South Superior, Wisconsin, Institution Turns 50
By Maria Lockwood, for the Superior Telegram
For nearly 50 years, Nellie Bird has opened Les Bird’s Bar with a smile.
“I like people,” she said. “I’ve never had a day where I thought, ‘Oh, I hate to go down to that bar today.’”
So at 6:45 a.m. every morning, you can find her at the business in Superior’s South End, sorting mail, preparing tills and waiting for the regulars. By 8 a.m., they’re sipping coffee together, solving the problems of the world.
“The coffee’s always free; somebody always bakes,” said Roxie Boustead, a coffee clatch regular. “It’s not a coffee shop but it’s not really a bar in the morning either, it’s just like a gathering spot.”
Whether it’s morning coffee clatch, afternoon happy hour or one hour to closing, Les Bird’s is, as patrons call it, “a nice, neighborhood bar.”
“Nellie makes it home away from home for everybody there,” said Brad Little, maintenance personnel at Nemadji Golf Course.
You can catch good stories there – like the time a bout of arm wrestling got out of hand and Bird waded right into the middle or the group trip to Vegas for a wedding.
In the fall, the bar holds a local food shelf of sorts – a spot where gardeners can bring in their fresh produce. “You can help yourself,” Bird said, and by the end of the day the food is gone. Sports is a hot topic, with the 89-year-old Bird ready to talk about plays, passes and games. “Of course, we’re big-time Packer fans,” she said, with a healthy following for the Badgers and Brewers as well. Wednesday night meat raffles at the bar support both the Evening Lions Club and the Matthew I. Pionk Park in Oliver, WI.
The South End establishment has picked up a loyal flock of regulars. “Probably the nicest bar in town,” said Jerry Ruzic of Oliver. “You get in the habit of going someplace and it’s hard to break a habit. So Nellie’s kind of a habit, we just can’t break it.”
That habit has stood the test of time. “We’re probably on the fourth generation now,” Bird said. “I can’t tell you how many people have come in and said, ‘Do you remember my grandpa?’ ‘Do you remember my aunt?’” Graves said. “They used to say ‘my mother and father’ and now they say ‘my grandpa,’” Nellie said with a chuckle.
When Les and Nellie Bird opened Les Bird’s Bar in 1959, they started from scratch. Although customers from their former downtown business, the Palace Bar, stopped by, they knew they had to grow a local customer base. “I remember my husband telling me we can’t depend on our old customers; we have to make our own,” Bird said.
How did they do it? “It’s always been a nice, clean place,” said Robin Graves, who has worked at the bar for 24 years. “It’s been a place that, I think, people feel that they could bring their mother or their relative, their children. Everyone is welcome.”
“That was our purpose,” Bird said. “A place where a woman could come in by herself if she chose to. And still nobody would bother her and she wouldn’t get a reputation.”
In 1959, the establishment – formerly Atz’s Bar – was a fraction of what it is today, just the bar area itself. Over the years, it has grown out to include bathrooms, a back room and a liquor store. The bar sponsors golf teams at Nemadji and Pattison golf courses and used to sponsor bowling and baseball teams. As for trouble with the law, it’s close to zero. “We run a tight ship here where we don’t have any problems,” Bird said. “I don’t know if it’s because of my age that everybody respects me or what.”
Other businesses in South End certainly respect Bird. Fuller’s Family Restaurant has been next door to Les Bird’s for 25 years. Superior Meats is a few blocks away. Calls to both businesses revealed the bar is a good neighbor and a local institution. Gina Kivisto, assistant manager of Superior Meats, commented on the atmosphere and longtime employees. Three employees have been with Les Bird’s for more than 15 years. Such longevity is unique in the bar business, Kivisto said, but not for people who know Bird.
“Nellie’s a wonderful person to work for,” Graves said, a genuine person who treats folks as individuals. Employer and employees take a team approach to running the bar. That team pulled together to carry on when Les died in 1995. “I just sat down and talked with them and I said, you know, as long as everyone works together and we get along OK, I’m going to try to keep it as long as I can,” Bird said. “I didn’t think it would go this long. They make it easy for me.”
After Les’ death, Bird found a motto in his papers that she made into a plaque. It reflects the bar’s philosophy: “This bar is where ladies and gentlemen are served by ladies and gentlemen.”
The business continues to do well. Once they were the new kids on the block, Bird said, and now they’re the old ones. On Dec. 15, Les Bird’s Bar will officially turn 50. That’s cause to celebrate, say patrons. “It’s just a fun place,” said Debbie Aleff, with so many great stories.
Bird has been in the bar business for 59 years. “I know I should be giving it up at my age,” said the 89-year-old. But every morning she heads to work with a smile. “I’m still running it,” Bird said. “I’ve got to know what’s going on.”
Click here to read the full article on The Superior Telegram Online