Thursday, December 20, 2018

Wilhelm Kohlhoff, A German Brewer in Oshkosh


"I come from Germany," he said. His accent confirms that. And when he gets enthused, like when he speaks about brewing beer, he sometimes slips into his native tongue.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff
Wilhelm Ernst Kohlhoff is the end of the line. He’s the last of the German-born brewers to make beer in Oshkosh. The lineage he represents stretches back to the 1840s. Kohlhoff carried it forward into the 1960s. It ends with him.

Kohlhoff is now 91 years old. He lives in a retirement community on the west side of Oshkosh. It's a comfortable, quiet place. A world away from the breweries where he spent so much time. From 1953 until 1967 Kohlhoff was a lead brewer at Peoples Brewing Company in Oshkosh. His career as a brewer, though, began much earlier. The road that brought him to Oshkosh was anything but easy.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff was born in 1927 in the village of Schlawin in northern Germany. “In Pomerania on the Baltic Sea,” he says. His father was a cabinetmaker. If things had gone as planned, Wilhelm would have been a cabinetmaker too. Things didn't go as planned.

When Kohlhoff was 17, Pomerania became a WWII battlefield. The region fell under the Soviet military. "We lost our part of Germany," Kohlhoff says. "They gave it to Poland and we had to get out of the country. We lost all our business. We lost everything. A couple million people had to leave Pomerania. A lot of them died."

Kohlhoff was removed from Pomerania in January 1945. "They put me in an army truck," he says. "They took all of us bunch of kids and took us to Vienna. Then Czechoslovakia. They wanted to put me in the army. Then the war ended and everybody went their own way. I didn't know anybody. I had no home, I had no parents, I had no relatives. I was lost. I kept on walking. It was quite an experience. I was 18 years old. I had to learn fast."

His trek ended in Bavaria. Kohlhoff had found his way to Stettfeld, a small town near Bamberg in the south of Germany. He says "There was a brewery in a little tavern. Every town had their brewery. I went in to get something to eat. It was hard to get food at that time in 1945. I went in and there was a boss there, the owner. He said, 'Where you going?' I told him I didn't know. I told him I was looking for a job. I needed to get at least room and board so I could sleep and eat. He said, 'I got a brewery in the back. I need a helper.' So I stayed with him and learned how to brew beer."

The brewery in Stettfeld where Kohlhoff worked has changed significantly but is still in operation.

Kohlhoff settled in as best he could.  He married in 1948. That same year, he and his wife Wally had their first child, a boy they named Hans-Peter. But it was an uneasy existence. The Kohlhoff's were seen as refugees. "Bavaria that was all different there," he says. "We were the only Protestants in the whole town. I got along and got a job and everything, but I was different. When I opened my mouth they knew where I had come from."

The repudiation wasn't subtle. "They had in the papers that they wanted to get rid of us; all the displaced," Kohlhoff says. "There was a big ad in the paper that we should move to the U.S. That we should apply and move away and that's what we did."

It was 1952. Wilhelm and Wally Kohlhoff now had two children, three-year-old Hans-Peter, and Marlene, their one-year-old daughter. On May 3, the four of them boarded the General M.L. Hersey, a U.S. Naval ship. They arrived in New York City ten day later.

The Kohlhoffs on the May 1952 ship's manifest of the General M.L. Hersey.

It was another upheaval. Kohlhoff took it in stride. "We were young," he says. "We had lost everything before, all our parents and all that. We went through a lot of trouble before that."

The Kohlhoffs went by train to Appleton. The Wisconsin Commission for the Resettlement of Displaced Persons helped them locate a sponsor family in New London. There they lived on a farm owned by Stanley Ziemer. It was to be a temporary arrangement. Kohlhoff began looking toward Oshkosh where three, good-sized breweries operated.

"I had friends here in Oshkosh," Kohlhoff says. "Germans. They were helping each other. On the weekend everybody was driving around to find where they could help each other. What kind of job to get. The factories in Oshkosh were filled with Germans. Everybody was working there."

Kohlhoff wanted to get in at one of the breweries. "They paid a little more and all that," he says. He went to Peoples Brewing and asked to speak with the company's brewmaster, Dale Schoenrock. "I told him I come from Germany and worked in a brewery there," Kohlhoff says. "He gave me a job right away. And so I worked in the brewhouse and started brewing beer."

The Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh.
It was now November 1953. Kohlhoff moved his family to Oshkosh into a home at W. 7th and Minnesota. Life began to take on a sense of normalcy. In 1954, the Kohlhoffs had twin daughters, Margaret and Marianne. Though living in a foreign land, there was a sense of familiarity. "There was a lot of Germans here," Kohlhoff says. "All of the businesses on Main Street and on Oregon Street, they talked German." At home they spoke German, too.  "Oh, yes, I learned German before English," Kohloff's daughter Marianne says.

Kohlhoff with his daughters Marianne (left) and Margaret outside the home at 7th and Minnesota.
At Peoples, Kohlhoff was coming into a brewery quite unlike the old-world brewery he had left in Germany. Peoples was in the midst of a massive overhaul. Every aspect of production was being updated and modernized. Kohlhoff was introduced to making beer on an industrial scale. "That whole plant was modernized in my time," he says.

That included a new canning line and the transition from pitch-lined wooden kegs and fermentors to steel kegs and glass-lined tanks that could hold 160 barrels of beer. "We threw all those wooden tanks out," he says. The flavor of the beer changed, too, but not substantially says Kohlhoff. " It was a little more clean and a little bit different, yeah."

In 1954, Kohlhoff was one of  45 full-time employees at Peoples. His title was First Kettleman making about $75 a week. These were peak years at Peoples. Annual output was well over 30,000 barrels. Nearly all that beer was brewed by either Kohlhoff or George "Tuffy" Boeder, who had been at Peoples since the 1930s.  Kohlhoff remembers that time fondly. He still jokes about his old friend Tuffy. "Tuff didn't brew as much, he liked to walk around a lot and check everything out," Kohlhoff says grinning.

George "Tuffy" Boeder
Kohlhoff and Boeder worked in shifts producing two batches of beer a day. "You had to start at 10 o'clock at night one brew and the next brewer started at 8 o'clock in the morning," Kohlhoff says. "We changed around, sometimes you'd worked days sometimes you worked nights. We didn't have to punch in or nothing. You just come in and get started. We brewed four days a week. Day five was cleanup. It was always the same, summer or winter. The brewmaster we had, Shoenrcok, he never wanted anything changed. That was quite a job."

As Kohlohff talks about that period, it becomes clear that working at Peoples was something more than just a job for him. After his experiences in Germany, the comradery and friendships he made at the brewery were restorative. Kohlhoff still easily recalls people he worked with 50 years ago. His affection for them remains. One afternoon we went through a few old pictures of some of his coworkers at Peoples. He had kind words for all of them. When he'd tell stories about them he'd quickly revert to using their nicknames. "They all had funny names," he says. "They called me Bill. nobody ever called me Wilhelm."


"They all spoke German them guys," Kohlhoff says. He singles out photos of Joseph Beck, the brewery's secretary and head of sales; and brewmaster Dale Schoenrock. Beck died in 1963. Schoenrock passed a year later. "And if these two guys hadn't of died, that brewery would be still going today," Kohlhoff says.

Joseph Beck (left) and Dale Schoenrock.
Kohlhoff left Peoples in 1968. It was mostly a matter of necessity. He had gotten a better offer at Buckstaff. "They paid me a quarter an hour more and they gave me 48 hours a week with time and a half," he says. "I was married with four kids and so that helped. And I got back to my carpenter training. I'm a cabinet maker from the start. I learned it from my dad." Kohlhoff's career change came at the right time. Four years later, the brewery was closed.

He remained at Buckstaff for 10 years before moving to Arizona in 1978 on the advice of his doctor. "I had asthma and they didn't have any good medication then. The doctor said, 'You got to go to Arizona.'" Wilhelm and Wally Kohloff returned to Oshkosh in 1988.

Wilhelm and Wally Kohloff
When I first met Wilhelm Kohloff, I told him I planned to write about the things we were going to discuss. He said that was fine, but that I shouldn't use his name. After we had talked for almost an hour, I knew that was going to be impossible. There'd be no way to do him justice by keeping him anonymous. I interrupted him and told him I was going to have to be able to use his name.

"You don’t have to do that," he said, "I'm not important." Maybe he could tell by the look on my face what I thought about that. "OK," he said, "but don't make a big thing about it." He thought about it some more and said, "I was fortunate all my life. Whatever I wanted to do, I was able to find a way to do it. I don't know why if people liked me or not, but I always got that. I was lucky."



End Notes: This is the first of two posts about Wilhelm Kohlhoff. The next, which I hope to have ready in early 2019, will get into the specifics of brewing Peoples Beer during the time Kohlhoff worked there. Thanks to Kohlhoff's daughters Margaret and Marianne and son Hans-Peter for helping to make this possible. Thanks also to Ray Paulik, who called and asked if I had ever met Wilhelm Kohlhoff. Ray set all this in motion.

14 comments:

  1. Great story ... can't wait for Part 2!

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  2. Thank you for sharing this story Lee, a little more of this kind of history should be taught in schools! I mean the brewing industry stuff is definitely interesting but most of us dont realize things like why the German heritage/culture is so prominent here... or what it was like in post war Germany for a young couple... Looking forward to part 2!

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    1. Thank You! I'm hoping to have part II ready in February.

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  3. Oh my goodness. I went to Grace Lutheran with Margret and Marianne. What a great story, never new their dad was a brewer. Awesome, my maiden name was Galow, LuAnn.

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  4. This is a personally very interesting story in that one hundred years before Mr. Kohlhoff came to Oshkosh my family left the West Pomeranian village of Hansfelde for a new life in north central Wisconsin. Our family left for economic and political reasons in the 1850's and Mr. Kohlhoff left Pomerania as part of the German citizen removal(ethnic cleansing?) after WWII. Hansfelde was renamed Tychowo after the war and the little village now has a population of 373. Of contemporary interest is the monument to Pomeranian immigrants dedicated several years ago in the Town of Berlin northwest of Wausau. Pioneer families and their descendants names are recorded in brick and stone in a beautiful rural setting.

    Interesting also that the Bavarian brewery in Stettfeld apparently brews Adler Brau beer and Mr. Kohlhoff first landed in Appleton. He could have brewed Adler Brau in Appleton, but wound up in Oshkosh instead.

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    1. Leigh, I know what you mean about the Adler Brau thing. What a coincidence! Thanks for your comments, I always learn something from them.

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  5. Great write up Lee. The average Oshkonian would never have a clue of this history, if not for your efforts. Thank you sir!

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    1. Thanks Dan, the pleasure is all mine. I'm just happy people are interested enough to read it.

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  6. Lee, thank you for putting the work in to share Wilhelm's most incredible story. I am reaching out to you now from the very building where The Peoples Brewing Company was located, this is now the location of Blended Waxes, Inc. Although, many things have been updated and rooms have changed in this once booming brewery. We still have areas in tact, one for example is the old very large beer cooler. Currently we provide a very unique service for Breweries all over the globe with bottle sealing wax, to seal and preserve specialty beers. Lee, this story you've put together has been shared to every employee here and has inspired, and helped educate us all about this buildings great history, through a mans captivating story.
    I'm wondering if it may be at all possible for some of us to here to be able to meet with you, and Wilhelm, and if possible show him, and you around his former place of work to see how much has changed and what still remains. Thank you Lee

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    1. You may reach me at Peterh@blendedwaxes.com

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    2. What a great idea and gracious gesture! I can see you truly appreciate the fact that you are caretaker of a place that is very important in Oshkosh history, We thank you.

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  7. Another Great story, I look forward to the second part. I never would have realized a former brewmaster was still alive. Thanks Lee.

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