The green and white road sign, announcing the burg’s location, has disappeared, but the spirit of Orihula is still right there, along a stretch of the Wolf River that runs from just south of Fremont to Lake Poygan.
This corner of Winnebago County was already a hub of social activity even before Wisconsin became a state. Native Americans once camped where families now spend summer vacations. Loggers on their way down river raised a ruckus, and legendary 1940s big bands played one-night-stands.
And it’s also where, for the past 50 years, Cliff and Judy Hahn have entertained locals and tourists, at Hahn-A-Lula Resort and Ballroom on South Wolf River Road.
Origins of Orihula
The Orihula story began when Andrew Merton left his Sheboygan County home in 1849 and set off to seek his fortune in the northern wilderness. As autumn approached, he found a speck of land he liked along a little bend in the Wolf River, a place the Menominee Indians called Orihula. He built a crude shanty on the spot that became known as Merton’s Landing, just a stone’s throw from the present Hahn-A-Lula boat dock. An empty building, most recently occupied by the Secrets of Orihula restaurant and bar, stands across the road from his original homestead.
When he landed, Merton was the only white man among the Menominee and the Winnebago. He married Agnes, a Menominee woman, and together they built a trading post that was soon frequented by local farmers, passing steamboat travelers and logging crews—a rough bunch known for their hard drinking and fighting—on their way down the Wolf River to the mills in Oshkosh.
Merton was granted the first official liquor license in the Town of Orihula in 1870. Over nearly a century and a half, a succession of owners transformed the simple trading post tavern into an entertainment hot spot.
In 1915, Alma and Magnus Bartel operated a general store and tavern there. “That original store still exists under the years of renovations that have been done on the Secrets of Orihula building,” said local historian Iva (Hahn) Fischer, Cliff Hahn’s sister.
The Bartels built a dance hall on an adjacent parcel of land, and for many decades no matter who owned it, the Orihula Ballroom was the place for generations of hardworking farmers to kick up their heels on a Saturday night.
All the local newlyweds held their receptions at the Orihula, and everybody came to dance, whether they were invited or not. “Wedding dances were different then,” Fischer said. “Anybody could go. If you weren’t invited to the wedding, you had to pay a quarter or 50 cents to get in, and then the wedding couple got the money.”
Couples kicked their shoes off and cut a rug to polkas, waltzes and schottische dance music played by popular traveling bands of the era. Lawrence Duchow and the Red Raven Orchestra were always a hit, as were Cousin Fuzzy and His Cousins and Dick Metko and His Boys. Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman brought their big band orchestras to Orihula in the 1940s, but it was Jan Garber, WGN Radio’s Idol of the Air Lanes, who really shook things up.
“The nights when Jan Garber played, there was standing room only,” Fischer said. “There was no room to dance,” her husband, Bill, agreed. “Everybody just stood in awe, because it was a big, famous band.”
In the early 1950s, the ballroom was also an inexpensive hangout for area teens, including Cliff and Judy Hahn and the Fischers. “We were good dancers,” Cliff said. “We had a lot of good times.”
“In those days, they had a beer bar and a whiskey bar,” according to lifelong Orihula resident Leon Maierhafer. “When you were 18, you could drink beer. One night, I drank 21 shorty bottles. Someone was counting. They were 15 cents apiece or seven for a dollar. So I spent three bucks on beer. That was a day’s wages for me.”
“When we were in high school, even before we were 18, we’d come to the teenage bar,” Cliff added. “If you could see over the bar, you’d get served. They weren’t strict in those days.”
Cliff was only 21 and Judy was 19, newly married with a baby son and another on the way, when they partnered with Cliff’s brother, Ken, and his wife, Barb, to buy the Orihula Ballroom in 1961.
“Our dad wasn’t too happy with us,” Cliff said, “but we thought we knew what we were doing.” He’d had experience as a bartender in other local taverns, and Judy had helped out cooking and serving food at her parents’ hotel in Weyauwega, but it was still rough going at first.
“We were lucky if we took in $50 on a Saturday night, and the light bill was $300,” Judy said. In the beginning, running the ballroom was a weekend hobby. Dairy farming was their day job. “We milked 60 head of cows every day,” Judy said.
The dance hall was a simple wooden building with a pavilion bar outside when the Hahns started their business venture. “Nobody complained about air conditioning,” Cliff said. “They’d dance ’til they were sopping wet.”
“There was no kitchen when we got in here,” Judy said. “There was just a grill, and we served hamburgers on Saturday nights.” Iva helped her brothers out during the dances. “Right before intermission, we’d start frying onions, so everybody would get hungry. Then we’d sell more hamburgers,” she said.
The Hahns took a leap of faith in 1966 when they sold their cows and bought out Ken and Barb’s share of the business. “We saw the potential and thought we could make work,” Judy said.
It was right about then that the Orihula Ballroom was rechristened Hahn-A-Lula, a whimsical moniker reflecting the family’s history and the Orihula mystique. Cliff’s great-great-grandfather Karl “Charles” Hahn settled on an Orihula farm in 1855. Quite a few generations later, a visiting relative jokingly remarked that there were so many Hahns living in the area, it should be called Hahnville. “We put the name together with Orihula and came up with Hahn-ALula,” Judy said.
Over the years, the Hahns have continually renovated the historic building, but the nearly century-old wooden dance floor is original. A section of the original whiskey bar also survives, but the pink plywood bar in the ballroom had to go.
Upgrades happened a little bit at a time. “That first year, one big job was feeding the coal and wood furnaces all night,” Judy said, so new oil furnaces were a priority. The kitchen has seen a quite few remodeling jobs. When Judy began cooking there, there was no running water—just a refrigerator, a grill and a soda pop tank.
The Hahns have turned the old wooden ballroom into a modern banquet hall, restaurant and resort, but opportunities for good old-fashioned fun have never gone out of style.
“The first years we were here, we had the Dorsey brothers, Buddy Morrill, Night Train and Jerry Lee Lewis when he was down and out,” Judy said. She was not impressed when Lewis resumed playing after a bit too much imbibing and fell off the piano stool. “He was full of Cabin Still whiskey,” Cliff recalled.
“It was winter, and not many people showed up,” Bill Fischer said. “He expected a big crowd, and here he comes up to the hillbilly country, or whatever, and nobody came to see him. He thought he was a big shot, and he got pretty crabby when he didn’t have an audience.”
Halloween costume dances were a hit in 1980s. One year, neighbor Miles LaFever dressed up in his grandfather’s Civil War officer uniform and rode his horse through the back door right into the ballroom.
“The horse got on the dance floor, and it was so slippery that his shoes went out from under him, and down he went,” Cliff said. “It was lucky it didn’t break its legs. We had to drag the horse out. Miles had a big sword, too, and that was stuck in the dance floor.”
By the 1990s, snowmobiling became big on the Wolf River. One winter night, Cliff and Judy counted 500 snowmobiles in their parking lot. “The river was like a highway for snowmobiles,” Judy said. “It was like U. S. 41 in the wintertime,” Cliff added.
“Years ago, spring fishing was a big time,” Judy said. “In the late 1960s and early ’70s, we didn’t have blacktop yet. There was a round driveway and the inside was lawn. That would be full of tents and small campers. I woke up one morning and my whole front yard was full of campers. It would be nothing to serve 200 breakfasts on Saturday morning. It would start before it got light. We’d be open at 5 o’clock in the morning already.”
In the early days, Cliff worked day and night. He’d close the bar, clean up and reopen in the morning. Customers enjoyed his company so much they’d keep him up all hours of the night. His colorful stories and antics earned him the nickname “Goofy.”
These days, he and Judy reward themselves with a few days off each week in the summer to cruise the Wolf River on their houseboat, appropriately dubbed Goof’n Around, where Cliff is the skipper and Judy is a lady of leisure.
“I sit up on top, and read a book and watch the scenery,” she said. “I’m hoping when we retire we can do more of it and stay out longer.”
Retirement is tempting, though, and they’re hoping to someday pass the Orihula legacy on to the next Hahn generation. In the meantime, they’re busy planning Hahn-A-Lula’s 50th anniversary party in August 2011.
“We’ll have a big jam outside,” Cliff said.
After five decades of hard work, side-by-side, day in and day out, they still enjoy each other’s company, along with the company of others looking for a good time at Hahn-A-Lula.
“We worked our butts off, but it’s been fun, too,” Judy said. “We’ve been lucky.”