Exploring the history and cultural landscape of Madison, Wisconsin – Part 3: Chewing on another slice of the Black Lemon

July 17, 2007

Del WoodsDavid Wood gives me some flyers before I leave Del Wood’s Country Store: Both seem to have misplaced apostrophes. One is an order form for pre-assembled gifts of Wisconsin cheese and sausage. The other features a drawing of the store’s exterior façade and directions for finding the store. Underneath the drawing is a caption that reads, “Former milking parlor and dairy barn of Ex-Governor Oscar Rennebohm.”

Oscar Rennebohm is a bit of an icon for the earliest Madison-area Baby Boomers, but not for his brief tenure in the governor’s office (1947-1950), which occurred before they started enrolling in kindergarten. Their fond memories of him arise from the string of drug stores the founded. Most native Madisonians of a certain age can remember the Rennebohm Drug Store soda fountains, hot turkey sandwiches, and chicken noodle soup. Most can also remember the long-lived myth that the woman atop the State Capitol (sporting a badger on her head!) was Mrs. Rennebohm. It’s not. The statue, titled “Wisconsin,” is the work of sculpture Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), creator of the Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Oscar Rennebohm was born in 1889. David Wood says his ancestors arrived in this area in the 1860s. His great-grandfather ran the Burke General Store.


David Wood poses in front of the cheese case at Del Wood’s Country Store, which, since 1970, has occupied a space that was formerly home to a series of popular Madison bars.

David grew up on top the hill behind the building that now houses his store, but it’s not clear if he remembers when the building was a milking parlor and dairy barn, or has just heard about this piece of its history. David is a 1961 graduate of Monona Grove High School, so I suspect it may be the latter. In any case, he tells me that at one time the farm belonged to the UW-Extension and Oscar Rennebohm bought it from the Extension in the 1930s or 1940s. In any case, by the early 1950s it had become Country Cousin’s Tavern.

What Wood (and lots of people who frequented the Black Lemon) knows for sure is that the building used to be in Sun Prairie. “At one time,” says Wood, “the address was Route #1 Sun Prairie.” Back then, it was in the Town of Burke.”

What Wood and many people who frequented the Black Lemon and its predecessors and successors such as DJ’s are less sure about is who performed in this venue.

Mary Jo McCarthy performed there, and, she says, so did her friend Kay Milward. In a comment she left on a previous post about Madison bars from the 1960s, she wrote:

I have personal knowledge of the Black Lemon. Kay Milward and I sang back up for a group called the Continentals. We did that for several weeks. This group of guys used to practice at the music store (whose name escapes me now) which was right on State Street just down from Central. Kay had more freedom then me, so when we were doing “our thing” I stayed at her house, like a good girl.

McCarthy also noted that the Black Lemon had “Black walls and lots of weird lighting.”

David Wood also gives me a photocopied list of people who are supposed to have performed at the bar. Most of it, he says, is based on information provided by people who’ve stopped by the store and reminisced about the good old days. The list includes B.J. Thomas, Chicago (early on when they were The Big Thing), the Steve Miller Band, Jimmy Hendrix, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Edgar Winter, Jefferson Airplane, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Chubby Checker, B.B. King, and Sam and Dave.

Wood, who graduated from the UW-Madison in 1966, joined the A26 Ordinance Reserves and “got called up to go to Vietnam at the height of the build-up,” so he wasn’t around for the last part of the 1960s and can’t personally attest to the accuracy of the entire list. He does know, however, that since the building became Del Wood’s Country Store, members of Cheap Trick have stopped by, as have members of REO Speedwagon.

Otis Redding Factory PosterA lot (or perhaps all) of the performers on Wood’s list have performed in Madison, more than a few at the Nitty Gritty (or its predecessor, Glen ‘n Ann’s), so it’s possible that they played in Sun Prairie, too. One name on the list, however, makes me cautious about accepting all the memories Wood has recorded on it: Otis Redding. Next to Redding name is the following annotation: “Died coming to DJ’s.” Any connoisseur of local music history knows that’s not accurate: Redding was on his way to The Factory when the plane carrying him and his band, the Bar-Kays, crashed into Lake Monona on December 10, 1967.

It would take a lot of work to document who played where, and occasionally I wonder how important it is to record these events and our memories of them. Sometimes I’m convinced this blog post and some of its siblings are a nascent book, but I wonder if I wrote it would you buy it? If not, I undoubtedly have something else to do.

Jerry Currie August 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm

I would like to put my order in for the book.

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