Monday, January 19, 2015

Oshkosh’s Wildcat Breweries and the Raids of 1931 - Part 1

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.
     - Frank Buckley, Bureau of Prohibition, from his 1929 report on Prohibition enforcement in Wisconsin.

Frank Buckley wasn’t adding anything new with his description of Oshkosh as a wet town. It was well known that wildcat brewing thrived here during Prohibition. But when Prohibition ended in 1933 these breweries were immediately made redundant. They were swept away and forgotten.

Such breweries were, of course, secretive affairs. As a result, most details of their operations have been lost. But from 1931 comes a couple of brief glimpses into the workings of two illicit Oshkosh breweries. Today and again next Monday we’ll look at outlaw brewing in our city during the dry years.

The Raid on the Noe Brewery
Just before midnight on the Saturday evening of March 21, 1931, federal agents arrested Henry Noe of Oshkosh. He was charged with the manufacture and possession of intoxicants, along with possession of implements designed to manufacture intoxicants. Noe was running a brewery.

Henry Noe’s brewery was located on an abandoned farm just west of what is now State Road 76; near to where Highway 41 crosses over it. The raid on Noe’s brewery lasted nearly three hours. They caught the young man red-handed.

The raiders found 100 gallons of alleged brew in vats, three half barrels of alleged beer, a bottling machine, a complete sterilization outfit and other paraphernalia. The farmhouse and barns, supposedly deserted for some time, had housed the brewery for a considerable period, it is believed.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern March 23, 1931

Not a bad setup for a bootlegger. A hundred gallons of fermenting beer is a considerable amount. It’s enough to produce more than 40 cases of beer. That volume, coupled with the fact that Noe was in possession of a bottling machine, indicates that this was outfitted to be a production brewery. That he was also kegging beer suggests he was supplying beer to taverns or clubs. It also tells you that Noe probably wasn’t working alone.

At the time of his arrest, Henry Noe was just 24 years old. He hardly strikes you as the sort of guy who would be running a bootleg brewery on his own. Noe had an 8th grade education and made his living as an electrician. His past and familial ties suggest no previous background in brewing beer.

A year before his arrest, Noe had been living at his parents home at what is now 528 W 10th Ave. But he had recently married Anne Lichtenwald, an 18-year-old Russian-born woman who had just given birth to their first son. If the Noe brewery was a one-man operation, Henry Noe must have been a hustling young man. In any case, Noe was alone in taking the fall when the farm brewery was raided that night in March.

When the raid occurred, neighbors said they were alarmed by the scene, but not surprised by it. Like the Oshkosh Police Frank Buckley had observed, the neighbors of Noe’s brewery knew exactly what was going on there.

They stated they presumed a raid was in progress since they had observed previously that it appeared the farm buildings were being used for either a brewery or distillery.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern March 23, 1931

Following his arrest, Noe was taken to Milwaukee, charged with various infractions of the Prohibition law and held over on $500 bond. But the ordeal wasn’t too damaging for him. Soon he was back in Oshkosh with his young family again, working as an electrician and going about his life. Noe eventually left Oshkosh, moving his family moved to Peoria, IL in 1940. He remained there until his death at age 84 in 1991. The secrets of his brewery, more than likely, went with him.

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