Monday, February 22, 2016

Drinking Beer in Oshkosh's Bottling Houses

Last weekend there was a bottle show in Milwaukee, an event where collectors of antique bottles gathered to display, trade and sell their finds. A friend from Oshkosh brought this one home.

That's an August Rahr bottle from the 1880s. Most likely, it was filled with beer by Rahr at his bottling house / saloon / grocery on the corner of Rosalia and Rahr.

Here's a close-up of the embossed face of the bottle.

This bottle is said to be one of two known to exist. Both now reside in Oshkosh. I didn't ask my friend what it cost him. I know it didn't come cheap.

There's a wonderful irony to this. The appreciation that exists today for these artifacts was entirely absent when they were abundant in the late 1800s. August Rahr probably went through thousands of such bottles. One by one, he filled them with beer. Nobody gave it much thought. Nobody, except those who resented him for being engaged in such a business. There were plenty of those.

Beer bottlers in Oshkosh weren't exactly embraced by the community. As often as not, they were viewed as a blight upon the neighborhoods from which they operated. Sometimes the low reputation was deserved.

Independent bottling houses were often tucked away in otherwise quiet parts of town. The city found it difficult to regulate them. The lax atmosphere created opportunity for those willing to exploit the situation. Some beer bottlers in Oshkosh took an outlaw approach. They ran their bottling barns like unlicensed saloons. Charles Noe was one of those who operated outside the law.

Beginning in the early 1890s, Noe ran a small, beer-bottling plant from his home at what is now 202 Rosalia Street. Noe did well. Within a year, he was one of three primary bottlers of beer for Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery.

His neighbors weren't at all happy with what Noe was up to. It wasn't the bottling that annoyed them. The problem was all those people hanging around drinking beer. The neighbors complained. On May 7, 1892, the Rosalia street bottler was arrested. Noe was charged with selling beer without a license. Here’s the Oshkosh Northwestern’s report of the incident.
For some time past, complaints have been coming in to police headquarters against Mr. Noe, but not until recently has evidence of a convincing character been secured. In Justice Merrill's court this morning he (Noe) at first became abusive and entered an emphatic plea of not guilty, but before he had left the building he had changed his mind and pleaded guilty.
     –Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; May 7, 1892
Noe paid a $10 fine and went on his way. It was no big deal. He wasn't the only Oshkosh bottler who'd been pinched for illegal beer sales. The same happened with August Rahr, Silvo Fenn, Fred Neumueller and others.

By 1898, the situation had gotten out of hand. In November that year, Fred Neumueller was charged with selling beer without a license. His bottler's permit allowed him to sell beer by the case, but not in single bottles for drinking on premise. Oshkosh Police Chief Rudolph Weisbrod charged that Neumuller and other bottlers in Oshkosh were doing just that: running their bottling houses like saloons. Weisbrod vowed to launch a "crusade" against the bottlers.

"Some of these places sell more beer at retail than do the saloons which pay $200 a year license, and I am going to Stop it," Chief Weisbrod told the Northwestern.

It didn't work out the way Weisbrod said it would. The chief must have known his threat would have little impact on behavior. The habit of drinking beer in these places was too deeply entrenched. Things weren't going to change because some public official wished them to. The beer continued to flow into and out of bottles in the bottling houses of Oshkosh.

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