Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Oshkosh Breweriana Collector Steve Schrage

The Oshkosh Public Library is hosting an exhibit titled Neighbors Past and Present: The Wisconsin German Experience. It illustrates the history of German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin in the 19th century. Part of the exhibit's local flair is a display curated by Steve Schrage. He's a collector of memorabilia related to Oshkosh's early brewing industry, itself an outgrowth of German migration here. The items Schrage contributed to the exhibit are part of a collection he's been building for the past 15 years. It began with a few hundred unwanted beer cans.

Steve Schrage with his son Smith and daughter Kennedy at the Oshkosh Public Library Exhibit.

"My uncle was cleaning out his basement and he had this collection of beer cans he was trying to get rid of, so he gave them to me," Schrage says. "Most of them were in rough shape, but there were a few cans from Oshkosh breweries in there and that caught my interest. I grew up in Oshkosh, but I didn't know much about there being breweries here. So I started doing research, and found out, wow, Oshkosh had several breweries. I thought that was really cool. After that, I began searching for anything related to the old breweries."

He found plenty. Beer trays and beer signs and cans and labels and bottles bearing names like Kuenzl, Glatz, and Rahr – all of them German immigrants who came to Oshkosh and helped to establish the city's early beer culture. But as Schrage's collection grew, he found himself particularly drawn to the most elusive and fragile pieces of breweriana. He began focusing almost entirely on embossed bottles issued by Oshkosh's independent beer bottlers in the late 1800s.

Beginning in the 1870s, a subthread of the brewing industry in Oshkosh developed around the growing popularity of bottled beer. Prior to this, nearly all of the beer served here came out of wooden kegs. But as the production of glass bottles became more common, a handful of saloon keepers and brewery workers noticed an opportunity. They would purchase glass bottles in bulk and fill them with beer made at one of the local breweries. The novelty of bottled beer fetched a handsome price. Soon there were bottling operations in every ward.

At their peak in the late 1880s, there were no fewer than a dozen beer bottling houses operating in Oshkosh. Each of their owners would have his name embossed on his bottles in hopes they would be returned. But often they were simply discarded. What was then viewed as little more than an empty package is now a highly sought after collector's item. Schrage's sees a story in every one of them.

"I like to think about the people who drank from those bottles," he says. "How hard they worked and what life for them must have been like. And the people who filled them, one bottle at a time. They didn't have bottling machines, this was all done by hand. Some of them are even hand blown. Some are more than 130 years old. It's just amazing that something so fragile could last that long."

Finding those bottles is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. If only it was hay they were hidden in. A number of Schrage's bottles were excavated from the filled-in reservoirs of former outhouses. "Yep, a lot of them ended up in the privy," Schrage says. He was introduced to bottle digging by fellow Oshkosh collector Bob Bergman, who has built much of his collection by digging and diving for rare bottles.

"The first time I went diving with Bob, I found a Frank Thielen bottle," Schrage says. "That was it, I was hooked." Thielen was an Oshkosh saloon owner who in the 1880s was also bottling beer. His bottles are now considered extremely rare.

"They're gone," Schrage says. "What has survived is already in the collections of other people like me who wouldn't think of giving them up. The only way to get them now is to find the ones that haven't been discovered. That Thielein bottle had probably been underwater for more than 100 years. It's incredible to think of. There are some treasures down in that river."

A generous selection of Schrage's treasures, including some of his rare bottles, will remain on display at the Oshkosh Public Library until February 28th.

This article also appeared in the February 5, 2020 edition of the Oshkosh Herald.

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