Monday, July 29, 2019

When Tuff Brewed Peoples

His full name was George Alton Boeder. Nobody called him that. They called him Tuffy. Or just Tuff.

George "Tuff" Boeder.

Tuff Boeder was born in Oshkosh on January 15, 1914. He was second-generation American. His grandfather Friedrich Böder had come to the U.S. in 1880 from Pommern, which was then a province of Germany. Tuff lived all his life in Oshkosh. He grew up in a modest home on the east side of town, at what is now 1003 School Avenue. His boyhood home still stands.

1003 School Avenue. Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

His father, Paul Boeder, was already working in the beer business when Tuff was born. Paul had started as a bookkeeper at the Schlitz distribution house on Division Street in Oshkosh in 1911. At that time, Schlitz was trying to claw its way back to prominence in the Oshkosh market. The brewery had struggled here for much of the previous decade thanks, in large part, to the rising fortunes of the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 29, 1912

That campaign had little success here. Schlitz finally gave up on Oshkosh and closed its branch here in 1918. Paul Boeder found a new job on the southside keeping the books for Peoples Brewing. He was there when Prohibition hit in 1920. The brewery quit making beer and started selling soda, fruit juice, near beer, malt tonics…

Prohibition ended in 1933. Peoples Brewing immediately went back to making real beer. Paul Boeder got Tuff a job there in 1936. Tuff married Ruth Pratsch that same year. He was 22 then. He’d come of age during the Great Depression when work in Oshkosh was hard to find. This was his first real job. He started out at Peoples putting labels on bottles.

“A lot was done by hand back then,” Tuff said. “We had to label each bottle separately. If we did 30 barrels a day that was a lot.”

Tuff moved up the ranks. In the early 1940s he began working as a route driver delivering Würtzer Beer and Old Derby Ale to local taverns and beer depots. He made $34 a week. Most of his stops were in and around town. Peoples had little need for wider distribution. The brewery was already growing at a good clip. Between 1943 and 1953 sales increased by 200 percent. “The taverns in Oshkosh wouldn’t buy that Milwaukee beer as long as Oshkosh had its own breweries,” Tuff said.

About 1951, Tuff moved back into the brewery. He went to work in the bottling department. Now he was making almost $55 for a 40-hour week. The days of hand labeling bottles were over. It had been automated. On a good day, that line could put out 50,000 bottles of beer.

In 1953, Tuff moved over to the brewhouse and began working as a brewer. He and Wilhelm Kohlhoff became the two principal brewers at Peoples. Kohlhoff had just started at the brewery. He was from Pommern, Germany; like Tuff’s family. The two of them became fast friends.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff

The brewmaster then was Dale Schoenrock. He had been with Peoples since 1940. Schoenrock was all business when it came to making beer.

"I’d get to work at three in the morning and start heating up the mash tub," Tuff said. "The temperature was critical. If the brewmaster said 56.5 degrees Celsius, he didn’t mean 56 or 57."

Dale Schoenrock

In 1956, Tuff was named Assistant Brewmaster. The work wasn't much different, but the pay was better. By 1957, he was making $73.40 a week. Tuff and Kohlhoff worked in shifts, turning out two or three batches of beer a day. The brewery was producing over 30,000 barrels of lager beer a year at this point.

"We used gravity to move the beer," Tuff said. "There were four floors. When it hit bottom it was done." At least Tuff's part was done. From there it went to the beer cellars for fermentation. "The brew would ferment for eight or nine days," he said. "It’s really going strong on day two. As it ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide gas and we’d collect and store this gas in huge tanks. Later on, this gas goes back into the beer (to carbonate it)."

Peoples had its own powerhouse and Tuff always worried that the massive steam generator would give out while he was brewing. It happened more than once. He had to "baby" those batches to completion. "If you lost your steam you could lose a brew," Tuff said. “That’s $5,000 down the drain. I never ruined a brew as long as I worked there."

Tuff told an incredible story that I can't verify. He said there was a period (presumably in the 1950s) when the Stroh Brewery of Detroit was making beer at Peoples. "They were having all kinds of trouble with their equipment, so we brewed it for them," Tuff said. "There were semis here, one right after the other picking up the beer. They gave us a recipe so we could match the flavor, but it wasn’t THE recipe. That’s always a secret."

There has to be more to this. When Tuff was brewing at Peoples, the Stroh Brewery was selling far more beer than Peoples was capable of making. By 1957 Stroh's annual output was 2.7 million barrels. The capacity of the Peoples brewery was well under 100,000 barrels annually. That said, the Stroh Brewery was shut down for 45-days by a strike in 1958. Perhaps Tuff’s recollections are in some way connected to that event. That’s just speculation, though.

Tuff worked in the brewhouse until the very end, 1972, when Peoples went bankrupt and closed. Theodore Mack was running Peoples then. Mack had come from Milwaukee where he had worked at Pabst. Tuff said that Mack offered to help him get a job at Pabst after Peoples shut down. Tuff didn’t want it. He didn’t want to move to Milwaukee. “I was getting too old,” he said. “Too close to retirement.”

Tuff had 36 years in at Peoples when the brewery failed. He wasn’t happy about it ending the way it did. “Ted Mack didn’t buy Peoples,” Tuff said. “Pabst did.” You can understand his disappointment, but there is no truth to that statement.

After he lost his job at Peoples, Tuff worked for a couple of years as a woodworker at Quality Builders. After he retired, he did a lot of fishing on the Fox River. He used hand-tied streamer flies and had a regular spot he liked that was near his home on School Avenue.

George “Tuff” Boeder passed away in that home on June 16, 1983. He was 69 years old.

A note on the quotes: They were sourced from an article published in the April 17,1980 Advance-Titan; the UW-Oshkosh student newspaper. The piece, ostensibly about Oshkosh brewing history, is riddled with factual errors. The article’s value is derived from the quotations it contains of former Oshkosh brewery workers. My aim here was to frame the Boeder quotes within a more fitting context. 

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