Monday, May 16, 2016

Fire at the Union Brewery!

There were a few things Oshkosh was known for in the latter half of the 19th Century: Lumber mills. Mayhem. Saloons. Mass destruction by conflagration... Like other businesses that went up here, breweries had a habit of burning down. I haven’t posted much about Oshkosh’s brewery fires. Time to address that. We’ll start on the south side where brewers John Glatz and Christian Elser burned down a brewery that wasn’t even theirs to burn...

Burning the Union Brewery
In 1867 German-born brewmaster Franz Wahle moved to Oshkosh from Stevens Point, where he’d had a hand in establishing what is now known as Stevens Point Brewery. Upon leaving Point, Wahle purchased a 52-acre farm and its stock on the southern border of Oshkosh in what was then the Algoma Township. Here’s a map from 1873, showing the location of the Wahle farm with the brewery at the northern edge of the property. The red arrow points the way.

Two years after arriving here, Wahle leased his brewery to a couple of German-born brewers who had most recently been plying their trade in Milwaukee. John Glatz and Christian Elser took over Wahle’s brewery in September 1869. They re-named it Glatz and Elser’s Union Brewery. All was well until the Friday night of December 15, 1871.

Destruction of a Brewery
About ten o'clock on Friday evening the Union Brewery owned by Franz Wahle and leased by Glatz & Elser took fire and then burned to the ground. The steamers were promptly on the ground, but for lack of water were unable to do much.
- Oshkosh Weekly Northwestern, December 21, 1871

What an especially bad time to burn your brewery. Here’s why: Glatz and Elser produced cool-fermenting lager beer. For such brewers, a productive winter was crucial. The slow, cool fermentation lager beer requires meant that the peak of their brewing activity occurred during the cold months. It was also the time of year when they harvested tons of natural ice from Lake Winnebago for cooling their elaborate system of caves where they conditioned their beer. The Friday-night fire crippled the Union Brewery for the coming year.

For Glatz and Elser, getting things back in order wasn’t easy. The brewery they had just destroyed was not insured. They had also lost their entire stock of beer. A little over half of that loss was covered by insurance.

The two were left in dire financial straits. These were not rich men. Combined, Glatz and Elser had fewer assets than any other brewers in Oshkosh. Yet, they managed to rebound.

Less than a month after the fire, Glatz and Elser used their insurance money to help finance their purchase of the northernmost four acres of the Wahle property. The brewery had been valued at $6,000 (about $120,000 in today’s money). Glatz and Elser paid Wahle about $110,000 in today’s money. But what they bought was now vacant land.

A quick digression: I love the ornate lettering on the deeds that were recorded back then. Here’s the top portion of the deed transferring the property from the Wahles to Glatz and Elser.

Glatz and Elser took a series of loans to finance the rebuilding of the Union Brewery. It all worked out. By the end of the 1870s, the Union Brewery was producing more beer than any other brewery in Winnebago County. Here’s the brewery they built in the aftermath of the fire.

The Union Brewery is long gone, but you can still walk the grounds where it once stood. A part of that property is now Glatz Nature Park. It’s open to the public and you can see remains there of the brewery’s stone foundation. You ought to go visit.

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