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Retrospect: Semrow opens Sussex Beer Depot

First of two parts

by Fred H. Keller, Sussex Village Historian

published, Sussex Sun, Retrospect, February 5, 2008

A home once stood on the triangle of land formed by the intersection of Main Street and Silver Spring.

Its backyard was dominated by a sawmill, with logs ready to saw and the finished product waiting for its owner to pick it up. In time, that backyard, stretching from Silver Spring to Main Street, became a building lot.

Ultimately, that backyard sawmill house and its sheds wound up next to Sussex Community Hall (today's Sussex-area Outreach Services, more commonly called the food pantry).

That house became the Lisbon Telephone Co. Central Office, and the sheds behind it became storage areas for telephone maintenance supplies and equipment.

In 1946, an enterprising man, George "Red" Semrow, bought if for a home for his new bride. He used the back sheds for his side business: raising lots of rabbits.

In late 1949, though, he decided that, as good as the rabbit-raising business was, World War II was over and the taste for rabbits was waning. He needed new business to supplement his growing family. Besides, his wife was against continuing the rabbit business.

So, while keeping his regular job, he started the first-ever Sussex Beer Depot. Thirty years later, he sold the house and business to Pat and Dave Bartlett, who would call it Olde Country Spirits. Pat ran the business during the day, Dave in the evenings.

Pat became a Sussex village trustee and served multiple terms as village president before resigning when she moved out of Sussex as this century began.

The Bartletts sold the business when they moved. The property at N63 W23635 Silver Spring Road is now called J's Liquor under its fourth proprietor.

(Many years earlier, the sawmill house was moved to a new site on Maple Avenue across from St. Alban's Cemetery. Jim Heck's Citgo station occupies that location today.)

Semrow's Sussex Beer Depot, the village's first, is now 58 years old. From 1949 to 1979, it was one of the pillars of Sussex and had no competition. Since then, a second beer depot has opened in Sussex, and both of the village's major grocery stores have full-service beer-liquor licenses.

Semrow, the third of 13 children, was born on a farm near Whiskey Corners, up east on Mill Road. (Today, the majority of that farm is part of the Silver Spring Country Club golf course.)

Young Red had a hardscrabble childhood. He told me in 1979 that back in the Depression, his family had very little money and was into making booze.

"My family made moonshine on the farm," he said. "Never sold any. The relatives drank it all up."

I went to his brother, Ray, the eldest of the 13 children, to find out about the booze-making. His story was a little different:

"Yeah, we made it, and we sold it. It was during the Depression and Prohibition, and the family needed the money. I delivered to four taverns in Butler for $7 a gallon.

"I was only 12 years old when I started driving. I drove a truck, with my mother going along. I didn't need a license to drive in those days.

"We got into trouble because, instead of waiting for us to deliver it, guys started to come to the farm to pick it up. With all the traffic coming out to this lonely farm in the dark, a jealous neighbor figured out what was happening and reported us.

"One day, Sheriff Redford came around and told my family to clean the place up, as the Feds were coming to raid the place."

Red and Ray helped the family dismantle the still, burying the copper boiler deep in the center of the farm's manure pile. The rest of the equipment was hidden in the haymow.

When the Feds came, Ray told me, they snooped around but didn't find anything of consequence. They finally left, admitting defeat, and excused themselves, saying that someone must have given them the wrong information.

The visit by the Feds put the fear of the law into the family, and they never made any more booze. Shortly thereafter, Congress repealed Prohibition, ending the bootleg booze business.

Retrospect: Beer Depot

Second of Two Parts

by Fred H. Keller, Sussex Village Historian

published, Sussex Sun, Retrospect, February 12, 2008

Last Revised 03/31/2014

The original George "Red" Semrow's Beer Depot is now, 59 years after it first opened for business, under its fourth owner as J's Liquor. Semrow had no competition in 1949 when he started, but there's plenty today, including two supermarket franchises.

Red was born in 1916 and only attended grade school, the nearby Willow Spring Grade School.

The U.S. entered World War II in 1941 when he was 25 years old, but he was not inducted. He was too old for the first 18- to 21-year-old callup.

Then he was exempted as a farmboy, and later because he worked at the Wauwatosa Liberty (Grede) Foundry, an essential war production job. He continued to get older, too, reaching 29 by the time the war ended.

He raised rabbits during the war years in a house close to Willow Spring Mobile Home Park. Most meats were strictly rationed during the war, but rabbit meat wasn't one of them.

In 1946, a year after the war ended, he married Dorothy Janke, a Granville woman, but not before she extracted a promise from him to get rid of the rabbits.

"I sold most of the rabbits," Red recalled recently, "but I fooled her. Gradually I got the number back up. You know how rabbits multiply."

Soon after they married, Red found out that the Lisbon Telephone Co. central office and its attached sheds were for sale. Dorothy was interested in the Main Street house that housed the telephone office, but Red was intrigued by the back shed, where he could really get his rabbit business going.

Before then, Bell Telephone had not extended its reach into rural communities such as Sussex, which had Lisbon Telephone Co., but now the big, nationwide telephone company started to acquire such rural phone businesses.

Red bought the property for $5,500. The deal included a kicker allowing Lisbon Telephone Co. to rent the front room for its central office for $25 a month, effectively eliminating Semrow's mortgage payment for the first three years, after which the telephone company left.

Red retained his foundry job while his rabbit livestock boomed, but by now Dorothy saw the profit potential and started feeding and watering the animals and helping out as needed. Red favored New Zealand white rabbits.

He had about 1,000 rabbits in the sheds behind his downtown Sussex home. Red sold 200 rabbits per week to Soden's Market in Milwaukee - most of them alive. He also brokered stock raised by other rabbit farmers.

Besides selling live rabbits, Red also butchered a lot of them, including any brokered rabbits that showed some color, because he only sold the "white" New Zealand variety.

While Soden's Market took 90 percent of his stock, Ray Raddenback at the Sussex Brook Hotel and later Marian Donkle, who took over the hotel and renamed it Donkle's Tap, bought most of the rest.

(All that remains of the old hotel is the clock in Sussex Square Park.)

By 1949, however, it was time to get out of the rabbit-raising business as Red's customers could now get nonrationed beef and pork. It was time to find a new part-time job, and just before Christmas he hit upon the beer depot idea.

He cleaned out the sheds and remodeled them. Dorothy tended the business during the day while minding their growing family. (They ultimately had four children.)

It was all new to Red, determining what to order and how much. He started with a case of gin because it was Christmastime. "My money was limited," Red said.

He also had a little problem with a local church group that wanted to shut it down. Taverns were bad enough - Sussex already had three of them, and Whiskey Corners was only a long mile away - the church people thought.

Red went to see Village President Charles Busse about the opposition, but no one followed through to stop him.

Semrow also kept his full-time job for 12 more years before he went full time at the beer depot.

Right next to the beer depot was the Sussex Fire Department garage, and in March 1953 Red joined up. Because he lived next door, he was often the first one there and would have the doors open as the other volunteer firemen arrived.

He remained a valued and active member for more than 20 years. His fellow volunteers elected him their steward (providing food and beverages after a practice or a fire call, conveniently from his business right next door), and he served in that position for many years.

Red and Dorothy sold their home and business to Pat and Dave Bartlett in May 1979. They retired to a summer property on Green Lake and to winter digs in Florida. He returned often to make the annual Fire Department Founders party for retired firefighters in February.

Red is buried in the front row of St. James Catholic Cemetery on Town Line Road.

March 17, 1992

Patricia Bartlett, 48, (Inc.)


W232-N6116 Waukesha Ave.

Date of Birth:

April 6, 1943


Liquor store owner


Feb 1, 1996

Patricia Bartlett, 52

Address, Time in District: N58-W24248 Clover Drive, 33 years

Date of Birth: April 6, 1943

Occupation: Partner in Olde Country Spirits


Bartlett, David L.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) - Sunday, October 14, 2012
Author: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Staff
Age 72 years. Of the Town of Waukesha. Formerly of Sussex . Born to Eternal Life Friday, October 12, 2012. Beloved wife of Patricia (nee Thelen). Loving father of Suzie (James) Ureda, Brett (Liz), Jeff (Linda) and Jason (Kathy) Bartlett. Proud Papa Dave of David, Samantha, Blake, Brooke, Brynn, Cameron, Morgan and Missy. Dear brother of Diane Maglio. Further survived by nieces, nephews, other relatives and friends.

The family will receive relatives and friends on Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the funeral home from 3:30 PM until time of Memorial Service at 5:30 PM. Private burial Oak Hill Cemetery, Brookfield. Dave was a resident of Sussex for 39 years and the former owner of Olde Country Spirits Liquor Store in Sussex . Dave also was a member of the Sussex Lions Club. In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Medical College of Wisconsin Division of Oncology, 9200 W. Wisconsin Ave., Wauwatosa, WI 53226.

Copyright 2012, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)


Sussex woman on brink of deportation to India Strict immigration laws have left her family with few choices

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) - Thursday, November 25, 2004
Author: LAUREL WALKER, of the Journal Sentinel staff: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sussex woman on brink of deportation to India

Strict immigration laws have left her family with few choices

Terwinder Singh, a Sussex wife, mother of two and business owner, sits in the Dodge County Justice Facility awaiting the moment when immigration officials will put her on a plane to India.

She has not been back to her Waukesha County home and business since Nov. 4, when Brown Deer police came to her aid after she became stuck in traffic with a flat tire.

A lousy flat tire -- and treadmarks left by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on an increasingly contentious debate over U.S. immigration policy.

When police routinely checked Terwinder Singh's records, they discovered that immigration officials wanted the 31-year- old woman detained. She entered the country illegally, without proper documents, 12 years ago for an arranged marriage. But officials didn't catch up to her with an order to depart voluntarily, at her own expense and within 30 days, until March 2002. Her appeal had been hanging around since 1998.

At the time she'd had two children -- daughter Manpreet, now 12, and son Gagan, now 8. They are American citizens.

Why she ignored the order isn't clear, but that made matters worse. Her husband claims they were unaware that her appeal had been denied or of a final order to report with bags packed for deportation on Feb. 26.

By the time Brown Deer police came upon her, she was considered a fugitive, and she's been treated like one, shackles and all.

Ram Singh, her 46-year- old husband, seems like a lost soul these days as he struggles to manage family, home and the liquor store business. Unlike his wife and children, he does not have a good command of spoken English and cannot read or write it despite 20 years in this country.

Without his wife, who managed everything, "I lose everything," he said. "I can't handle."

He worries about his children, students at Maple Avenue Elementary and Templeton Middle schools in Sussex , and the terrible choice he faces if his wife is soon deported as expected. Either they must live here without their mother or return with her to a country that is not their own.

On the last visit to India, he said, his daughter spent much of the month in a hospital because she became ill on the food and water. The children do not read or write their parents' Punjabi language, and they speak it poorly.

"I no understand what I can do," Ram Singh said. "I need help. I no want to cut family apart." The couple have decided the children will return with their mother, or after her if a joint flight is prevented by officials.

Terwinder Singh's friend and advocate, Penny Jo Kundert, said any day a call can come telling them to deliver a 40-pound maximum suitcase to the Chicago flight home.

Kundert, who is director of the Sussex -area Outreach Service, is brought to tears by the case.

The Singhs, whose Olde Country Spirits and attached residence is next door to Kundert's office and the Sussex Food Pantry, have brought diversity to her rather homogeneous community since moving there eight months ago from Milwaukee, Kundert said. Their children play with her children. They share meals. Kundert has brought the children to visit their mother in jail twice.

She had hoped that somehow Terwinder Singh could stay at least long enough to sell the family business and leave for India with her family, "with dignity."

It is difficult to understand how a woman could work for several years, as Terwinder Singh did for Kohls department stores' distribution center, and how she could own a home, pay taxes, buy a business, get a driver's license and have children, and then one day be told to just leave when, as Kundert put it, "she committed no crime but to have a flat tire."

No crime, except violating immigration law.

Harold Block, a Milwaukee attorney specializing in immigration cases who's seen a lot like this one, has consulted with Ram Singh and sees little recourse.

Changes in immigration law in 1996 made it much more difficult for illegal immigrants who had positively fit into the United States to obtain permanent status, he said. Adding children -- U.S. citizens -- to the equation might have made a difference had Terwinder Singh not been ordered deported.

"I guess what it is, is an illustration of the harshness of the current immigration laws," he said. Congress seemed interested in changes, and "it might have happened if we hadn't run into 9-11."

Just this week, President Bush said he would push for changes allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. as guest workers, but he's likely in for a fight in Congress. U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) last week blocked federal reform of the intelligence community, despite pressure from the White House, because he didn't get his demand for a ban on the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"It's pretty clear that the president and a lot of members of Congress believe further modifications are necessary," Block said. But right now, the law "is harsh. It's severe, and unfortunately, the laws are what they are."

Gail Montenegro is a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Chicago. Speaking about cases such as Terwinder Singh's, she said, "Yes, of course that's a difficult issue. You're dealing with children who have every right to be in the United States. But that doesn't convey rights to the parent who decided to come here illegally."

Montenegro said the department does have priorities. Terrorists first. Then criminals after they've served their sentences, then smugglers, and so on. They're not looking for illegal aliens who aren't troublemakers, but if they find one, they won't turn them loose.

Even those looking for a little help with a flat tire.


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