Monday, April 4, 2016

When Schlitz Came Barreling into Oshkosh

"It is claimed that Milwaukee beer is sold at but six saloons in the city and that at all the others the product of Oshkosh brewers is kept on tap."
   - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, October 7, 1886

If August Uihlein saw that blurb he probably had a good laugh. He owned one of those six Oshkosh saloons selling Milwaukee beer. And he knew that it was just the beginning. Oshkosh’s insular beer market was about to get a major injection of beer from the Cream City. Much of it would flow from the brewery Uihlein controlled. Schlitz was coming to Oshkosh.

Uihlein and Dichmann
The German-born August Uihlein was chairman of the board and secretary of Schlitz Brewing Company. Schlitz was then one of the 10 largest breweries in the nation and the second largest in Milwaukee behind Phillip Best Brewing (soon to be renamed Pabst). Schlitz was expanding in all directions as it sought new markets for its beer. Uihlein liked the potential for growth he saw in Wisconsin's third largest city.

Schlitz had been sending its beer into Oshkosh well before 1886, but the brewery made little headway. Oshkosh's breweries had a virtual lock on the saloon trade and bottled beer for home use was still something of a novelty. Uihlein recognized that if he was going to build a substantial trade here, he'd have to establish a base to work from. To do that, he'd need a local to open doors for him. He found that person in William Dichmann. Uihlein couldn't have picked a better liaison.

Dichmann (left) and Uihlein.

William Dichmann was as well connected as an Oshkosh businessman could be. He owned the city's largest grocery on Main Street and was among Oshkosh’s most influential German-born citizens. His popularity would soon be parlayed into winning two Mayoral elections. But for now, Dichmann was helping his Milwaukee friend find his way in Sawdust City.

How Dichmann and Uihlein came together isn't clear, but by 1886 they had built a bond that would prove fruitful for both. Dichmann's role was crucial. He acted as the lead man for Uihlein, acquiring Oshkosh properties at a reasonable price that Schlitz would then use to build its business here. The Milwaukee beer baron could never strike such deals as Dichmann could in a city where his extreme wealth was known to all.

The first venture Dichmann and Uihlein undertook proved to be more rocky than either of them anticipated. On March 19, 1886, Dichmann purchased two lots at the southwest corner of Washington and State streets, kitty corner to where the Oshkosh Public Library now stands. The plan was for Dichmann to then immediately sell the property to Uihlein, who would build a Schlitz saloon on the site. But a furor arose when word of the scheme leaked out.

The Signal, a short-lived, Oshkosh-based Prohibition newspaper uncovered Dichmann's intent in purchasing the downtown property. The dry rag made haste denouncing the plan, claiming Uihlein's new saloon would have a corrupting influence on the young. In the ensuing backlash, Moses Forbes, who had sold Dichmann the property, attempted to void the transaction. Dichmann won that battle, but he was still on the defensive.

Dichmann backpedaled. He first said the proposed building would be "an ornament to the city," but then denied that the purchase had been made on Uihlein's behalf or that a saloon would go there. Dichmann knew that wasn't true. Four days later, when things had quieted some, Dichmann sold the lots to Uihlein. But at least for the time being, the uproar put a damper on the plans for the property at Washington and State. Dichmann and Uihlein pivoted, turning their attention to a hot spot on Main Street.

The Schlitz Beer Hall
Three year earlier, in October 1883, Dichmann had purchased a vacant piece of land that’s now addressed as 432-434 N. Main. He then enlisted Oshkosh architect William Waters to design a building for the location. Constructed of red-brick, the two-story building would be Waters' interpretation of the Queen Anne style. It came to be known as the Dichmann Block and by December 1884 it was ready for occupancy.

The Dichmann Block featured two separate commercial spaces at street level with apartments above. The place immediately filled with saloonists. The northern portion now addressed as 434 N. Main was taken by Gustav Eilers, who launched a grocery and saloon there. The southern half, at what is now 432 N. Main, became the saloon of Charles Maulick. Both men lived with their families in rooms above their saloons. Maulick's venture would be the one that stuck.

A German immigrant, Maulick had come to Oshkosh in 1877 and later established a saloon on Ceape Avenue. By the time he relocated to the Dichmann Block, he was well known in town. His new saloon became an immediate hit. Maulick's rise hadn’t escaped the attention of August Uihlein.

With his plans for a Washington Avenue saloon on hold, Uihlein again turned to Dichmann. Though Maulick ran the saloon on Main, the real estate was still owned by William Dichmann. Not for long. On August 13, 1886, Dichmann sold the property to Uihlein. Schlitz now had its base in Oshkosh. It was named the Schlitz Beer Hall.

The sign for the Schlitz Beer Hall can be seen in the upper right.
The business relationship of Maulick and Uihlein developed rapidly. The building was in Uihlein's name but the saloon license was in Maulick's. That was mere formality. The two worked in concert. Maulick became the sole agent for Schlitz beer in Oshkosh, his saloon offering no beer other than that of the brewery which owned the building where he lived and worked. With his foothold finally established in Oshkosh, Uihlein returned his attention to his idle plot on Washington Avenue.

The Uihlein Block
Years earlier, Dichmann had brought in William Waters to draw up the design for the saloon Uihlein wanted. In 1891, five years after Uihlein purchased the land, the new branch for Schlitz Beer in Oshkosh was finally going up. This one was a Schlitz saloon from the start.

Schlitz at this time was prolifically building tied-house saloons in cities where the brewery was trying to build its brand. Many of these saloons had a similar appearance influenced by Queen Anne style design. The saloon at Washington and State adhered to the pattern. Completed in the fall of 1892, what came to be known as the Uihlein Block was constructed of red, pressed brick and featured a towering, domed cupola over the entrance to Schlitz Hall.

The interior also had the Schlitz stamp. By the 1890s, the palm-garden theme was a well-known trademark of Schlitz saloons.

The Schlitz Bottle House
While work progressed on the new saloon, August Uihlein launched the next phase of his Oshkosh blitz. It was time again to call in Dichmann.

On February 24, 1891, Dichmann purchased a narrow lot on the west side of what is now Commerce Street between Pearl and Ceape. Joined by a railroad spur, the property was ideal for what Uihlein had in mind: a bottling plant and warehouse for distributing Schlitz in northern Wisconsin. Perhaps still smarting from the kerfuffle that followed the purchase of the Washington and State property, Dichmann held the deed for three months before transferring ownership to Uihlein.

If any doubts remained that the Milwaukee brewer meant business in Oshkosh, they were brushed aside by the Oshkosh Times’ description of the new Schlitz facility.

The Schlitz Brewing Company has just completed near the Wisconsin Central depot a warehouse for their product that is worth notice. It is built on the modern refrigerator style and contains all the appliances for the preservation at the proper temperature for beer. It is an expensive structure and is quite an addition to the city’s semi-public buildings.

The company intends to make this city the distributing point for this region. They have selected the popular firm Maulick & Kitz for their agents, a stroke of policy that insures the success of their wholesale trade.
   - Oshkosh Times, October 29, 1891

A 1903 map of Schlitz' bottle works in Oshkosh. Louis Plate succeeded Maulick as the Schlitz agent in Oshkosh in 1898.
In 1890, Charles Maulick had taken on Frank Kitz as his partner at the original Schlitz Beer Hall on Main Street. When the bottling plant went into operation, Maulick concentrated on the distribution side of the business while Kitz oversaw the saloon.

The arrangement was typical. Schlitz would send kegged beer in refrigerated rail cars to its Oshkosh branch. Most of that beer would find its way into area saloons where it was served on draught. The remainder was re-packaged at the Oshkosh plant in bottles embossed with the name of the local agent. In this case, Charles Maulick.

Maulick remained the primary agent for Schlitz until 1898. He abandoned that post and severed his ties with Schlitz shortly after a death by alcohol poisoning occurred at the Schlitz Beer Hall. Maulick would be succeeded by a series of Schlitz agents and bottlers, but his leaving marked the apogee of Schlitz’s success in Oshkosh.

By 1898, The Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) had come to dominate the beer market here. OBC was founded in 1894 upon the merger of three Oshkosh breweries. The consolidation was triggered, in part, by the market pressure brought by Schlitz. OBC’s subsequent rise subdued Uihlein’s charge into Oshkosh. By the time Uihlein died in 1911, Schlitz appeared content to hold onto what it could here and made no further inroads.

When Prohibition arrived in 1920, Schlitz began shedding its Oshkosh properties. The corner saloon in the Uihlein Block at Washington and State had closed a year before Prohibition began and the building itself was sold to Wisconsin Public Service in 1922. The bottling plant and warehouse facility were sold in 1928.

It wasn’t until 1972 that Schlitz finally cast off its original saloon in Oshkosh. The spot where Uihlein launched his Oshkosh campaign still had a Schlitz sign hanging out front into the 1970s.

Today it’s known as Oblio’s Lounge. When Uihlein purchased the building 130 years ago, it was the only place in town where you could always count on getting a fresh Schlitz on draft. That’s still the case today.

From 2013, Oshkosh Landmarks Commission plaque commemorating the Schlitz Beer Hall.

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