Monday, January 25, 2016

Mythical Oshkosh - Fun with the Boys

This is a the second in a two-part series of posts concerning myths about Oshkosh spread by American newspapers. You can find the first post here.

More reports on the city that couldn't possibly exist – Oshkosh. Tall-tales continued being spun about Oshkosh throughout the latter half of the 1800s. But not all the stories were myth. As we'll see, Oshkosh's unruly reputation wasn't unwarranted.

The Main Street of Myth, circa 1887. - Photo courtesy of Dan Radig
Let's start with a whopper. In February 1868, the Fond du Lac Commonwealth ran a story titled Fun with the Boys in Oshkosh. The point of the piece was that mayhem and violence were the natural state of affairs here. Papers everywhere picked up the story and ran with it. If there was a single fable that cemented Oshkosh's reputation as a wild town, this was it.

The late Oshkosh historian Jim Metz explains what Fun with the Boys in Oshkosh was all about.

Metz is absolutely right when he says, "Fun with the Boys in Oshkosh became a euphemism for mayhem.” It was repeated constantly. I can't count the number of times I've comes across it in old newspapers.

Almost 50 years after it was introduced, the catchphrase was still in use. In 1910, Wisconsin author Jerome Watrous wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel, “Having fun with the boys in Oshkosh — There may be back towns in China and a few dark spots in Africa where the inhabitants haven't heard the remark, but I doubt it.”

It became part of the common vernacular. You can see why. Fun with the Boys in Oshkosh. There’s a mad kind of ring to it. It ought to be revived.

Here's another one that made the rounds. It's boosted by a dose of pure bullshit.

– Tallulah, Madison Parish, La., Madison Times, March 27, 1886

Well there is some truth to this one. There really was a man named William Waterman aged 109. But he didn't live in Oshkosh. He lived in Grand Rapids (now known as Wisconsin Rapids). Why move him to Oshkosh then? Because when you're a newspaper editor filling up space, it's sexier to have your boozing ultracentenarian living in sin city. It's not as though, Waterman's life wasn't interesting enough. He was born six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and had seen George Washington in the flesh. Better yet, he married for the second time when he was 100 years old. When Waterman died at the age of 113, he was supposedly the oldest person in the United States.

As the 1800s drew to a close, myths about Oshkosh continued to be perpetrated by American newspapers. But a number of them – perhaps recognizing that the joke had gotten out of hand – attempted to put a damper on the Oshkosh phenomenon. Here's the New York Times with a feeble stab at setting the record straight about Sawdust City.

– New York Times, February 28, 1888

By the 1890s, some of the fictions were giving way to facts juicy enough for print. When Mayor Charles Oellerich launched a campaign to have Oshkosh saloons close on Sundays, the nation's newspapers took notice. Here's a story on the ensuing showdown, This appeared on the front page of the Bismarck, North Dakota Weekly Tribune on March 30, 1894. The story ran verbatim in dozens of American newspapers.

I like that bit about Oshkosh being a wide-open city. In terms of pure vice, this town had few rivals. New York City was one of them. The saloon closing caused the New York Evening World to draw the connection between these two dens of iniquity.

– April 2, 1894

Oshkosh saloonists weren't giving up their hard-won reputation that easily.

– Jamestown, North Dakota, Weekly Alert, April 12, 1894

Can you guess who won the battle? Of course, you can. By the end of the year, Oellerich was out on his ear and the saloons were going full bore all week long.

Here's another ordeal involving Oshkosh saloons that was reported nationwide.

– Rock Island, IL. Argus, December 7, 1898

Not so fast. The tradition of Oshkosh saloons giving away a free lunch to boozers proved more durable than anyone expected. Many of the pre-Prohibition saloons in the city continued offering their patrons free grub at any time of day or night. Here's an example of just that from the 1905 Oshkosh City Directory.

The building that housed Klawun's saloon still stands on the corner at Boyd and Merritt streets. You can still get lunch there, too. You'll have to pay, though. Here's what it looks like today.

Just one more. This article was widely circulated in 1897. It's about more fun with the boys from Oshkosh. Goes to show you can take the boys out of Oshkosh, but you can't take Oshkosh out of the boys...

– Princeton, Minn., Union, July 22, 1897

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