Monday, March 21, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 3 - George Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery

By 1852 the village of Oshkosh was rising fast. There were now approximately 3,000 people living in the area that was soon to declare itself the City of Oshkosh and among the swell was a habitually thirsty assortment of wood workers who needed a brewer to meet their needs. Enter George Loescher.

George Loescher (sometimes spelled Loscher) was born in Bavaria in 1819. There’s scant record of his life in Europe, but it’s likely that Loescher was trained as a brewer from an early age. Both he and his brother Frederick established breweries shortly after emigrating to America and Loescher’s advertised proficiency as a maltster indicates that he was versed in the German brewing tradition prior to his arrival here.

1858 Map Showing Location Of the Oshkosh Brewery
It appears George Loescher came to America in 1851 and in September of 1852 he and Frederick Loescher purchased a modest parcel of land on Lake Winnebago where they established their new brewery. The brewery was located on the south side of Bay Shore Drive west of Eveline Street among land currently addressed as 1253 and 1283 Bay Shore Drive. It was the second brewery here to be named the Oshkosh Brewery and that name, along with the brewery’s location and time of its inception, raises a number of questions. In the summer of 1852 and just a block west of the Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery, the Oshkosh Brewery of Joseph Schussler was nearing its end. Whether the Loescher’s appropriated anything more than the name of their brewery from Schussler isn’t clear, but the possibility that there was a more substantial connection between the two breweries remains.

In any case, George and Frederick Loescher’s new Oshkosh Brewery was probably up and running by the end of 1852, but it wouldn’t remain a brotherly operation for long. In August of 1853 Frederick Loescher moved to Menasha where he launched a brewery of his own and the following December sold his stake in the Oshkosh Brewery to his brother George.

What little information has survived from the period indicates that George Loescher was a versatile brewer. His background in Germany predicates that Loescher was trained as a lager brewer, but in the early years of the Oshkosh Brewery Loescher produced ales, as well as lagers. His adaptability served him well. Production and storage of cool-fermenting lager beer would have been next to impossible during Oshkosh’s sweltering summer months in the years before mechanical refrigeration was a viable option. Ales, which can be fermented at cellar temperatures, enabled Loescher to brew year round and had the added benefit of appealing to Oshkosh residents who had come from the East Coast and England and were accustomed to drinking porters and stouts. Loescher’s neighborhood in particular was a mix of English and German immigrants and meeting their expectations was no doubt essential to his success. The longevity of Loescher’s brewery bears this out. Each of the two brewers that had preceded him in Oshkosh were out of business within five years of their start. George Loscher’s Oshkosh Brewery produced beer for 38 years.

The era Loescher inhabited was a volatile one. Oshkosh was growing and changing rapidly and Loescher evolved with it. His success enabled him to buy up tracts of land surrounding the brewery and Loescher, who would prove to be something of a wheeler-dealer, seems to have had little reticence about mortgaging his holdings to the hilt. In 1859, he put the brewery in his wife’s name, perhaps employing the vagaries of Wisconsin’s marital property laws as a shield against his creditors, and continued adding to his holdings.

The Loescher family was moving up. George and Regina Loescher had lived at their brewery for 18 years, but after 1870 they and their seven children relocated to a new house across the street. The move was emblematic of Loescher’s success as he became the first Oshkosh brewer to live in a house separate from his brewery. But Loescher wasn’t the only brewer in Oshkosh doing well. By 1870 there were six breweries here and the most robust among them were on the other side of the Fox River. Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery and the Union Brewery of John Glatz were the first breweries located on the south side of Oshkosh and both were off to quick starts that threatened to leave their north-side competition in the dust.

Loescher may have been struggling with more than just the competition. His brewery was now the oldest in Oshkosh and by the late 1870s would have appeared antiquated in comparison to the brewhouses of his rivals. Loescher may have even ceased brewing for a time as the decade came to an end. The Oshkosh city directory of 1879 does not list the Oshkosh Brewery as active and surveys of brewing capacity in Oshkosh from 1878 and 1879 omit Loescher’s brewery, altogether.

Loescher wasn’t finished, yet, though. He began construction of a new brewery on property he had purchased 15 years earlier at what is now the north east corner of Frankfort Street and Bay Shore Drive. The new Oshkosh Brewery was fully operational by 1880, but it may have been too little too late. In the intervening years, the south-side breweries had expanded their capacity three-fold and were coming to dominate the market. Loscher was now in his 60s and nearing his end. In 1884, just four years after the completion of his new brewery, George Loescher died at the age of 65.

Following the death of George Loescher, the Oshkosh Brewery remained active for several more years. Loescher’s son William had assumed control of brewing operations, but the best days of the brewery were well behind it. William Loescher moved into the brewery and, sometimes helped by his brother Fred, but just as often going it alone, ushered the brewery into a new era that was less than hospitable for small operations such as his. It wasn’t just the south-side competition he had to contend with. Now Oshkosh was being targeted by Milwaukee breweries that could produce in a day what would take Loescher a year to brew. The Oshkosh Brewery didn’t stand a chance. By 1890 the brewhouse had gone dark.

After the close of the Oshkosh Brewery, William Loescher would work for Lorenz Kuenzl at the Gambrinus Brewery for a time, but soon left brewing behind him. There was one last flicker of hope for the Oshkosh Brewery, though. in 1898 a majority of Oshkosh’s saloon operators began toying with the idea of starting a brewery of their own to circumvent the taxes levied against the barreled beer they purchased for tap sales. Their plan was to re-equip Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery and hire a brewer to make beer for them. Unfortunately, the scheme never came to fruition and the Oshkosh Brewery was dismantled. Today the quiet, upscale neighborhood along the lake that was once home to the Oshkosh Brewery betrays not a hint of its beer-soaked past.

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