Monday, July 10, 2017

Mary's Place

From cops to crooks, Prohibition was widely ignored in Oshkosh. Breaking the dry law became a habit here. But few were so bold about it as Mary Kollross. She had a brewery and speakeasy on Oregon Street, the Southside’s main artery.

The middle building with white siding was once the saloon of Mary Kollross at 1325 Oregon St.

There had been a saloon at what is now 1325 Oregon since at least 1880. The first bar there was run by Edward Koplitz, a former brewer for Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery. Koplitz died in 1897. A series of tavern keepers followed in his wake.

1917, when the saloon was owned by Louis Heinzl.
When Prohibition arrived in 1920, the saloon morphed into a soda parlor. At least that’s what the license said. In reality it probably operated as a speakeasy. If not, that changed when Mary Kollross entered the picture.

Mary Kollross was born in 1889. She was raised on 14th Street, just around the corner from the saloon. The old place always just a glance away.

1903 map showing the Kollross family home in relation to the saloon.

Her life was anything but easy. Mary’s parents were disabled and unable work. Mary and her siblings supported the family. After the eighth grade, she left school. Mary took a series of menial jobs. Sometimes she toiled in lumber mills. She never married. She lived in the family home until the family fell apart.

Mary’s father died in 1911. Her mother passed in 1924. With that came sweeping change. Mary took what money she had and bought the speakeasy on Oregon St.

Mary Kollross was 36 when she purchased the saloon in 1925. She had had never worked in a legal saloon, much less a speakeasy. That didn't mean she wasn’t familiar with Oshkosh’s illegal liquor trade.

Mary’s brother Joseph Kollross had run a speakeasy named The Tunnel Cafe on Main St. He’d been arrested there in 1922 for selling moonshine. Another brother, Eddie, also had ties to Oshkosh bootleggers and speakeasies. Mary Kollross knew what she was getting into.

When Mary took over the saloon, her brother Joseph came along with her. Early on, the business was under his name. That became a theme during the dry years. Though she was the owner, Mary usually kept a man fronting the operation. Perhaps she thought it necessary for appearance's sake. Or maybe she was attempting to diminish her own risk. There was plenty of risk.

In 1928, her saloon was raided by Prohibition agents. Mary’s brother Eddie Kollross took the fall for that one. In 1930, it happened again. This time, Albert Gomoll went down. Hard.

Albert Gomoll lived in Oshkosh all his life. Born in 1876, he was the son of German immigrants. He quit school after the fifth grade. Gomoll went to work in the lumber mills. He was still there in 1930, in the Gould lumberyard. Gomoll was 54 years old when he quit all that. He went to work for Mary Kollross.

By the time Gomoll arrived, the Kollross place had developed into something more than a speakeasy. There was now a brewery attached to it. It was an elaborate operation housed in a building – most likely the abandoned ice house – adjacent to the saloon. The ice house had been built in the 1880s when Koplitz still ran the place. It was an ideal space for a brewery.

1885 map showing the saloon and ice house.
By 1930, the Kollross brewery was among the largest illegal breweries in the area. It was a fully equipped production and packaging facility with a four-head bottling line. In today’s money, the equipment alone would have been worth approximately $100,000.

Considering Mary Kollross’ background, it’s difficult to see how she could have arranged such a brewery. The same goes for Albert Gomoll. Nothing in his past suggests he was capable of organizing or operating a brewery of this size. They wouldn't have had to look far for help.

There were dozens of ex-brewery workers living on the south side of Oshkosh. They’d been made redundant by Prohibition. Perhaps Mary Kollross tapped into that knowledge pool. In any case, the Kollross brewery was thriving. At least until February 14, 1930. On that Friday night it all came crashing down.

Federal agents from Milwaukee had come to town. As usual, the local cops had been kept in the dark. An undercover fed slipped into the Kollross bar. He asked to purchase liquor. Albert Gomoll obliged. With that, the raid was on. The feds seized whiskey, gin and beer. They arrested Gomoll. They headed for the brewery.

The Feds crashed through the doors of the brewhouse. Inside they found a large store of beer ready for packaging. In addition to the bottling equipment were scores of empty kegs ready to be filled. Just outside the brewery, they discovered an automobile loaded with packaged beer for delivery.

As the agents were busting up the equipment, a phone rang in the brewery. One of the Feds answered it. The voice on the other end wanted two kegs of beer right away. The cop told him to come and get it. Another call came in. And another. Each time the caller was told the beer was ready and waiting for them.

“Then the customers arrived in person,” reported the Daily Northwestern. “One after another they opened the door, viewed the havoc wrought by the agents and fled.” None were taken by the trap.

In all, some 5,000 gallons of finished beer was drained onto the ground. That’s more than 160 barrels of beer. Today, I doubt there’s a brewery within 30 miles of here with that much beer on hand. The illegal Kollross brewery was pumping out as much beer as any of our current, legal breweries.

As usual, all we know of this brewery comes from the event that shut it down. Which doesn't reveal much beyond that moment. The rest of the story is lost. But we know who took the fall.

It took almost a year for Albert Gomoll’s case to come to trial. He wound up in federal court in Milwaukee. The judge spared him nothing. Gomoll got six months in the house of correction and a $250 fine (about $4,000 in today’s money). His bootlegging days were over.

Mary Kollross kept right on going. Her “soft drink” parlor never lost its license despite its liquor violations. That what it was like in Oshkosh in 1931.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 7, 1931. The old street, 1320 Oregon, is now 1325 Oregon.

With Gomoll off in jail, Kollross set up an arrangement with a man named Leander Huse to run the bar. Huse had recently lost his job as a fireman on the Chicago & Northwestern railroad. Like Gomoll, Huse had no prior experience running a tavern of any kind. He soon made a fatal mistake.

On February 27, 1932, the 29-year-old Huse was tending the Kollross bar. He was drinking. Huse took a shot of liquor then reached for a bottle of soda to wash it down. He mistakenly grabbed a bottle filled with cleaning fluid. Down the hatch. It took him 12 days to die.

That was the end of Mary Kollross keeping a man at the front of the house. Times had changed. Prohibition permanently altered public drinking customs in Oshkosh. The pre-Prohibition saloon had been a man’s domain. Speakeasies were coed affairs. Mary made the most of it.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Mary went legit. She renamed the bar the Marble Tavern, Mary Kollross proprietor.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, November 24, 1934.

It eventually came to be known simply as Mary’s Tavern. Kollross remained the mainstay behind the bar there until she retired 1957. The tavern continued on until 1964 when Mary Kollross died. She was 74 years old.

Kollross still owned the tavern at the time of her death. Four months after she died, the saloon was sold to Herbert L. Pollnow, owner of Acee Ducee, the neighboring tavern. Pollnow leased the building to a hair stylist. For the first time in more than 80 years there wasn’t a saloon at 1325 Oregon. And there hasn’t been one since.

Mary Kollross’ speakeasy and brewery were soon forgotten. But the building that was home to the old saloon still stands. It’s another of those places in Oshkosh with a concealed history. It offers no hint of its torrid past.

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