bricklayer and was used as “a little saloon for the lumberjacks and railroad men,” according to “Boulder Junction, The Early Years: 1880s to 1950s,” a book published by Boulder Junction’s Friends of the Library. The saloon would take on legendary status thanks to Joe “Shrimp” Wilfer, a Racine native and World War I veteran, who as a youth spent summers at a camp on High Lake and purchased the saloon in 1926. A dance hall that included slot machines was added in 1932 and the place became a major destination after the end of Prohibition in 1933. The dance hall was converted to a wildlife museum during World War II and by 1947 visitors paid 25 cents each to get close-up views of stuffed bear, timberwolves, deer, porcupine, raccoon and other Northwoods creatures.
Wilfer ultimately sold the business, but by the 1990s a series of owners left the bar in disrepair and struggling to stay afloat. The wildlife mounts were sold off over the years before it was purchased in 1998 by Tom and Laurie Thompson, who brought stability to the business. Shortly after buying the business, they hired Kevin Gutjahr, who had come to the area in 1993 from Slinger, in southeastern Wisconsin, to tend bar and work construction jobs to support his hunting and fishing addiction.
Gutjahr bought the place in 2005 thanks to the financial backing of a longtime customer, and over the years made vast improvements including new wiring, new bathrooms, upgrades to the kitchen and a new roof. Gutjahr also began to bring wildlife mounts back into the bar, and in 2008, he met Laurel. They were married in 2014 with the reception held in the former dance hall-turned-dining room.
Gooch’s hosted banquets for small weddings and funerals, Christmas parties and Ducks Unlimited events. SnowGoer magazine even named Gooch’s one of the top pit stops in the country for snowmobilers. It wasn’t unusual to find more than 100 snowmobiles in the parking lot. In the summer, Gooch’s hosted a Tuesday night muskie league in which anglers would fan out to area lakes to try and catch the biggest fish.
“Yes, it was a business and we made money. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Kevin Gutjahr said. “But it was a community thing with a lot of history behind it. I guess we’ll just start over, fresh.”