Have You Kissed the Moose at Sleder’s Family Tavern?

It’s a quirky rite of passage at a historic Northern Michigan restaurant. This is why everyone started kissing the moose at Sleder’s Family Tavern in Traverse City. 

Sleder’s Family Tavern has been a Traverse City landmark for 138 years. During that time, generations of residents and visitors have enjoyed its hospitality, its food and its libations. Established in 1882, the tavern currently claims the title of the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Michigan.

Most people who have spent time in the iconic hangout at the corner of Randolph and Vine are familiar with the tradition of “kissing the moose.”

Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, have climbed the ladder and planted a kiss on the lips of the long-deceased forest monarch.

What you may not know is Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine was the launching pad for the now rather famous Traverse City tradition that originated 38 years ago. It all began with a fictional article I wrote that appeared in the May 1982 issue titled “McGuire and the Moose.” A copy of the story hangs, under glass, on the memorabilia wall at the back of the tavern.

The fictional McGuire is based on my long-time friend Frank McGuire. A trip to Sleder’s was always a must whenever he visited. Frank was returning to his home downstate one weekend, and as he was departing, jokingly said to my wife, “Dorothy, the next time you’re there, kiss the moose for me.”

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It was just one more of Frank’s funny, out-of-the-blue remarks, but it got me to thinking about a time my younger brother and I were taken in by a story from our dad’s friend. We both knew the guy could tell real whoppers, but as a couple of gullible kids, we sat open-mouthed as the tale of the only moose to ever be taken on a fly rod unraveled. That memory sparked an idea for my own tall tale.

I had gotten to know Bob Classens and his wife, Sylvia, who were the owners of Sleder’s back in the 1980s. I presented my story idea to them and they liked it. And so did the folks at Traverse Magazine.

When the article appeared in that May issue, it got a little attention, and the Classens had it mounted on the back wall. Then, as Bob explains, “One night a young lady who had read the story decided she would kiss the moose. Climbing aboard a chair, she had her picture taken planting a kiss on those dried-up lips to the cheers of her friends.”

According to Classens, that got things going. “I guess word got around, and it wasn’t long before I had to put a ladder back there. Then we added a fire bell above the bar that was rung every time someone kissed the old boy.”

The original art from the “I kissed the moose at Sleder’s” T-shirt.

Next came T-shirts illustrated by my friend Jim Leurck saying, “I Kissed The Moose At Sleders.” The shirts started showing up all around town. More and more folks, young and old, dropped in for a bite and a buss with the moose.

Ten years later, in May 1992, the tavern was sold to Brian and Deb Cairns, and they saw to it that the moose remained a major attraction. Somewhere along the way, the moose, who was named Bullwinkle in my original piece, was renamed Randolph, which seems quite appropriate. Also, “I kissed the moose” evolved into “I smooched the moose.”

In January this year, Brian’s stepson, Ryan Cox, and his wife, Megan, took over as the Cairns retired. And as Megan succinctly put it, “Randolph is here to stay.”

What started out 38 years ago as a gag article in Traverse Magazine turned into a tradition that’s loved by thousands of locals and visitors. Let’s see what the next 38 years bring.