Monday, April 4, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 5 - The Fifth Ward Brewery

In the mid-1850s Oshkosh was coming into its own. What had been a backwater wilderness 20 years earlier was now a thriving city with more than 4,000 people and a burgeoning reputation for liquid indulgence. Beer was a central component in the lives of many who had come to Oshkosh and though the city already had two breweries, there was more than enough demand to support another. It was exactly the sort of place Tobias Fischer and August Weist were looking for.

Both Fischer and Weist were born in Germany and trained as brewers in their homeland before leaving for America. It appears Fischer was the driving force in the partnership. Fischer was 46 years old when he left Germany in 1854 and when he reached Oshkosh two years later he had the resources needed to finance the launch of the brewery. But when it came to the brewing aspect of the operation, Weist was certainly Fischer’s equal. Weist was a certified Brewmaster having served a full apprenticeship in Hirschberg, Germany undertaken at the age of 15. He came to America in 1856 and just eight days after his 27th birthday in October of that year, he and Fischer purchased a single acre of land at what is now the south west corner of High and New York Avenues. The developing and under-served north side of Oshkosh now had a brewery of its own, albeit one that would prove to be provisional.

Fischer and Weist were barely settled in when another young brewer named Christian Kaehler landed on the north end of town. Kaehler, who was born in Oldenburg, Germany in 1833, had emigrated to America in 1853 and may have come to Oshkosh at the behest of Tobias Fischer. If Fischer hadn’t invited Kaehler to Oshkosh, the two certainly didn’t waste any time finding common ground. In August of 1857, August Weist left Oshkosh for Princeton where he would establish the Tiger Brewery. A month later Fischer threw his lot in with Kaehler. The two consolidated their operations and in September of 1857 purchased land at what is now the south east corner of Algoma Boulevard and Vine Avenue. Here they established what came to be known as the Fifth Ward Brewery.

But Fischer’s partnership with Kaehler was as short lived as his collaboration with Weist. In February of 1858 Fischer began pulling out of Oshkosh. Over the course of the year, he sold his holdings to Kaehler and then left to brew beer in St. Louis, which then had the largest number of breweries in North America. Kaehler, meanwhile, was now 25 years old and had the Fifth Ward Brewery all to himself.

The Fifth Ward Brewery would be the last of the Oshkosh breweries to be established prior to 1860 and though it held its own for almost 25 years, the operation appears to have been wedded to the past. Kaehler had learned to brew at a time when the German brewing regimen had gone unchanged for several centuries, but with the coming of the 1860s, advances in brewing science and technology were revolutionizing commercial brewing. Kaehler, however, seemed to have little interest in reaping the benefits of such developments. The growth of the Fifth Ward Brewery would remain stunted over the years as its production lagged far behind that of other Oshkosh breweries. And in comparison to the encroaching breweries of Milwaukee, Kaehler’s output was minuscule. By 1879 the Fifth Ward Brewery was producing less than 200 barrels of beer a year, and though it was an increase over the brewery’s previous output, it was still less than half of what was being produced by Rahr Brewing, Oshkosh’s next smallest brewery.

Small as it was, the brewery seemed to hold a special place in the memories of early Oshkosh residents. Some fifty years after it closed, Kaehler's brewery became a topic at a gathering of “old settlers” held by the Winnebago County Archeological and Historical Society. They described the brewery as consisting of several buildings, some of which were sunk low into the ground. This would have been in keeping with a typical set-up for a lager brewer such as Kaehler who relied upon cooler temperatures to ferment and age his beer. The panel recalled that Kaehler’s entire plant was surrounded by a high, board fence and erroneously remembered it as being just one of two breweries then in Oshkosh. In fact, there were six Oshkosh breweries in operation during the period. That the group could only recall the largest and smallest breweries of the era says more about Kaehler’s position in the community than it does about the state of Oshkosh brewing during that time.

Though Kaehler’s brewery was modest, by the 1870s he had managed to parley his earnings into a larger success. As early as 1866 Kaehler began buying vacant parcels of land that surrounded his brewery. As the northern end of Algoma Boulevard became a destination point for the newly affluent, Kaehler found himself holding a portfolio of highly coveted deeds. Throughout the 1870s Kaehler subdivided and sold off the properties at a handsome profit and with the coming of the 1880s it appears the brewery had became something of an afterthought for him.

By 1882 Kaehler’s Fifth Ward Brewery had ceased production and the following year Kaehler used his new wealth to purchase land on an island off the coast of Washington. There he finished his days as a gentleman farmer.

The north side of Oshkosh would remain without a brewery for more than 100 years, until 1995 when the Fox River Brewing Company established its first brewpub just two blocks north of the Kaehler site.

What was once the Kaehler brewery is now a green space that falls within the grounds of the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. The land is crossed by a footpath and legend has it that if you stroll through the area on a cool autumn night when the breeze is light you can still draw the heady aroma of fermenting lager yeast... if you’re carrying a vial of it with you.

2 comments:

  1. Hey, August Carl Weist was my Great Great Grandfather! The 'I' was dropped from our name later on. Great article!
    Rich West

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    1. Thanks, Rich, glad you liked it!

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