Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Wildcat on Wisconsin Street

Another long-lost Oshkosh brewery emerges from the swamp of Prohibition... This city was teeming with "wildcat" breweries during that terrible time (1920-1933) when brewing was illegal in the United States. Covert breweries were tucked away in every part of town, from the southside to the Nordheim.

This latest find was most definitely tucked. The photo below shows the area around Wisconsin Street as it approaches the Fox River. The little, red arrow on the right points to the spot where a wildcat brewery was making beer in the summer of 1930.

You couldn't ask for a better spot to put an illegal brewing operation. That part of Oshkosh was packed with factories, warehouses, and lumber yards. They were making everything from sausage to carpet over there. Plenty of noise. The air filled with an array of industrial stink to mask the odors of brewing. Lots of traffic and a passing stream of thirsty workers ready for a few beers when the shift ended.

Below is a map with an overview of the area. This is from 1949 but the details were much the same when the brewery was there. Again, the red arrow shows the location of the brewery.

The problem with this wildcat is that there's almost nothing known about the brewery itself. That's not too unusual with these places. They were secretive enterprises for good reason. What we do know comes from court reporting saying that the brewery was found to have “considerable apparatus” and that both beer and hard liquor were seized when it was raided by Prohibition agents in the summer of 1930.

Despite the scant specifics, there are some interesting “knowns” about this place and the people caught running it.

The head of the operation was Joseph Widzinski. He was born in Posen, Germany in 1903. His family was Polish. They left for America in 1904 after Posen instituted “Germanization” legislation to make life miserable for the Polish-speaking people living there.

Widzinski was two-years-old when the family arrived in Oshkosh. They settled on Graham Avenue in the "Volga" section of the old 12th Ward by the Congress Avenue Bridge. Many of the residents there spoke Russian. Widzinski grew up speaking Polish. He was schooled in Oshkosh and quit after the 8th grade. He got a job as a delivery boy for a butcher shop.

Widzinski was 27 when he went behind the bar at what was then 59 Wisconsin Avenue. There had been a saloon at that site since at least 1893. When Prohibition hit, it became a soft drink parlor, but in name only. It was actually a speakeasy that had been busted by the Feds for selling booze in 1923. Prior to Widzinski getting there in 1930, he was working for a butcher shop across the street from the bar. It appears this was to be his first go-round in the bootleg beer business.

Widzinski hired a bartender who had a bit more experience. Henry Troxell had previously run a roadhouse just south of Oshkosh where he was almost certainly dealing in alcohol. He had been arrested for drunk driving after leaving there one night in 1929. But neither Widzinski nor Troxell had any experience making beer on a commercial scale. The guy who owned their building sure did.

Widzinski's landlord was Carl Rahr, the head brewer for the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh. The Rahr family bought the Wisconsin Street property in 1906 and held the saloon as a tied house until Prohibition shut their brewery down. Now Carl Rahr was using his brewery to make root beer and things of that ilk.

But the Rahr's still owned the saloons that had been tied to the family brewery. Aside from the Widzinski brewery, there are at least four other instances of Rahr properties in Oshkosh being hit with liquor violations during the dry years. The Rahr family was never implicated in any of the busts, but it's hard to believe they were unaware of what their tenants were up to.

On January 23, 1931, Joseph Widzinski and Henry Troxell were taken to Milwaukee where they had the book thrown at them. Widzinski was given a six-month jail sentence and fined $300 (about $4,500 in today's money). Troxell got 60 days in jail. Severe penalties for first-time offenders. The punishment suggests their brewing operation was substantial.

After getting out of jail, Widzinski and Troxell parted company. Troxell took over the property at 59 Wisconsin and re-named it The Avenue Buffett. It became a legal bar again after Prohibition ended in 1933. In its final years, it was the Titan Tap. The property was purchased by the University of Wisconsin in 1967 and torn down shortly thereafter. It's now a parking lot for the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.

Widzinski's jail time didn’t put him off the bar business. In 1934, he opened the Badger Tavern across the street from where he'd had his brewery.
Joseph Widzinski's Badger Tavern

That too is now gone. Towards the end of its run in the 1990s it was The Library and then Rosie's Bar. Here's how it looked in 1998.

Widzinski’s former tavern with the blue and white exterior facing Wisconsin Street.

That part of Oshkosh has been cleaned up and cleared out. It might look a little nicer, but it's not half as much fun.

A red dot at the location of the former brewery.

Thursday, May 23, 2019


Here we have a set of 1940s/1950s foam scrapers for leveling off the head on a glass of draft beer. These were given away by the Oshkosh Brewing Company to taverns serving Chief Oshkosh. These aren’t much called for anymore. Most places now pour a thin head. It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine...

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Prequel to Mabel Murphy’s

Mabel Murphy's was leveled by fire in the early morning hours of May 7, 2019. In the days that followed, there was an abundance of reporting on the destruction of this popular Oshkosh tavern. A couple of things in those reports struck me.

First was the sense of attachment people had to Mabel’s. It was a theme running through several of the stories about the fire. Oddly, that made me feel somewhat better about it all. I like that we live in a city where people still think taverns are important.

What also stood out were the comments on the historical relevance of Mabel’s. One of the people interviewed by Fox 11 News said, “I don’t know the actual age or anything, but it’s been here as long as I have and I grew up here. It is part of our history here in Oshkosh."

That summed it up nicely. Without knowing the specifics, people here seemed to have an intuitive sense that Mabel’s represented an important part of Oshkosh’s cultural history. And that intuition is dead right.

Mabel Murphy's
City of Oshkosh property records show that the building that housed Mabel Murphy's was built in 1856. But when it comes to construction dates, those records are notoriously inaccurate and I doubt that this one is correct. The 1856 date doesn’t correlate with what appears in Oshkosh directories or with maps of the city issued in the ensuing years.

Detail of an 1858 Oshkosh map. The yellow dot is at the northwest corner of Main and Irving.

And then there’s Albert Ruger's drawing from 1867. Ruger's sketch of Oshkosh includes the intersection of Main and Irving streets. The lot where Mabel's stood is shown as vacant.

Detail of Ruger’s 1867 drawing. The red dot is at the northwest corner of Main and Irving.

What is certain is that from 1856 to 1884, the property at the northwest corner of Main and Irving passed through the hands of more than a dozen owners. None of them either worked or lived at that location. The most noteworthy of those people was Byrd Parker.

Parker was a black man, originally from North Carolina, who came to Oshkosh in 1855 from Chicago. While living here, he became regionally famous for his fiery lectures on civil rights. Parker toured throughout the Wisconsin frontier arguing for black suffrage. Back home in Oshkosh, he led a quieter life.

Parker purchased the Mabel's property on August 9, 1856. For Parker, it appears to have been an investment property. At the time, he was running the Oshkosh City Lunch, an "Eating Saloon" on Main Street near High Ave.

Byrd Parker's Oshkosh City Lunch; Oshkosh Courier February 20, 1856.

Parker sold the Mabel's property in 1859 for a mere $350 (about $11,000 in today's money), which may further support the argument that the parcel had yet to be built upon.

What came to be Mabel's begins coming into focus in 1884. The property had been sold once again, this time to an Oshkosh butcher named Edward Mittelstaedt. It's around this time that the building we all knew as Mabel's was constructed. An 1885 insurance map presents a recognizable outline of the structure at what was then 377 Main Street.

1885 Fire Insurance Map with the new building at 377 Main.

The first business listing there was for a grocery store and broom shop run by a man named Carlos Woodward. That didn't last. Within a couple of years, the Mabel's space was vacant again. And then came Albert Thom and his sons.

Albert Thom

Albert Thom was born in Bernsdorf, Germany in 1839. In 1868, he and his wife, Johanna, and their five-year-old son Reinhold moved to America. They landed in New York and went to straight to Oshkosh, eventually settling in at a home that still stands at 928 Waugoo.

928 Waugoo Avenue.

Albert Thom spent most of the next 20 years working in the sash and door plant at Gould Manufacturing. He quit that in 1887 to go into business with his sons Reinhold and Emil. The Thom's opened a grocery store and saloon at the southwest corner of Main and Irving in a building that has changed much over the years and now houses Calhoun Beach Club. In 1880s Oshkosh, the tandem of saloon and grocery was a common arrangement. It's one that the Thom family would work until the turn of the century.

1889 Oshkosh City Directory.

The Thoms had hardly gotten started before they were eyeing up the newer place across the street. On March 19, 1890, Reinhold and Emil Thom purchased the building that would later become Mabel Murphy's. They paid $3,200 for it, or about $91,100 in today's money, and nearly all of that was borrowed. Their new location mirrored the old one.

The shingle they put above the front door read A. Thom and Son. The Main Street facing portion of the building was where the grocery resided. Albert took care of that. Meanwhile, 27-year-old Reinhold and 21-year-old Emil were in back slinging lager beer. You could visit them there by slipping in the back entrance.

The Thom's Grocery and Saloon, circa 1891. The hanging, corner sign reads Lager Beer.

The saloon did a bustling business. Emil had to run it on his own for much of 1898 and 1899 while Reinhold was away panning for gold in the Klondike. But that didn't pan out and after Reinhold returned they went full in on the saloon. By 1900, father Albert and the grocery business were retired.

Reinhold and Emil were now proprietors of what they advertised as "A first-class bar of wines, liquors and cigars." The cigars were in easy reach. Upstairs was a factory churning them out. It was run by John Wichmann, a veteran Oshkosh cigar maker. Wichmann had started rolling tobacco up there in 1895 and by the turn of the century his 5-cent cigars were being sold in saloons all over Oshkosh. His specialty was something called the "Long Wick."

A 1901 ad for Wichmann’s “Long Wick” Cigar.

Beer, on the other hand, was turning into something of a problem. The Thoms had hooked up early on with the Oshkosh Brewing Company. By 1900, Oshkosh's largest brewery had come to so dominate beer sales in the city that it was able to set the price on beer sold into saloons. That wasn't sitting well with saloon keepers. The brewery kept raising the price on beer forcing saloon keepers to eat the additional cost. Oshkosh's unyielding tradition of nickel beer left them little recourse.

A saloon token good for a nickel beer at Reinhold Thom’s saloon.

The Thoms revolted. In 1902, Emil sold his stake in the saloon to Reinhold and went to work for Schlitz Brewing. He became the brewery's Oshkosh bottler and distribution agent. Reinhold also signed on with Schlitz. He turned the saloon into a Schlitz tied house. That meant that if you went to the Thom stand and ordered a beer you were going get Schlitz. That was all they had. And if you ordered a bottle of beer you would have been handed this...

The association with Schlitz proved no more satisfactory than the one they’d had with the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Emil quit Schlitz around 1905. Reinhold was soon moving in the same direction while trying to cook up a defense against the big-brewery influence that vexed saloon men like himself.

Reinhold helped to assemble a group of Oshkosh saloon keepers looking to launch a jointly-owned brewery. One that would treat its clients more equitably. Reinhold was named treasurer and appointed to the board of directors of the firm. Initially, they called it Peoples Independent Brewing. They later shortened that to Peoples Brewing. It took a few years to come to fruition, but in 1913 they began making beer on South Main Street. Thom’s saloon was among the first in Oshkosh to put Peoples beer on tap.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern June 21, 1913.

It was a heady time for Reinhold Thom. At the start of 1914, he was 50 years old and running one of the more successful bars in Oshkosh. At the same time, he was helping to direct a brewery that was growing rapidly and breaking the stranglehold the Oshkosh Brewing Company had put on the city's saloonkeepers.

The darker building is Reinhold Thom's saloon, circa 1914.
The sign on the side of the building advertises James E. Pepper whiskey.

But there was a shadow being cast over Thom's success. As the decade wore on, the unthinkable became the inevitable. When national Prohibition went into effect in 1920 it put an end to Reinhold Thom's 30-year career as a barman in Oshkosh. He was 57 years old and out of a job. He was also an outlier. Most Oshkosh saloonkeepers immediately turned their bars into speakeasies when Prohibition came. Reinhold Thom didn't.

The old, lager beer saloon was taken out. Reinhold's younger brother Albert moved in. What he put there had nothing to do with what had been there. The name Albert gave the new business seemed concocted to emphasize that point. It was called The Modern Sanitary Bakery.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, February 17, 1920.

It wasn't all white aprons and cakes. Upstairs, they were still rolling cigars. But that ended, too, at the end of the 1920s. The bakery had more staying power. It continued on under a series of different shop keepers until 1939. That's the year that Eddie Kollross rolled in.

Edward L. Kollross had come up the hard way on the south side of Oshkosh. Born in 1898 to disabled, immigrant parents he had gone to work early to help support the family. By the time he was 17, he was running a taxi service with his older brother William. He'd served a brief stint in the Army, but by 1920 he was back in Oshkosh and out of work. So, he went into bootlegging.

Through much of the 1920s, Kollross ran a southside soft drink parlor owned by his sister Mary. The soda was just a front. The place was in actuality a speakeasy with a wildcat brewery in the barn behind it. Kollross didn't make it through the dry decade unblemished. He was arrested for selling alcohol in 1927 and again in 1928. But neither fines nor jail time persuaded him to abandon the "soft drinks" business. He kept right on at it.

After Prohibition ended, Kollross opened a roadhouse bar just west of Oshkosh where he was arrested a couple more times on charges of running a gambling house. By the end of the 1930s, he seems to have decided to clean up his act. He split from his wife and opened Eddie's Tavern in the former bakery at Main and Irving.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; June 29, 1940.

Reinhold Thom still owned the building, but there was nothing left of the saloon he'd once had there. Kollross turned it into a bar and restaurant serving everything from fried chicken to frog legs. The restaurant side would come to be emphasized. By the time Kollross purchased the building in March 1946, Eddie's was known more for its food than its drinks. A month after he had bought it, Kollross sold the building to Irving Wussow, a longtime tavern owner in the area. Wussow continued the trend and turned it into a steak house.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; December 22, 1961.

Beginning in 1946, what is now 701 N. Main Street would remain primarily a restaurant for almost 30 years. Wussow's Steak House gave way, briefly, in 1966 to Red's Korner Lounge, which became the Blue Lantern and then Red Lantern pizza restaurants.

In 1974 it became Mabel Murphy's. Today, 45 years later, all that's left is a charred pit surrounded by chain-link fencing. It's an ugly scar where a place full of life once stood. But this won't stay, either.

Oshkoshers have a long history of being inspired by fire to rebuild something better in place of what was lost. Let's hope that can happen with Mabel's. If not, there's still the history and memories of this place. A fire can't take that.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Oshkosh Cock Fight, 1878

This isn't directly related to beer in Oshkosh, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't at least some (and probably quite a bit of) beer involved in this mess. What we have here is a little “news” from the old, weird Oshkosh. 

“Quite an exciting cock fight took place at Mehlmann's cigar factory on Waugoo street this afternoon. A workman in Mehlmann’s shop was the owner of a fighting cock, ditto one of the workmen in Neumann’s cigar factory. They concluded to match their fighting poultry, the one whose rooster should whip to become owner of the vanquished fowl. The Mehlmann rooster came out victorious after a fight of nearly an hour. One of the bosses held the water and sponge and a tobacco agent from Milwaukee was the referee.” 
   - July 28, 1878, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern

By the way, the Mehlmann and Neumann cigar factories were near the southwest corner of Waugoo and State streets. It looked a little different back then. Here it is today...

Monday, May 6, 2019

An Illustrated History of the Oshkosh House Saloon and Hotel

Here was the scene in the 1890s on the north side of Ceape Avenue just east of State Street.

The wooden building was Edward Luhm's Oshkosh House Hotel and Saloon. It stood across the street from the current Oshkosh Convention Center. Luhm's place has long since been erased. There's nothing but parking lots there now....

That barren asphalt was once part of a roaring neighborhood crowded with saloons, cigar factories, and manufacturing plants. A railroad cut through it running down the middle of Ceape. In the midst of it all was the Oshkosh House...

A German language ad for the Oshkosh House in the Wisconsin Telegraph, October 10, 1884.

The roots of the Oshkosh House stretch back to May 1869 when a German immigrant named Anton Marheine bought the lot next door to Albert Sanford's blacksmith shop near the corner of Ceape and Shonaon (now State Street). Marheine was a Civil War vet and musician looking to get into the saloon business. He partnered with another German immigrant named August Brex and together they launched a beer hall on the property. The creatively named Marheine and Brex Saloon was born. It became one of more than 40 saloons then doing business in Oshkosh, population 12,000. This has always been a thirsty place.

From the 1869 Oshkosh City Directory.

Among the first things Marheine and Brex did was borrow a stack of cash (about $6,000 worth in today's money) from George Loescher, owner of the Oshkosh Brewery on what is now Bay Shore Drive. The money they took from Loescher is a good indication that Loescher's beer was the only kind you'd get at the Marheine and Brex stand. That's typically how these deals worked. And if that’s the case, this would have been among the earliest of tied houses in Oshkosh. In any case, the place was short lived.

Marheine and Brex were barely a year into their partnership when Marheine bailed out and sold the saloon to yet another German immigrant named Edward Luhm. Luhm and his new bride from Beaver Dam, Magdalena, took up residence at the saloon and proceeded to sell beer and have babies. They let out the remaining space to boarders.

The Ritz this was not. And it was not yet known as the Oshkosh House. There was, however, a small hotel then on South Main named the Oshkosh House. The Oshkosh House on Ceape wouldn't be born until a few years later after Luhm's Saloon had burned to the ground. Oshkoshers always seemed to be inspired by fire.

The fifth of Oshkosh's five great fires occurred on April 28, 1875. It ran from the Fox River, crossed over Main and tore east going all the way to Bowen. It took most everything in its path, including the Luhm's Saloon.

Path of the 1875 fire.

The Luhm's rebuilt and then expanded adding a proper hotel and dining room to go along with their beer hall. About 1883 they began calling it The Oshkosh House. Let's look again at that 1890s photo of the place.

The saloon was the portion on the left with the broad windows facing Ceape. The hotel expansion is at the right with a balcony on the second floor. Inside were bachelor flats. There was room for about 20 guests. Most of them were German immigrants who worked nearby. Cigar makers, bookbinders, blacksmiths, tanners, woodworkers... One of the boarders was Charles Maulick who would go on to launch what we know today as Oblio's Lounge. Room and board was $3.50 a week (about $90 in today's money).

From the 1884 Oshkosh City Directory.

The "commodious Barn" was for guests with horses, which were kept behind the hotel. This next image is from 1888 and shows the Oshkosh House stable. Today, it's hard to imagine that scenes like this were once common along Ceape...

Up next we have an 1885 map that presents a good overview of the entire layout of the Oshkosh House Hotel and Saloon. Notice the pig pen at the back of the lot. A little country comfort, right there in the middle of the city.

The Oshkosh House in 1885 at 29-33 Ceape.

Luhm's Oshkosh House also played host to its share of disorder over the years: The odd death of a mysterious stranger, the gassing of a guest, attempted suicide by laundry detergent, brawls... Typical stuff in rowdy Oshkosh back in the day. The Luhm's took it all in stride. Up to a point.

When fellow German expat William Streich began casting aspersions about the goings on at the Oshkosh House and the character of Missus Luhm, Magdalena and her brother – the cigar-making alderman Michael Goettmann – visited the Streich home and vigorously abused its occupants. The Daily Northwestern reported that the "matter caused a great sensation." Streich later sued Magdalena for $5,000 for the "permanent injuries" she inflicted upon his wife.

It wasn't all fun. In the fall of 1891, Edward Luhm was stricken with dropsy. His doctor treated him by draining several gallons of water from Luhm's body. That worked about as well as you might expect. Luhm died two days later on September 6, 1891. He was just 49 years old. Edward Luhm left a 39-year-old widow and three children.

Magdalena Luhm carried on. She became one of just a few women to run an Oshkosh saloon in the 1800s. She didn't always let on that she was in charge of the place. Here's an ad from 1902, published 11 years after her husband had died.

Magdalena Luhm sold the Oshkosh House in 1905. The new owner was John Hilt, one of the former bartenders there. Hilt was born on the North Atlantic Ocean in 1849 while his parents were in transit from their German homeland to a new life in the new world. After reaching adulthood, he worked as a farmer in Calumet County. Hilt gave that life up at the turn of the century and by 1903 was living in Oshkosh and tending bar at the Oshkosh House Saloon.

In the beginning, things appear to have gone quite well for Hilt at the Oshkosh House. So well, in fact, that sometime around 1912, he was able to entirely rebuild the place. The old, wooden hotel was picked up and moved to make way for something more modern. The next image shows the Oshkosh House being moved. Notice the signs on the saloon portion of the building. They’re hard to make out, but they appear to say Rahr Beer.

Hilt's new place was up to date and built and cast brick. Here's a picture of it from 1977...

Hilt stuck plenty into the construction of the new Oshkosh House, about $300,000 in today's money, and wound up with a hotel that probably wasn't worth the expense. This wasn't the kind of neighborhood that was going to attract travelers looking for a nice place to stay. The Oshkosh House was practically surrounded by smoke-belching manufacturing mills. Here's the look of the area from a couple of doors down at Ceape and Court streets, circa 1917.

Things went downhill for Hilt after he built the new place. In 1916 his wife died and shortly after Hilt put the Oshkosh House up for sale. He couldn't find a buyer. Then in 1920, Prohibition arrived and killed off his saloon business. Hilt made a go of it, but not for long. He died in early December 1922.

The Oshkosh House lingered on under a series of new owners, but the saloon that had started it all didn't return even after Prohibition ended in 1933. Beginning in the 1960s, the neighborhood lost most of its manufacturing plants and that stretch along Ceape went into a long, slow decline. The Oshkosh House turned into a flop house. One-by-one, the buildings around it met the wrecking ball. The Oshkosh House got its turn after the City of Oshkosh condemned the property in 1982.

Here's how it looked near the very end in 1981. Notice the abutting, white, wood-frame building with the two gables. It looks suspiciously similar to the hotel portion of the old Oshkosh House that Luhm built after the 1875 fire.

Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.
Ed Luhm was dead 90 years when that picture was taken. He and Magdalena are at rest in Riverside Cemetery.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Beer History Tuesday at Oblio's

This Tuesday, May 5, I'll be talking about our local beer history as seen through the lens of Oblio's Lounge. What is now Oblio's has been playing a central role in the beer scene here since 1885. 

The talk gets started at 6 p.m. at Oblio's and is on behalf of the Winnebago County Historical and Archaeological Society. You can check out the Facebook event page here. Hope to see you there.