Tony Hieronimczak may be the oldest working bartender in the world. If not, he intends to be.
At 98-years old, Tony moves around Zielinski’s Tavern at his own pace, pouring drinks, popping off bottle caps and shooting the breeze.
“I’m open every day,” he said when we stopped in for a Sundrop last Saturday afternoon. “Sundays, holidays, Christmas, every damn day.”
He’s worked in the bar as long as people can remember, and has owned the place since he inherited it from his longtime girlfriend, Aggie Zielinski. She passed away in 1989 at age 80, while still working the bar.
“I told her she needed to eat healthier,” he said. “But she said, ‘How about you eat what you want and I eat what I want?’ Well, I’m still here.”
The bar, like it’s current owner, was built to last. It’s original ceiling features ornate tiles. A “No dancing on tables with spurs” sign hangs just below. Originally called Henry Baker’s Tavern, the main bar was built in 1890. Henry sold his business to Johan and Gertrude Wachowski, who ran it until their daughter Josephine and her husband Vincent Zielinski took over. The Zielinskis, Aggie’s parents, added a ballroom in 1933 that still hosts events today.
“It’s old but it’s still in good shape,” Tony said. “We just had a big wedding in here last week.”
Born on the family farm in Pittsville, Tony, like many young men in his generation, only attended formal school through fifth grade. He worked on the family farm until a stint in the U.S. Army landed him in Hawaii just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He spent three years there working in the army’s PX in Honolulu.
“I never spent a cold day in service,” he said. “I think I would have stayed there if I could.”
Instead, he returned to Wisconsin, where he eventually found his way behind the bar at Zielinski’s Tavern and enjoyed a different kind of warmth.
He has plenty of friends in the Pulaski area and served as the Grand Marshall of the Polka Days Parade back in 2011.
He keeps a fairly regular schedule, has help when he needs it, closes the bar when he wants to and opens it every morning after he heads over to the tavern next door for breakfast. “They open the doors when they see me coming,” he said.
On both days we visited the bar, people stopped in to check on Tony, and have a beverage or two.
“I trust my customers and they trust me,” he said.