Monday, September 14, 2015

Then & Now: From Gemütlichkeit to Ohio Street Station

A couple of photos of the same building at the northwest corner of 9th and Ohio Avenue. The images are separated by 116 years.

This first picture is from 1899. It shows the building when it was a saloon and grocery store owned and operated by Joseph J. Nigl. Down below we’ll get into who some of those folks are standing in the doorway.

And here’s how the place looked this past Saturday.

This spot is central to the beer history of Oshkosh. It all starts with a family of German immigrants named Nigl.

In 1872, Joseph Nigl Sr. moved his family from their Bavarian home to America. They arrived in Winnebago County in 1876. In 1881, Nigl purchased the lot where Ohio Street Station now stands.

Nigl established a grocery store and saloon here in what would become the heart of Oshkosh’s “Bloody” 6th ward. His son, Joseph Jr. assumed ownership of the business in 1890. Both father and son are seen in the 1899 photo. Joseph Sr. stands at the left wearing a hat and white shirt with suspenders. Jospeh Jr., known as J.J., appears in the middle of the photo wearing a white shirt. He’s flanked by his six children. J.J. Nigl’s wife had died earlier in the same year this picture was taken.

The saloon J.J. Nigl operated here, came to be known as the Gemütlichkeit, a German word that has no exact English translation. Coziness, friendliness and good cheer come close. In a neighborhood populated with German and Bohemian immigrants, the saloon’s name was indicative of the strong sense of ethnic identity that prevailed in the area. Here’s a German language ad for the Gemütlichkeit from 1902.

Any translation I’d attempt would result in butchery, but in general the ad highlights the saloons low prices, free lunch, bowling alley, and “Exquisite wines, liquor and cigars.” Nigl was also selling the beer of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. But that was going to change.

By the early 1900s, Nigl and other Oshkosh saloon owners found themselves increasingly at odds with the Oshkosh Brewing Company, which had come to dominate the Oshkosh beer market. Nigl led a revolt against the brewery that culminated in the opening of Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh in 1913. The link between Peoples Beer and the tavern that operated here endured for more than 50 years. Here’s an example. This is a photo of the saloon from the 1940s when it was run by Alois “Punky” Nigl.

The tie between Peoples Beer and the saloon was all but lost by the time Peoples Brewing closed in 1972. During the 1970s, the ownership and name of the tavern changed several time before becoming Ohio Street Station in 1980.

The tavern is currently owned by Randy Syvrud, who purchased the property in 2007. If you’ve been by Ohio Street Station recently you may have noticed the sign in the window advertising that the tavern is up for sale. If the next owner decides to change the name, I have a suggestion: the Gemütlichkeit.

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