Monday, August 2, 2010

A Barrel Full of Stories

Scott Krumenauer has some great stories about growing up at a time when the last dregs of Oshkosh’s early beer culture were draining away. From exploring the defunct and deserted Oshkosh breweries, to being an underage patron in Steckbauer’s famous Sixth-Ward saloon, he has a connection to the earlier Oshkosh that few people who came of age in the 1970s can speak of. But my favorite story of his goes like this: One afternoon in the mid-1980s he was kicking around at an abandoned property in the 900 block of North Sawyer when he came upon an old barrel. He carted it home, cleaned it off and found that he had come upon a genuine relic of Oshkosh brewing history. The barrel is from the Horn and Schwalm brewery, which operated independently from 1864 until 1894 when it joined with two other breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The barrel head has two brands upon it. The first being from the Horn and Schwalm brewery and the second, from a later date, with the letters “OBCo” marking the point in time when Horn and Schwalm merged into the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Scott hasn’t been able to fix an exact date on the barrel, but it probably first went into use sometime between 1870 and 1890.

So how did this barrel find its way to North Sawyer Street? It may have been brought there by a man named Thomas A. Getchius, a notorious character from turn-of-the-century Oshkosh. Getchius was the first to build on the land where Scott found the barrel and the property remained with the Getchius family until it was left vacant in 1983. It’s impossible to verify who actually brought the barrel there, but when you delve into Getchius' background it starts looking like a pretty fair bet that at some point this barrel was his.

T.A. Getchius was a saloon owner, a beer bottler, an Oshkosh Alderman, a member of the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors, an employee of the Paine Lumber Mill, a farmer, a feed store owner and more. Through it all, though, Getchius was a beer man. He was born in Oshkosh in 1859 and appears to have been a hell-raiser from the start. A former teacher remembered him as the school's "bad boy" whose formal education had come to an end by the time he was 14. The better part of Getchius' training took place at his father's grocery store and saloon where he worked as a young man. By 1885 Getchius had taken over his father's saloon and soon expanded it to include a dance hall and a side business named the Algoma Bottling Works where he bottled beer for, as he liked to put it, "family use."

The Getchius saloon and bottling company were located at what is now the south east corner of Oshkosh Avenue and Punhoqua Street. Today you’ll find the serene West Algoma Park there, but the spot wasn’t so peaceful when Getchius roamed the land. Getchius was nicknamed "The Old Roman" and the action inside his saloon often had a decidedly romanesque bent. In 1890 the Daily Northwestern published a florid rant about the bar complaining that the "rough characters" who patronized the saloon had brought "annoyance and fear" to the once quiet neighborhood. The paper accused Getchius of transforming “a respectable place" into a Bucket of Blood sort of joint where "the feet of lewd women and tougher men knocked out time to the tunes of a cracked orchestra." The Northwestern piece goes on to describe a "disgraceful row" that had taken place at the bar over a dice game. The brawl involved the Dwyer brothers of Omro, a pool cue and one Alfred Bradley whose "face resembled a broken balloon" when the dust settled. Bradley recovered, but according to the Northwestern he thereafter looked like an "exhibition in a dime museum."

But it wasn't all dice and fights at the Getchius stand. In addition to running his saloon, Getchius was employed as a laborer at the Paine Lumber Mill while simultaneously building the Algoma Bottling Works into a successful beer bottling operation. Prior to the 1890s, a tangle of laws prevented breweries from bottling their beer on site. In Oshkosh, beer bottling often fell to saloon keepers who sold packaged beer as a sideline to their main concern. The bottling process of the time was fairly crude with bottlers siphoning beer from barrels into bottles that were then sealed with either cork or porcelain stoppers. Getchius’ bottling works appears to have been somewhat more advanced than the typical set-up as he employed at least two other men in his bottling operation and managed to keep the business afloat even after brewers were permitted to bottle their beer at the brewery.

Change was afoot, though, and Getchius must have realized that men who made their livelihood selling beer were in for trouble. With the 1890s came an influx of beer brewed and bottled in Milwaukee making it impossible for local operators like Getchius to compete. Getchius closed the Algoma Bottling Works in 1896 and three years later left the saloon business.

The Old Roman moved on. He had taken to politics and in 1898 became an alderman representing Oshkosh's Twelfth Ward. Getchius brought the turbulence of his saloon years along with him to City Hall. As a politician he was blunt and combative. He became known for his knowledge of parliamentary procedure and utter lack of tact. There are numerous examples of Getchius standing before the Council and saying things nobody wanted to hear. In February of 1901 he cut to the heart of the prostitution problem in Oshkosh saying the matter shouldn’t be so difficult to resolve since “the chief of police knows who the disreputable women are.” The Northwestern dryly noted that “Mr. Getchius’ speech was a surprise to most of the people in the room.”

Around 1911 Getchius moved his family to Sawyer Street and built a home on the property where the barrel was found more than 70 years later. In 1913 Getchius was elected to the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors. His wild steak hadn’t abated. He was known to get up on his desk at board meetings and dance a jig during lulls in the proceedings. And it was there that Getchius cemented his reputation as a beer man. In 1926, during the depths of Prohibition and his last year on the County Board, Getchius introduced a resolution condemning Prohibition and encouraging the liberalization of the dry law to allow for beer. The resolution carried no legal weight, but in the words of Getchius “it would show Congress the sentiment of the people in this section.” The measure passed 29 to 11.

The Old Roman at Rest
Getchius spent the last years of his life quietly tending to a farm in Redgranite. He died after a six-month illness on August 18, 1931. Three days later he was buried at Riverside cemetery in Oshkosh. A lifetime after his death, it doesn’t matter whether or not Thomas A. Getchius actually owned the empty keg that Scott Krumenauer found on Sawyer Street. More important is that The Old Roman would undoubtedly appreciate that the cause for our remembering him is an old barrel that once brimmed with Oshkosh beer.

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