Monday, January 18, 2016

Mythical Oshkosh - It's All Beer

By the 1870s, Oshkosh's had achieved national renown. It was known as a wild, wide-open, city. The legend was fueled by newspapers from every quarter of the United States. Articles about the strange goings-on in the Sawdust City were standard fodder. All the better, the tales often had little or no basis in reality.

Saloons and beer were common threads uniting many of the odd tales. If you lived in Missouri and only knew of Oshkosh from stories printed in your local paper, the place must have seemed beyond belief. If Oshkoshers weren't boozing it up, they were burning it down.

Smoking cops, dark beer and high times – the Oshkosh of yore.

The New York Times chimed in on the phenomenon in an article titled Mythical Towns. Citing fables inspired by Oshkosh, the Times was only half-joking when it suggested that no such city could possibly exist.
The unthinking majority of the public, of course, believe that Oshkosh has an actual existence, and bona fide inhabitants. There are those, however, who not only look upon Oshkosh as intrinsically improbable, but who insist that altogether too many things happen in that alleged town… Wisconsin people, when asked questions concerning Oshkosh, always turn the conversation into other channels, and persist in declining to discuss that hypothetical and suspicious town… The very fact that a vast quantity of extraordinary things are constantly said by unscrupulous newspapers to have happened in Oshkosh is extremely suspicious. Why should that unseen Wisconsin town have almost a monopoly of remarkable events?
     - New York Times, July 10, 1877
While researching other things, I regularly come across these "unscrupulous newspapers" and their "extraordinary" reports on Oshkosh. It always brightens my day. Over the next couple weeks, I want to share some of these stories. Here's a taste of the sort of things they used to say about our "mythical" Oshkosh.

Let's start with a couple of early one-liners. These began popping up in numerous papers in the summer of 1870. Like many such stories about Oshkosh, these were used by newspapers to pad content and fill in blank spaces.

This first one is pretty mild, but sets the tone of incredulity for the stories to come. The Franco-Prussian War had just started. Newspapers were tying Prussia to everything. They looked for an Oshkosh link to spice things up. This one ran in dozens of papers. I've yet to figure out who exactly this Prussian nobleman is.

From the Evening Argus, Rock Island, Ill., August 25, 1870
Not long after, American newspapers were blurbing about Oshkosh's whiskey drinking dog. Here we find our city mentioned in a southern newspaper.

From the Weekly Sumter Republican, Americus, Georgia, September 9, 1870
In the wake of the disastrous downtown fire of 1874, Oshkosh began rebuilding. Newspaper editors were quick to notice that reports of the reconstruction included numerous mentions of beer halls. A Pennsylvania editor, borrowed  pieces from an Oshkosh Daily Northwestern article to paint the downtown as one, big beer hall.
An Oshkosh, Wisconsin, newspaper prints a list of new building started upon a burnt district as follows: “Beer hall, store, saloon, beer hall, grocery and saloon, beer hall, store, beer hall, saloon, grocery, beer hall, store, saloon, beer hall, grocery, beer hall, saloon, beer hall.” Oshkosh would seem to be “hall beer,” as a cockney would say.
     - The Carbon Advocate, Lehighton, Pa., September 26, 1874.
Hall Beer. Get it? Drop the "H" when you're doing the cockney accent. Now you do!

Here's one from South Dakota that is total bullshit. The Calkins in question didn't exist. Neither did the smashed saloon.

From the Daily Press and Dakotaian, Yankton, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), March 03, 1876
The biggest whopper in that pack of lies is the assertion that Temperance was once all the rage here. That was never the case. I'm insulted!

Let's jump ahead a few years to 1891. I especially like this one. By this time, our reputation had been thoroughly sullied. All you need do to smear someone was to say they sold booze in Oshkosh. The Uncle Jerry mentioned here is one Jeremiah M. Rusk, former Congressman and Governor of Wisconsin. At this time he was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Rusk was loved by many, but still had his enemies.
"The meanness of his satanic majesty was never more offensively manifested when he put it into the mind of a man to circulate the story that Uncle Jerry Rusk once kept a tavern in Oshkosh. The charge that Jerry kept a tavern is monstrous enough without the addition of the scandalous assertion that he kept the tavern at Oshkosh. Tradition has it that in the region of Oshkosh the worst fire water on earth has been marketed."
     - The Anaconda Standard, Anaconda, Mont., December 21, 1891
That story was widely reported. But here's the good part: Rusk had almost nothing to do with Oshkosh. He certainly never operated a saloon here. He did run a tavern in Viroqua, though, for a short time. What does that have to do with us? Nothing. Dragging Oshkosh into the picture was just a way to make the matter seem more salacious. Kind of makes me feel proud to live here.

More from Montana. A real gut buster.

From the Daily Missoulian, Missoula, Mont., December 12, 1912
Funny, right? Well... Here's the not funny part: the story is true. Albert Reuchel died on November 29, 1912 during a poker game at Gus Jeschke's saloon on the corner of 9th and Knapp streets (where the abandoned Sister's Pizza now languishes). Reuchel had won a hand. He reached forward to take the pot and abruptly died. Heart attack. Poor guy. He was only 33. Papers across the country picked up on the incident and turned it into a joke about card playing. They usually including something about a lack of hearts in his last hand.

Inside the Saloon where Reuchel died.
That's enough for now. If all goes well, there'll be more here next week about forgotten events that might have never happened in our mythical city (And here that post is).

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