Monday, April 25, 2016

The Beer Merchant of Oshkosh

Frank X. Thielen. Something profane would likely have accompanied that name were it uttered by an Oshkosh brewer in 1891. Thielen was their nemesis. He worked as an agent for “foreign” breweries. That is, he imported beer from large, American breweries intent on muscling their way into places served by smaller, regional breweries like those here. Thielen was the beer merchant of Oshkosh. Here’s a look at his work.

Frank X. Thielen was born in the Rhine Province of Western Germany in 1840. In 1858, he arrived in Oshkosh and found work as a railroad brakeman. But by the early 1870s he had gone off the rails in favor of selling groceries and liquor from his father’s store on Main Street. By 1884, Frank X. was running the place.

He planted a saloon at the back of the grocery. Liquids gradually crowded out the solids. Thielen's stand transformed into both a tavern and wholesale liquor distributorship. He took to calling it the California Wine House. Designed by William Waters in a style described as “commercial Gothic,” Thielen’s home base still stands at what is now 420 N. Main Street. Thielen's place is under the red arrow.

Calling it a wine house may have lent an upscale sheen, but beer was Thielen’s meat. He’d been bringing in beer from Milwaukee since the late 1870s. He began with Milwaukee’s Cream City Brewing Company, importing and bottling its Export Beer. Here’s a damaged and very rare Thielen beer bottle.

At the close of the 1880s, Oshkosh’s breweries were losing their grip on the local beer trade. The four breweries were engaged in a price war that made them vulnerable to outside competition. Thielen saw opportunity there.

In 1890, he began importing beer from the Falk, Jung & Borchert Brewing Company of Milwaukee. The Milwaukee brewery was a rapidly growing concern producing more than 175,000 barrels of beer annually. Thielen arranged to have a refrigerated warehouse built for Falk, Jung & Borchert in downtown Oshkosh, just off Pearl Avenue near the Wisconsin Central freight depot. You'd be looking at it if you stood here back then (this is an interactive view, explore it!)….

Thielen was shooting for the higher end of the Oshkosh beer market. His imports found their way into the craft-beer bars of his day – saloons that didn’t rely on mugs of dark beer offered for a nickel a pull as their primary stock in trade. His domain was downtown. Henry Schmidt’s Opera House Sample Room was a favored outlet. Here’s a typical early 1890s newspaper ad for a Thielen import.

Not to go too far astray, but the Opera House Sample Room was located at the corner of High and Market streets. The building that housed it still stands. Here it is...

The Opera House Sample Room, as you might guess, was near the Grand Opera House. Like the Grand, it was also a William Waters design. The two buildings have a shared look. Each is constructed of cream colored brick, with similar accents and cornice work. Here they are face to face with High Avenue between them.

Enough of that, let’s get back to our man Thielen.

His next client was especially well known. In 1891, the Anheuser Busch Brewing Association was the second largest brewery in America, Pabst being the only brewery with greater output. When Thielen began importing AB, the beers of the St. Louis brewery were something of a novelty here. Budweiser had poured in Oshkosh before, but the beer had never been widely embraced by local drinkers. Thielen set out to change that.

Again, Thielen plied downtown saloons offering pricier beer. Here’s an ad that ran in the Oshkosh Northwestern during May of 1891 announcing the latest arrival of Anheuser Busch beer in Oshkosh.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with the beer. Budweiser and Pale Lager, forget it, it’s Tony Faust’s I’d go for. Faust was a golden-hued lager, and by most accounts a fairly hoppy one. It was  a premium brew exceedingly popular with the beer geeks of its day. And what sort of places were serving it in Oshkosh? There are a couple mentioned above to take note of.

The King Bros. Bodega was located at the corner of Algoma and Market streets on the plot next to where the sundial now sits in Opera House Square. Fred and Peter King ran a high end joint, “First-class in every particular,” featuring, “Fine wines and liquors, imported and domestic cigars” and “High grades of bottled goods.” John Thielen's sample room was cut from the same cloth.

John was Frank’s younger brother. The saloon he operated during this period was just two doors south of Frank’s place in another Waters’ designed building that’s still intact at 416 N. Main Street. John also worked as a wholesale liquor distributor. He eventually became Oshkosh’s premier maker of distilled spirits, operating the Silver Spring Distillery. His Badger Club Whiskey was especially popular. Get a load of this...

Frank Thielen’s high-end beer strategy worked even better than he probably expected. By 1893 his business was booming. Here’s an homage to the man from the book Pen and Sunlight Sketches of the Principal Cities in Wisconsin, published in 1893.
Any commercial history of Oshkosh would be incomplete without a review of one of the pioneer business houses of the city, now known under the name of Frank Thielen… He employs four clerks, and has two teams for the delivery of orders, and has a very large and rapidly increasing trade.
Unfortunately for Frank X. Thielen, 1893 also marked the peak of his career as a beer merchant. The decline began with the Panic of 1893, which cast a pall over beer sales in Oshkosh. But the greatest impediment to his success was one that he had helped to create.

Struggling with the foreign competitors that Thielen and others had brought to town, the three largest Oshkosh breweries merged in 1894 to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. By the late 1890s, OBC so dominated the Oshkosh market, that Thielen all but gave up distributing outside beer. He continued to operate his saloon, but his peak years as a beer merchant were over.

Thielen retired from the saloon trade in 1913. He died a year later at his home on Washington and Broad streets in Oshkosh. Frank X. Thielen is buried in Riverside Cemetery.

His saloon lived on. Thielen's sons Frank Jr. and Sam kept the family tavern running until Prohibition closed everything down in 1920.

Here’s a brief coda to the Thielen story I find interesting: after Peoples Brewing Company launched in 1913 in response to the domineering ways of the Oshkosh Brewing Company, the Thielen brother's saloon was among the first on Main Street to put Peoples Beer on tap. You know their father would have liked that.

Thanks to Ron Akin and Steve Schrage for help with this post.


  1. Where do you find this stuff? Great, interesting information.

  2. I own the house that John Thielen lived in In Oshkosh. I have always found his history and story interesting. Thanks for the information you provided.