Monday, May 2, 2016

The End of the Dancing Days

This agreement made and entered into this 15th day of May 1893 by and between J. Glatz and Son, a partnership, party of the first part, Horn and Schwalm, a partnership, party of the second part and Lorenz Kuenzl party of the third part, all being brewers and wholesale dealers in beer in the City of Oshkosh …. agree as follows… 

So begins the last ditch effort of Oshkosh’s three largest brewers to save their own hides. By the spring of 1893, Oshkosh’s breweries had lost their lock on the local beer trade. The city was swamped with beer sent in by some of America’s largest breweries (for more on that see this, this and this). The local brewers were in a panic.  
Faced with the dread prospect of having to compete with breweries that dwarfed them, three of the four Oshkosh breweries scrambled to contrive a united front against the onslaught. The old rivals were now allies. Together, they created a binding agreement to prevent each of them from undercutting the others.

From left to right, Oshkosh brewery owners John Glatz, Lorenz Kuenzl, and August Horn
The lone hold out was Rahr Brewing. Rahr was the smallest brewery in town, but its numerous tied-house saloons helped to buffer competition. The Glatz, Horn & Schwalm, and Kuenzl breweries had no rampart. And little trust in one another. The agreement the brewery owners hammered out was restrictive, rigid, and doomed to fail. The dancing days were over. Literally.

The agreement of 1893 had three main provisions.
  1. The price of beer would be fixed at $7.20 a barrel after discounts were applied (the actual list price was hiked to $8 a barrel).
  2. The brewers and their delivery men would be limited as to the amount of money they could spend at saloons “treating” customers when delivering beer or making collections.
  3. The brewers would not be allowed to spend money at “dancing parties” held at saloons.
That last restriction sounds innocuous, but those “dancing parties” were hardly innocent affairs. More on that later. First the beer.

At the time of this agreement, beer was selling for $6.40 a barrel. Jacking your price by 80 cents a barrel when you’re facing a pack of competitors ready and willing to sell cheaper isn’t going to endear you to your customers. This part of the pact dissolved almost immediately.

The limits on treating customer’s wasn’t going to increase their popularity either. It was expected that a brewer buy a round for the congregation when he visited a saloon. It was an Oshkosh tradition, one that would last well into the 1950s. The brewers couldn’t have picked a worse time to turn stingy.

Oshkosh was at the cusp of the brutal depression that followed the Panic of 1893. Unemployment was high and growing worse. New construction was headed for a screeching halt that triggered local woodworking plants to shed workers.

It didn’t help that at this same time, the men who owned Oshkosh's breweries had taken up residence in splendid homes that made a show of their wealth. Here’s a couple examples of their opulent digs.

This is where August Horn, president of Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery, lived at what is now 1662 Doty Street.

Just down the road, the mansion of Glatz Brewery president, John Glatz was being built. That home is still there, too. It's at 2405 Doty St.

Finally, we come to those dancing parties. This is impossible to confirm, but I suspect this part of the agreement is a veiled allusion to paying for prostitutes.

In the 1890s, saloons were almost exclusively the domain of men. And that’s just the way most saloon keepers meant to keep it. But at the same time, they knew that bringing in women who put out was good for business. Thus was born the dancing party, wherein ladies of a certain vocation were welcomed in to provide carnal entertainment.

Some considered it a spectacular problem. The pages of the Oshkosh Northwestern were littered with references to such parties and the inability of the mayor or police to reign them in. Here’s a typical Northwestern screed from the era that alludes to illicit dance parties taking place at the Getchius saloon, located upon the grounds of what is now West Algoma Park.

The institution over which Mr. Getchius presides was originally an ordinary saloon, but the rural aspect of its surroundings apparently infused the proprietor with the idea that his enterprise would reap a reward if he built an addition to the building where he could hold those "select dancing parties" so popular in the vicinity of Devil's bluff and other parts of Oshkosh. The proximity of residences to his place of business had no terror for Mr. Getchius, and during the summer season of '89 he erected the dance hall where, for months thereafter, the feet of lewd women and tougher men knocked out time to the tunes of a cracked orchestra.
    – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, February 27, 1890

Fun! Were the brewers here actually helping to finance the flesh trade in Oshkosh? It appears that may have been the case.

Overall, the agreement of 1893 was a poorly aimed stab at trying to bring back the salad days for Oshkosh’s breweries. The attempt wasn't even remotely successful.

A year later, Glatz, Kuenzl, and  Horn & Schwalm took a more drastic measure. They merged their three breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. This tactic worked.

By 1900, the Oshkosh Brewing Company attained utter domination of the Oshkosh beer market. But this city would never again have the multitude of breweries that existed prior to those big breweries coming to town and forcing the hands of our local brewers.

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