Monday, August 3, 2015

Joseph Schussler’s Road to Oshkosh

Joseph Schussler came to Oshkosh in the autumn of 1849 to launch a brewery. He had spent the previous three years making beer in Milwaukee. There, Schussler had left behind ground-floor opportunities at two breweries that would soon be among the largest, most successful in the nation.

Joseph Schussler
Of course, Schussler had no way of knowing the value of the prospects he had abandoned. He also couldn’t foresee that his plans for building a prosperous life in Oshkosh would be crushed. Or that his time here would be marked by one setback after another.

In the end, Schussler would prevail. But when you look back upon his life, it’s almost impossible not speculate about what might have been.

Johann Joseph Schüßler was born on June 24, 1819 in Baden within the modern state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. When he was 15 years old, Schussler began training as a brewer and cooper (barrel maker). He came of age, though, at a time when Baden was beset with political unrest, overpopulation and a stifling economic depression. Seeking a brighter future, Schussler left his homeland for America.

He reached Milwaukee by 1846 and went into business with a fellow German émigré named Johann Braun. Together they launched the City Brewery on the northeast side of what has become downtown Milwaukee. Some 50 years later a Milwaukee journalist described the modest beginning of Braun and Schussler’s brewery.

“A small stack of barley was purchased together with some hops and for a starter several barrels of beer was made which was pronounced equal to that which these gentlemen had manufactured in Germany before coming to this country.”(1)

But the partnership didn’t last. By the close of 1846, Schussler was off in pursuit of another opportunity.

Johann Braun stayed the course. The City Brewery grew precipitously after Schussler’s departure. By 1850,it was the second largest brewery in Milwaukee producing 4,000 barrels of beer annually. Filling Schussler’s old role in the brewhouse was a young Bavarian named Valentin Blatz, whose timing was providential. In 1851, Johann Braun was killed in an accident. Shortly thereafter Blatz married Braun’s widow. Blatz took over the brewery and Braun’s assets. The brewery Schussler had helped to found became part of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company. During Schussler’s lifetime it would grow into one of the largest producers of beer in America.

Meanwhile, Schussler had moved to the near south side of Milwaukee where he took up with a former partner of his former partner. Johann Braun and Franz Neukirch had worked together prior to Braun and Schussler starting the City Brewery. It appears very likely that Schussler had also known Neukirch for several years.

Franz Neukirch
The brewery that Neukirch owned was the second brewery established in Milwaukee and probably the first there to produce lager beer. It was launched in 1841 by Herman Reuthlisberger, who made the mistake of placing too much trust in John B. Meyer, a son-in-law of Franz Neukirch (as we’ll see, Neukirch’s daughters tended to marry stridently ambitious men.)

Reuthlisberger was essentially swindled out of his brewery by Meyer, who soon after sold the brewery to his father in law. The 27-year-old Schussler would have been just the sort of man Franz Neukirch needed for his brewery.

Beer making wasn’t the only activity occupying Schussler’s time at Neukirch’s brewery. Schussler fell in love with one of the bosses daughters. And on January 17, 1848, Joseph Schussler married Fannie Neukirch. There must have been something in the air at the Neukirch brewery. Two other Neukirch sisters, Dora and Marie, also married brewers during this period.

In the year following their marriage, Joseph and Fannie Schussler left Milwaukee for Oshkosh. On November 16, 1849, they took possession of an acre of land on what is now Bay Shore Drive. Schussler was ready to start his own brewery.

Back in Milwaukee, the brewery he most recently left behind developed into a behemoth. Charles T. Melms married Marie Neukirch and in the year before Schussler’s leaving had joined his father-in-law’s brewery. When Franz Neukirch died in 1865, ownership of the brewery, then the largest in Milwaukee, was assumed by Melms.

After Melms died in 1869, the South Side brewery was purchased by Jacob Frey, the husband of Dora Neukirch and Schussler’s brother-in-law by marriage. Frey, who had his own brewery in Fond du Lac, almost immediately sold the South Side brewery to the Phillip Best Empire Brewery, making Best the dominant brewery in the Midwest. That brewery would eventually change its name to the Pabst Brewing Company. By 1895 Pabst was the largest brewery in the nation. Blatz was the 7th largest.

By then Joseph Schussler was a retired widower living in Fond du Lac. Schussler’s Oshkosh Brewery failed in 1852. Twenty years later Schussler tried again, launching a second brewery – the West Hill Brewery, in Fond du Lac. This one succeeded, though on smaller scale. An 1880 account describes Schussler’s Fond du Lac brewery as being “less extensive of those of the other city brewers.”

Perhaps that’s just how Schussler wanted it. Did he realize in 1849 that the life of a big city brewer was not for him? Or did he watch with regret from Oshkosh and Fond du Lac as breweries he had once been instrumental in went from success to success?

In 1891, a year after Schussler retired and turned the business over to his sons, the West Hill Brewery was gutted by fire. It was not rebuilt. Schussler died in Fond du Lac in 1904 at the age of 85. His contribution to the early history of brewing in Wisconsin had already been forgotten.

(1) This excerpt is from a Milwaukee newspaper clipping that does not include the masthead or publication date. Other articles in the clipping make it possible to date the piece as being published in either January or February 1898.

Thanks to Susan Meister and Tom Schuessler for providing additional information about Joseph Schussler and the Franz Neukirch family.

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