Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Early Years of Oshkosh's Lee Beverage

I haven’t seen it yet, but the February edition of the Oshkosh SCENE will be out and all around town shortly (if it isn’t already). This month in the Oshkosh Beer Garden column, I write about Lee Beverage of Wisconsin, the only beer distributor located in Oshkosh. In the article, I touched on the history of the company, but didn’t have the space to go as deeply as I would have liked to. That’s no problem here. Plenty of room. Let’s dig in.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, American’s were eager to prevent the excesses that had attended the liquor trade in the wild days before the onset of the dry law. Most states, including Wisconsin, took an assertive regulatory approach. Among the host of new laws was one that limited a brewer’s ability to sell and distribute its beer directly to the public or to retailers. The law created a gap between brewers and retailers that was filled by beer distributors. The three-tier system was born.

From 1936
In Oshkosh, a half dozen beer distributorships went into business in the six years immediately following the end of Prohibition. Today, one remains. Located on Oakwood Rd. in Oshkosh, Lee Beverage of Wisconsin is now one of the larger beer distributors in the state. The company started out as something quite different, though. And beer had nothing to do with it.

In 1925, William Precour and Harry Lee purchased the store of longtime Oshkosh grocer R.C. Knobla. For 30 years, Knobla had operated his store near the corner of Ceape and State (it no longer stands). But Precour and Lee appeared to have had little interest in running a grocery. They soon liquidated the stock and turned their attention to coffee. The Lee-Precour Co. roasted and packaged coffee that was sold throughout the Fox Valley. When Prohibition came to an end they began eyeing up another sort of brew.

In July 1934, Lee and Precour acquired a wholesale license allowing them to sell and distribute beer. The first brand they carried was Old Style Lager from La Crosse’s Heileman Brewery. Heileman had a limited presence in Oshkosh before Prohibition, but Lee and Precour changed that rather quickly. They advertised Old Style heavily in Oshkosh and soon established it as a prominent brand in the city. Old Style also became one of the first canned beers sold in Oshkosh, with cone-top cans of Old Style Lager becoming available here in late 1935.

That same year, Lee and Precour went their separate ways. Precour stayed on at Knobla’s old stand while Harry Lee headed south. He set up shop in a building that still stands at 111. W. Sixth Ave. It was now known as Lee Beverage and year-by-year Lee grew the business. He expanded the Lee portfolio by bringing in brands such as Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer of Oshkosh; Berliner, a beer brewed by the Berlin Brewing Co. of Berlin, Wisconsin; and later Kingsbury and Pabst. By the time Lee retired in 1963, the company was Oshkosh’s leading beer distributor. He left it in good hands.

From 1963
In 1963, a salesman for The Dubuque Packing Company named John Kuenzl was looking to get back into the family business. Kuenzl had once been a driver for the Oshkosh Brewing Company, but the familial link to beer ran much deeper than that. His great-grandfather, Lorenz Kuenzl, had launched the Gambrinus Brewery in Oshkosh in 1875. The family had been in the beer business ever since. When the Gambrinus Brewery merged with two other Oshkosh breweries to form the the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) in 1894, the Kuenzl’s became part owners of Oshkosh’s largest brewery. Most recently, John Kuenzl’s father, Lorenz “Shorty” Kuenzl had been treasurer of OBC. That came to an abrupt end after David Uihlein purchased the brewery in 1961.

Shorty Kuenzl had stayed on briefly at OBC after Uihlein came to town, but was said to be unhappy with the way the new boss ran things. With his father helping to bankroll the acquisition of Lee Beverage, 28-year-old John Kuenzl became the owner/manager of the company in 1963. After a brief respite, the Kuenzl’s were back in the beer business in Oshkosh.

Lee Beverage grew precipitously over the next 40 years; moving twice while acquiring numerous other beer distributorships and expanding its reach well beyond Oshkosh. The purchase of Lindemann Distributing of Eau Claire in 1977 led to the formation of a partnership between John Kuenzl and David Lindemann and the creation of Lee Beverage of Wisconsin LLC. Today the company is operated by David Lindemann’s son Jeff Lindemann and it now sells beer in more than 20 Wisconsin counties. For a beer business that can trace its origin to the gloom of Prohibition, the trajectory of its success has been unique.

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