News and analysis
May 26, 2015

Where the Beer Flows, the Donation Goes

Bob Gross, Northland College

Ida Meyer, who owned the bar Cabbie’s Tap with her husband from 1953 to 1963, left $200,000 to nearby Northland College. Here, a bar patron holds up a picture of the couple.

They went for the 10-cent tap beers. They went for foot-long hot dogs and sandwiches made with thick slices of Wisconsin cheese. And they went for romance, sometimes lasting a night or two, sometimes a lifetime.

Students at Northland College in the 1950s and 60s loved Cabbie’s, a local watering hole the likes of which only a town such as Ashland, Wis. — population 8,130 — can offer up.

And while there was a threshold to their tolerance of youthful shenanigans, Cabbie’s founders, Ida and Casper "Cabbie" Meyer, loved the students right back.

Just how much was made clear this spring when Ida Meyer, who had long since retired to Florida, bequeathed $200,000 to Northland College in honor of those loyal student customers. She died March 22 at the age of 103, and her attorney notified the college of the gift several weeks later. It is by no means the institution’s largest — Northland received a $10 million bequest earlier this year — but the back story sets it apart.

"The way they lived their lives is precisely the way that she has now left her money," Michael Miller, president of Northland College, said of the Meyers. "It is generous and relational and caring for young folks that are trying to make their lives better."

The donation came unrestricted and will go into a fund for student scholarships, Mr. Miller said. The liberal-arts college, which has a strong focus on environmental studies, enrolls about 600 students.

Married in 1935, Ida and Cabbie Meyer went on to own several small businesses in Wisconsin, including a cheese factory and a Dairy Queen. They opened the namesake tavern Cabbie’s Tap on Main Street in 1953.

They ran it for a decade, possibly the most fastidious bar owners ever known, according to patrons. The couple lived above the establishment, and every morning they scrubbed the bar top to bottom, waxing the floors and cleaning the beer lines.

Cabbie’s was the go-to destination for students and local residents. They listened to music, danced, and flirted. Not even vicious Wisconsin snowstorms kept them away. Regulars could be found there several times a week.

"That was a time when workers did that," said Rollie Hicks, who graduated from Northland College in 1965. "Every day they’d stop at the bar and have a few. There were a lot of kids at the time who didn’t make it through [college] because they stopped at the bar too often."

Children of the Great Depression, the Meyers worked hard and saved hard. Cabbie made regular trips to Monroe, Wis., to stock up on cheese. Customers could order a slice of rye bread with a slice of swiss or cheddar. Sometimes Ida sent students home with blocks of cheese if she knew their cupboards were bare. She also made a special sauce that was served over foot-long hot dogs.

State law fueled the establishment’s popularity — at the time the legal age for consuming beer in Wisconsin was 18, giving way to what were known as "beer bars." More than a few students from states with higher drinking ages learned to handle their beer at Cabbie’s, said those who frequented the tavern. An eight-ounce glass was 10 cents and a 12-ounce glass was 15 cents.

Saturdays brought fights, so regularly, in fact, that students referred to those outings as "Saturday night at the fight." Cabbie neither condoned nor prohibited the activity. He directed combatants outside to an adjacent alley.

Once a pair of students set off cherry bombs in a Cabbie’s toilet, blowing it to smithereens and landing themselves on the front page of the local newspaper. No criminal charges were filed, although the culprits were required to replace the porcelain pot.

At the time, female students at Northland College had a curfew of 10 p.m. Male students were allowed to roam until all hours.

"We would have a date, take the girl back to the dorm, and then head back to Cabbie’s and finish up the night," Mr. Hicks said. "That was a common practice."

Numerous bargoers met their future spouses at Cabbie’s. Among them is Howard Paap, who spotted his wife — they’ve been married 53 years — at the tavern while studying and playing baseball at Northland in 1959-60. He remembers Ida Meyer as a quiet, smiling woman behind the bar.

Her gift, Mr. Paap said, "tells me that she and Cabbie were really grateful to the Northland students. It causes you to think a little about how nice people can be, and how important we can be to each other and we may not even know it."

Judy Francois, who graduated from Northland in 1959 and eventually had 11 children, received weekly checks from her father, which she cashed at Cabbie’s.

"One time when I was home he asked me, ‘What is this Cabbie’s?’ " Ms. Francois said. "I told him and he laughed. He knew me well. It didn’t surprise him one bit that I cashed it at a tavern."

Cabbie’s as it originally existed was largely destroyed in a fire in 1963, and the Meyers sold it shortly afterward. Today it’s a sports bar known as the Stagecoach Inn. But the establishment was such an indelible part of the college experience for classes of the 1950s and 60s that reunions feature a Cabbie’s night during which the bar’s current owners hang a sign displaying the original name.

Cabbie Meyer died in 1991, and Ida moved to Florida. They did not have children. Ida planned the gift to Northland College for many years.

"She said, ‘You know, back in the 50s and 60s, we owned a neighborhood bar in Ashland, Wis.,’ " her attorney, Michael Rider, recalled her telling him. "‘The students of Northland College were our best customers. They treated us good and we treated them good.’ "

"She never forgot it."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.