Monday, December 9, 2019

The Loudest Speakeasy in Oshkosh

Put yourself in Fred Rahr’s shoes. It’s 1920 and for the past 20 years you’ve been running a popular saloon on Main Street in Oshkosh. Before you got into that, you worked in the family brewery. But now Prohibition is here. Suddenly, what you and your kin have always done has been made illegal. What would you do?

If you’re Fred Rahr, the answer is obvious. He flouted Prohibition at every turn. No other saloon keeper in Oshkosh breached the dry law as often or with as much tenacity as Fred Rahr did.

Fred Rahr's Tavern with an Elk's Head Beer sign in the 1940s.

Before the Storm
The Rahr family had been in the beer business for as far back as any of them could remember. For generations, the Rahr's had operated a brewery in Wesel, an ancient brewing city on the river Rhine in the north of Germany.

Fred Rahr's father, August, settled in Oshkosh in 1865. August and his brother Charles bought land on the shore of Lake Winnebago and built a brewery. Fred Rahr was born in Oshkosh in 1872. He grew up on Rahr Alley (now Rahr Ave.) working in that brewery.

In 1884, August and Charles Rahr divided the family business. August took over the beer bottling side of the operation. Charles maintained the brewery proper. Fred Rahr completed the ninth grade then quit school and went back with his uncle Charles at the brewery. He lived in Charles Rahr's home while working as a brewer in what was then being called The City Brewery.

The Rahr Brewing Company as it looked when Fred Rahr worked there.
The inset photo shows Charles Rahr's home where Fred Rahr lived while working at the brewery.

In 1899, Fred Rahr left his job at the brewery to go into business with "Little Joe" Thalhofer, a longtime Oshkosh barman. Thalhofer was running a saloon on the east side of Main between the river and Ceape. He'd been in there since 1893. It was a three-story, brick building that had gone up in the late 1860s. It was just up from the Revere House hotel.

Looking north from the Main Street Bridge in 1875.
The arrow is over what would become the Thalhofer and Rahr Saloon at what was then 20 Main.
In the foreground at the right is the Revere House.

Little Joe Thalhofer died in 1902. His brother Albert took his place at the bar and for the next 17 years the Rahr and Thaholfer saloon thrived at the gateway to downtown Oshkosh.

Keeping Little Joe's memory alive. From the 1912 Oshkosh City Directory.

In 1919, Albert Thalhofer quit the saloon business. He was looking to the future. The onset of Prohibition was imminent. For Fred Rahr, there was no other way. When the dry law took hold, Rahr took out a license to sell soft drinks so he could keep the doors open. He sold booze on the sly.

Rahr wasn’t alone in refusing to submit. More than 80 former saloon keepers in Oshkosh were testing the waters to see whether such a foolish law could even be enforced. The first year went their way. City police showed no interest in arresting people on liquor violations. As always, Oshkosh ran wide open.

But it wasn't long before the mutiny caught the attention of state and federal officials. Fred Rahr's decade of disorder was about to begin.

1921: Oshkosh on Notice
National Prohibition arrived on January 17, 1920. It was only a matter of months before Oshkosh was well known as a place where liquor still flowed freely. The feds decided something had to be done about it. On the Friday evening of August 26, 1921, Prohibition enforcement agents made their first coordinated raid on the city. They went straight for Fred Rahr's place.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 27, 1921.

The feds met resistance at just one of the dozen places they raided that night. When they burst through the door at 20 Main, Fred Rahr bolted towards the open safe where he kept a stock of moonshine. But before he could get there, he "scuffled" with federal agents. Rahr was thrown to the floor and subdued, and then arrested.

Rahr didn't go down easy. Though they had caught him red-handed, he fought the charge for the next six months. He was finally convicted and fined on February 16, 1922. That was not a good week for Fred Rahr. Just a day earlier, he had been arrested once again.

1922: Big Booze Raid
Fred Rahr’s name hit the pages of the Daily Northwestern again on February 16, 1922. This time he appeared under the headline, OSHKOSH CENTER OF BIG BOOZE RAID AND THIRTEEN ARE PUT UNDER ARREST.

Federal agents had been casing the city for days in advance of the raid. That they were able to make only 13 arrests was a testament to the underground network that had been established among Oshkosh’s bootleggers and speakeasy operators in the six months since the previous invasion. Once the raids were underway word began spreading that the feds were in town. At one of their stops, an agent intercepted the alarm call: “This is Heinie,” said the voice at the other end of the wire. “The Prohibition men are in town – you better be careful.”

Rahr’s call didn’t come in time. When the feds arrived he was caught holding a pint of moonshine. That should have put him out of business. But again, he fought the charge and this time somehow managed to beat it.

If Fred Rahr was experiencing any apprehension about his ongoing criminal pursuits he certainly wasn’t showing it. Since 1900, he’d been paying rent on the towering building that housed his saloon. Now, just five months after his second bust, he purchased the property. The job was risky, but the money was good. Rahr was living large, Roaring-Twenties style.

Circa 1923. The arrow is over Fred Rahr's Bar.

1926: The One and Only
Aside from his frequent court dates, Fred Rahr managed to spend the four years between February 1922 and February 1926 relatively free from the harassment of booze cops. The old ways prevailed at the south end of North Main Street. Rahr and his barroom neighbors operated as if Prohibition was merely a suggestion. The latest addition to the mix was directly across North Main Street. A woman from Green Bay had moved in there and opened a homebrew shop for those who thought they could make better beer than what the local bootleggers provided.

The sodden enclave was disrupted on a winter’s morning in February 1926.

“A squad of state prohibition officers invaded Oshkosh this morning and between 6 and 7 o’clock visited some nine or ten soft drink establishments. Oshkosh apparently is an arid desert, for only one man was brought in.”
     –Oshkosh Daily Northwestern February 2, 1926

For Fred Rahr there was no humor in the reporter’s sarcasm. He’d had a pitcher filled with moonshine sitting on the bar when the agents came in. Rahr immediately tossed the liquor into a sink. But the smell of booze lingered on the glass. That was enough to get him arrested and dragged back into court.

But again, Rahr escaped punishment. He hired Attorney Frank B. Keefe to represent him. Keefe had plenty of influence in Winnebago County and was gearing up to run for District Attorney. Rahr wasn’t the only dry-law violator that Keefe took on as a client in the runup to the election. Perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence. Keefe may have considered it a way to curry favor with a certain class of voters. In the end, Rahr went free and Keefe was voted in as the county’s new District Attorney. A year later, Keefe would find out what it was like to be on Rahr's bad side.

Frank Bateman Keefe

1927: I'll Choke it Down Your Throat
It was around 9 p.m. on a Tuesday in early August when Albert Kieckhafer ambled into Rahr’s speakeasy looking for a drink. Harry Witzel, who'd been bartending at the Rahr place for years, was working that night. Witzel sold Kieckhafer two glasses of moonshine for 50 cents. When Kieckhafer left he was good and drunk. Kieckhafer was known to be a nasty drunk.

He stumbled across Main Street and into the Waffle Shop restaurant and began busting up furniture and smashing plates. He was brawling with the owner when the cops arrived. The following afternoon, Kieckhafer appeared before the judge. He pleaded guilty to all of it. The judge asked him where he’d gotten the alcohol. The cops headed straight over to Rahr’s place and arrested Harry Witzel.

Harry Witzel adhered to the Rahr method of defense: deny everything. When he got his day in court, the prosecutor was none other than Rahr's old ally, the recently elected District Attorney, Frank B. Keefe. The trial was a fiasco.

Rahr hired Earl Finch to represent Witzel. Finch took the fight straight to Keefe; mocking and goading the district attorney. Keefe lost his cool when Finch pointed out the D.A.'s double-dealings where Prohibition was concerned. "That's a lie!" Keefe screamed leaping to his feet and thrusting towards Finch. "It's a lie and I'll choke it down your throat." The judge had him restrained.

Keefe eventually regained his composure and Witzel was found guilty. Finch called for a mistrial on grounds that the jury was composed entirely of Ku Klux Klan members. Witzel had endured enough of this. He paid his $300 fine and went back to work at Rahr’s bar.

After four, separate dry-law violations, you would think Rahr would have had his license pulled. Not in Oshkosh. But even here there was a limit to what could be tolerated. And Rahr was about to finally reach that limit.


1929: Bad Night for the Boy Wonder
Al Gullickson was in his twenties and they were still calling him the boy wonder. How annoying. He was born in Oslo, Norway in 1907. His musical genius was recognized early. Gullickson's parents dragged him across Europe to have his raw talent shaped by masters in Berlin and Paris. By the time he was 10, he was touring the continent displaying his freakish abilities on the harp, piano, and accordion. When he turned 12, they hauled him to America.

The Gullicksons settled in Milwaukee and young Al entered show business. He toured the Orpheum Theatre Circuit with Rudy Vallee's troupe. Impish Al was a triple threat. He danced, he sang, he played the accordion. People adored him, especially the ladies. Gullickson claimed women of all ages, even "mothers and matrons" were throwing themselves at him. What was a boy to do?

But when the Boy Wonder stopped being a boy, people stopped being amused by his antics. At the age of 16, his showbiz career fizzled. Gullickson wound up in Oshkosh employed as a demonstrator for the Barton Organ Company.

Al Gullickson, The Boy Wonder.

In 1929, Gullickson was 22 and working the organ at the Fischer Theater on Main Street. After the Friday-night show of March 1, 1929, he packed his 16-year-old girlfriend, Marguerite Reimer, into his car and they went off in search of a drink. They stopped at Fred Rahr's place. Gullickson came out with a quart of booze. The couple then headed for the Peacock Restaurant just up the street. They ordered a bottle of Canada Dry and began mixing drinks.

At the Peacock, their party grew. It was still going, albeit without Gullickson, the following morning. At 3 a.m., he was sleeping it off while Marguerite Reimer was behind the wheel of his car cruising the southside with two of the young men they’d been partying with. Both of those men had their skull crushed and died after Reimer flipped the car near the corner of 17th and Minnesota. Marguerite Reimer walked away with a couple of small cuts on her pretty, little face.

Marguerite Reimer

The tragic story went bleeding across the pages of the Daily Northwestern for the next month. Reimer was portrayed as the out-of-control rich girl destined for horrible things. The Boy Wonder was the dissolute rake fueling her delinquency. Gunning for both of them was none other than District Attorney Frank B. Keefe. He dispatched each of their cases in short order.

Marguerite Reimer was declared incorrigible and sentenced to a five-year hitch at a Catholic reform school for girls in Green Bay. They reformed her all right. Soon after her release, Reimer converted to the Bahá'í Faith. She spent the remainder of her life preaching the "Greater Covenant" of universal justice, unity, and the equality of all people.

Gullickson was convicted of transportation of liquor and encouraging the delinquency of a minor. Keefe was dismayed when the judge let The Boy Wonder off with fines totaling just $440.55. He was being lenient he said because of Gullickson's "youth and musical promise." But Gullickson was never to reclaim his adolescent glory. His swan dive into obscurity continued.


With those two out of the way, Keefe drew his bead on Fred Rahr. If the city wouldn’t shut Rahr down, Keefe said he would. He reached out to the feds imploring them to padlock Rahr's speakeasy. Rahr claimed he wasn't responsible for this latest transgression. He said he had leased the bar out to a couple of bootleggers. The logic behind that defense went to the grave with Fred Rahr. Still, it took almost eight months for Keefe to convince officials to put a padlock on 20 Main. It took Rahr about as long to get that lock taken off.

1931: Dead Drunk
It's amazing that, despite his lengthy list of offenses, Fred Rahr avoided a jail sentence. Even more stunning is that year after year, he managed to get the city to renew his license to operate his unruly establishment. Keefe's intervention made little difference.

In November 1930, Rahr went to city hall and asked again to be issued a new license. Understandably, there was trepidation among Oshkosh officials. But then Councilman Henry Hagene said he was for it. Oshkosh Mayor Taylor G. Brown also consented. With that, Rahr's application went sailing through. The lock came off. Fred Rahr was back in business. And in no time, it was business as usual.

The south end of North Main remained awash in illicit booze. Rahr may have been the most prolific violator, but he had plenty of company. Among that cohort was a speakeasy doing business one door south of Rahr’s. In 1931, that bar was run by veteran Oshkosh saloon operator Fred Schneider.

Schneider was a hard case. He would show his mettle by drinking a customer under the table. On the night of Wednesday, October 7, 1931, Harvey Walter walked in. Schneider challenged him to a drinking contest. It lasted four hours and Schneider won. Walter was carried out of the bar and dumped at his home on Ohio Street. His family found his dead body the next morning.

Later that day, after the police had gotten the story, Schneider's speakeasy was raided. Fred Rahr was standing in the doorway of his place laughing as the cops went rushing by. For once it wasn't him. Rahr should have kept to himself. His laughing so aggravated the police that they raided his bar. They found him holding. Rahr ended up with a $200 fine. He was lucky it was just the Oshkosh cops. They went easy on him. But the lurid story – the drinking contest and Rahr’s laughing response – made headlines across the state. A week later, federal agents came pouring into town.

1931: Barroom Blitz
On October 17, 1931, federal agents staged their largest raid on Oshkosh. There had been rumblings for weeks that something like this was coming. But there were always rumors like that floating around. This time the hearsay materialized in the form of 68 agents who simultaneously raided 29 of Oshkosh's better known "malt houses." At the end of the night, there were 40 new residents in the county jail. Fred Rahr was among them.

Rahr posted a $1,000 bond, walked out, and was later fined. But that wasn't the hard part. After 11 years of running an illegal liquor dispensary and seven arrests on dry-law violations, the City of Oshkosh pulled the license Fred Rahr had been "granted for the sale of non-intoxicating liquors." Rahr's Bar was officially closed... for almost three weeks.

After the dust settled, Hugo Behling went to city hall and asked for an application for the same sort of license Rahr had been stripped of. Behling told them it was for the place at 20 Main. Better known as Fred Rahr's Bar. Behling was no stranger to Rahr. Along with his wife and two sons, he was living in Fred Rahr's home on Rahr Avenue. Now he'd also be inhabiting Rahr's building on Main Street. That's what the license implied anyway.

Built in 1906, Fred Rahr's former home still stands on Rahr Avenue.

At city hall, they knew what Rahr was up to. It was a common dodge. They had to make it at least smell proper. They had Behling file an affidavit stating that he was not working on behalf of or in partnership with anyone who had been refused a license or whose license has been canceled. Whatever. Nobody was going to keep Fred Rahr out of there.

And they never caught him again. In 1933, time ran out on the dry law. The 18th Amendment was repealed. What Fred Rahr had been doing all his life went back to being legal. The license he was granted in December of 1933 gave him the right to sell "strong, spirituous, ardent, malt or intoxicating drinks or liquors." No more ducking and dodging, no more feds, and no more court dates. Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer was back on tap. Happy days were here again.

Another World
Fred Rahr stayed behind that bar for 12 more years. He served the family beer there right up to the end.

Rahr retired in 1945. A couple of weeks before his 74th birthday he sold the building and business to Max Schmiedeke. A year later, Schmiedeke sold it to Jack Zuelke, who had a number of different partners in the business over the years including Ray Parsons and Frank Gutsmeidl. It was no longer a Rahr bar. They painted a big Chief Oshkosh Beer sign over the old Rahr’s Beer sign. At times it was called Jack and Ray's Bar, and at other times it was Jack and Frank's Bar. In the end, when the bar closed in 1965, it was just Jack's Bar.

Jack and Ray's Bar with the Chief Oshkosh Beer sign in 1950s.

Fred Rahr died in the spring of 1951. He was 79 years old. The brewery that his father helped launch in 1865 closed in 1956. Fred Rahr was one of the last of the old-timers who had come of age in and around that brewery.

The building that housed Fred Rahr's saloon was sold to the City of Oshkosh in the summer of 1981. It was knocked down to make room for the Oshkosh Convention Center. It’s a whole other world.


6 comments: