Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Magnet: Wisconsin's First Beer Bar

On this day in 1940 the Magnet, at 519 N. Main St. in Oshkosh, became the first tavern in the State of Wisconsin to be issued a beer-only license. Teenagers in Oshkosh finally had a place to drink beer. Legally.

The Magnet was at the vanguard of what would become a memorable Wisconsin phenomenon, the teen-age beer bar. These were spots where people 18-20 years old could enjoy their brew of choice in an atmosphere unspoiled by hard liquor. After Prohibition, Wisconsin reserved a “local option,” allowing municipal governments to set the age for legal beer drinking. The local option hadn’t been exercised, though, until Frank M. Hayes took out a class “B” liquor license and convinced Oshkosh officials he could run a clean-cut beer and billiard hall. By July of 1940 Wisconsin’s first beer bar was in business.

From July 6, 1940
But it didn’t start out as The Magnet and it didn’t start out on Main Street. The Magnet began as the Playdium on Washington Blvd. Its proprietor, Frank M. Hayes, was born in 1888 and lived on E. Irving. He’d been a semi-pro baseball player in Omaha and a postal clerk in Oshkosh. As a publican, Hayes proved to be a no-nonsense sort of guy. He didn’t tolerate rude behavior in his beer bar. Fighting, swearing and loud noises were not welcome at the Playdium.

The Road Construction View
In 1950 Hayes moved his bar to Main Street, but kept his beer-only status. He was walking a thin wire. Others had followed in Hayes’ wake and by the mid-50s the teen-bars had come under intense criticism. Now there were “wet” islands dotting the State. Cities like Oshkosh became destination points for traveling 18-20 year-olds who would come to get their fill of beer before taking to the highways and returning to their dry hometowns.

When Hayes died in 1959, Winnebago County was attempting to enact a law that would fix the beer age at 21 County-wide. They failed and the Magnet passed to Frank M. Hayes, Jr. In 1963, though, things changed. The Oshkosh Common Council decided it was time to abandon the local option and beer in Oshkosh once again became the privilege of those over 21. At the time there were five beer bars in Oshkosh. Though, the Magnet remained a beer-only bar for several more years, the tavern would eventually take a full liquor license.

The Magnet continues to carry on much as it always has. It’s still primarily a beer and pool hall and they’re still serving their famous Magnet chili dogs. After all these years of see-sawing liquor laws, the Magnet remains a good-time Oshkosh fixture. A place where you can have a beer, shoot some pool and touch history where it lives.


  1. What a great peice of history! Thanks for that and to all who have created a place we all like to play and call our home bar! Congrats kendal on 1 yr and to all those who have ha a great time in the MAG for years!

    John Pfeffer

  2. 21 didn't last long, I guess. There were a lot of beer bars open to 18-year olds when I arrived in January, 1969. Tosh's on the strip and Beaners on the south side along with the Magnet are a few that come to mind.

  3. I use to be an Army Recruiter (1992)across the street. Larry and the Magnet patrons were good people,and good friends, $1.00 tap beer in a frosty mug was the order of the day... I always stop in when I am passing that way.

    1. Were you still recruiting in Oshkosh in 1996?

    2. Were you still recruiting in Oshkosh in 1996?

  4. how about the College Inn (downtown), the B.I. (bavarian inn), Titan Tap (torn down in 1967)across the street from Gruenhagen Hall.

  5. In 1967 at the Magnet you could get nickel tappers of Chief Oshkosh!

  6. My favorite was the Three Oaks- Hopping with rock and blues bands- a disfunctional bathroom- it was the place to be in 1966-1968 The Loft, the C.I. and the B & B were also hangouts for the hard core college bar flys of that era- the Loft had ham it up night- pay a buck for a mug and free beer for and hour or two- I usually managed to pound down eight or ten beers in that time- then down to Beaners I.D. Inn for nickel beers. Oh those were the days.

  7. Hey Anonymous,
    Thanks for favoriting the Three Oaks! I was one of the "managers" at that time - maybe mismanagers would be a better term. Ha!

    We lived above the Oaks, complete with a motorcycle project in the kitchen and parts washing in the sink. At the start of semester talked the manager into it becoming a beer bar. I remember one of the things we also talked him into doing was painting his wood paneling black. What? ;-)

    We picked the bands, and they were hot, man. Cutting edge at the time. This was an exciting era for bands - a lot of those early ones were garage bands but excellent jams. I remember meeting Rob Tyner, among many others.

    He made tons of money, and there was tons of fun had there. 15 cent tappers, 35 cent bottles, and I think quarts were 65 or 75 cents. Can't remember what pitchers were; not much. Even with those prices, we'd have $600 - $1000 nights. I think we had around 14 half barrels in the cooler under normal conditions. The bartending action was fast and furious. We threw the money at the open till because there was no time to ring it up. We scraped up the money on the floor at bar time and put it in a pitcher with soap water to clean it up.

    Saint Patty's Day was an all-out bash starting at 8 AM. It took all the next day to clean the place up, starting with hosing down the wood floors and letting it sit while we had breakfast - a few beers and Slim Jims; then chiseling up the inch-thick dried mud and broken glass, and other, less mentionable artifacts with an ice scraper and snow shovels. Finally we got to the point where we could get out the mops and "finish" it off.

    All of us that ran the place were best of friends, mostly Sig Pis, and some of us actually became respectable with a good job even!

    Seriously, our aim was that us college kids had fun there - period. Our greatest satisfaction was that they did.

    I fondly remember all the other bars you mentioned, and was frequently at all of them. What a great time!

    Bill W.

  8. Bill W. Thanks for the history lesson. First as a Sigma Pi Pledge, and then many other nights of serious partying, following pledging. I recall many a stumble down Algoma Blvd. back to campus following a night of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, among others. Thanks for the reminder of my formative years. J. Reynolds

  9. Does anyone have a picture of Three Oaks Bar ?