By Rick Cohler
DE PERE – McKim Boyd is the fourth generation of the Boyd family to operate the Union Hotel in De Pere, now in its 106th year in business.
The original building dates back to 1883 when De Pere businessman Nic Altmeyer recognized the need for lodging and dining accommodations in the area and built a two-story hotel at 200 North Broadway.
The structure replaced the Union House which dates back to at least 1867.
The Union Hotel was a two-story structure with many “fire-proof” features including an exterior featuring Cream City Brick, a thick fire wall between the hotel and the adjacent city hall building to the north, a steam heat system that is still in use today and electricity, according to the Union Hotel website.
The building featured a first floor restaurant, with the original bar located where the front lobby is today, and the dining room in its current location.
Above the restaurant were 11 guest rooms, a sitting room, a parlor and a lobby.
An addition, containing what is today’s bar, was constructed two years later.
A second addition in 1903 added the third floor to the building.
In 1914, the hotel was sold to Albert Kabat and his family; however, due to the untimely death of Kabat four years later, the hotel was sold to Boyd’s great grandparents — August and Antonia Maternowski.
With the help of their 12 children, the family business continues to this day.
“They redid the rooms and added on a horse barn to stable the horses for the city’s fire department until about 1925 when the fire department got its first fire truck,” Boyd said.
One of the first big business challenges was Prohibition, but Boyd said the family found a way around it.
“We actually had a still which my great aunt Ceil ran,” Boyd said. “She was a single woman all her life, prayed the Rosary every day and made our home brew.
“The unwritten rule with the local law enforcement was ‘Don’t overserve the man of the house. If you do, you’re going to be our first stop when the feds come around.’
“In the beginning, the feds would let the local authorities know they were in the city as a courtesy, and they would tip everyone off.
“The funny thing was that great-grandpa was written up in the De Pere Journal. There was a bootlegger from Milwaukee who came up and was trying to sell his stuff but grandpa had his own business. So not only did he run him out of town, but he called the police, and they got the guy and confiscated all their booze. So August Maternowski is written up as this nice guy, but he was a shrewd businessman.”
Boyd said when Prohibition ended, many bars, including the Union Hotel, remodeled their establishments anticipating a windfall.
“What windfall? You kept serving all through Prohibition,” Boyd mused.
The greater Green Bay area was impacted by the Great Depression but not as bad as other parts of the country, largely due the city’s most famous product, toilet paper.
“It’s not to say that it did not have its impact but it wasn’t as severe as some other parts of the country,” Boyd said. “We were fortunate, we had a full hotel. The hotel used to be a bigger part of their income and the restaurant and the bar continued through.”
The interior of the hotel has had little change through the years, with Boyd and his family maintaining much of the layout and style.
Walking in gives the diner the impression of being in a place which honors its past.
The hotel maintains 19 rooms — four of them have their own bath and shower and are nicely appointed, while others share facilities.
Until cars became more common, the hotel also boarded De Pere high school students who lived too far from town to make the daily commute.
The Union Hotel has featured fine dining since its founding in 1883.
“In that time period you would have had long-term, short-term guests and overnight guests,” Boyd said. “A trip from Milwaukee to Green Bay would have taken six days or so. The room rent would have included dinner and breakfast, served family style. The Union adopted a supper club style featuring steak and seafood and daily specials after World War II.”
Years ago, the Boyd family decided to close on Fridays and leave the Friday night fish fries to the area taverns, but is now open daily.
Today, the Union Hotel is perhaps best known for its Christmas Madrigal dinners where singers dressed in Renaissance garb serenade each table with a requested Christmas carol.
De Pere resident Rita Barretta brought the idea back from California, and the reservations pack the hotel’s dining rooms each night in December.
The Union Hotel has also enjoyed a long-running relationship with the Green Bay Packers, hosting many of the coaching staff for dinner.
“Every head coach has had dinner here,” Boyd said.
Boyd has been part of the Union hotel since a boy of eight when he started bringing up beer bottles from the cellar.
He also bussed glassware in the bar and worked as a dishwasher.
Boyd left the Union for college and a 15-year career as a math teacher and coach at Wrightstown High School, though he often could be found bartending at the Union.
He took a year’s leave of absence in 1996 to help his father at the hotel, then began to take over the operation.
“At the end of the year, I realized it was in my blood,” he recalled.
Two of Boyd’s sisters, Mary and Ann, have worked at the hotel full-time for several decades.
Both work in the management of the business and Ann is the hotel’s pie baker.
Their brother, Patrick, works part-time after his retirement from the Wrightstown School District.
“On rare occasions, Patrick’s twin brother James, who’s the mayor of De Pere, makes an appearance behind the bar,” Boyd said.
It looks like the Union Hotel will remain in the Boyd family for at least a fifth generation with Boyd’s two children, Annamarie Lenhart and Mitchell Boyd along with his sister Mary’s son, Sam Boyd, involved.
“Which means we should be in good shape for the next 40 years,” Boyd said.