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Photo by Adam Ryan Morris Back when milk was delivered to homes by horse-drawn wagons, the glass bottles it came in were designed to seal snugly with a small cardboard cap. Now known, unsurprisingly, as “milk caps,” they carried dairy logos and advertisements, and some had a small tab to help drinkers pop open the […]


Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Back when milk was delivered to homes by horse-drawn wagons, the glass bottles it came in were designed to seal snugly with a small cardboard cap. Now known, unsurprisingly, as “milk caps,” they carried dairy logos and advertisements, and some had a small tab to help drinkers pop open the bottle. One of their collectors, Walter G. Bohrer Jr., a Milwaukee boy who grew up working in his father’s sausage-making shop, would later blend this bit of Americana with gambling and engineer a moneymaker in the process.

After serving in the Korean War, Bohrer, now 83, worked in the coin-operated vending industry, and then based a retirement business on machines that dispense what are, essentially, pull-tabs – like scratch-off cards, but with strips of paper that peel back – with imitation milk caps printed on them. In theory, patrons in taverns and small cafes around the state are purchasing the milk caps as collectible items and not for a chance to win $500. That’s how Bohrer describes the process, anyway.
“What we are doing is selling the collector milk caps for a dollar, and the gambling and prize is incidental,” he says. “The reason it is incidental [is] because you really don’t have to buy the milk cap to participate … We provide no-purchase-necessary forms, and if they send one to our office, we send them a free ticket.” And it’s as good as any other. “If they win,” he says, “we send them the money.”
Once Bohrer’s little business got rolling, in the late ’90s, tipsters began calling the state attorney general’s office to report what they thought was an illegal pull-tab operation. Police in Milwaukee later raided his office, and Bohrer challenged the state’s claims of illegality in Milwaukee County Circuit Court and won; the judge concluded that he’d “taken great pains” to design the milk cap games so that they conformed to state laws. Bohrer relished the victory against then-Attorney General Jim Doyle, who dropped the case after losing an appeal in 2001. Finally, Bohrer’s little business idea had won legitimacy.
Nowadays, he works with no fewer than 52 distributors around the state that stock some 4,500 milk cap machines in all 72 counties, volume that helps him to meet costs. “I work on a slim margin,” he says. “About 70 cents goes back to the customer for the prize,” and a portion of the remaining proceeds goes to breast cancer charities in the state, the Wisconsin Tavern League’s SafeRide program, The Gilbert Brown Foundation and other causes.
“I’m competing against illegal pull-tabs right now, even though I had to prove what I was doing was legal,” Bohrer complains. “[This] turned out to be a lot more than a retirement business.” ■

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 

Read the rest of July issue online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.

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