Monday, February 6, 2017

Raid! When the Feds Hit Oshkosh in 1922

On the Friday evening of January 6, 1922, a squad of federal and state Prohibition agents arrived in Oshkosh. They came by train arriving at the Chicago & Northwestern depot on Broad Street. There were 13 of them in all. At the station, four automobiles were waiting. The cops split into groups of three and four. Off they went. The city Prohibition forgot was about to get a wake-up call.

It was impossible to ignore the dry law. That didn't stop Oshkoshers from trying. When Prohibition began in 1920, there were close to 100 licensed saloons in the city. A year later, nearly all of them were still in operation. Now they were licensed as soft drink parlors. The distinction meant nothing. An Oshkosh bootlegger interviewed in 1980 put it this way: "How many saloons sold alcohol illegally in Oshkosh during Prohibition? Only about a hundred percent."

The overt disregard for the new law hadn't gone unnoticed. Neither had the complacency of local law enforcement. Police in Oshkosh had a habit of looking the other way when it came to illegal liquor. Their leniency didn't sit well with the feds. When their cars left the Broad St. station, not a single Oshkosh cop had even been brought along for the ride.

The raids began at once. Each was executed in a similar manner. The building would be surrounded. An agent stationed at each exit. The other agents stormed in. It was over in a matter of minutes.

Among the first taken down was the saloon operated by Joseph Riedy at what is now 1226 Oshkosh Ave. It was the only spot where the feds encountered anything resembling resistance. When they broke in, a woman grabbed a bottle off the back bar and bolted to the apartment upstairs. The cops found her hiding in a bathroom. She was clutching a bottle of pre-Prohibition Sunny Brook Whiskey. She gave up and led them to a full case of Sunny Brook stashed in the apartment.

The cops let her go. The liquor she possessed was exempt – it had been legally produced before the onset of Prohibition. Joseph Riedy, on the other hand, was in trouble. He was arrested and charged with selling alcohol in a place licensed to sell only non-intoxicating drinks. The cops kept digging. They found a gallon of moonshine and bottles of wine. Riedy had just lost his livelihood.

Riedy's old saloon still stands. It’s now named Gorilla’s Bar. And the same back bar where the woman grabbed the bottle of Sunny Brook is there, too.

Whether or not the feds realized it, there was a common thread linking two of the saloons they raided that night. While the raid on the Riedy saloon was taking place another raid was occurring simultaneously at a saloon operated by Edward Hartske. The common thread was that both places were owned by the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh.

Though the Rahr family steadfastly denied it, there had been much speculation in Oshkosh that their brewery was involved with bootleggers. Perhaps the feds were sending the Rahrs a message in taking out two of their “soda parlor” speakeasies.

At Hartske’s saloon the incriminating evidence was meager: a pint of moonshine sitting on the back bar. But that’s all it took. Hartske was arrested.

Some might remember the old Hartske saloon when it was named My Brother’s Place. It was located at High and Osceola where Blackhawk Commons now stands on University of Wisconsin Oshkosh property.

The former Hartske saloon, circa 1966

A block north of the Hartske place, the raiders made their next sortie. They invaded the Giant Grip Saloon on High Ave. and arrested bar keeper John Ludowisy. It was Ludowisy’s second arrest on charges of selling alcohol.

The cops discovered four pints of moonshine hidden under the bar and a pint of legal liquor issued to Ludowisy on a doctor’s prescription. Getting booze on prescription was fairly common in Wisconsin during Prohibition. In 1922 alone, Wisconsin druggists doled out 75,000 gallons of whiskey. It was the medical marijuana of its day.

The net widened as the raids progressed. The feds headed south of the river to the Higholder district where they broke into a series of private homes.

Frank Kinderman was a 25-year-old frog farmer living near the corner of 10th & Knapp. He made moonshine on the side. When the cops burst in they discovered Kinderman, a 10-gallon still and two gallons of ready moonshine. Kinderman was in the midst of producing his next batch. He had four barrels going holding 200 gallons of fermenting mash.

The largest haul of the evening was at Frank Penzenstadler's home at what is now 737 W. 5th Ave. Penzenstadler had a day job carving headstones. In his spare time, he made moonshine. The feds caught him with 12 gallons of “white mule” on hand and 400 gallons of mash in various stages of fermentation. Had Penzenstadler not been interrupted, his mash would have produced about 90 gallons of moonshine.

The following day, the Daily Northwestern ran a description of Penzenstadler’s set up: “A complete outfit of unusually complete design was taken. It consisted of a wash boiler, the lid of which was provided with two goosenecks and a quantity of rubber hose.”

These days you’d never guess an illegal booze factory was here on 5th Ave....

The former Penzenstadler Moonshine Distillery

By 11 p.m. the last of the raids had ended. Other takedowns were planned, but when the cops arrived they found the places vacated. Word traveled fast through the city’s underground booze ring.

In all, 20 saloons and residences were raided. Twelve men were arrested. Most of them faced either 90 days in jail or a fine of $250, the equivalent of about $3,500 today. In each case, they opted to pay the fine.

The onslaught came as a shock. It was the first wholesale raid in this city. It wouldn’t be last according to C.M. Perry, the assistant federal prohibition director who led the raids. He promised it was just the start of a cleanup that would take place in Oshkosh. That was wishful thinking. Prohibition lasted nearly 14 years. Oshkosh remained soaking “wet” straight through to repeal in 1933.

The following day, the cops displayed the loot confiscated on their spree. A photo of it ran on the front page of the Daily Northwestern. There wasn’t much to see: a few beat up wash boilers converted into stills surrounded by hose and bottles of moonshine in a box with the words “Let the Gold Dust Twins Do Your Work” etched across it. The copy I have of that photo is lousy, but here it is...

Almost a century later, the entire affair seems pathetic. There was a cruelty about it. It amounted to little more than a troupe of plundering cops swarming into town to invade the privacy of people whose harmless behavior had been made criminal by an intolerable law.

The arrest of Edward Voelkel exposed the ruthlessness that informed the endeavor.

Edward Voelkel was born in Oshkosh in 1874. His parents were German immigrants. He’d been working for the Oshkosh Brewing Company since 1897. Voelkel was a brewer now, having made his way up from the damp beer cellars into the brewhouse. He lived a short distance from the brewery at what is now 168 Brockway Ave. with his wife Anna and their four children.

On the night of the raid, Voelkel was spending a quiet night at home. Then the cops broke in. What they found amused them. Voelkel had made a small still from a tea kettle, a pint jar, and a lead coil. He used a paint pail for a cooling vessel. The rig was small enough to sit atop his stove.

The cops searched the home. They found no alcohol. Voelkel was arrested anyway. He was charged with possessing paraphernalia for making liquor. By that standard, they could have arrested almost anyone. Voelkel protested saying he had rheumatism and was only making a small quantity to ease the pain in his joints. Too bad. Zero tolerance.

The next day, while the leader of the raids was boasting of their exploits to the press, he mentioned that Voelkel's was the smallest still they had yet to see. He thought it was cute. A more decent person would have been embarrassed.

1 comment:

  1. Whew...good thing I was out of town that week!,