Monday, March 2, 2015

The Peoples Revolt

The scene had changed for the saloon keepers of Oshkosh. Prior to the 1894 merger of Oshkosh’s three largest breweries, the saloonist had maintained the upper hand in the beer market by playing the city’s breweries off against each other.

If a saloon owner couldn’t get the price he wanted for beer from Kuenzl’s Gambrinus Brewery, he’d threaten to take Kuenzl’s beer off and put Horn and Schwalm’s beer on in its place. A month later, he might visit the Glatz brewery to see if the south-side brewer would be willing to cut an even better deal. He was likely to find Galtz willing.

The brewers tried to halt the downward spiral by getting into the saloon business themselves. In some cases, a brewery would acquire a saloon and lease it to a saloon keeper. Other times a brewery might take a stake in a saloon through a mortgage or by paying for improvements or expenses such as heating the building. These “tied house” saloons would then reciprocate by selling no other beer than that of the brewery they were aligned with.

The strategy wasn’t effective. With over 120 saloons in Oshkosh it was impossible for the brewers to gain the control needed to end the pricing wars. The bleeding finally stopped in 1894 when Kuenzl, Glatz, and Horn & Schwalm merged their breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). Now the brewers had the upper hand.

Though there was beer from Milwaukee and beyond being freighted to Oshkosh by train, the overwhelming preference was for locally produced beer. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported that “Milwaukee beer is sold at but six saloons in the city... at all the others the product of Oshkosh brewers is kept on tap.” The situation played directly into the hands of OBC.

With the expectation that they serve local beer, saloon keepers faced severely limited options. Just two breweries remained in Oshkosh: OBC and Rahr Brewing. And Rahr, with its strong network of tied houses, had no desire for striking deals or price cutting. OBC was poised to exact its revenge.

The brewery began by raising prices on beer. It followed up by refusing to extend credit to saloon keepers, demanding that they pay for their beer upon delivery and in cash. To drive the point home, OBC went on a buying binge purchasing more than a dozen saloons to compete directly with those unwilling to capitulate to their demands.

In 1898, the saloon keepers’ predicament worsened.

The Oshkosh Brewing company, controlling all the breweries in this city, has decided on an increase of $1 a barrel in the price of beer to dealers.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 11, 1898

Oshkosh’s unimpeachable nickel beer tradition meant the saloonists would be forced to bear the entire burden of the increase. Pouring less beer into the glass was an option, but not a solution. With so many saloons in Oshkosh, customers could easily cross the street to another bar in search of a more generous pour.

A week after the $1 price hike, the saloon men threatened to take action.

According to the statement of a saloon proprietor who is in "the deal," about thirty or forty of the local saloon men contemplate operating their own brewery, thereby manufacturing the best grade of beer at a much reduced price.

As planned, these saloon men will organize a stock company, equip the old Loescher brewery, located in the vicinity of Gruenhagen Point, which has been closed for some time, put an experienced brewer in charge and turn out enough of the amber fluid to supply the members of the organization.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 18, 1898

And if they couldn’t get the old Loescher brewery running again, the saloon men threatened to start buying their beer from Chicago. Neither plan materialized. OBC continued to tighten the screws.

A decade later the brewery idea rose again. This time, the plan was more ambitious.

People's Independent Brewing Co., Oshkosh, a new company whose incorporation was mentioned in our November issue, according to present plans will erect a modern brewery of 25,000 barrels annual capacity.
- Western Brewer, December 1908

The new brewery would be a cooperative effort funded, in part, by locals who had spent years doing business with OBC. Among the most prominent leaders of the movement was John Larie. His White Seal Buffett in what is now the 300 block of N. Main was, perhaps, the most highly regarded saloon in Oshkosh. As always, click the images below to enlarge them.
Bunn's Oshkosh City Directory, 1908.
John Bischofberger, who had been selling OBC beer at his Main Street saloon for the past 10 years, was also among the ring leaders.

Bischofberger’s saloon, adorned with signage from the Oshkosh Brewing Co,
 in what is now the 100 block of N. Main St. 
Another would-be defector from the OBC fold was John Sitter. His concerns were more pressing. He had been a bottler of OBC beer since the brewery’s formation in 1894. He purchased beer directly from the brewery then bottled it for retail sales. But OBC was now striving to bring the bottling of its beer in house, a move that would put Sitter out of business.

Despite the fact that the group had ample financial backing and a solid foundation of leadership, the effort failed once again. But the groundwork had been laid. The next attempt would succeed. The consequences for OBC would be drastic.

In 1911, another group – again led by Oshkosh saloon keepers – formed with the intent of launching a brewery to compete with OBC. The model was much the same as that proposed by Larie, Bischofberger and Sitter. Even the name was borrowed: The Peoples Brewing Company.

The leader of the group was Joseph J. Nigl, owner of a saloon at the corner of Ninth and Ohio streets; land that had been purchased by his father in 1881 (Ohio Street Station Sports Bar & Grill, 815 Ohio St., is now located there).

Joseph Nigl standing outside his saloon
when he still sold OBC beer.
Nigl’s ties to OBC and the breweries that merged to form it were decades old, but the association had lost its allure. In 1897, OBC built a saloon and dancehall at the northeast corner of Ninth and Ohio (556 W 9th Ave.), directly across the street from Joseph Nigl’s saloon.

Nigl found himself in the uncomfortable position of being in direct competition with the brewery that supplied his beer. The relationship between Nigl and OBC deteriorated. To make matters worse, the brewery installed Nigl’s cousin Alois Nigl as its saloon keeper.

Alois Nigl wearing bow tie.
It would take two years, but Joseph Nigl would finally succeeded where his predecessors had failed. In 1913, The Peoples Brewing Co. of Oshkosh opened for business. Nigl returned the compliment OBC had paid him. The new brewery was built just across the street from OBC.

When it came to beer, Oshkosh would never be the same. OBC’s dominance of the Oshkosh beer market came to an abrupt end. The brewery would be hounded by its neighbor until OBC folded in 1971. And when OBC closed, Peoples purchased its brands.

How different would things be today if Nigl and his cohorts hadn’t succeeded? Would Oshkosh still have a production brewery if OBC had been able to maintain its hold on the local beer market? In Chippewa Falls and Stevens Point that was exactly what happened. Neither city lost its dominant brewer.

If OBC had not ignited the wrath of the saloon keepers, we might still have a production brewery in Oshkosh.

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