Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oshkosh Brewing And The 90th Birthday That Wasn’t

On this day in 1956 the Oshkosh Brewing Company began celebrating its 90th birthday and invited everybody over for a five-day bash in the brewery's garage. Just one problem with that... it wasn’t the company’s 90th birthday. We'll get to the true age of Oshkosh Brewing later. Let's start with the important stuff – The Party

It all kicked-off on May 19th with the Oshkosh Northwestern giving over their Saturday paper to stories about the Oshkosh Brewing Company. That Saturday, the paper was filled with articles about the history of Oshkosh Brewing, beer in general (one of which included the deathless quote "There is no bad beer") and messages of congratulations from local businesses, politicians and brewing supply companies. Tucked into the happy mix was an announcement that the brewery would open its doors to the good people of Oshkosh each afternoon from Tuesday, May 22, through Friday, May 25. The whole town was invited to come in and see how beer is brewed, have a bite to eat and, of course, enjoy a round or two of "sparkling” Chief Oshkosh beer.

It looks like it was quite an event. The 5,000 visitors who turned-out were greeted by orchestras and company officials who said that "the production of beer – which is, essentially, a cooking process – interested the women as much as it did the men." Hmm. Following the party, the Oshkosh Northwestern printed a hangover edition, noting that not a single "unpleasant incident" occurred "Despite the fact that thousands of people, representing all nationalities and all walks of life attended the five-day event." They may have been playing the diversity card a bit strong with that one. Pictures taken at the party show the crowd to be well-behaved, but utterly homogenous.

OK, now let's look at the true age of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. In truth, there was no such thing as the Oshkosh Brewing Company until 1894. So in 1956 the company was actually just 62 years old. How did they ever come up with the idea they were 90 years old? This is where it starts getting curious so if you hate to see dates thrown around, you may want to turn away. Here goes. The OBC was formed in 1894, with the merger of three Oshkosh breweries: Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery; Glatz's Union Brewery; and Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery. Just as soon as the three breweries came together they began claiming that the OBC started in 1864, the year Lenhardt Schwalm, of Horn and Schwalm, started brewing his beer in Oshkosh. And that's the story they went with for the next 40 years or so. I've seen Oshkosh Brewing ads from as late as 1938 where they were still claiming that the company began doing business in 1864. Sometime after 1938, though, they grew confused and began saying they’d started out in 1866 instead of 1864. Why? 1866 was the year August Horn became a partner in Lenhardt Schwalm's beer business, but that seems like a rather arbitrary reason for changing the date. More likely, they simply lost track. It’s a strange twist. They had over 40 years of ad copy telling them they’d been around since 1864. How did they manage to forget all that? The best part, though, is that 8 years after celebrating its 90th birthday, OBC reverted to the 1864 date and threw another party, this time marking their 100th year in business. But the jig was up. A reporter from the Appleton Post-Crescent noticed that the 90th birthday party had occurred just 8 years earlier. Officials at the OBC shrugged and admitted they didn't really know how old the company was. Not the kind of thing you want to hear from people making a stink about the centennial of their business. Too bad, because this time they had it right. If you date the Oshkosh Brewing Company from the time when the first of its three original breweries went into business, then that date would be 1864. There.

One last thing about the 1956 party. The Monday following the party the OBC placed an ad in the Northwestern thanking all their visitors and well wishers. The message was simple and heartfelt and captures just how close the relationship was between this brewery and the people of Oshkosh at that point in time. It shows the open doors of the garage where the party was held with a caption next to picture reading "through these doors have passed the nicest people in the world." You get the feeling they really meant it.

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