Monday, February 27, 2017

Joseph Nigl and the End of an Era

On the Wednesday morning of October 12, 1921, Joseph Nigl rose from bed at his home near 9th and Ohio streets. He went to the adjacent kitchen, lit a burner on the stove and prepared coffee.

Joseph J. Nigl

He was tired. Nigl had returned to Oshkosh late the previous evening after visiting his daughter Anna in Chicago. He lounged in bed while he waited for his coffee. He fell asleep. As he dozed, the coffee boiled over dousing the flame from the burner. The house filled with gas. Joseph Nigl never woke up.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, October 12, 1921

The death of the 55-year-old Nigl sent a shock through the immigrant neighborhoods of Oshkosh’s Sixth Ward. The hub of their community was Nigl’s grocery store and saloon at the northwest corner of 9th and Ohio.

The Nigl Saloon and Grocery; 9th & Ohio

Like many of his neighbors, Joseph Nigl was an immigrant. Born in Bavaria, he came to America in 1872. He was six years old. In 1881, his father purchased a lot at the northwest corner of 9th and Ohio streets. By the mid-1880s, the Nigls had a thriving business there.

The family-run grocery would expand to include an attached saloon. Joseph Nigl's young adulthood was spent working there. Everybody in the Sixth Ward knew him. In 1890, he took over the business from his father. Nigl was 24. His place came to be known as the Gemütlichkeit, a German word suggesting an atmosphere of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer.

Inside the Gemütlichkeit, circa 1914 
Nigl flourished.  He was elected alderman of the Sixth Ward and served on the County Board of Supervisors. People urged him to run for mayor. When the Oshkosh Brewing Company began exerting pressure on local saloon operators, Nigl and other saloonkeepers launched Peoples Brewing Company. When the brewery opened in 1913, Joseph Nigl was named its first president.

But Nigl's life wasn't without trauma. He encountered a series of trials beginning in 1899, when his wife died just days after giving birth to their sixth child. Nigl remarried. In 1905, the couple had a baby. The child was stillborn, strangled by its umbilical cord. In 1915, Nigl's second wife died. He married again. In 1921, Nigl's third wife, Emma (Gebauer), arrived home to discover her husband’s lifeless body.

Emma Nigl hadn't gone with her husband to Chicago. She spent the night in Oshkosh with her ailing mother.  Just before 8 a.m., Emma returned home. She smelled gas when she opened the door.

Emma rushed to the stove and turned off the burner. She immediately went to the bedroom. Emma shook her husband. His body was warm, but she couldn't rouse him. Emma opened windows then hurried down a passageway that led from the house to the Gemütlichkeit where she pleaded for help. Several patrons rushed into the home. They carried Nigl onto the porch facing 9th Ave.

Nigl's porch. His home on 9th Ave. no longer stands.
Police arrived moments later. They fit Nigl with a respirator. He remained unresponsive. A trio of doctors followed on the heels of the police. They worked to resuscitate him. Nothing. No signs of life. Nigl was pronounced dead.

Joseph Nigl's Death Certificate
The funeral of Joseph Nigl was held at St. Vincent's Catholic Church on Saturday, October 15, 1921. The Daily Northwestern described it as, "one of the largest funerals ever held in this city." The procession ended in Riverside Cemetery. Nigl left a wife and six adult children.

He also left a saloon that couldn't sell beer and a brewery that couldn't make beer.

Prohibition began in 1920, a year before Joseph Nigl died. He was living in a world that had become almost unrecognizable to him. The traditions informing his life had been nullified. Nigl was rooted in an era rapidly fading. His passing made it ever more distant.


  1. Very nice story of an old neighborhood fellow

  2. Tragic end to a very eventful 55 year life. American success story played out in Oshkosh,WI a very long way from the place of his birth.

    1. After I wrote it, it struck me just how much he had done and must have seen in those 55 years. He was a bold man.

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  4. Joseph J. Nigl is my great-great grandfather. Something else you may find interesting, Joseph's first wife Mary Seibold's brother Otto Seibold is father to Champ Seibold. Champ played for the Green Bay Packers from 1934-1942. Thank you for this article this is really amazing information!