History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - Businesses - Bars and Clubs

Boot Camp Saloon
Location: 209 E. NationalAve., Milwaukee WI


September 1984
May 2011

Male/ female
Levi/ Leather Bar/ social

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Read about Milwaukee's second major Concentration of LGBT Bars


The Boot Camp Saloon was opened and operated by Si Smits as one of Milwaukee's levi/ leather bars. When it was first opened, Boot Camp went head to head against The Wreck Room, the veteran and premier leather bar in the city. As other businesses took over the area surrounding Wreck Room and parking became more difficult there, more and more gay men opted for Boot Camp rather than Wreck Room, and Boot Camp Saloon became an institution.

Meanwhile, Boot Camp was in the area fast becoming the primary concentration of LGBT bars in the city. (These are documented in the "Milwaukee Bars Region 2" page.) All of these other LGBT bars in the area during this time meant there were always new, younger people discovering the Boot Camp as it was that close to other bars.

Boot Camp featured 3 major rooms and an outdoor patio. The main bar and secondary room were open continuously, with the second (middle) room (to the south of the main room) originally used for a pool table. In the mid 1990's the pool table was removed and the center room then held just electronic games. Another room to the south-east originally held a second bar and was open only certain nights (mostly Fridays and Saturdays). When business began to decline, the third room became a lounge area with television showing either live TV programs or movies. (Sunday nights regularly featured a movie.)

The patio was probably the best in the city for a gay bar. It was roomy, and most of it was covered to prevent rain or snow and block the direct sun- yet was still open to the elements. Most importantly, the building was laid out to surround the patio on two sides, so one could 'cruise' around the two southern rooms, enter the patio from one room, make your way through the patio, and exit the patio into the other southern room. Thus during busy Friday and Saturday nights, the patio and the back rooms were known to witness some sex activity, although management half-heartedly tried to supress it.

The patio also opened up to a lawn area to the south which was used for the bar's annual anniversary party and other special events.

The owner of Boot Camp, Si Smits, was very community minded. The bar held countless fundraisers for other groups (such as the BESTD Clinic and AIDS causes) year-round and especially around their anniversary and Christmas. One favorite event though was the annual Pumpkin Carving party; the bar bought dozens of pumpkins, and customers could select one to carve and display, often for a contest.

Boot Camp Saloon was also the major sponsor of the 'G/L Community Center Trust Fund', which had its mailing address at a building about 2 blocks away. That building (see photos) was best known as the location for after-bar parties (held approximately monthly with tickets sold only at Boot Camp), but by the mid-2000's those parties too became infrequent.

(The "G/L Community Center Trust Fund" is not to be confused with the separate Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, which was a community-wide center. The Community Center Trust Fund became more of a fund share, making small but regular contributions (a few hundred dollars) to a few organizations' operating funds.)

The way seemed clear for Boot Camp to become the city's main levi/leather bar when its old-time competition, Wreck Room, closed in 1996. But within a few years, The Boot Camp began to experience a gradual decline in business due to a combination of factors. Initially, the opening of another leather bar in 2000, the Harbor Room, took away much of its business. Later, the opening of Kruz bar in 2006 also attracted some of Boot Camp's patrons. (In fact, the popular leather club 'The Castaways' began holding their monthly beer busts at Kruz rather than at Boot Camp.) Finally, younger gay men were unlikely to patronize Boot Camp, often citing the general 'more hard-core' ambiance.

The era of the Boot Camp Saloon came to an end in the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 18th, 2011. Firefighters arrived on the scene around 4:00am, declaring it a total loss by 5:00am. Much of the damage came on the south side of the building, near a deck area. The building housed the Boot Camp on the lower level, and the owner's home on the second floor. Fortunately the owner, Si Smits, was not in the residence at the time, and arrived on scene indicating that to his knowledge no one was in the building when the fire started.

The burned out building was quickly demolished, and the land remained vacant for the next year, while Si retained ownership. In May 2012 there was a rumor that the land might be bought by the same company that had just purchased the Triangle bar building across the street (which had just closed)-- but there never were any plans to rebuild-- the 'Boot Camp', for a time Milwaukee's premier levi/leather bar, was gone forever. (The land was still vacant and unchanged in 2022.)


Outside of building, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing SE)
Main entrance into bar, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing SE)

Second room, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing SE)
Second room, May 2004
(door to main room right of center)
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing NW)

Patio from second room, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing SW)
Patio from second room, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing SE)
Patio view toward building, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing NE)

After-bar party building, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing ESE)
After-bar party building, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; facing NE)

The Building in 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb; camera facing SE)

Matchbooks, 2006

TMJ4 news image from Fire, May 2011

Credits: web site concept, contents, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: September-2022.

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