Greendale’s Oldest Business and House
Week#44: Ray & Dot’s has been a social gathering spot in Greendale since 1957. The Jeremiah Curtin House dates back to 1846.
History records and explains past events, while folklore preserves what people widely remember.
History and Folklore!
If you’re reading this story and live in Greendale, raise your hand if you have not been to Ray & Dot’s on Grange Avenue. I don’t see too many hands. That’s no surprise, since Ray & Dot’s has been one of Greendale’s main social spots for over 50 years. The American Legion moved to the Basse farmhouse on Grange Avenue in 1948 (see Week#69). In 1957 the Legion advertised for someone to operate a tavern on the first floor. Ray & Dorothy (Dot) Koepsel answered the ad, opened up Ray & Dot’s Tavern, and the rest is as they say ‘history’. When in 1969 the American Legion moved into their new building on Grange Avenue and tore down the old one, Ray & Dot’s moved with them.
Marc Koepsel, Ray & Dorothy’s son, has owned the tavern since 1995 and I asked him this week how the bar has been successful for so many years. He said his parents believed in the neighborhood aspect of the business, a safe, comfortable, friendly place to socialize near home. That’s the kind of atmosphere he has worked hard to maintain. Marc said he’s made improvements over the years, most notably with flat screen TV’s and game machines, but the formula for success has not changed. The crowd is mostly local, from Greendale, Greenfield and Hales Corners. He still has the pool table, darts, and a jukebox. And most importantly he has kept the drink prices low.
He said the make-up of the patrons has changed over the years, but he still serves a very diverse crowd. In the 50’s and 60’ a lot of the residents in Greendale worked manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee and West Allis. After the first shift they would stop by Ray & Dot’s for a little relaxation and drink before heading home for dinner with the family. I found it very interesting when he told me his parents sold a wide variety of merchandise in those early years. His dad would pick up anything he could get a good price on and sell it to the customers, like watches, jackets, candy etc. There was also local produce and dairy for sale like eggs, and baked goods like bread. This was like a modern day dollar store. So when the wife asked her husband to pick up eggs and bread on his way home from work, he could do that and have a beer at the same time. How cool was that. Wives might have been more understanding back then, not that I’m suggesting my wife is not understanding now……
Today, Marc told me, the crowd still ranges from laborers to professionals to retirees. Two weeks ago on a Thursday night when I was in there before a Packer game, there were casually dressed young people, men in suits, and women in professional attire. Of course there were also ‘old men in ball caps’ as required by the unwritten neighborhood bar code. Another reason for Ray & Dot’s popularity is because Marc keeps the food selections simple, tasty and inexpensive. It’s mostly finger food like wings,nachos and pizza. If you’re in a hurry you can stop in have a drink, an appetizer, and be on your way.
I think Ray & Dot’s has been successful because it is part of the fabric of Greendale. They have maintained a successful landlord tenant relationship with the American Legion for 55 years. Families, businesses, and organizations have held retirement, anniversary, birthday, and graduation parties utilizing the American Legion hall and Ray & Dot’s services. It has been a safe neighborhood social gathering place for generations. That’s how Ray, Dot and Marc have achieved the record for the longest continuous business in Greendale.
Recently Marc and his business have added their support to the plans for Greendale’s 75th Birthday in 2013. A lot of alumni will be in town to join in the celebration. That also means a lot of former patrons will be tipping one for old time’s sake at Ray & Dot’s.
People, Past & Present!
Marc Koepsel was born and raised in Greendale. He was born shortly after his parents started Ray & Dot’s in the American Legion building (formerly the Basse farmhouse). The family lived on the 2nd floor in not much more that 500 sq. ft. of space. But he loved it. The American Legion hall was on the same floor as the living quarters. It was noisy at times, but as a kid he thought it was great. Behind the building was the apple orchard, the shed that was the old farm smokehouse, and the old water pump. That provided him was plenty of space for playing and exploring.
The family moved around 1967 to a house nearby the American Legion. He remembers watching his first ‘home’ in the old farmhouse being torn down once the new American Legion building was completed. When he became a teenager he would mow the lawn and help set up for bingo at the new Legion Post.
His school career was just as interesting. He was in the last kindergarten class to attend at the middle school building. The neighborhood grade schools were starting to be constructed at that time. He remembers that Canterbury grade school was not quite completed when he started grade school. So he attended classes held at St. Luke’s church for a short time. He also remembers being bused to school in the late 60’s because Grange Avenue was under construction and they did not want the kids trying to walk alongside or try to cross over the roadway. He was part of one of the largest classes to go thru Greendale High School and he graduated in 1977.
Marc learned the tavern business by being around it for so many years and seeing how his parents liked it. So he decided to make it his career. Now whenever he travels, domestically or internationally, if he wears a Ray & Dot’s t-shirt chances are someone will recognize it and say they had been there. That’s a nice legacy for his parents and a nice compliment to him for keeping an institution in Greendale ‘alive and well’.
But did you know?
Grange Avenue in Greendale was a narrow two lane street until the late 1960’s. That was when it was expanded to a 4 lane divided roadway. It was dedicated on November 22, 1969. This improvement was being made at the same time that the new American Legion building was being built. But the American Legion Post 416 was completed a little earlier than the roadway, and occupied in July of 1969.
Historic Greendale Homes!
The second house in the series is believed to be the oldest in Greendale. It was located in the Old Town of Greenfield and was occupied until the 1920’s. In 1936 it was purchased by the Federal Government as part of the Greendale project. The Milwaukee County Historical Society acquired the house in 1952 from the federal government. Here is the story:
Jeremiah Curtin House - Grange Avenue West of 84th St. - Greendale, WI 53129
The Jeremiah Curtin House is located on Grange Ave between 84th and 92nd Streets. It is now a part of the Trimborn Farm complex. Curtin was a famous linguist of his time (born in 1835 and died in 1906). He is known to have spoken over 70 languages fluently and is credited for translating many Native American dialects which would have been lost if not for his efforts. It is believed he was the first Wisconsinite to attend Harvard. He is best known for his translation to English of the Polish book "Quo Vadis" by author Henryk Sienkiewica. Additionally he translated the Russian papers when Abraham Lincoln wanted to purchase Alaska from them (1867).
The house is a typical charming Irish home. David Curtin (Jeremiah's father) was the first Irishmen to build in this area among the German owned farms. An addition to the back of the home was added to create a larger kitchen and springhouse. Besides the living room, a small room on the side was the bedroom for his parents and Jeremiah and his seven siblings slept upstairs in the small, small attic.
In 1976 a major restoration of the Curtin house was started and completed in 1984. There was a rededication of the house in 1985 by the Milwaukee County Historical Society in honor of the 150th Anniversary of Curtin's birthday.
Editor’s note: The Jeremiah Curtin House can be toured, but by appointment only. Contact the Milwaukee County Historical Society for more information.
Greendale Trivia Question and Answer:
Week#45 Answer – The oldest house in Greendale is the Jeremiah Curtin House located on Grange Avenue West of 84th Street.
Week#44 Question – There once was a skating rink west of Broad Street near Schoolway in the ‘Commons’ area of Greendale in the 1940’s. Was there a different skating rink somewhere earlier?
** Week #44 contributors Sally Chadwick, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Greendale Library, Marc Koepsel, Kathleen Hart, Greendale Historical Society.