Stop in to Birmingham's for the bread, stay for the Door County history
CORRECTION: Birmingham's does not serve burgers on buns as reported in a previous version of this story.
STURGEON BAY - Go on a Saturday.
That's my advice if you plan to stop at Birmingham's Bar and Cottages for a burger. Saturday is the only day burgers are served on homemade bread. Bread made following an old family recipe.
White, dense and soft, the bread is a worthy meal unto itself (butter optional), and it's one slice of the rich history of Birmingham's.
There's the original section of the building from 1927. There are the rental cottages that served as homes for shipbuilders flooding into Sturgeon Bay during World War II. There's a model ship carving hanging on the wall that was made by a sailor named McCracken who had a wooden peg leg. There's even one of them newfangled pin ball machines featuring a platform-boot wearing "Captain Fantastic" Elton John.
A stop at Birmingham's is a purposeful happening. It's not a place discovered while strolling among shops, nor is it found on either of the main drags (Highways 42 and 57) shuttling tourists from Sturgeon Bay to Gills Rock. Getting here involves a trip along Door County Highway B, aka Bay Shore Drive, that winds its way along the bay of Green Bay dotted with cottages.
If not for the Old Style sign out front, it would be easy to mistake the quaint Birmingham's bar and restaurant as another cottage along the way.
Husband and wife duo Brad and Jackie Birmingham own and operate Birmingham's these days, though it started as a grocery store by Brad's grandparents Herman and Elsie Geitner.
At the time, just a bit north around the bend on Bay Shore Drive was a stone quarry that drew lake freighters loading crushed stone. That also brought crews in need of food and supplies.
It was also a regular stop for cherry pickers brought up to work in orchards and summer residents nearby stopped for hand-packed ice cream.
From the start the store provided a respectable income for the Geitners and their three children. Total sales in 1928 were $11,120 ($166,000 in today's dollars), according to the tax return filing that Brad keeps along with other documents and photos of the family business.
When Prohibition ended, the store was reshaped to make room for a bar.
Cottages were built behind the tiny store during the '30s to house the shipbuilders who had flooded into Sturgeon Bay during World War II. Granted the few cottages were a drop in the bucket when it came to housing needs at the time.
United States military contracts in 1940 for the Leathem D. Smith Shipyard, the biggest in Sturgeon Bay at the time, expanded its workforce of 300 men to 1,500 in six months. At its peak, the shipyard employed an estimated 5,600 production workers, says Rhys Kuzdas, curator and archivist at the Door County Maritime Museum.
Then known as Geitner's Resort, fish fries were served for 15 cents and chicken plates for 25 cents.
The grocery portion of the business ceased by 1940 and the dining room was added to the bar after WWII.
Herman and Elsie Geitner's daughter Marion June (everyone called her June) married North Birmingham (everyone called him Bud) and the two bought the resort from her parents in 1953.
The combination of cabin rentals, with access to a small beach area and dock, and a bar and restaurant set up Birmingham's perfectly for Door County's growing appeal as a vacation destination.
Though it was still a favorite with locals, says Brad, as they hosted weddings on weekends and squeezed bands into the corner of the dining room that seats about 60 guests.
"It was a local gathering of neighborhood people," he said.
Serving more than drinks and dinners
Behind the bar, Brad is a pro. Welcoming. Quick with a smile. Equally adept at conversing and listening. Knowledgeable. And he can answer more than just questions about the history of Birmingham's.
As a crowd of regulars drifted in during the hour or so we talked, a woman popped in to ask Brad if he knew of any landscapers who would take on a small job of pruning some bushes in her yard. After a few moments of thought, he gave her a name. She thanked him and left.
That's the kind of local touch that comes from a long family history in the area. One of Brad's great grandmothers was born on the property next door.
Brad was 8 years old when he started in the family business with the glamorous job of peeling potatoes. The fries are cut in house (though I'm partial to the creamy, slightly salty potato salad.)
After returning in 1980 from college in Eau Claire, Brad continued learning the ins and outs of running the bar, restaurant and cottage rental business before buying it from his parents.
When it comes to the menu, they've stuck to what's made Birmingham's popular with their neighbors and renters.
"Growing up, my parents basically served burgers and cheeseburgers," Brad said. "Wednesday night was barbecue ribs, Friday night was fish and Saturday was chicken and steaks."
Through the years more nightly specials have been added including Swedish meatballs on Tuesdays. If you want to go old school, hand-breaded, deep-fried frog legs are available nightly.
And then, there's the bread.
Family bread recipe requires a touch of artistry
"My mother always made homemade bread," said Brad. "It was a special treat she made for the locals. The recipe came from her mother."
Homemade bread by June was a daily feature, says Jackie Birmingham, until about 20 years ago when it became a Saturday special. Until about seven years ago, June, who's nearing 96, was still involved in making the bread. Brad would do the stirring.
Initially Jackie was going to take over bread making duties.
“When I went to learn from her, she’d be like, 'You need a tablespoon of this,' and I would get out the tablespoon and she’d be like, 'No, no, that’s not it.' It would be the big serving spoon, you know, that you use in the buffet and that’s her tablespoon," said Jackie. "We joked around that we should have video tapped her doing that because you can’t write that stuff down.”
Jackie laughs about it now and says fortunately one of Birmingham's longtime employees gets it right.
Brenda Jeanquart, who has worked at Birmingham's for over 40 years, arrives at 6 a.m. each Saturday to measure, mix and get the dough rising. During the height of vacation season, they will go through 20 loaves on a Saturday.
They're baked in time to be sliced for burgers during the lunch rush with enough to accompany the Saturday night chicken dinner.
Brad can't say when the burgers were first served on bread, but it remains a popular choice.
Getting back to the roots of adapting to change
The coolers along the bar's back wall are the originals from 1927. Long before modern technology, they used a big block of ice to keep things cool. The ice was placed in the center cabinet, while supplies that needed refrigeration went in the surrounding cases. As the ice melted, water drained through a hole in the bottom. Ice was cut from the bay, covered in sawdust and stored in an ice house for use throughout summer.
On the opposite wall, near the entrance, hangs the model ship carved by Guy McCracken. A sailor turned model ship carver, McCracken gained some national attention for his art, says Kuzdas. He also lived an eventful life, from losing a leg following a shark attack at sea to his death in jail where he was being held for throwing a rock through the Bank of Sturgeon Bay's window after he was denied a loan.
In the corner, the pinball machine was brought in during the late '70s to replace the shuffleboard as a source of entertainment. Brad says there wasn't any particular reason for choosing a machine with the Elton John theme, other than it was available for purchase.
Birmingham's has stood the test of time because of its ability to both adapt while holding true to its past. And changes are still happening.
The Birminghams converted their barn near the water's edge into another rental and listed it on Airbnb. The daytime view of the water and Potawatomi State Park also provides the backdrop to watch each evening's sunset.
And in a return to how it all began, the Birminghams opened a store across the street from the bar to serve folks heading to the old stone quarry. Though crushed stone isn't drawing folks here anymore.
Home to a 6-lane boat launch, fishing pier and other park amenities, the old stone quarry is now George K. Pinney County Park. The latest Birmingham store offers fresh doughnuts, coffee, snacks, drinks, ice, other convenience store items and, of course, bait and fishing supplies.
Brad is thankful for support from local residents and summer renters, even if he underestimates Birminghams' appeal to a larger audience.
"We have a great clientele," said Brad. "We’re not for everybody. If you drive by you might not stop in."
If you're looking for a spot to soak in Door County as your parents or grandparents experienced it and don't stop in at Birmingham's, that would be a shame.
Birmingham's Bar & Cottages
Where: 4709 Bay Shore Drive, Sturgeon Bay
Contact: (920) 743-5215
Contact Daniel at (920) 996-7214 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @HigginsEats and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/higginseats/.