Monday, May 15, 2017

From Brewhouse to Whorehouse in 1930s Oshkosh

The Kentucky Ave. Brewhouse
This has always been a wild town. Take 1930 for example. Prohibition was lingering on. Beer had been illegal for a decade. Yet it was everywhere in Oshkosh. It came pouring out of wildcat breweries. They were scattered across this city. Some wildcats were hidden in houses. Like this one...

1627 Kentucky Ave.

Looks like a typical Oshkosh home. It did in 1930, too. That was the point. Because in the basement was something else. A beer factory.

The Safford family lived there in 1930. It was not the best of times for the Saffords. Vette Safford, the family patriarch, had passed away in 1926. He was 50 years old. He left a wife named Mabel and six children. Five of the kids were still living at home. The youngest was nine.

After Vette’s death, the Saffords bounced around town. They lived on New York for a while. Then they moved over to Scott. Next they rented the house on Kentucky. It was between Bent and Murdock streets. Most of the block was empty lots.

Then and now on Kentucky Street. Location of the Safford’s home is marked by the red dots.

There are 14 homes along that stretch today. There were just four when the Saffords lived there. They were at the southern border of the Nordheim neighborhood. It was considered the toughest part of Oshkosh. Just the place for a bootlegger. Perhaps Neil Safford had already considered that.

The Nordheim highlighted in green.

At the start of 1930, Neil Safford was 29 and single. With Vette dead, he was supporting the family. Neil worked as an electrician. Apparently, that wasn’t cutting it. He turned his attention to bootlegging beer.

Neil had no background in the beer business. Neil was not deterred. He converted the basement of the Kentucky Ave. home into a brewery. He ramped up quickly. He got shut down even quicker. Safford’s brewery was in operation for less than a year when the feds came barging in.

The night of February 14, 1930, was blistering cold. The Daily Northwestern reported that Wisconsin was “plunged into sub-zero temperatures, whipped by biting winds… accompanied by whistling snow.” Good cover for cops. The Saffords never saw them coming. Federal Agents broke through the door just after dark.

The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that the raid occurred as bottling operations were set to begin. There was plenty ready to bottle. Safford had 2,000 gallons of finished beer on hand. Enough for almost 900 cases of beer. That’s production at a level consistent with some craft breweries operating in this area. And Safford wasn’t just making beer. He also had four gallons of moonshine down there.

The cops smashed the equipment. They drained the beer and booze onto the floor. They arrested Neil. He was taken to Milwaukee. Thrown in jail. The next day he ponied up $1,000 and was cut loose. He returned to Oshkosh. After that, young Neil went straight and narrow.

Ten months after his illegal brewery had been smashed, Neil Safford was the married father of a baby boy. He moved from Oshkosh to Wausau in the late 1930s. He eventually ended up in California. He died there in 1990.

Those are the facts. Now, let’s stroll into weeds. There’s a juicy, loose end to this story.

The Harrison St. Whorehouse
The Daily Northwestern alleged that Neil Safford was supplying beer to a soft drink parlor in the Nordheim. In Oshkosh, the term “soft drink parlor” was usually accompanied by a wink. The term was a euphemism for a speakeasy.

The Daily Northwestern didn’t give the address of the soft drink parlor allegedly connected to Safford’s brewery. In 1930, however, there was just one such place licensed to operate in the Nordheim. It was run by a woman named Olive Foelsch.

Straight out of St. Louis, Olive Fisher married an Oshkosh cab driver named Rudy Foelsch in the summer of 1913. Olive was 23. Rudy was 41. This at a time when cab drivers in Oshkosh were getting all kinds of flack. They’d become notorious for being conduits to prostitutes and whorehouses. As a 1913 Wisconsin vice report stated, “The drivers know all the sporting women and the prostitutes know all the drivers.”

Rudy and Olive dispatched the Foelsch Taxi Line in 1916. They moved up the food chain. They took over an old flophouse named the Blackstone. It was at what is now Pearl and Division streets. They renamed it the Foelsch Hotel and got a liquor license. All was swell until Prohibition arrived in 1920. With that, Rudy and Olive headed for the Nordheim.

Their new digs were out on Harrison St. On the east edge of the Nordheim. Out there you could get away with almost anything. Rudy and Olive were going to put that to the test. They established a soft drink parlor (wink!). The building still stands. And it’s still home to a tavern. Today it’s named Ginger Snap.

2314 Harrison St.

In 1926, Rudy Safford died at the ripe age of 55. Olive kept right on at it. When Prohibition ended in 1933 she went legal. At least on the booze side. Olive wasn’t just selling drinks, though. The Foelsch Tavern was well known for being a house of prostitution. Her reputation caught up with her on a Saturday night in July 1937.

A raid headed by District Attorney Magnusen and Sheriff Paul Neubauer late Saturday night led to charges of keeping a disorderly roadhouse against Olive Foelsch, of Foelsch's tavern... Mrs. Foelsch waived preliminary examination, pleading guilty… It was her first offense, she stated. Judge Hughes fined her $200 and costs or six months.

Two inmates of the establishment, Dorothy Smith and Jean Bois, waived preliminary hearings and entered pleas of guilty... They were fined $50 and costs or 60 days each. Both claimed it was their first offense.
     – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 19, 1937

Olive left town about five years later. She moved to San Diego. Just like Rudy, she died at age 55. Oh, the stories this woman could have told. Sadly, we’ll never get to hear them.

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