On the first floor was a huge tavern/restaurant that served only Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and a sumptuous free lunch of roast beef and ham. On the third floor was a gym where many of the most famous boxers in history trained, including Battling Nelson, Stanley Ketchel, Jim Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard.
Between them on the second floor was what really made Morgenroth’s emporium at 756 N. Plankinton Ave. what the newspapers of the time winkingly referred to as Milwaukee’s “sporting headquarters”: a roulette wheel, dice and card games, news ticker reports from horse tracks and ballparks around the country, and the opportunity to lay down a bet on the next big fight, the next election for President, and even whether the sun would shine tomorrow.
On September 1, it will be exactly 75 years since Morgenroth’s closed its doors for good. John D. Morgenroth, grandson and namesake of the owner and proprietor, John C. Morgenroth, was only three-years-old then, but he still vividly recalls accompanying his grandfather downtown on the No. 15 streetcar and being plopped down by him atop the ornate cherry wood bar inside what one newspaper article called the city’s “grandest tavern.”
“This is my grandson,” the elder Morgenroth would announce to the invariably packed house. “I want everybody in the place to see this kid!”
It was, said John D. Morgenroth, now 79, “kind of like a god dragging me around as a baby.”
A resident of California, Morgenroth was in town recently with his daughter, Meredith, doing family research, visiting old friends, and reminiscing about the man he called “Papa John,” and boxers and everybody else who knew him revered as “Honest John” Morgenroth.
Born in Milwaukee in1865, as a young man John C. Morgenroth worked as a puddler in a steel mill for $20 a week. He was, according to his grandson, earnest, industrious, and very conservative in his habits and demeanor. This made him just about the polar opposite of his older brother, Charles, who enjoyed fancy clothes, nights out on the town, gambling, and just about anything in a skirt. In the late 1890s, Charles convinced his brother to go into the saloon business with him, and the first Morgenroth’s opened at what was then 210 W. Water St. (later N. Plankinton Ave.).
Charles eventually died of paresis. (Encouraged by his daughter to “go layman” for his interviewer, John Morgenroth translates: “That’s syphilis.”) John C. took over the business and built a local institution that became known all over the country and was the first stop for famous and non-famous boxers alike when they hit town.
Gambling in Milwaukee was illegal then, and over the years Morgenroth’s was periodically raided by the authorities. But since the restaurant and tavern were the unofficial headquarters of local lawmakers and movers-and-shakers, the middle floor was never padlocked for long.
“Honest John” himself was not much of a gambler, although his grandson says he really cleaned up betting on President Woodrow Wilson’s reelection in 1916, scoring enough money to buy up lots of real estate near his residence on the city’s south side, which he turned over to relatives.
But family members weren’t the only ones to benefit from Morgenroth’s epic generosity. If a patron lost more than he could afford on the second floor of Morgenroth’s and came to Honest John with a sob story about the wife and kids at home, Morgenroth refunded his losses with one condition: that the loser do his gambling elsewhere from then on.
Morgenroth was an especially soft touch for the prize-fighters who trained at his gym. Boxing was illegal in Wisconsin until 1913, but before that fights often were held in private. When Morgenroth saw a fighter called Whitey Berghausen banged up after a bloody bootleg bout, he went to Berghausen’s family and advised them not to let the flat-nosed, cauliflower-eared Berghausen fight again.
“Well, then you take him,” he was told.
Morgenroth put Berghausen to work cutting meat at the free lunch counter, training boxers in the gym, and as a chauffeur for him and his wife, Harriet. As a boy, John D. Morgenroth – who lived with his grandparents after his mother died giving him birth –was driven by Berghausen every morning to Trowbridge St. Elementary School, even though it was just three blocks from the family home.
“We always joke about the fact that the Morgenroth home served as a ‘boxer retirement center,’” says Meredith Morgenroth. “The ‘help’ were always older men with cauliflower ears and broken noses.”
In early 1918, a rough-bearded heavyweight from Colorado hit town for a fight with Bill Brennan. He put in a training session at Morgenroth’s, and was on his way out when Honest John hailed him.
“Hey there! Where are you going to eat tonight?”
“Oh, eat. I hadn’t given that a thought. Why do you ask?” replied Jack Dempsey, still a year away from the big money.
“If you don’t now where you’re eating tonight, sit down and be my guest,” Morgenroth told him, indicating a big spread of corned beef and cabbage he’d set up at a corner table just for Dempsey.
The weigh-ins for all the big fights in Milwaukee in the first third of the 20th century were always held at Morgenroth’s and Water St. was always clogged with fans hanging around to watch the fighters train at the gym. Only a couple hundred could squeeze inside, and hundreds more milled around out front. Once when local lightweight contender Richie Mitchell stopped outside the emporium to chat with former champion Ad Wolgast, the cops had to come unravel the traffic snarl caused by all the rubberneckers.
When Benny Leonard came to Milwaukee to fight Mitchell in 1917, Morgenroth hosted a banquet for the New York fighter at which he offered the toast, “To the next lightweight champion of the world – Benny Leonard!” Leonard won the title a month later, and always sent Morgenroth a Christmas card reminding him of his prediction.
Not as thrilled with Morgenroth was Leonard’s manager, Billy Gibson, on account of what happened the day before the first Leonard-Mitchell fight. Gibson was at the bar in Morgenroth’s when a Mitchell fan walked in, slapped fifty $1,000 bills down and offered to bet the whole wad on the Milwaukee hero at 5-1 odds. Gibson had only $40 in his pocket, and begged the Mitchell man to wait while he frantically called all over town in search of Morgenroth to cover the bet. But for once Honest John was nowhere to be found, and the high-roller pocketed his money and walked out. The next night, Leonard knocked Mitchell out in the seventh round.
The beer sold at Morgenroth’s for a nickel a glass was strictly Pabst Blue Ribbon because Milwaukee beer baron Fred Pabst was a regular customer. Morgenroth was loyal to Pabst, but not awed by him. Pabst was on hand one day when someone loudly inquired of Morgenroth, “Why don’t you sell Blatz (beer) in here?”
With an eye to Pabst, he dryly replied, “Because flies will not land in that beer.”
Prohibition, the Great Depression and tougher law enforcement eventually took their toll, and The Milwaukee Journal of August 20, 1931 carried the banner headline, “Morgenroth’s Famous Quarters to Close Sept. 1.”
“It isn’t going to seem like the same town,” lamented the two-column obituary.
Honest John died four years to the day after his emporium shut down. “Generous to a fault, he gave without regard to creed or class,” eulogized the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Funeral expenses for scores of friends and friends of friends came out of John Morgenroth’s pocket. He was usually available for a ‘touch’ for weddings, divorces, emergency trips. Many Milwaukeeans owe their educations to timely aid from him.”
In a story headlined “Honest John Fed ‘Em and Lent ‘Em Money,” Journal boxing writer Sam Levy recalled that “feting and feeding fighters was an old custom of John Morgenroth,” and that “making handouts to broken down boxers was another (one).”
Richie Mitchell never needed any handouts, but in his own memoir about his fighting days he said of Morgenroth: “A finer sportsman never lived. No down and outer ever went hungry when John was around, and he is still always willing, even anxious to help any worthy cause or fellow. I guess he has helped a lot of unworthy ones, too. ‘They all have to eat,’ I once heard him say.”