Monday, January 26, 2015

Oshkosh’s Wildcat Breweries and the Raids of 1931 - Part 2

Five months after the raid on the Noe brewery, Prohibition enforcement agents were back in Oshkosh. This time they were snooping on the south side. The feds hit pay dirt on 20th Ave.

Federal prohibition agents dumped 11,000 gallons of alleged fermenting beer, smashed 120 cases bottled for shipment, broke 13 half barrels filled with the brew, and smashed 72 cans of wort, used for beer manufacture, at a farm on the Twentieth street road near the city, Tuesday evening.
     Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Wednesday, August 26, 1931

That’s a large brewery. For context, consider the brewhouse of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. It was the largest in Oshkosh both before and after Prohibition. OBC’s typical batch size was around 230 barrels. The farmhouse brewery here had more than 350 barrels of fermenting beer on hand and another 15 barrels of packaged beer ready to go out the door. This is brewing on a commercial scale.

That bit about the “72 cans of wort” is fascinating. It would suggest this brewery was making its beer from malt extract. Is it coincidence that the nearby Oshkosh Brewing Company was churning out malt extract at this time? Here’s something that suggests a link: In 1930, OBC, earned $35,132 on the sale of canned malt extract (wort). In 1931, earnings dipped to $18,567. Perhaps the summer raid on this brewery was a factor in that steep decline.

Like most stories about these wildcat breweries, what we learn only leads to more questions. Most of them will never be answered. Here’s one I’d like to know the answer to: Whose farm was this? The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern ran a single story on the incident and never mentioned the exact location of the property or its owner. In any case, the owner didn’t have to wait for their punishment. The feds immediately wrecked the place.

The destruction of the brewery south of the city puts out of business what the federal men stated was a most elaborate plant. The basement of the house was filled with large vats, they said, and this morning there was more than eight inches of alleged beer on the floor.
     Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Wednesday, August 26, 1931

If the brewery had been as “elaborate” as claimed, the two men captured in the raid were probably not its engineers. Prior to their arrests, Hubert “Hub” Molitor and Fred “Fernie” Heinzl, both of Oshkosh, appeared to be completely unconnected to anything involving beer or the brewing industry. Molitor was 30 years old and worked at the Deltox Rug Company. Heinzel was 32 and worked at Paine Lumber.

Following their arrests, Molitor and Heinzl were taken to Milwaukee, formally charged and released on a $500 bond. Their eventual punishment couldn’t have been too jarring. In November 1931, Molitor was seen celebrating his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in Fond du Lac. Heinzl went on to work for the City of Oshkosh. The dry law was wildly unpopular here. Being arrested for breaking it didn’t leave one stigmatized.

A couple years after their arrests, Prohibition ended and the wildcat breweries were gone. Molitor and Heinzl were already out of the game by then. But for the rest of their lives they lived within three blocks of each other in the old Sixth Ward. Surely they must have run into one another from time to time. I like to think of them accidentally meeting on the street and sharing a laugh over their outlaw days as wildcat brewers.

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