Monday, June 6, 2016

Fire at the Brooklyn Brewery!

Saturday Evening, March 29, 1879...
Brewers at Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery are nearing the end of a long brew day. Suddenly, fire breaks out near the boil kettle. The brewers respond quickly.  They’ve been through this before. With pails of water, they wash down the flames before the fire can spread. Catastrophe averted. This time.

Fire was a constant concern at the Brooklyn Brewery. The wood-frame building was not even 15 years old, but it looked much older. Its vernacular architecture was out of step with the production facility it was being used as. In 1878, Horn & Schwalm had produced 1,366 barrels of beer. Walking by, you wouldn't guess the place capable of it.

Horn & Schwalm's Original Brooklyn Brewery
Lit by candles and fueled by wood and coal, the the Brooklyn Brewery was an accident waiting to happen. A few hours after the Saturday-night fire in the brewhouse had been doused, the waiting ended. The brewery went up in flames.

Total Destruction of Horn & Schwalm’s Brewery
About five o’clock Sunday morning the brewery on Doty street just south of 16th which is owned by A. Horn and Leonard Schwalm’s estate was totally destroyed by fire… about four o’clock the building was discovered by neighbors in a mass of flames. Two or three employees slept in the brewery and they barely had time to escape… The brewery itself was totally consumed together with a large amount of stock both in grain and beer.
 - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 31, 1879

Bad enough, but it could have been much worse. Until recently, the Horn and Schwalm families had been living above the brewery. But with the the business and its output growing, both families had moved to separate dwellings nearby. They had homes, but their brewery was gone.

The impact was devastating. The fire destroyed nearly $500,000 (in today’s money) worth of equipment, beer and property. Insurance covered half the loss. The Horn and Schwalm families bore the rest. But there was no compensating for the loss of future business.

The Brooklyn Brewery headed into the summer of 1879 without a product. Beer has always been a somewhat seasonal commodity, but that was especially so in the late 1800s. The brewery relied on brisk sales during the warm months to fund the winter brewing season of its cool-fermenting lager beer. In the summer of 1879, the Brooklyn Brewery had no beer to sell.

Instead of peddling beer, they went to work building a new brewery. By July it was taking shape. This one was nothing like the rustic, wooden brewery they had lost.

New Brewery Building 
The brewery of Horn & Schwalm on Doty street near the city limits, which was burned last winter, is being rebuilt on quite an extensive scale. The building is now up as far as the second story. It is of solid brick with massive stone foundation, and is being built as nearly fire proof as possible, all the rooms being arched in brick and with little wood about them. The main building is 45 by 60 feet, and will be three stories high, which, with the half underground basement, makes a building practically four stories high. All the modern improvements are being put into it, and when completed it will be the largest and finest brewery in the state outside Milwaukee. Later in the season immense ice houses and other additions will be built. The brewery will be in full operation in about a month.
 - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 15, 1879

Here’s a look at the completed brewery. The wooden structure with the cupola was the malt house. The brick brewery is to the right.

This was a brewery built to last. And it has. The malt house is gone, but brewhouse that was the core of the Brooklyn Brewery still stands. It’s the oldest intact brewery structure in Oshkosh. Here’s how it looks today.

Below the original brewhouse, you can still see the aging cellars with their “rooms being arched in brick.” Here’s a look.

This part of the Horn & Schwalm story ends well. The new Brooklyn Brewery soon surpassed its south side rival, the John Glatz & Son Brewery, to become the most productive brewery in the city. By the time Horn & Schwalm merged their operation with that of Glatz and Kuenzl to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1894, the Brooklyn Brewery had become Winnebago County’s leading brewery.


  1. So where is the address of the building?

    1. It's just south of 16th Ave between S. Main & Doty streets. The best view is from Doty, but you can also see it from S. Main.