Monday, November 1, 2010

1972: The Year Brewing Died in Oshkosh

During the first week of November in 1972 the Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh stopped making beer. For the first time in more than 120 years Oshkosh was without a brewery.

Theodore Mack
Peoples Brewery 1512 S. Main St.
The turbulent year that preceded the collapse of Peoples Brewing began on November 5, 1971 when Theodore Mack, president of the brewery, announced that Peoples had purchased the surviving brands of the newly defunct Oshkosh Brewing Company. Mack told reporters that his company had paid cash for the Chief Oshkosh, Rahr and Badger labels - though he wouldn't say how much - and deferred to his Brewmaster Howard Ruff who promised to "match as closely as possible the beers that were produced at the other firm." Also left unsaid was that Ruff had already begun making his version of Chief Oshkosh. The beer had gone into production at the Peoples brewery just days after the Oshkosh Brewing Company had ceased operations. By the end of November Peoples was distributing both the Chief Oshkosh and Rahr brands throughout the Fox Valley and into Green Bay.

Being head of the only brewery in town, though, wasn't Mack’s ambition. He had bigger plans. His goal was to make Peoples Beer a national brand. “To stay in one locale, that’s how you get killed quickly,” he said. Before Mack's arrival in April 1970, The sale of Peoples Beer had been predominantly confined to the Oshkosh area, but Mack had managed to extend the brewery's reach. Peoples was now being sold in Indiana and Tennessee and in January 1972 Mack landed a deal to distribute the beer in California. While most of the nations remaining regional brewers were hunkering down, desperately trying to protect their bits of turf, Mack was taking the opposite approach. He had decided to go toe-to-toe with the big brewers that were set on driving out breweries like his. Peoples became the only non-Milwaukee beer available at Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks games and Mack even secured a license to distribute his beer in Missouri, the home state of Budweiser. He wanted to establish a television presence for Peoples Beer, as well. Mack told his shareholders, “I see everybody on TV but Peoples. We have to get the money for more advertising." A tall order considering the brewery was already $100,000 in debt.
But Mack was flying high. Sales of his beer were up and in the year and a half since coming to Oshkosh he had risen from rank outsider to being the savior of Oshkosh's namesake brew. He had also become the city's most visible resident. As president of the only minority run brewery in the country, Mack had gained considerable attention and later said, "After I was contacted by CBS, NBC and ABC I went from 'Hey you, boy' to 'Mr. Mack' in 20 minutes." The notoriety helped to raise the profile of the small brewery, but it was no cure for the company's financial troubles. By February 1972 Peoples Brewing was so strapped for cash that Mack couldn’t pay the federal excise taxes owed on the beer he was making. Then on February 28th Howard Ruff, the longtime brewmaster of Peoples Beer, suddenly died. Mack was in a hole, but he had a plan.

He found a new Brewmaster in Ronald Papenfuss, who had brewed for Lithia in West Bend and Huber in Monroe, and Mack began to zero in on lucrative government contracts for supplying beer to the armed forces. Mack's intention was to take advantage of the affirmative action legislation of 1965 that called for equal representation of minorities in the awarding of government contracts. Since Mack ran the only minority owned brewery in the nation, he suggested his brewery ought to be supplying 10% of the government's purchase of beer. Mack estimated the potential value of such contracts to be in excess of $100 million and had he been able to secure the orders the fate of Peoples Brewery might have been much different.

It was too late, though. By the end of the summer, the brewery was out of ready capital. The fatal blow was delivered on September 26, 1972 when the Internal Revenue Service filed a $35,809 tax lien against Peoples Brewing for failure to pay excise and withholding taxes. Within a month, brewery operations came to a stand still. Initially, Mack claimed the production decline was due to the slack winter months, but this was no ordinary slowdown.

In a last ditch effort to keep the brewery afloat, Mack filed a $100 million lawsuit against the Small Business Administration and the Department of Defense claiming he had been denied the right to sell beer to the government under contract. That didn't pan-out, either. On November 14, 1972 Mack held a press conference at Jabbers, a tavern next door to the brewery and confirmed that his company was no longer brewing beer. The 30 employees of the Peoples Brewing Company were laid off. Oshkosh's long history of beer making had come to an abrupt end.

“It hurt me deeply," Mack would later say. "It looked so beautiful when we came here, although the system tried to mess us up. They told me I couldn’t move to Oshkosh. They told you I was going to replace whites with blacks. We worked like the devil trying to put this together and it made us feel good when we came here to sell stock and white people came through the door all day to buy stock, but every time the newspapers came out it was ‘the black brewery.’ Maybe a few of us got educated on the way things really are in America."
Thanks to John Marx for the photos of Peoples Brewery


  1. I personally had dealings with the Peoples Brewery while Ted Mack operated it.
    He was the most prejudice man I have ever come across.
    He stated he didn't need the people of Oshkosh to drink his beer, & that the Black people would buy his beer.
    He forced his way into Milwaukee County Stadium, by playing the race card,..Peoples Beer didn't sell there, because the fans, supported their local breweries, Pabst, Schlitz, etc because they or a friend or relative work at a local brewery.
    The brewery closed because it was run into the ground, by Mack's prejudice.

    1. Tavern Keeper, I’ve spoken with numerous people who knew Ted Mack. None of them have shared your point of view. In fact, they all thought quite highly of him. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that your notion that “The brewery closed because it was run into the ground, by Mack's prejudice” is ludicrous. There were a number of reasons the brewery closed. Mack wasn't without fault as a business manager, but you're way off base with the reason you cite.

  2. I was the last employee working for Peoples when they closed, finishing up the financial books. I worked for Ted the whole time and worked there before Ted. He was the best boss I ever had in my life, bar none. I think the drivers, brewers, and line workers would agree that we were treated with respect. I took the calls in the office when Ted bought the brewery - MANY calls from angry bar owners, screaming at me that they would never buy beer from a N----er and so would never buy a barrel of Peoples again. It was disheartening to say the least. Ted never let it get him down. He won over all the bars in Oshkosh with his charismatic personality and they quickly were all back on tap. I also knew his whole family, who were wonderful. They truly fully immersed themselves in the Oshkosh community. May I also say that this was probably the most fun place I ever worked. We got our work done and we had fun doing it. I am proud to have worked there before and after Ted came around. It was crushing to have to close the place up.

    1. Betty, thanks for your comments. A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a former driver for Peoples (Grant Peterson). He also said that he enjoyed working with Mack and that it was probably the best job he’d ever had.

  3. Thanks, Lee. The drivers, Grant and all of them were amazing, as was the bottle shop. We were like one little family. Still saddens me.

  4. I' m so happy that I started to read up on Peoples Beer, thank and more to follow