Monday, August 21, 2017

The Night They Raided Oblio's

August 26, 1921. It was a Friday. The night began like a low comedy.

At 7:50 p.m., a pack of Prohibition officers arrived in Oshkosh. There were nine of them in all. Five were federal agents. The other four were state cops.

They came by train. There were supposed to be two cars waiting for them at the Chicago & Northwestern depot on Broad Street. There were no cars. The nine agents scurried into a thicket of trees behind the train station. Grown men hiding behind trees.

Chicago & Northwestern Depot with trees in the background.
Prohibition began in 1920. By 1921, Oshkosh’s cops were already notorious for their lax enforcement of the dry law. The feds didn’t trust them. They didn't include Oshkosh police in their plan for the evening’s raids. Now that plan was in jeopardy. The cars still hadn’t arrived. The nine agents huddled in the brush trying to figure out what to do next.

An Oshkosh patrolman had spotted them sneaking off into woods. Something was wrong here. From the train depot, he called for support. The Prohibition agents were still hiding when the back-up arrived. The Oshkosh cops shagged them out.

After the Prohibition agents had explained themselves, their cars finally arrived. Off they went. There was no time to lose. Word would quickly spread that they were in town.

Minutes later the agents arrived downtown. They headed directly for one of Oshkosh’s most conspicuous speakeasies. A Main Street cafe with a sardonic name. The Annex Thirst Parlor.

Before Prohibition, before it had transformed into the Annex Thirst Parlor, it was the Annex Sample Room. Today we know it as Oblio’s Lounge.

In 1921, Albert H. Steuck was running the place. Steuck was born in Oshkosh in 1872. In 1900, he took over the Schlitz Beer Hall on Main St. He was 28. He’d recently quit his job working for the streetcar in Milwaukee. He’d recently gotten married. He’d recently moved back home to Oshkosh.

Right away, Steuck changed the name of the place. The old Schlitz Beer Hall became the Annex Sample Room.

1903 Oshkosh City Directory.

Wine was fine, but his butter and bread were the mugs of Schlitz he sent sliding down the bar. Steuck attracted a boisterous crowd. Young “sports” who liked to gamble and drink. They’d hang around waiting for the boxing results Steuck would announce as they came in over the phone. They'd hang out the front door and hurl insults at people walking down Main Street.

"A.H. Steuck was called before the (saloon) committee and notified that young men who frequented his place were accustomed to passing remarks concerning people who passed, particularly the policemen.”
  - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 20, 1908.

Steuck was warned to rein it in. If he didn’t, they’d pull his license.

In 1920, he did lose his license. Same as every other saloon keeper in town. Prohibition was on. But nobody went dry. Steuck bought a license to sell soft drinks. The pretense was laughable.

A license to serve non-intoxicating "liquors" in Oshkosh issued to Al Steuck.

On that August night in 1921, they weren’t drinking soda at the Annex Thirst Parlor. They were having whiskey. And then the Prohibition agents barged in. Steuck didn’t even try to hide it. There was nothing he could do. They arrested Steuck. The raiders moved on.

The agents had split into two groups. They quickly spread across town going after bars either owned by or connected to breweries. Steuck’s place was owned by Schlitz Brewing Company.

A few blocks south on Main they arrested Fred Rahr. His saloon had been tied to the Rahr Brewing Company

Fred Rahr's saloon at the corner of Ceape and N. Main streets.

On the south side, they busted August Witzke. Witzke’s saloon was owned by the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

The Witzke Saloon at 1700 Oregon St.

At 17th and Iowa, they arrested August Ziebell. Ziebell was another one connected to the Rahr Brewing Company.

The saloon run by August Ziebell at 17th and Iowa. Now the TNT Tap.

The agents hit a dozen suspected speakeasies that night. Most of the raids came to nothing. It may have had something to do with the botched start and being outed by the Oshkosh police.

“In a number of instances, they found the saloons closed and dark. The officers expressed surprise this morning, inquiring since when do the saloons close at 9 o’clock in this city?”
  - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; August 29, 1921.

By midnight, everything was done. The following morning the agents delivered their liquid evidence to city hall for safe keeping.

The old Oshkosh City Hall at the northwest corner of Otter and State streets. 

They were met at city hall by Oshkosh Mayor Arthur C. McHenry. The mayor wasn’t happy. He lit into the raiders. “Mayor McHenry quite forcibly stated that the ‘city of Oshkosh’ was not in sympathy with prohibition enforcement,” The Northwestern reported. Welcome to Oshkosh.

Most of those swept up in the raids paid their fines ($200-300) and went on their way. Not Al Steuck. He decided to take his chances in court. At first, that strategy worked.

District courts, like the one in Oshkosh, were often lenient in their treatment of dry-law violators. Steuck took advantage of the situation. He initially appears to have walked away from the charges against him without being punished. Then the feds stepped in again.

A month after Steuck had been busted, a federal grand jury was convened to address the non-prosecution of Prohibition violations occurring in Wisconsin's district courts. Steuck’s name was on the list when the grand jury handed down its first set of indictments.

On October 31, 1921, federal agents arrived in Oshkosh and arrested Steuck again. This time, they took him to Milwaukee. Now he was in deep. Steuck was arraigned in federal court. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $1,000 bond.

There was no getting out of it this time. On November 15, Steuck changed his plea to guilty on all five counts against him. They threw the book at him. Rarely were first time violators given jail time. Steuck got three months in the house of corrections.

When he returned to Oshkosh in 1922, Steuck went back to the Annex Thirst Parlor. But things were never the same. Another violation would have put him away for years. He couldn’t chance it.

The Annex ground slowly to a halt. Steuck finally closed the doors in 1927. Steuck sold off the bar’s fixtures and moved on. A decade would pass before another bar went in what is now 432-434 N. Main Street.

In February 1928, the new Eagles Club opened on Washington Ave. Al Steuck became its first manager.

Oshkosh Eagle's Club brand cigar box, circa 1928.

Albert H. Steuck died in Oshkosh on December 4, 1947. He’s buried in Lake View Memorial Park.

1 comment:

  1. Cool story...history of Oshburg...the 'burg being lax on enforcement of Prohibition...who woulda thought...fits right in our history...gonna look up Steuck next time I'm out at the cemetary visiting mom and dad---Al Volp is 10 ft away from their graves...let us drink at his bar when we were 16.... in AA now ...