Family run with gusto and now turning 75
It was a ma & pa operation but the ma -- otherwise known as Emma -- was the driving force.
River Falls natives from the local Bohemian Settlement Stan and Emma Johnson bought the Silver Dome at Main and Maple streets in July 1934.
They renamed it Johnson's. The kept it as a restaurant that sold beer.
Marlys Smith, 79, the couple's daughter, said of her mother, "It was her baby from the start."
Marlys's brother Lynn Johnson, 62, the current owner, said of his dad, "He wanted to be away on the road."
And apparently he was, hauling Yoerg's Beer from a small, 19th century St. Paul brewery throughout a distribution area that included River Falls, Ellsworth, Hudson, Prescott and other nearby towns and villages.
Emma's sister, "Aunt Claire" Beskar, teamed up with Emma to do the cooking.
In 1936, Johnson's moved to the 100 block of East Maple Street near where the old laundromat stood.
In 1938, acting on an order from the city to be licensed as either a restaurant or a bar, the Johnsons scrapped food and went bottom's up for the bar business.
In 1951 a new building for the bar was put up on South Main Street where you still find Emma's today.
Lynn said from what he's been told, the business is one of the oldest family run bars in the state and likely the oldest in western Wisconsin.
Stan Johnson died in 1949. With Emma the active owner and face of the bar, the Johnson name was dropped and Emma's was born.
"She was a determined, controlling woman who enjoyed her role in running this place and was very proud of how she handled it," Marlys said.
Added Lynn, "She wasn't scared to do it herself, either."
Long ago Marlys and her husband Robert worked at Emma's, waiting on tables, tending bar.
"But I really didn't care for it," she said, and never joined the ownership.
Younger brother Lynn did and has been running the bar since the mid-1970s. Emma died in 1995 at age 89.
"It's an 80-hour a week job. Even when you're on vacation you still have to do it," Lynn said. "We open up 365 days a year, even holidays. On Christmas we start a little later, around 4 p.m."
Lynn's work ethic came from Emma. He said, "Noon, supper, happy hour -- she was always here. She knew everybody and they knew her."
"She ran this bar very well," Marlys said. "There weren't a lot of problems like fighting or rowdiness. Emma wouldn't tolerate that. I've seen her take guys by the collar and march them out if they misbehaved. She'd tell them: 'If you can't get along, you're out of here.'"
Marlys said Emma kept order in the bar till the very end.
"When it was closing time, she'd holler, 'Let's go, let's go. Drink up, time to get going.'"
Lynn said it was Emma's presence that distinguished the bar and ensured its survival.
"It's her spirit that has kept us going here for this long," he said.
Lynn said Emma's could be called a "working-class bar," though it's also a late-night hangout for college students and years ago for art, music and English professors.
He described the atmosphere as clean, friendly and, without a doubt, easygoing.
"Many of the regulars, groups too, come in and sit at a certain table," Lynn said. "If that certain table is taken and people that are there finally leave, that group will then move to their table. They like sitting in their places that are special to them."
Lynn said his long working hours give Emma's stability and contributed to the business's longevity.
"I'm not an absentee owner," he said, adding that he will probably not be around for Emma's 100th anniversary but can't talk about retiring just yet.
Emma's also has a successful off-sale liquor business.
"I get people coming in that are having a party, maybe a daughter getting married, and they'll ask, 'What do you think we should have?'" Lynn said. "I love coming down here and meeting all the different people. It's been a great way to make some fabulous friendships."
For old and new friends alike, Emma's 75th anniversary will be celebrated from 2-8 p.m. Saturday.
There will be food, drinks, door prizes, commemorative T-shirts and sweatshirts and, according to Marlys and Lynn, other fun.
"This is for our loyal customers who we think of more like friends," Lynn said. "When they come here, they all end up being friends."
When asked if any notable politicians will be featured guests for anniversary, Lynn said not on your life: "Only bar-stool politicians. This has nothing to do with politics. And there won't be any speeches."
Marlys said, "Maybe some singing, though."