Monday, February 9, 2015

Tied and Un-Tied Houses in Oshkosh

Nigl's "Chieftin" at 556 West 9th.
Tied to the Oshkosh Brewing Company
Before Prohibitionists got their way in 1920, one of their rallying points in their quest to outlaw alcohol was the debauched institution known as the tied house.

Tied houses were saloons controlled by breweries. Sometimes the brewery might own the saloon outright. Other times the brewery would have some form of controlling interest in the saloon. In all cases, the saloon keeper was obligated to sell no other beer than that of the brewery the saloon was tied to.

The arrangement was problematic. By hampering competition, some breweries were able to use the tied-house system to dominate markets. Beginning in the late 1890s, the Oshkosh Brewing Company used its tied houses to control beer prices in this city for more than a decade.

More obviously troublesome was that tied houses tended to be breeding grounds for vice. The 1913 Teasdale report on “White Slave Traffic and Kindred Subjects" in Wisconsin showed Oshkosh right there in the thick of things.

Saloon at 31 Main Street has 13 booths formed by seats, and has tables at which girls and women prostitutes gather. On the day the investigator was there 16 guests were there at the same time; six girls without male escorts were at the tables and were seen there to pick up men and go off with them.
     - Excerpt from the 1913 Teasdale Report

That saloon at 31 Main was owned by the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Prohibition was supposed to be the death knell of the tied house. But when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, both the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh still owned numerous taverns, which they leased to others to operate, just as they had done before Prohibition.

Blanche & Carl Rahr
New laws made the tavern keepers more independent after repeal, but the influence of the landlord was still in effect. We can see that at work in 1956 when the Rahr Brewing Company went out of business.

When the Rahr brewery closed, Carl and Blanche Rahr struck a deal with the Oshkosh Brewing Company to supply beer to the saloons they owned. The arrangement was almost certainly illegal, but hardly uncommon. At the time, the Rahr family owned at least 9 taverns in Oshkosh. At each of them the situation was the same. When the Rahr’s beer stopped flowing, OBC’s beer began pouring.

In the first six months of the agreement, OBC sold more than 300 barrels of beer in taverns owned by the Rahrs. It’s clear that, just as they had before prohibition, breweries here were still guiding the saloon keepers hand when it came to the beer they would be pouring.

Lorenz Kuenzl
At OBC, they were definitely pleased with the situation. At the end of 1956, OBC secretary Lorenz “Shorty” Kuenzl sent a letter to Carl Rahr thanking him for his consideration.

We want to thank you and Blanche for the partiality shown us here; we appreciate highly the friendship on your part over many years past. On our part, we have always felt most friendly to both of you, as you well know.
     - From a letter to Carl Rahr written by Lorenz Kuenzl dated December 13, 1956.

I wonder how the saloon keepers felt about it? One of them, at least, seemed reluctant to play ball. Ambrose Wirtz, who ran the Rahr-owned Elbow Room Tavern at 1309 Oregon St., initially resisted OBCs wish to put up its signs in his bar. A call from his landlord fixed that. Wirtz fell in line and OBC’s signs went up at the Elbow Room. The old games were still being played.

A few of the locations the Rahr’s owned continue to operate as taverns today. Among them are Ratch & Deb's Pizza at 720 Merritt, Knucklehead's Booze, Blues, & BBQ at 1226 Oshkosh Ave, Old Oshkosh Saloon II at 1309 Oregon, Uncle Don’s at 709 Otter, and Calhoun Beach Club at 695 N. Main. Each of these operated under different names when the properties were owned by the Rahrs. None of them are owned by the Rahr family today.

The ties that breweries had to taverns continued to diminish as the years went on. By 1972, it was a dead issue here. The last tavern in Oshkosh owned by a brewery was Oblio’s at 434 North Main. Schlitz Brewing purchased the property in 1886 and didn’t sell it off until 1972. With that the unraveling of the tied house was complete in Oshkosh.

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