Monday, July 16, 2018

Lost on Ceape

Forget Sawdust City, they should have called it Saloon City. From the jump, Oshkosh was crowded with beer joints. There have been hundreds of them. They all have their stories. Do a little poking around into any of the old places and all sorts of peculiar stuff comes oozing out.

On the north side of Ceape Avenue between Court and State, was a forgotten place that used to burst with local color. You’d never guess it was once so. What’s there now is nothing. It’s a parking lot. The red rectangle shows the location...

That lot was home to a series of saloons. The first of them was run by a Canadian expat named George Condie. He began slinging beer around there in the late 1860s. Condie lived at the saloon with his wife, Wilhelmine, and their four kids. They seemed to do okay. In 1874, Condie bought the bigger building next door and moved his saloon in there.

A. Ruger's 1867 Bird's Eye View of Oshkosh. The red dot is at the doorstep of Condie's Saloon

Condie's new saloon got burned out six months after he moved into it. The fifth and worst of Oshkosh's great fires ripped through the city on the windy Wednesday of April 28, 1875. The fire started at the Morgan Brothers mill on the Fox River. From there it ran east in a quarter-mile-wide column all the way to Bowen. Almost everything between Ceape and Washington was torched. Condie's Saloon was leveled.

The path of the 1875 fire.

The aftermath of the 1875 fire.

Condie rebuilt. Bigger and better. The new place was brick, two-stories with the saloon below and rooms above. It cost them $4,000. I've been hunting for a picture of the full building and haven't found a thing. That's not too surprising. Condie's saloon was not the sort of place that would have attracted photographers. In the 1870s, this was a gritty part of town. That stretch of Ceape was lined with cigar factories, saloons, and mills. Lots of smoke. Muddy streets decked with horse shit and plenty of drunks.

The rotten ambiance may have gotten the best of the Condies. George and Wilhelmine could not get along. George appears to have been something of a layabout. Wilhelmine was anything but. Born in Prussia in 1829, she was eight years older than her husband. Wilhelmine was independent. She sometimes used her maiden name - Gustavus. She had an outside job running the saloon at the International Hotel on 7th and South Main. Their marriage seems to have been on the skids even before the great fire. The relationship came permanently undone in the spring of 1877. The Daily Northwestern made a comedy of it.

There was a husky time in Justice Sarau's office in the afternoon. It seems that Mrs. Gustavus, who runs the International Hotel, had a falling out with her husband, Geo. Condie, and bounced him out of the house. George took possession of the horse, and the present case was brought on by a replevin sworn out for the return of the animal. Mrs. G. was exceedingly wrathy, and she applied to her liege lord and master all the invectives and scathing epithets that the female tongue is heir to — and it is sometimes a million-heir in such cases.
    - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 17, 1877

Wilhelmine meant business. For the next four months, she ran notices like this one in the Daily Northwestern.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 16, 1877.

The divorce of George and Wilhelmine Condie was finalized in 1879. Wilhelmine got the saloon. She and her daughter Amelia ran it through the remainder of the 1870s and into the 1880s. It was one of the few times before the turn of the century that an Oshkosh saloon was owned and operated by women. They presented it as a contrast to the crude barrelhouses commonplace in Oshkosh's old Second Ward.

An ad from the 1880 Oshkosh City Directory showing the old address.

It was all good until the winter of 1883. Around Christmastime, Wilhelmine became ill. She had cancer. She transferred ownership of the property to her children in April 1884 and died a month later in her room above the saloon. Wilhelmine Gustavus was 55 years old.

Her kids held onto the saloon, but now someone else was running it.

Wisconsin Telegraph, October 10, 1884.

Charles Maulick was a 26-year-old German immigrant with no prior saloon experience. He'd been working at an Oshkosh tannery before settling in on Ceape. He changed the name of the bar to Mechanic's Home, an homage of sorts to the laborers, often referred to as mechanics, working in the neighborhood. At the same time, Maulick maintained the upscale burnish. The Wisconsin Telegraph advert says something like, “The house is completely new and comfortable in the center of the city and offers all the modern conveniences.”

Maulick remained less than a year. He left in the Spring of 1885 for a new building on North Main Street designed by Oshkosh architect William Waters. Maulick, with the help of Schlitz Brewing, would create something of a minor empire based on beer there. Today we know that place as Oblio's Lounge.

After Maulick, the saloon at what was then 47 Ceape went through a couple proprietors and a couple years of flux. The upscale aspirations were discarded. There was no sense denying that this place, in the heart of an industrial district, was not much of a lure for free-spending business travelers. The furnished rooms above were converted into a cigar factory. An 1885 insurance map shows the saloon boxed in by large-scale manufacturing facilities. The red arrow points the way in...

Wilhelmine Gustavus' children decided to cash out. In July 1887, the saloon was sold to an Irish Immigrant named John O'Brien.

O'Brien arrived in Oshkosh in the early 1860s when he was in his 20s. He spent the next couple decades working as a drayman trucking freight around town on a horse-drawn wagon. He was 50-years old when he bought out the Gustavus family. John O'Brein's Saloon was a workingman's bar through and through. A train spur ran right past its front door. And contraptions like this one boomed and blew smoke next door...

In that image, you can see the east side of O'Brien's Saloon with an indecipherable beer sign hung on the corner of his brick building. The picture is from the early 1890s. No doubt, we're seeing a number of  O'Brien's clientele standing there.

John O'Brien's son Edward was 11 when the family moved in above the saloon. When he came of age, Edward began working the bar and when John O'Brien died in 1909, Edward took over. Shortly after, he was approached by the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC).

In 1909, OBC had a stranglehold on the beer business in Oshkosh. Its dominance was built on deals the brewery made with local saloonkeepers. In the case of the O'Brien Saloon, OBC proffered a series of low-interest loans. In return, "the occupant of the first story of the building upon said premises shall use exclusively the beer of the Oshkosh Brewing Co. for the purpose of running the saloon therein." The O'Brien saloon was now tied to OBC.

Signs like this one were often displayed in Oshkosh Brewing Company tied houses during this period.

When Prohibition arrived in1920, it killed the saloon George Condie had built. In the end, it was being run by a man named Bert Gough, who had a long and wonderfully odd career as a saloon man in Oshkosh. When Prohibition hit, Gough moved a couple doors east and opened a speakeasy in a place some may recall as the Court Tavern. Meanwhile, the old saloon at 47 Ceape was swallowed up and gutted by its neighbor, the Universal Motor Company. Later on, beginning in the 1940s, it became a soda bottling plant. By then Wilhelmine Gustavus had been in the ground for 50 years. It's all long gone.


  1. Welcome back! The steam powered contraption has a circle saw on the front that could be lowered to ground position. Probably used to cut firewood from sawmill slabs would be my guess. OSHA inspectors would literally wear out pencils writing up the report on this machine.

  2. Dad's Root Beer & Ace Bottling plant......Pappy Schroeder ran the Court Tavern for years.

  3. In the 1960s, I was told to avoid the stretch of ceape between court and n. Main. As I recall, it had a bit of skid row ambiance going for it.

    1. From what I could tell during the research of this, that ambiance went back a long, long way!