There’s a glowing oasis along a rough, dusty, stretch of 47th Street in Brookfield that is a doorway to another time and a testament to the dreams and perseverance of a single family. That welcoming refuge, known as Joe’s Saloon, is a place where generations continue the long tradition of meeting at the neighborhood tavern to celebrate, mourn, argue, sing, dance and learn. A place where, if only for a while, they can suspend time in the bar’s amber hue and give their reality the quick slip.
When Joe’s Saloon (then named Butkovich’s Tavern) was opened in 1939 at 9220 47th St. by builder George Butkovich, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President of the United States, “Gone with the Wind” was at the theater, Orson Welles’ Martians landed in New Jersey, Sid Luckman was the Bears’ quarterback and none of the Beatles had yet been born.
However, people were consumed with something of much greater importance that year, as the ominous clouds of war were threatening to envelop Europe and potentially the world. George Butkovich’s son Mike, who had been managing the Butkovich’s tavern since it had opened, was drafted in to World War II in the early 1940s. With Mike off to war, George handed over management of the bar to his son Joe who subsequently went on to run the bar until his death in 2002.
In 1942, the Butkovich family erected a large wooden war memorial next to the bar that was dedicated both to their son Mike, who lost his life in the war, as well as to all of the soldiers from Brookfield, who had lost their lives in the war up to that point. The memorial, which sat to the west of the bar where the parking lot is today, was often adorned with flowers from bar patrons and local residents.
Through the ensuing years Joe’s was a favorite spot of workers from the nearby manufacturing plants of Electro-Motive and Reynolds Aluminum. And while there have been well-known names that have cozied up to the bar, such as White Sox stars Early Wynn and Sherm Lollar and NFL star Joe Montana, the real featured customers have always been the people from the neighborhood and parts beyond.
When Joe Butkovich passed away his daughter Ellen took over and she embarked on a sweeping and costly renovation of Joe’s Saloon. It brought the bar back to its original art deco splendor and distinction and served to open the bar up to a new generation that enjoyed the mix of history and comfort.
Next month, a new owner (the first from outside the family) will assume control and thus responsibility for the enduring legacy of Joe’s Saloon. While they will work hard to make their mark in the history of Joe’s, and enjoy the support of the customers, they will always be reminded that it isn’t just a bar but a piece of the town’s fabric.
In fact, Joe’s is kind of a magical place.
Next time you’re in the area stop in, grab a seat, and with a cold Schlitz in hand soak in the history around you. Let your mind drift back in time, and though the walls might not talk of bygone moments, they might just whisper a sparkling secret in your ear.