An interstate driveway: The Wabegon Bar is in Wisconsin, but you can only get to it from Minnesota
A couple walked into the Wabegon Bar, flummoxed.
“Where the hell are we?” they asked.
The bartender had heard it before.
That’s because the Wabegon is the only bar in Wisconsin you can’t get to through Wisconsin.
“Unless you canoe here,” said regular Bill Talarico.
The bar is just off a stretch of Minnesota 23 known as the Evergreen Memorial Scenic Drive, which stretches diagonally from Duluth to the far reaches of southwest Minnesota. Just outside of Duluth, though, after the road leaves down-on-its-heels Gary-New Duluth, it crosses the St. Louis River and passes through a spit of Wisconsin barely 2,000 feet wide.
On the western edge of that spit, wedged between the river and the state border (and the Evergreen highway a few feet beyond), sits the Wabegon.
By some long-forgotten engineering gaffe, the driveway to the Wabegon runs from the bar in Wisconsin, over the imaginary border line to the highway in Minnesota.
And that unique positioning has led to a few peculiarities.
The business has two ZIP codes: one for Wisconsin and one for Minnesota.
Once, a tenant in one of the bar’s rental cabins wanted to register to vote in Minnesota — she was born in Minnesota and worked in Carlton, Minn. — but was told that because she sleeps in Wisconsin, she’d have to register there.
And the regulars are strictly Minnesotan, down to the allegiance to the Vikings.
“There’s nothing in this place that would tell you it’s a Wisconsin bar,” said owner Paul Vernon, “except the poker machines.”
Then there’s that: The bar can offer poker machines that pay out and offer off-sale beer and liquor.
“Seventy percent of our off-sale is to Minnesotans,” Vernon said.
The local folklore about the bar and the land it sits on is that it used to be a part of Minnesota, until the state needed a partner to build the Fond du Lac dam on the St. Louis River. So it sold the small contiguous acreage to neighboring Wisconsin for $1.
While the dam is real — as is the wall-sized mural of it in the bar’s dining room — the story isn’t.
“As far as I know, it’s been Wisconsin since God created Wisconsin and Minnesota,” said Paul Gassert, an auditor with Carlton County, Minn.
That’s how Andy Lisak, the Douglas County, Wis., administrator, understands it, too.
“It’s odd in the sense that you have to go to Minnesota to get there,” he said, but not odd when you consider that “there are portions of piers based in Duluth that have tips in Wisconsin.”
For Talarico, the regular from tiny Wrenshall, Minn., it’s the odd location that first brought him to the bar 30 years ago.
While a high school student in Duluth in the early 1980s, Talarico couldn’t drink in Minnesota bars, where the minimum age was 19. But the 18-year-old and his friends were able to zip across the border to Superior, Wis., on lunch breaks and have a beer with their burgers.
It was one of those midday runs that brought his crew down Minnesota 23 to the bar marked by a listing Pabst Blue Ribbon sign (it’s still listing).
“I never made it back to school that day,” he said.
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