Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Lineage of Oshkosh's Barley & Hops

The Cornerstone at
663 N. Main
If you find yourself at the beer sampling at Barley & Hops tomorrow night (October 2), take a moment to drink in your surroundings. Nate Stiefvater’s place at 663 N. Main is more than a century old and has a history that’s worth knowing something about. Let’s have a look.

The building that is now home to Barley & Hops was built in the summer of 1900 under the direction of Carl Schneider, an Oshkosh architect and mason who had been trained in his native Prussia. Schneider made the most of the $6,000 allotted for the building’s creation. He cast the imposing face of the structure in pressed brick that framed two dormers (which have since been removed), with opposing columns placed just below the roof line.  The two-story, 80-foot long building cut an impressive figure along upper Main. That’s probably just how its owner wanted it. The new saloon of William Kienast was going to stand out from the others.

William Gustave Kienast was born in Prussia on April 6, 1846 and came to America with his family at
the age of four. He was raised in the Town of Vinland and spent the early part of his life as a farmer. But as he grew older his interests strayed from the farm fields. He kept racehorses that he ran locally and at the ripe age of 54 decided to dive deeper into the sporting life by becoming a saloon man. Kienast wasn’t blind to what he was getting into. His twin brother, Gustave William Kienast, had previously operated a somewhat notorious saloon and boarding house on Main St. in Oshkosh during the 1880s and early 1890s. And William Kienast wasn’t going it alone. His family lived with him above the saloon and his 28-year-old son Charles was going to act as proprietor. The establishment came to be known as the Turf Exchange. An advertisement from April 1904 gives a sense of what the place might have been like.
Circa, 1916

WANTED—500 Men at the Turf Exchange
Saturday Night May 14th to Help Eat 150 Pounds of Fine Roast and Fried Fish.
All Come and Have a Good Time.
C.W. Kienast, Prop.

But the good times were short lived. In the summer of 1904, William Kienast decided he’d had enough of the saloon trade. In July, he placed an ad in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern stating, “I Want to Go Out Business on Account of My Health Not Being Good. Will Sell Cheap if Taken Soon.” Within a year the place was closed. Kienast unloaded the furniture and fittings of his barroom, (including five card-playing tables, a pool table, 18 cuspidors and a full set of saloon fixtures) and in 1906 sold the building. He moved to South Dakota, returned to farming and eventually stumbled upon a fortune. In 1920, Kienast discovered a large vein of anthracite coal on his farm while drilling a well. The 74-year-old Prussian had struck it rich.

After the departure of the Kienast family, things grew somewhat less exciting at the big building on North Main Street. It housed a dress shop in 1906 and the Nichol’s Bakery in 1909. Each of the businesses floundered. Then in 1915, the building became home to the enterprise that would hold it longer than any occupant to date. That fall, the Butternut Baking Company refurbished the former saloon and moved in.  An early promotion for the Butternut describes what had become of the place: “The walls and ceilings are white enamel and everything is up-to-the-minute to the smallest detail. The state inspector informed us that our bakery is one of the best equipped and arranged plants in the state.”
Outside the Butternut Baking Co.; Circa 1916

But the orderly atmosphere held its own kind of danger. On a Friday afternoon in May 1916, the building and a life within were nearly lost. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported on the near disaster:

BURNED BY HOT LARD - Employee at Local Bakery Falls with Kettle and is Severely Injured – Julius Kinner, a colored man employed at the Butternut Baking company’s new plant on upper Main street sustained severe and serious burns yesterday in a fire which for a time threatened the existence of the plant. A kettle of lard in which doughnuts were frying took fire. Kinner attempted to carry the burning lard out of doors and fell, the hot grease splashing upon his face, neck and arms. He was taken to St. Mary’s hospital and today his condition is said to be favorable. The damage to the bakery was comparatively small.
– Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 20, 1916

Time would prove Kinner’s misfortune to be an exception. For the next 50 years, the Butternut held steady at 663 N. Main with little turbulence along the way. The company was led by Charles J. Koehn, a sober, community-minded businessman with a deep interest in Oshkosh history. He was a collector of American Indian artifacts and a strong proponent of the Oshkosh Public Museum, where he acted as an honorary curator and served on the Museum’s Board of Directors. After Koehn’s retirement in 1945, the Butternut was sold to a Stevens Point bakery and operated by Leo Cholewinski a Polish-born baker. Cholewinski headed the company until it closed permanently in 1965.

After the bakery’s demise, the guts of the building were transformed again. In 1967, it was converted into Vern’s Cycle Shop. It would remain a bicycle shop for the next dozen years before becoming a spectacularly poor fit for the New Faith Fellowship Church in 1981. But this is a building that seems to want to be a tavern. In 1983, it was returned to its original intent with the launch of the Patti K. Lounge. That didn’t last, either.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the taverns housed within this building would change names almost yearly. In 1984, it was Pappa Bear’s Public Pizzeria Tavern; In 1985, it was re-christened Ted E. Bear’s Pub & Pizzeria; and in 1986 it became Shoe’s Pub. Shoe’s would hold forth until 1990 when the flux began anew. It was called Ted’s Place in 1991 and the Tijuana Country Club from 1992 through 1994. In 1995 it became Godfather’s and so it would stay until 2001. The constant turnover is telling. For the most part, these were run-of-the-mill Oshkosh watering holes serving up a nondescript cocktail of rail booze and pale beer. They blended into the Oshkosh tavern scene of the period, which was bland, big and lacking in variety. That began to change for the better with the arrival of the 2000s.

Barley & Hops; 2013
In 2001, the impending demolition of the the old college strip on the east side of Wisconsin St. sent Nate Stiefvater looking for a new place to set up shop. He had run Nad’s (formerly The Bubbler and the Lost Dutchman) on the strip since his arrival in Oshkosh from Stevens Point in 1997. In December 2001, he took over Godfather’s and renamed it Barley & Hops. He’s been there ever since. Nate now owns the property and holds the second longest tenure in the 113-year-old building. Much has changed since he’s taken over. With 14 beers on tap and a large selection of craft beer in bottles, Barley’s has grown into one of the more reliable spots in Oshkosh for good beer. And there are more changes on the way. Next spring, Nate hopes to break new turf at the former Turf Exchange with the construction of a beer garden that will skirt the southern exterior of the building. Obviously, there’s still plenty of life left in Kienast’s old haunt. As Nate says, “This place was built to last.”


  1. Great article as usual. I've always been curious though what the upstairs of Barley & Hops looks like, since all windows have been bricked up/etc.

    It's either a meth lab or the most boring storage area you'll ever see... :)

  2. What's up, every time i used 918kiss to check website posts here early in the daylight, for the reason that i love to find out more and more.