Monday, September 24, 2018

Rudolph Otten’s 14 Barrels of Beer

There have been brewers at work in Oshkosh for well over 150 years. The most elusive of them has been Rudolph Otten.

Up to this point, Otten's name appears nowhere in historical lists of Wisconsin brewers. He goes similarly missing from most public records. Otten would likely have remained altogether forgotten if not for a stray tax roll from 1865. Otten didn't leave us a lot to go on. But what's there is intriguing. And it begs the question: are there others like Rudolph Otten lurking in forgotten corners of Oshkosh's past?

Oshkosh in the 1850s
Anton Rudolph Wilhelm Otten was born on Christmas Eve 1834 in Butjadingen, a German coastal village on the North Sea. Otten’s early life there was spent as a peasant farmer. When he was 25, he left Germany, sailing away on a migrant ship named the Ottilie. On Tuesday, July 2, 1857, after a 43-day voyage, Otten arrived in New York City. The ship’s manifest shows him bound for Wisconsin.

Otten reached Winnebago County by 1858. In November of that year became a U.S. citizen. Soon after, he appears to have been married. The full name of his wife isn't known. F was the initial of her first name. It was all that was used to identify her on the gravestone of the child she had with  Rudolph – a son named Franz, born in 1860. The marriage had ended – either by death or divorce – by 1865.

Where Otten resided during his early years in Oshkosh or what he was doing to make a living is anyone's guess. At some point, he joined the Germania Fire Company No. 2, a group of volunteer firefighters made up of German-Americans living in Oshkosh. The company had formed in 1857, just prior to Otten's arrival here.

Below is a picture of Germania Fire Company No. 2. It was taken in 1860 on North Main Street. Rudolph Otten may be among those in the photo.

Then comes 1865 and the tax record revealing Otten as a brewer. Most records of levied excise taxes from this period are thought to have been lost. I came across this one while doing research in 2011 for The Breweries of Oshkosh book. This is where I first encountered Rudolph Otten's name.

The listing shows Otten, working out of Oshkosh, produced 14.125 barrels of lager beer during the month of May, 1865. No indication is given of where in Oshkosh he made that beer.

Otten was in good company. There are 30 brewers (and a couple of distillers) who appear on the list. It reads like a who's who of Northeast Wisconsin brewers of the mid-1800s. Henry Rahr from Green Bay is there. So is his uncle William Rahr of Manitowoc. George Loescher and Leonhardt Schwalm from Oshkosh are listed. Jacob Lachmann, Neenah’s first brewer appears. George Muench from Appleton. John Paulus in Chilton. August Buhler in Berlin...

This was the beginning of a new era of brewing in Oshkosh. Brothers August and Charles Rahr were about to launch their new brewery on the east side of town. Leonhardt Schwalm had just purchased land on Doty Street where he and his brother-in-law August Horn were setting up to build the Brooklyn Brewery. The older, pre-Civil War breweries on the north side were about to be overwhelmed by larger, more advanced facilities on the south side. Aside from Otten, there were three breweries in Oshkosh at this time. But the days of those older, neighborhood breweries – the type that could get by producing 14 barrels a month – were coming to an end. We can only guess how Otten fits within all this.

In 1865, Otten and his son Franz moved to what is now 216 Oxford Avenue. He purchased the property outright on October 2, 1865. An 1867 panoramic drawing of Oshkosh by Madison artist Albert Ruger shows the Otten home (I added the red arrow).

In November 1865, Otten married Helen Wilhelmine Carls. She was 20-years old and 10-years younger than Rudolph. Helen was born in Württemberg, Germany, but had come to America by the time she was 9. Her life with Rudolph Otten was short and full of death.

Otten's 7-year-old son, Franz, died in early 1867. The cause of his death is not known. About two months later, Helen became pregnant. She gave birth to a son they named William.

Rudolph was apparently disconnected from the beer business by this time. The 1868 Oshkosh City Directory shows him, still living on Oxford, working as a drayman. A year later he was dead.

On May 14, 1869, Rudolph Otten passed away at his home on Oxford Avenue. He was 34 years old. He left a one-year-old boy and a 24-year-old wife. The cause of Ottens death is unknown. His brief obituary reveals little about him. It notes that Otten was "mourned by his family and respected by a large circle of friends." And that his "funeral was a large and imposing one." Otten's former popularity makes his current obscurity all the more frustrating.

Rudolph's widow, Helen Otten, died not long after. The cause and exact date of her death are unknown. Their son William Otten was raised by Helen's younger brother Christian Carls. They lived in the home on Oxford Avenue that William inherited after his mother died.

After he came of age, William Otten sold the Oxford Avenue home and went to work as a bartender at Tom Ryan's saloon (no longer standing, it was on the east side of what is now the 300 block of North Main Street). The picture below was taken inside Ryan's saloon at the turn of the century, the period when William Otten worked there.

William Otten died in 1900 at the Alexian Brothers' hospital in Oshkosh at the age of 33. His death was attributed to complications associated with dropsy. That was the end of Rudolph Otten's line in Oshkosh.

What remains are scraps, just a few things that didn't get lost along with everything else.

Like the bill for the hearse that carted Rudolph Otten to the cemetery.

And the note from Rudolph Suder who wanted $4.50 for digging the hole Rudolph Otten was buried in.

And the receipt for $40 bill from J.J. Moore of Oshkosh Marble for the tombstone laid over Otten’s grave.

Rudolph Otten was buried in Block 38 of Riverside Cemetery. The gravestone he shares with his son Franz is still there, but crumbling and close to being swallowed by earth. It's like everything else having to do with him. The last of the nearly forgotten.


  1. It's curious that Rudolph died at age 34 and son William at age 33. Cause of death of William was complications of dropsy which may have been related to heart failure and/or cirrhosis of the liver. Did father and son share a congenital heart problem or were they both very heavy drinkers? Nonetheless Rudolph crammed lots of life in his 34 years.

    1. Almost all the Otten men died young. His father and two brothers also died before they reached 40. It seemed to run in the family.

  2. kind of curious too how his wife also died so young and nobody knows of what