Monday, April 24, 2017

The Old Ruedinger Saloon on South Main

There’s a crumbling mess at the northeast corner of 8th and S. Main. There's a story there, too. It was home to one of the South Side’s early saloons. Now it’s like this...

The first saloon at this corner opened in 1875. Over the next 45 years, a stream of barmen flowed through, each calling the place their own. They came and went. Aside from the bar, most of them had one thing in common. They were related, one way or another, to a farmer named Valentine Ruedinger.

Valentine Ruedinger emigrated to America from Württemberg, Germany in 1848. He was 19. He was broke. He settled in the Town of Nekimi. Ruedinger went to work farming. He acquired land and a wife. Both were copiously fertile. Before long, the Ruedingers had eight children, 100 acres, and money to spare.

In 1865, Ruedinger bought property at what was then Kansas and 8th streets. The lot was positioned on the north end of the “Brooklyn” side of town. Manufacturing concerns, hotels, and rooming houses stood clustered about it. Here's a drawing of that neighborhood circa 1867. The red star is at the intersection of 8th and Kansas (now S. Main).

It was an ideal location for a beer joint. But Ruedinger was no barman. His son-in-law on the other hand…

Joseph Kloeckner

Joseph Kloeckner was gregarious in the extreme. Born in Germany in 1848, he’d grown up in the hospitality business. The Kloeckner's operated a well-known hotel and winery in Heddesheim. Joe Kloeckner wasn’t interested. He turned 18 and left for America.

Kloeckner headed straight for Wisconsin. He hit Oshkosh. He said it was his first love. His second was Valentine Ruedinger’s daughter Anna. They married in the summer of 1875. Kloeckner opened the saloon shortly after. He and Anna moved into an apartment above.

Here’s an ad for the saloon from the 1879 Oshkosh City Directory. The address, however, appears incorrect. All other listings show the address as 49 Kansas St.

Call they did. The saloon thrived. Kloeckner made the most of it. Friendships formed over the bar led to business and political opportunities. Kloeckner partnered in a furniture company. He helped launch a bank. Joe’s neighbors elected him alderman of the Third Ward.

In 1882, Kloeckner was nominated for a State Assembly seat. One of his backers quipped, "We have got a candidate now who possesses the implements of war — a bar." It wasn't enough. Kloeckner lost the race. But not his momentum.

Kloeckner’s ambition outgrew the saloon. In the fall of 1885, a new deputy revenue collector would be appointed. Kloeckner coveted the post. The saloon would hinder his chances. In April, he sold the bar back to Valentine Ruedinger. Kloeckner got the job he was after. The bar got new proprietors.

Valentine Ruedinger’s sons Willie and John took over. It became the Ruedinger Brothers Saloon. The brothers went to town. Literally. They left their farms and moved into apartments above the saloon.
1886 City Directory
"Fresh beer always on tap..."  The Ruedinger brothers had an in on that. Brother John married the daughter of Leonhardt Schwalm, co-founder of Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery. A good connection for a barman. There was a downside. John August Ruedinger couldn't stop drinking the stuff. His alcoholism flourished at 49 Kansas St. Rocky times were ahead.

Insurance map from 1890. The Saloon is shown at the corner of 8th & Kansas streets.
In 1890, the bar was commonly known as the Ruedinger Brothers Saloon. By then, though, the business was a one-man show. John Ruedinger's drink problem worsened. His wife, Henrietta, was headed down the same path. By 1887, they were out of the picture. John and Henrietta returned to their farm in Black Wolf. John's tailspin accelerated. He was placed under guardianship in 1898. He died in 1902.

Back at the bar, Willie was running things solo. He had his own ideas. He began selling English-style ales. At the time, locally-brewed lager beer dominated. Porter was not your typical South-Side fare.

1889 City Directory
In 1891, Willie purchased the property from Valentine Ruedinger. Ownership didn't make life any easier.

Willie had married a woman from New Glarus named Marie Genal. Her family had been in the hotel business forever. In 1893, Willie and Marie had a son. They named him William August Ruedinger. After the boy was born, their marriage went to hell. Things got ugly. Quick.

Willie had borrowed money to purchase the saloon. As the marriage soured, Marie's father, JF Genal, stepped in. He bought the mortgage. It meant Willie was now in debt to an adversary – his father-in-law. The Genal family had Willie boxed in. So he moved out. Marie and William Jr. stayed. Marie’s new boyfriend moved in with them. His name was Peter Reifer.

In the old days, the Reifers had been the Ruedinger’s neighbors. They lived in the Town of Nekimi on a farm adjacent to the Ruedinger farm. Peter and Willie had grown up together. Now Peter had Willie's wife, Willie's boy, and Willie's bar. Willie still held the deed, but it hardly mattered. By 1898, the place was known as Peter Reifer's saloon.

Marie married Peter Reifer. Willie washed his hands of all of it. He sold the property to Marie. Cheap. He unloaded it for a tenth of what he’d paid for it.

The arrangement at the saloon grew fluid. Marie maintained ownership, but from year to year the business was listed under different proprietors. Eventually, another Ruedinger got behind the bar.

Willie and Marie's son, William August Ruedinger, took over the saloon in 1914. He had just turned 21. Here's a picture of him at the entrance. He's wearing a white apron. This was taken about the same time he became the proprietor.

Did you notice the Oshkosh Brewing Company sign in the background? You couldn't have missed it had you been walking by in 1914. The monochrome photo doesn't do it justice. Here's how it looked in its day, in glorious color.

Young William bailed shortly after the 1914 picture was taken. Peter Reifer took over again. In 1916, he put his brother Ben behind the bar. That didn't work out at all. Ben Reifer contracted TB and died. It was straight downhill from there.

The impending doom of national Prohibition induced the shuddering of countless saloons. The old Ruedinger stand was among them. The building was already vacant when Prohibition hit in 1920. The beer and melodrama were drained from the place. Marie finally sold the building in 1946. She died three years later.

The building at 716 S. Main slowly eroded into what is there now. It's held everything from battery shops to the Sacred Circle Spirit Shop, which last offered "metaphysical supplies and services" there in 2009. Did they divine the spirit of a Ruedinger roaming around?

Last December, the property was purchased by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Oshkosh. It’s only a matter of time. The wrecking ball will soon arrive to pulverize the old Ruedinger saloon.

1 comment:

  1. Chris Reifer ReischlApril 24, 2017 at 10:00 AM

    Thank you so much for posting this article! This is my family - Peter Reifer was my cousin!! I knew in my research that he had owned a tavern on Kansas St. (S. Main) but I had no idea where exactly it was located. Now I know, but I am saddened to know the building is coming down. Maybe I will go collect a brick or something to commemorate!!