Monday, March 27, 2017

Sitter’s Wildcat Brewery on Harney Ave.

Wednesday Evening, August 24, 1927... Federal Prohibition agents were stalking Oshkosh again. This time, to break-up wildcat breweries. Their first stop was Theodore Fisher’s saloon and brewery on S. Main. They smashed Fisher’s place. Then they raced to the north side of town.

The second raid was on Harney Ave. where Mathias Sitter lived. For decades, the Sitter family had been involved in the beer business in Oshkosh. In 1920, Prohibition made beer illegal. But Mathias Sitter kept the family tradition alive. Now he was headed to jail for it.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 25, 1927

Mathias Sitter had beer in his blood. In 1883, his father, Johann Sitter, came to Oshkosh from Böhmisch Röhren, Austria (now České Žleby, Czech Republic). Johann went to work for Lorenz Kuenzl at the Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Ave.

Johann Sitter Family, October 1910. Mathias Sitter, aged 9, is seated at the far right. His father Johann sits next to him.
Photo courtesy of Tom Sitter.

The Sitter’s made their home next door to the Gambrinus Brewery. Mathias Sitter was born there in 1901. He grew up with beer all around him.

An 1890 insurance map showing the Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Ave.
The Sitter home was at 178 Harney, below the red arrow.

In 1894, the Gambrinus Brewery merged with the Horn & Schwalm and Glatz breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Johann Sitter worked as a distributor and bottler for the new firm. The Sitter name was embossed on many Oshkosh beer bottles in the early 1900s.

Courtesy of Steve Schrage.

By the age of 18, Mathias Sitter had joined the family business. He took it over when Johann Sitter passed away in 1920. Working from the family home at what is now 1255 Harney Ave., the Sitter operation grew to include a liquor store and a tavern supply business.

Prohibition made all of that illegal. Mathias Sitter went underground. Literally. He converted the basement of his home into a wildcat brewery. Federal agents caught wind of it. On a hot summer night in 1927, they came busting in.

 Raided in 1927, the Sitter family home still stands at 1255 Harney Ave.

The feds broke in to find Sitter’s basement brewhouse running full tilt. There were 168 cases of beer ready to go out the door. There was enough beer in various stages of fermentation to fill another 204 cases. How do you produce that much beer in a residential neighborhood without drawing attention to it?

Sitter had a singular advantage most bootleggers lacked. He had a front that could explain away the commotion of a brewery. After Prohibition began, the Sitters turned to dealing in soft drinks. The clanking bottles and delivery trucks wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

Still, an operation this size could not have been much of a secret. Especially in a neighborhood where the bellwethers of beer making were so familiar. The aroma of fermenting beer wafting from the Sitter home would have been unmistakable.

Sitter’s basement was crowded with fermentation vessels churning out beer. He had fourteen 30-gallon fermenters and one 40-gallons in size. They were full of beer when the feds broke in. Moments later they were empty. Their contents were drained onto the floor.

Sitter was arrested. He was held on charges of manufacturing and possessing intoxicating liquor and maintaining a common nuisance. He spent Wednesday night in jail. Sitter was released the following afternoon on a $1,000 bond. He eventually pleaded guilty at the federal court in Milwaukee. Sitter paid the standard $1,000 fine and returned to Oshkosh.

Mathias Sitter spent the remainder of the dry years here selling soft drinks. But when Prohibition ended in 1933, he went back to selling beer. Fifty years after Johann Sitter had come to Oshkosh, the Sitter family was back in the beer business. Legally.


  1. Any idea if this was an extract brewery or perhaps he was fermenting wort from Peoples or OCB? Hard to imagine an actual brewery in his basement turning out that much wort. You have to wonder what his gas bill was.

    1. It's not mentioned in any of the reports on Sitter's arrest. Many of the wildcats used malt extract. Breweries would sell it in 5 gallon buckets.