Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Abbreviated Life of Theodore Schwalm

Theodore Schwalm’s life could have become one those stories that people in Oshkosh used to love to tell. The only son of German immigrants, he was born into circumstances that were less than ideal, yet ripe for success on a scale his forefathers could have hardly imagined. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to.

Horn & Schwalm's Home/Brewery
Theodore Schwalm was born in 1858, to Leonhardt and Maria Schwalm. When he was 8 years old, his father and August Horn established Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery on Doty Street just south of W. 16th Ave. That brewery became Theodore’s childhood home. Both the Horn and Schwalm families lived there along with a host of the brewery’s workers and when Leonhard Schwalm died in 1873, Theodore became the presumptive head of the Schwalm household.

He was fifteen now and also well on his way to assuming his father’s role as the Horn and Schwalm brewmaster. At this point he’d been living at the brewery for at least 8 years and though he had attended primary school, his real education undoubtedly took place in the brewhouse. That also may have been where he learned to drink. Alcohol would compromise much of his short life, but despite his incipient problem Theodore became a full partner in the brewery by the time he was 21 years old.

From 1880
His tenure as joint proprietor of the Brooklyn brewery didn’t get off to a good start. In 1879, the same year his name went on the signboard, the brewery burned to the ground. Three years earlier, Theodore, his mother, and his five sisters had moved to a new home across the street from the brewery (the house still stands at 1639 Doty Street), so although the family still had a place to live, their livelihood was in ruins. Not for long, though. Horn and Schwalm quickly rebuilt the brewery at a cost of $35,000 and by year’s end had a brewhouse that could outpace any in Oshkosh (much of that brewery still remains along the east side of the 1600 block of Doty Street).

On the face of it, things were looking up for Theodore. In April of 1881 he married and his his wife Sophia joined the Schwalm’s in their family home. Theodore’s alcoholism continued to escalate, though, and by January of 1883 he had become so debilitated that he was placed under guardianship. An abstract of the guardianship papers is unequivocal in its description of Theodore. The stark report identifies him as a “Drunkard”.

Two years later, in 1885, Theodore and Sophie Schwalm had their first and only child, Arthur. But Theodore’s decline continued. By 1887, at the age of 29, he was suffering from liver failure and in the fall of that year his conditioned worsened considerably after being thrown from a buggy.

On January 17, 1888, The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported that Theodore was gravely ill. He had been confined to his bed for the past two weeks and was not expected to live through the day. The following morning the paper reported that his condition had not changed. That evening he died. His death ascribed to “an affection of the liver”. The following Sunday, Theodore was buried in Riverside cemetery. He left behind a wife, a two-year-old son and a promising future to be claimed by others.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, though sad...I can't imagine dying at 29 due to alcoholism and liver failure.