Monday, January 2, 2017

Anna Windhauser’s Home for Homebrew in Prohibition-Era Oshkosh

In 1925, Anna Windhauser moved to Oshkosh. She came here to open a business selling supplies for making beer at home. In Prohibition-era America, most women wouldn’t have dared do such a thing. Considering Anna’s circumstance, the plan went beyond daring. It was defiant in ways only she may have fully appreciated. It was the last thing anyone would have expected of her.

Anna Windhauser

She was born Anna DeKeyser on March 1, 1888, in Menominee, Michigan. The DeKeyser family moved to Green Bay a year after Anna’s birth.

Anna as a young girl in Green Bay.

Anna knew responsibility from an early age. The family lived on a small farm in the Town of Preble near Green Bay. Her mother worked the field. Her father was often away working lumber camps in Michigan. It was Anna’s job to oversee her five younger siblings. And when she could, she worked at a nearby produce farm picking onions.

Pictures of Anna in the early 1900s.

In 1907, Anna turned 19 and married Charles Windhauser. Charles was six months older than Anna. He worked at his father’s shoe store. His parents were German immigrants.

Wedding photo of Charles and Anna Windhauser

Almost exactly eight months after their wedding, Charles and Anna had their first child, a boy. They named him Carlton. Over the next six years Anna gave birth to five more children. Two died in infancy. Carlton’s three surviving sisters were named Jeanette, Thelma, and Audrey.

The Windhauser children: Thelma, Audrey, Jeanette, and Carlton

Charles took over his father’s shoe store. He re-named it Charles Windhauser & Co. He did well. The Windhauser family lived a comfortable life. Charles was well known and respected. An amiable sort. He liked his beer. Sometimes after work, he’d stop by his brother’s saloon. Sometimes he’d come home singing. He picked up the nickname Good-Time Charlie.

Anna was serious minded. She’d had little formal schooling but loved to read. She could be militant at times. Strong-willed. Always independent. She’d grow outraged if she heard of a man beating his wife. A granddaughter remembers her saying, “No man would beat me twice. He’d never get the chance.” Charlie liked to egg her on. He said, “I bet he wouldn’t, you’re that mean.”

Anna Windhauser in Green Bay.

Before 1920 and the start of Prohibition, Charlie’s drinking had been moderate. After Prohibition it developed into a problem. In a letter written in 1988, Thelma Windhauser recalled her father’s slide into alcoholism.
“When they were no longer able to get beer, they drank whatever was available – illegal, under-the-bar, raw alcohol… (it) turned some of the men literally crazy. My dad never became violent, but he did develop a dependency.”

Charlie’s dissipation was rapid. By 1924, the situation had become dire. More from Thelma Windhauser’s 1988 letter:
“When it seemed imminent that his business, along with his health, was certain to go down the drain, both parents agreed that my mother would have to assume responsibility for the family. My father then sold his business in order to provide money for mom to start a new life. Thus the separation. There never was a divorce.”
Anna and the four children left for Oshkosh. She set up living quarters in rooms behind a storefront near the river on N. Main St. At the front of the building would be her store. In early 1925, she opened Rex Malt Products Co. at what was then 17 Main Street.

The storefront in yellow highlight was 17 N. Main St. in 1925. The Best Western Waterfront Hotel is now located there.

Anna had no experience with this kind of thing. It didn’t matter. She had a shrewd idea. Rex Malt Products became the first store in Oshkosh catering to homebrewers who wanted to make their own beer now that they couldn’t buy it legally. She undoubtedly was aware of the city’s reputation. Beer was always a priority in Oshkosh.

It was somewhat rare for a woman to launch a business in 1925. But a woman starting a business involved with the production of beer was unheard of. Beer was now a black-market commodity. What Anna was doing was legal, but just barely. It flouted the law by its very nature.

The irony of the situation was inescapable. Her marriage failed because of an alcoholic spouse. Now she was selling the materials needed for making alcohol. If Anna had to quell the dissonance, she could take umbrage in the fact that things were good when Charlie still had his beer. And beer was what she was providing a means to. It’s doubtful the self-possessed Anna felt moved to explain herself to the customer’s who flocked to her store. There would have been no need to. She worked in a business ripe with contradiction.

The awkward posturing of the homebrew trade was sometimes laughable. Malt syrups were a prime example. Often they were labeled as if they were food stuff. But the addition of hops belied its true purpose, which had nothing to do with baked goods. Not unless you sought a lingering, bitter flavor from your pastries and cakes.

A label for Happy Way Malt Syrup, produced by the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Not surprisingly, Anna took a more direct approach to marketing her goods. Her ads for the store went straight to the heart of the matter. There was no pretense. She made it clear that Rex Malt Products supplied everything needed for a home brewery.

Save on Malts and Hops
BUY In bulk. Also caps, cappers, syphon
hose, bottles, fillers, brushes,
bottle washers. Phone 2624. We deliver.
Rex Malt Products Co., 17 Main Street
       - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; April 13, 1925

Home delivery was a common amenity offered by retail businesses in the 1920s. For a homebrew store it was practically a requirement. The dry law had little support in Oshkosh, but that didn’t mean people wanted it known they were making beer at home. The idea of traipsing out of her store and onto Main St. with a bag full of brewing supplies would have been unnerving for those who worried over their reputation. Home delivery provided discretion.

Main Street’s visibility wasn’t its only drawback. Anna’s store was huddled among speakeasies masquerading as soda parlors. People weren't coming to the area seeking the materials to make alcohol. They wanted it served up ready to choke down. Rex Malt Products needed to be where the real action was: the south side.

In the spring of 1926 Anna moved the store south of the river to what is now 1013 Oregon St. Prior to her arrival it had been August Ladwig’s grocery store. It was a large space with room for her family on the second floor. The location was ideal.

The 1926-1927 location of Rex Malt Products at 1013 Oregon St.

In the six years since the onset of Prohibition, homebrewing on the south side of Oshkosh had grown into a cottage industry. Oshkosh historian Inky Jungwirth was a young boy in the 1920s. He remembers what it was like: “My Grandpa had a basement and he’d ferment his beer in big crock jars. My Grandpa had crocks upon crocks of beer at his house. They even had their own bottling process.”

Jungwirth’s grandfather was one of many. It was said there was so much homebrew being made on the south side that in some areas you could smell fermenting beer as you walked down the street. The Daily Northwestern referred to it as a “Homebrew flood.” Anna’s store was in the middle of it.


In 1928, she moved the business again. This time just across the road to the east side of Oregon St. Rex Malt Products flourished there, despite the fact that competition had intensified. Another homebrew shop had opened a few blocks north on Oregon. And nearly every grocery store in Oshkosh was now selling extracts for beer making.

Red Arrow indicating the 1928 store. It's now vacant land between 1004 and 1012 Oregon St. A recent view shown below.

Amidst the success, Anna’s life grew more complicated. Charlie was visiting Oshkosh regularly now to spend time with Anna and their children. The visits grew longer and longer. By 1928 his sojourns in Oshkosh sometimes lasted months at a time. Yet, nothing had changed. Charlie was in no better condition than he was when Anna left him. He had tried to become sober. He took the “cure” on at least three separate occasions. Each attempt failed.

Charlie Windhauser

Anna seemed to grow more tolerant of Charlie’s failings. Now that she no longer need rely on him for support, his drinking was less punishing on the family. Anna and the children moved into an apartment near the corner of 15th and Oregon streets where Charlie sometimes lived with them. He’d pick up odd jobs repairing shoes to support himself. The arrangement would never hold. In the end, he’d always return to Green Bay.

Anna would never go back. In Oshkosh, she had managed to create a new life for her family. Rex Malt Products was an ongoing success. Her son Carlton worked at the store with her. Her three daughters were doing well in school. The uncertainty they had faced in Green Bay no longer clouded their future. It was time to take the next step.

In April 1929, Anna purchased a lot on 22nd Ave. and hired a builder. The Windhauser’s new home was finished in early 1930. It was two stories and 2,200 square feet. Anna took a pair of small loans to help finance the construction. She paid cash for most of it. Oshkosh’s homebrewers had been good to her. That would soon come to an end.

Anna's former home at 150 W. 22nd Ave.

By 1931 all but the most reactionary had realized that Prohibition was an unqualified failure. It would be only a matter of time before the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. The election of 1932 sealed the deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency. Democrats took control of congress. They promised to end the dry law.

In the spring of 1933 the hammer fell.  On April 7, beer no stronger than 4% ABV was made legal. Sales at Rex Malt Products immediately tanked. Anna scrambled to keep the business solvent. She acquired a retail liquor license allowing her to sell beer at the store. It didn’t help.

Full repeal of Prohibition didn’t arrive until December 5, 1933. By then Rex Malt Products was already a dead issue. In late September 1933, the remaining stock was sold off. The doors to Oshkosh’s first homebrew shop closed for good.

Three months later, Anna’s husband died. For much of 1933, Charlie had been back in Green Bay working at a soda parlor that likely operated as a front for a speakeasy. When Prohibition ended Charlie was already too far gone. He was said to have suffered from delirium tremens at the time of his death. Charles Windhauser was 46 years old.

In 1934 Anna turned 46 years old. Her youngest child, a daughter named Audrey, was now 19. After the upheaval and striving of the past eight years, Anna’s life grew more settled. The children moved on and out of the home. Anna moved too. She took a small apartment at Oregon and 15th. As the Great Depression deepened, she supported herself with practical nursing, babysitting, and housework.

On July 9, 1942, Charles Windhauser’s sister Catherine died. She had been married to Thomas C. Olson, a Madison businessman. Anna moved to Madison and in 1943 married Olson. She was 55 years old at the time of her second marriage.

Anna later in life.

Anna returned to Oshkosh in 1966.  Her health was failing. She needed more care than her elderly husband could provide. She moved into the home of daughter Audrey.  Anna was now 78 years old and debilitated by dementia and Parkinson's Disease.

Anna died in 1974 at Pleasant Acres Assisted Living Home in Oshkosh. Her brief obituary ran under the heading Mrs. Anna Olson. No mention was made of Charles. No mention was made of what Anna had accomplished here against all odds in the 1920s.

The omissions aren’t surprising. Where would you even begin?  At the time of her death, Prohibition had been over for more than 40 years. The memory of it had been buried under caricature that conjured images of wise-cracking gangsters and wild young things of the Jazz Age. Anna had known it wasn't like that at all.

For Anna and her family, Prohibition led first to devastation. The story could have ended there. Anna wouldn't let it. Her response was remarkably appropriate. She used the rise of homebrew – an unforeseen consequence of the pernicious dry law – to liberate herself and her children from their predicament.

Those close to Anna never heard her speak of it in that way. It's difficult to believe, though, that she wasn't cognizant of the irony. She was a person too aware not to have noticed. For Anna, perhaps no explanation was necessary.


Thanks to Janet Wissink, a granddaughter of Anna Windhauser, for her generous help with this post.

8 comments:

  1. She looks like a woman that I would not want to cross. I bet she was very decisive and firm.

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  2. Thanks, Lee, for pulling all the information together, and finding even more details, to write this story about my Grandmother. You did a wonderful job. I still have the hand muffler she is wearing in the sixth picture. I also have the round table in the last picture. She looks very stern, but I have wonderful, fun memories of her from my childhood when I stayed with her and Uncle Tom in Madison. I didn't know what the "malt business" was about until I was grown up and she was gone.

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    1. Janet, you deserve much of the credit for this. I would have had no way of accessing the info you provided if you hadn’t been so generous in sharing it with me. Thanks!

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  3. This is a great article! Well written and inspiring on many levels!

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