Same image over time

Ray’s Place, 838 Water St., offers tradition on tap


Story by Nick Erickson, Editor in Chief

Deer antlers, trophy fish and a plethora of Wisconsin sports memorabilia behind the bar greet thirsty patrons out to enjoy a few cold ones with friends. The jukebox in the corner spits out old ’90s music, from Bon Jovi to Neil Diamond, and the dim lights make the white paint of the University of Wisconsin-Madison motion, “W” stand out against the red color of the freezer that encompasses frosty mugs.

It’s not flashy and certainly not groundbreaking compared to a nightclub life of loud music, flashing lights and dancing.

But David Pieterick has seen it thrive for his entire life.  Not only is the upstairs portion of 838 Water St. his childhood home, but the downstairs part is where his father, Ray, created what is now one of Eau Claire’s oldest taverns, Ray’s Place, in 1949.

David Pieterick is the youngest of eight kids, and like his siblings, he had intentions of moving on past the only place they knew.

After the baby of the family graduated from a technical school, however, he had a choice to make, which was either sell Ray’s Place or buy it.

In 1989, for the price of $75,000 according to Eau Claire city property tax records, he purchased his father’s tavern.

“I just decided that instead of moving to a big city, I like to fish and hunt, and I decided staying here was a better option,” David Pieterick said.

When Ray Pieterick, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, first opened up the local watering hole in 1949, it was just another small tavern for friends to gather. It was a place to talk and to watch sports — for a crowd of blue collar people. Students from the UW-Eau Claire hardly frequented the Water Street venue.

But like many academic institutions throughout the nation, the university grew in enrollment. When Ray Pieterick opened it in 1949, the school had fewer than 500 students, according to the university archives. When David Pieterick took over 40 years later, 10,773 students called UWEC home.

Its location is just four blocks away from the mecca of student nightlife.

And as student rentals continues to spread farther and farther from campus, the clientele at Ray’s Place changed.

“From 21 to 91, it’s a wide variety of people,” Pieterick said.

Robert Riley “bellies up” at the bar inside Ray’s Place. Riley said he likes the simplicity of the tavern. Photo by Nick Erickson

But instead of creating a new image to encompass a new customer demographic, Pieterick has kept the community feel his father hoped to obtain  decades earlier. The only thing he added is the front patio and pool table area in 1999 and of course some basic technological upkeep.

“I think there’s a place for a small, neighborhood tavern,” he said. “That’s what Wisconsin was built on. Just leaving it that way was just an easier option. It’s just trying to give the people what they want. I think they just like a place to hang.”Robert Riley, a senior computer science major, occupies a home on Chippewa Street, about 200 feet from the backdoor of Ray’s Place.

Riley, who has been to more student-occupied places down the street, said the simplicity of Ray’s Place and warmness inside makes him feel like he has stepped inside the place just as it was in 1949.

“The atmosphere is everything that you could ever want in a Wisconsin tavern from sunup to sundown and late into the night,” Riley said.  “The community aspect is a big draw; you get a lot of the same people there without the mass crowds, giving you a chance to speak with others.”

The secret,  Pieterick said, is staying consistent with an everyday approach. From not changing the recipe of the locally famous hot beef sandwich to keeping the northern Wisconsin feel, not much has changed since 1949, including an always healthy amount of business. In fact, Volume One readers named Ray’s Place the Best Neighborhood Bar and Place to Watch the Big Game in 2010.

What happens when Pieterick sells his father’s tavern in the same building that accompanied his boyhood home is yet to be seen.

The two-story complex has only seen two additions since 1949. Photo by Nick Erickson

His own son has taken a somewhat similar path, as he is currently in secondary school and recently rented out the second story of the building.

His daughter is currently in high school, but Pieterick said he absolutely will not pressure his kids into keeping Ray’s Place in the family, making the future of the tavern still a mystery.

But something quite written in stone is that as long as it’s still around, customers will continue to walk through the doors to escape the hustle and bustle of the real world and enjoy the company of fellow Wisconsinites.

“I am not surprised it’s been around that long at all,” Riley said. “I hope it’s there for another 65 years so I can belly up at the bar and watch the Packers.”

Odds would be good there would still be a loyal crowd to “belly up” for the Brewers, Badgers and Bucks, too.