Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Beginning of the Oshkosh Brewing Company: The Brewery that Dared Not Speak its Name

On March 21, 1894 the Oshkosh Brewing Company was formed upon the merger of three Oshkosh breweries in danger of succumbing to a ruinous economy and a torrent of Milwaukee beer. The combine brought together Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery, located on the east side of the 1600 block of Doty Street; John Glatz and Son’s Union Brewery, at the foot of Doty Street; and the Gambrinus Brewery of Lorenz Kuenzl, situated in the area currently addressed as 1239 Harney Ave. The oldest brewery in Oshkosh, the Charles Rahr Brewery, remained the lone hold-out leaving it as the last family-owned brewery in Oshkosh.

1894 was a difficult year for the City of Oshkosh and the Oshkosh brewers in particular. Two of the nation’s largest breweries, Schlitz and Pabst, both of Milwaukee, were zeroing in on Oshkosh’s notoriously rapacious beer drinkers. Each company now had distribution centers in the city and were shipping beer in by the train load. Making matters worse was Oshkosh’s faltering economy. The depression that followed the panic of 1893 was exacerbated here as owners of the seven large Oshkosh millworks laid off workers and cut the wages of those they still employed. Faced with the prospect of a contracting market that was no longer strictly their own, the Oshkosh brewers were forced into a defensive posture. If they wished to survive, they had little choice but to join forces.

That the Oshkosh breweries should combine took nobody by surprise. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern had earlier published a piece predicting the likely merger, but when the inevitable happened, the principals still attempted, in vain, to keep the matter private.

The Articles of Incorporation for the Oshkosh Brewing Company are entombed in the basement of the Winnebago County Courthouse and hand written in pencil at the top of the document are the fading words “Do not publish”. The admonition accomplished nothing. Within a week of the document being signed, the Oshkosh papers were reporting the details of the merger. Commenting on the new company’s lack of ebullience, the Oshkosh Times noted that the “interested parties are very reticent about the matter and for some reason have attempted to keep it out of the papers.”

From the Oshkosh Brewing Company's Articles of Incorporation.

Even after it had been outed, the Oshkosh Brewing Company maintained a reluctance to recognize its own existence. In the weeks that followed the merger, advertisements for the separate breweries continued to portray them as independent entities. 

Wisconsin Telegraph, April, 1894.

It would be almost two months after the company had formed before the Oshkosh Brewing Company finally owned up to itself. On May 18, 1894 the Oshkosh Brewing Company formally introduced itself through an advertisement in the Wisconsin Telegraph, a German language newspaper with offices just south of Main Street on Waugoo Ave. The advertisement goes well beyond the typical beer ad of the day. Framing a picture that is arranged as a composite of the three separate breweries, the advertisement lists all of the office holders of the new company, each of the six beers that it produced and the six bottlers of its product.

Wisconsin Telegraph, May 18, 1894.

Yet, it would take time for the Oshkosh Brewing Company to become completely comfortable within its own skin. Three years after the merger, the company was still running advertisements delineating  the Brooklyn Brewery and the Union Brewery. But by the late 1890s the old identities would give way to a more cohesive approach. And it would take a new threat to make that happen.

As the forces for Prohibition gathered steam, the Oshkosh Brewing Company took pains to point out all that it contributed to the community. From the 35 men it employed to the $40,000 it paid annually in taxes and insurance, the Oshkosh Brewing Company wanted it known that its survival was vital to the welfare of Oshkosh. The brewery that had taken its name from the city it called home had finally come into its own.

1 comment:

  1. I found an old brown bottle embossed “Oshkosh Brewing Co.”, looks to be 8 ounce. Is there any way to date this, and determine what beer brand it was used for? It looks like it was sealed with a bottle cap, although the “cap” area of the bottle seems thinner than on a modern bottle.