Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Lineage of Oblio's – Part 1

Oshkosh street names and numberings have undergone sweeping changes over the years. The street names and numberings in this post reflect the current addresses of the properties and buildings mentioned.
Outside the Schlitz Beer Hall 1887
At Oblio’s there are 27 beers on tap from some of the finest breweries in the world, but there’s one tap near the beginning of their line that's more than just a beer faucet. The Schlitz handle at Oblio’s draws a direct link to the distant past. In 1885 Schlitz became the first beer poured in the building that is now home to Oblio’s, a tavern with a lineage that can be traced back 125 years. And like many Oshkosh beginnings it all started with a great fire.

On July 14, 1874 a fire ignited in a stable near the intersection of Main and Washington and tore north through the downtown business district consuming every building in its path. Reconstruction began almost immediately and at the close of 1874 the greater portion of upper Main had been recast with buildings made of brick. But the 38 foot-wide lot where Oblio’s resides remained in flux until 1884. That year William Dichmann, a wealthy grocer and soon to be Oshkosh Mayor, enlisted architect William Waters to design a building for his property at what is now 432-434 N. Main Street. Waters hired James N. Ruby, a carpenter living at the corner of Irving and Central, to build his two-story, red-brick design, which was Waters take on the Queen Anne style. The building priced out at $5,000 and by December of 1884 the new “Dichmann Block” was ready for tenancy.

Meanwhile, a 26-year-old former currier named Charles Maulick was learning the saloon trade in a rough area of town near the blacksmith shops along the western end of Ceape Street. Maulick started out at an old tavern and inn named the Mechanics' Home, but he wasn’t there long. Just a year after he’d taken over the business, Maulick left Ceape Street and moved uptown to establish his new stand at the Dichmann building in the heart of downtown Oshkosh.

If you were to visit Oblio’s tonight you’d immediately be able to define the space where Maulick operated his Schlitz Beer Hall. Entering Oblio’s from Main Street, the north half of the room is occupied by the main bar. Opposite that is a bisecting wall cut by an archway that opens to the room where in the Spring of 1885 Maulick began offering his customers “imported” Milwaukee beer. Maulick’s saloon quickly gained a reputation for being something more than the typical beer dive. He served sandwiches and oysters along with a free daily lunch that sometimes featured the wild goose, turkey and other game Maulick was fond of hunting. A review of the tavern from the period described it as “one of the largest sample rooms... stocked with the finest goods in the market” and ended with the extraordinary promise that “no better place can be found in the city to refresh the inner man.” If that wasn’t enough to distinguish Maulick’s tavern, his association with Schlitz surely was. Of the more than 80 saloons doing business in Oshkosh at the time, Maulick’s room was just one of six selling Milwaukee beer.

Maulick’s relationship with Schlitz Brewing developed rapidly. August Uihlein, the head of Schlitz, realized early on that he had a good thing going with Maulick in Oshkosh and in the summer of 1886, a year into Maulick’s residence at the Dichmann Block, Uihlein bought the building. The backing of Schlitz assured Maulick of a permanent home for his thriving tavern. It was now Maulick’s home as well. He lived above the bar with his family in an arrangement that was mirrored by his neighbor in the building. The portion of Oblio’s that now contains the main bar was then occupied by Gus Eilers who operated a grocery store and saloon in the space. Like Maulick, Eilers and his family lived in an apartment above their business. The bustling Dichmann Block had become a downtown centerpiece.

From 1889
As the venture continued to grow, Maulick took on a partner. Frank Wahle had a pedigree in the beer business few could match. His father had been a brewer and brewery builder and his family had owned the brewery on Doty Street where John Glatz began making his Oshkosh lager. Wahle was 26 years old when he joined with Maulick in 1888 and together they made the Schlitz Beer Hall into one of the most popular and highly regarded saloons in the city. It wasn’t just a beer hall anymore, either. It had grown into a “gentlemen's establishment”. Fine wine and Kentucky whiskey were available as well as cigars from Key West and, of course, fresh lager beer. The sample room was thriving, but like many Americans in the late 1800s, Wahle had the itch to go west. His brother had moved to Montana where he was running a wholesale liquor business and at the end of 1889 Wahle left Oshkosh to join him in Boulder, Montana. Things didn’t work out as planned for Wahle, though. He found Montana a little too rough to suit him and by April of 1890 he was back in town. Wahle quickly established a new saloon in Oshkosh called the Glee Club a few doors to the south of The Schlitz Beer Hall, where Maulick was now running the bar with the help of Frank H. Kitz.

Unlike Wahle, Kitz had no experience in the saloon trade. He was a trunk maker living on Otter Street, but Maulick and Kitz made a good team and they quickly put together an ambitious plan to expand into the bottled beer business. Many of the Oshkosh saloons ran small bottling operations, but Maulick and Kitz wanted more than a mom and pop bottle shop. In 1890 Pabst Brewing had set up its first branch in Oshkosh (at what is now the intersection of Commerce and Pearl) where they shipped in beer by train for bottling and keg sales in the area. Maulick and Kitz sought to do the same with Schlitz. In 1891 they made an agreement with Schlitz Brewing to run the Oshkosh branch for the brewery and that summer Schlitz hired William Waters to design and contract the building of a bottling plant, ice house and barn along a railroad spur just to the north of where Commerce St. now joins Ceape. The bottling operation grew rapidly and before long Maulick and Kitz were bottling as much as four train car loads of beer a week. The success of the operation would have a profound effect on the beer business in Oshkosh. In fact, Oshkosh’s largest brewery, may not have formed had it not been for Maulick and Kitz. In 1894, the Oshkosh Brewing Company was established by the merger of three local breweries in an effort to stave off the competition brought by Maulick, Kitz and Milwaukee beer.

From 1891
Maulick and Kitz were now the sole agents for Schlitz in Oshkosh and their quick rise afforded them a status few saloon keepers in the city enjoyed. By the mid-1890s both men had become fixtures on the Oshkosh scene. In addition to managing the bar, Kitz was a working musician. He was a member of the musician’s union and played with the Crescent Band, a popular Oshkosh parade and dance band of the period. Charles Maulick had become something of a minor celebrity in Oshkosh. He was looked upon as a prominent businessman and his hunting adventures and marksmanship skills were frequently reported upon in the pages of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. The pair were riding high, but their business was a volatile one with a unique set of risks and a gaggle of readymade enemies whose stated aim was to destroy them. By the mid-1890s the temperance movement was running full throttle and though the Oshkosh contingent was small they were strident and eager to seize any issue that would boost their profile. On a cold November night in the alley behind the Schlitz Beer Hall, the movement found just what they were looking for - a martyr.

On November 2, 1897 John Webster, Jr. came to the Maulick and Kitz saloon for a night of drinking. Webster was a 38-year-old street car driver living in a tenement at the 200 block of Merritt Avenue, just east the saloon. Nicknamed "Cooney", he was described as “simple” and “weak-minded” and easily manipulated. That night at the Beer Hall, Webster met up with Abe Muench, an old friend who lived on Evans Street. Muench was already drunk and thought it would be fun to see how much liquor Webster could hold, so he began buying him glasses of seven-year-old whiskey. After the eighth brimming glass Webster pleaded that he’d had enough and wanted to go home, but Muench urged him on. After the 11th glass, Webster couldn’t stand. He had drank more than a quart of whiskey and when Muench couldn’t get him to drink anymore, Webster was helped out through the back door and dumped on a work bench in the alley behind the bar. Several hours later he was found lying motionless by police. Webster was put on a gurney and carted to the jail where he died without regaining consciousness.

The incident was front-page news and set off a furor. Supporters of the temperance movement used the tragedy as a cudgel, decrying that if this could happen in the best of Oshkosh’s saloons what were the others capable of? They demanded retribution. And they got it. Nine days after Webster died, Frank Kitz was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Also charged were Muench and Nick Marx, the bartender on duty the evening Webster drank himself to death.

For Charles Maulick, the event signaled the end of his saloon years. Two months after Webster’s death, Maulick and Kitz dissolved their partnership. Maulick moved out of the apartment above the saloon to a new flat at 413 Merritt Ave. and the business was divided. Kitz took over the saloon while Maulick assumed control of the lucrative wholesale keg and bottled beer business. The brief notice that Maulick and Kitz published to announce the dissolution of their partnership closed with a note that Kitz would continue to be “pleased to accommodate his friends and patrons with his usual suavity and promptness.” But the bright pledge was snuffed by the dark days which followed.

The manslaughter case against Kitz was one of the first of its kind and prosecuting it proved to be a wrenching affair for all concerned. It took more than a year to bring the defendants to trial and when the proceedings finally did begin the effect on Kitz was devastating. His health began to fail almost immediately and during testimony he broke down and wept. “He pressed his hands to his face but the tears would not be held back, and trickled through his fingers,” reported the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. In the end Kitz was found not guilty. Only Nick Marx, the bartender who had served Webster the whiskey, was convicted. The jury found him guilty of fourth-degree manslaughter and fined him $282.44. The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for Muench. Temperance supporters announced they were “gratified” with the result. Kitz, though, found little solace in the outcome. His health continued to decline and the following year he died at his home on Otter Street from hemorrhages of the lungs. Frank H. Kitz was forty-three years old. He left a wife and five children.

If the temperance supporters of Oshkosh were happy about taking down the Schlitz Beer Hall their celebration must have been short lived because the man who came to fill the void left by Maulick and Kitz was the embodiment of prohibitionist dread. Jesse Gokey was 36 and well schooled in the art of mayhem when he took over the Schlitz Beer Hall at the turn of the century. He had been a solider in the Spanish-American War and after contracting malaria came back to Oshkosh fifty pounds lighter, looking thin and pale and ready to raise hell. Gokey opened a gut-bucket saloon near the river (in the area where the City Center is now located) in a building covered with sheet metal called the Ozark Flats. It was there that Gokey established his reputation for running the sort of dive where thugs, criminals, whores and minors were always welcome. Gokey had a long and storied career as a tavern man in and around Oshkosh and was hounded by the law for most of it. His one, brief respite of relative peace occurred during the time he spent running the Schlitz Beer Hall. Gokey toned down his act when he moved it to Main Street and it may have been that the polite society of downtown was not to his liking. A few months after occupying the saloon, Gokey moved out and almost immediately returned to hosting the sort of alcoholic bedlam that he and his taverns would be remembered for.

The Main Barroom at Oblio's Circa 1902
With the dawn of the 20th century, the bar at 462 North Main Street underwent a series of fundamental changes that reflected the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the American century. The new owner was Al Steuck, who in all likelihood had begun working at the Beer Hall while Frank Kitz was running it. But it was Steuck’s bar now and he quickly went about putting his own stamp on the place. The Beer Hall days were over. Now the saloon was called the Annex Sample Room, which would in turn give way to the Annex Bar. Steuck was an avid baseball and boxing fan and his stand took on the atmosphere of an early sports bar where the results from each round of important boxing matches were cabled in and announced to the patrons. The clientele had changed also. The crowd was younger. Like the 27-year-old Steuck, most of them had been born in Oshkosh to parents who had come to Wisconsin in a massive wave of German migration. They were developing customs and identities of their own and it was reflected in the character of the tavern. The place had become rowdier. The door that opened onto Main Street came to be known as a spot to be avoided if you weren’t in the mood for rough fun. The sports that inhabited Steuck’s place made a habit of passing remarks to passers-by and more often than not the comments were less than charitable. They especially like to taunt the police and eventually the practice grew so out of hand that in 1908 the Common Council stepped in and told Steuck that if he allowed it to continue, he’d have his license revoked.

For the most part, though, the early 1900s were good times for the saloon. Gas lamps gave way to electric bulbs and the horses that used to pull beer wagons to the bar were gradually replaced by trucks. Steuck was having fun and making a nice living. He moved his family to an expensive house at 907 Washington Ave. and though the modern era was treating him well the ghosts of the past were lurking. The temperance movement that had been the bane of Maulick and Kitz had fizzled in Oshkosh, but nationally it was stronger than ever. In 1919 what many in Oshkosh considered to be unthinkable became a reality. Liquor, in all its forms, was outlawed. Prohibition was the law of the land.

With his livelihood having suddenly become illegal, Al Steuck adapted as most of the other saloon keepers in Oshkosh had. He became an outlaw. The Annex Bar was now the Annex Soft Drink parlor, but there wasn’t much soft in the drinks Steuck was serving. An amazingly efficient network of distilleries and wildcat breweries developed seemingly overnight in Winnebago County and the beer and whiskey continued to flow. An official from the Bureau of Prohibition would later call Wisconsin “a Gibraltar of the wets - sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor." If Wisconsin was the Gibraltar of the wets then Oshkosh was its shining city on the hill. Prohibition enforcers reported that Oshkosh was a thoroughly “wet” city of 33,000 people and as many as 120 speakeasies. A federal assessment of the conditions in Oshkosh noted, “Oshkosh is the center of a large number of wildcat breweries... Local police in Oshkosh are active and efficient with respect to all law violation, except, of course, those connected with the liquor traffic.”

Throughout the roaring 1920s the relaxed atmosphere of Oshkosh, where ordinary people were eager to break the law, made it easy for men like Steuck to go right on doing as they always had. But it also worked to create a false sense of security. The wide-open circumstance here made it especially easy for federal officials to drop in and pick-up a few quick arrests anytime it suited them. Their targets would often be the more prominent and well known taverns in the city. On the South Side of town August Witzke’s Hall was singled out, but the easiest pickings for the feds were found in the cluster of highly visible bars doing business along Main Street. In 1921 Al Steuck fell victim to just such a sweep. On October 31, 1921 Steuck and four other Oshkosh men (including the son of Oshkosh’s Assistant Police Chief) were served warrants of arrest by Federal Marshal William J. McCormack. Steuck was charged with five counts of selling intoxicating liquor and taken to Milwaukee where he was arraigned at the United States District Court. Steuck pleaded not guilty and hired Oshkosh attorney Earl P. Finch to defend him. It didn’t help. Steuck eventually changed his plea to guilty and was convicted on all five counts. His sentence was three months in the house of corrections.

The most damaging aspect of the penalty, though, was the prospect of another arrest. Steuck was well aware that a second conviction for selling liquor would result in prison time and he was left with no choice, but to reign in his activities. Things at the Annex changed. They had to. Steuck had already tried to buoy his operation by turning the bar into a lunch counter selling hot, short order lunches, but business continued to fall off and by the mid 1920s the Annex was a shadow of its former self. Steuck felt the pinch. Gone was the handsome house on Washington Ave. He began selling off the bar's fixtures and would eventually take a job managing the Eagles Club. By 1927 the Annex Bar was no more. The last call had been served at 462 North Main Street.

To continue reading the Lineage of Oblio’s go here.

4 comments:

  1. YOU are great (kinda-sorta) I cannot wait for part two!!! (visit Oblio’s tonight) or any night!!

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  2. Thanks Jimm. Part 2 should be coming in a couple weeks. Before I can finish it I need to do more research at the bar refreshing the living hell out of my inner man.

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  3. WOW! Just found this! Very Very cool!

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