Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Wildcat On High

There once was a brewery on High Avenue. It was a secret brewery. An illegal brewery. It was there during Prohibition when Oshkosh had a flock of bootleg brew houses like the one at the southeast corner of High and Division streets.

The southeast corner of High and Division streets, November 2019.

The brewery is just a small part of the story of this place. That corner was once full of life. Its peculiar history dates back to the early 1870s.

The Fowler House Hotel
In the summer of 1870, an English-born cobbler named Edwin Fowler bought the property at the corner of what was then High and Light streets. In 1876, Fowler put up a building there that would stand for the next 110 years. It was a two-story, wooden structure encased in brick with a roof made of tin and iron. The image below is from the late 1940s. The exterior of Fowler's old building hadn't changed all that much in the intervening years.

Circa 1948.

For more than 70 years, that was known as the Fowler House Hotel. Its first keeper was William Perrin, an English immigrant who came to Oshkosh in 1850. Perrin worked in a sawmill before he went into the hospitality business as a steward on a steamboat. In the early 1860s, he went ashore to become a hotelier. He ran at least three other hotels in Oshkosh prior to opening the Fowler House on June 15, 1876. Perrin was the guy who built the template the Fowler House would follow for decades to come.

This was not the Athearn. The Fowler House was among the cheapest hotels in Oshkosh. A room could be had for a dollar a night; about $25 in today's money. With rates that low, Perrin had to sell more than just lodging to make a buck. The hotel's profit center was the saloon that squatted in the street-corner portion of the first floor.

The Fowler House became popular with what the Daily Northwestern referred to as "the country people." That meant farmers coming to Oshkosh to sell their hay, produce, and livestock; or just to get the hell off the farm and live it up for a little while in the wicked city. The Fowler House and the Commercial Hotel, located directly across Light Street (now Division), were twin beacons for these folks.

The Lay of the Land

That busy photo above was taken from behind the Commercial Hotel looking east towards the back of the Fowler House. The yellow circles halo Oshkosh Brewing Company beer signs. They hang from both the Commercial Hotel, in the foreground, and the Fowler House in the background. Immediately to the right of the Fowler House is an attached house that served as the hotel's kitchen. At the extreme right is a portion of the Fowler House barn where guests stabled their horses.

The map below is from 1889. It details the layout of the neighborhood surrounding the Fowler House.

The 1889 map also shows the expansion that took place at the Fowler House. By this time there were two-buildings: the original hotel at 67-69 High and the addition to it at 61-65 High. They were connected by a passageway that provided access to the 25 rooms on the second floor of the 61-65 High address. Just to the east at 57 High is now The Reptile Palace bar.

A Canadian from Michigan
William Perrin quit the Fowler House in 1894. The hotel closed a couple of years later. In 1897, while the building sat vacant, two fires almost demolished the place. Both fires were thought to have been set by arsonists. The second fire, in the wee hours of October 27, 1897, left three firefighters injured and the building nearly gutted.

The Fowler House was quickly repaired and was back in business the following year. Over the next few years, a series of keepers shuffled through until William Crook arrived in 1906. Crook’s tenure coincided with the hotel's most colorful period.

William J. Crook was born in Canada in 1863. But most of his early life was spent in and around Manistee, Michigan. He’d started working in the sawmills there while still in his teens. Crook appears to have become familiar with Oshkosh in the 1890s. If he was coming here to look for a wife, he’d come to the right place. In 1896, the 33-year-old Crook married a 24-year-old Oshkosh woman named Louisa Hakbarth. Bill and Lizzie moved to Seattle after their marriage, but by 1905 they had returned to Oshkosh.

Crook took a job running a ramshackle saloon at the tip of the v-shaped intersection of Jackson and Light (now Division) streets. The place was surrounded by industry. It had formerly been the city market where local farmers sold their goods.

The City Market before it became Crook’s Saloon.

Crook stayed there for just a year. He took a lease on the Fowler House in November of 1906. His first 13 years at the hotel were relatively serene. Crook mimicked Perrin’s successful run, offering cheap accommodations and plenty to drink.

But the Fowler House formula came undone when the Wartime Prohibition Act took effect in the summer of 1919. That was followed by National Prohibition in 1920. Crook closed the bar at the Fowler House. He attempted to make up for the lost revenue by diversifying. He opened a tire sales and repair shop in the barn behind the hotel. The offices of Crook Tire Co. took over the space that had formerly been occupied by the hotel’s saloon.

Looking north towards High Avenue from Division Street in 1920. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

The tire business wasn’t enough. Crook added another revenue stream; a Yellow Cab Company that he based out of the hotel. In Oshkosh, this sort of entrepreneurship was not how most bar owners responded to the dry law.

Crook’s Dilemma
When Prohibition arrived, the majority of the city’s saloon keepers immediately converted their bars into speakeasies. But for Crook, that option entailed more than just the risk of arrest. Crook didn't own the Fowler House, he was leasing it. If he were to get busted on a dry-law violation he stood the chance of losing not only his lease and livelihood, but the roof over his head. Bill and Lizzie Crook and their son Cyrus all lived at the hotel.

But operating within the law was hardly more appealing. The hotel was within walking distance of at least 10 former saloons that had become speakeasies. All that business was being drained away. It finally became more than Crook could take.

In 1925, he ended his lease on the Fowler House and purchased the property outright. Shortly after, Crook moved the tire company office out of the corner space and put the saloon back in. Of course, he couldn’t call it a saloon. His license said it was a soft-drinks parlor. It was anything but.

Crook wasn’t at all tentative in his new endeavor. When he began violating the dry law he seems to have done so with a flagrancy that was uncommon even in sodden Oshkosh.

The Fowler House speakeasy had soon caught the attention of local authorities. Crook’s bar was being investigated by Frank Keefe of the Winnebago County District Attorney's Office. Normally, the county DA didn’t like to get involved in the affairs of Oshkosh’s thriving bootleg beer and liquor scene. Here was an exception. Crook was not only selling liquor over his bar he was also retailing bottled booze for carryout. Keefe later alleged that those violations were compounded by the bar's popularity with an underage clientele.

On May 14, 1928, the Fowler House was raided. Crook managed to avoid arrest. Emil Harder, a Swiss immigrant who co-managed the bar with Armin Meister, was taken into custody. Harder was slapped with a $250 fine; about $4,000 in today's money. He also lost his job after he promised the judge he'd go straight and never do anything like it again. Crook had no intention of quitting. He hired Herman Priebe to be his new bar manager and re-opened the saloon. Then he upped the ante.

A wildcat brewery was installed in the basement of the Fowler House. Crook had no experience making beer. None was needed. The brewery was almost certainly a partnership with one of the local beer bootleggers operating in Oshkosh during this time. It would have been a standard arrangement: Crook supplies the space, the bootlegger supplies everything else. And the money comes rolling in.

It was a bold, perhaps foolhardy, move for the owner of an establishment already under the scrutiny of law enforcement. Crook had to have known he was pushing his luck. He couldn't have been too surprised by the result.

The Fowler House was raided again on the Saturday afternoon of February 22, 1930. This time it was federal agents who busted in. And this time, Crook was arrested. The feds found beer and whiskey at the bar. They found the brewery in the basement and promptly destroyed it. Crook was taken to Milwaukee and charged in federal court the following Monday.

Few details were given about Crook's brewery in the newspaper reports published in the aftermath of the raid. Judging by the punishment, though, it seems the setup may have been fairly elaborate. In May 1930, Crook pleaded guilty and was given the standard $250 fine. Then the other shoe dropped. He was sentenced to serve six months in the House of Corrections in Milwaukee. For the 66-year-old Crook, it was practically a death sentence.

He had been in poor health for nearly a decade prior to being sent to jail. His time in a cage didn't help him any. He returned to Oshkosh in November of 1930. Days later he underwent an operation at Mercy Hospital for an undisclosed illness. Crook never fully recovered. He died at the Fowler House on March 6, 1931. Oshkosh Chief of Police Arthur Gabbert was among those who helped carry the former bootlegger to his grave. William J. Crook was 67 years old.

William Crook’s headstone in Riverside Cemetery, Oshkosh.

Burned Out
Lizzie and their son Cyrus kept the Fowler House going. They even managed to re-open the "soft drinks" parlor that Prohibition agents had shut down. And when Prohibition ended in 1933, that corner of the Fowler House became a proper tavern again with Cyrus Crook managing the bar.

Lizzie Crook continued to operate the Fowler House until 1946 when she sold the business and retired. She would remain in Oshkosh until her death in 1971 at the age of 98.

After Lizzie retired, the Fowler House Hotel morphed into a tavern and restaurant with apartments above. From 1947 until 1955 it was called the Town Grill. From 1956 until 1970 it was the Town House Inn.

It was the Coach House Inn from 1970 until 1972 when it became the Top Hat Bar for several months before the name was changed again in 1973 to Bobby McGee's. It would remain Bobby McGee's until 1980.

Oshkosh Advance-Titan, October 12, 1978.

In 1980, the bar was renamed Bentley's. It became Garfield's in 1983 and Chez Joey's in 1985. Fire was almost as frequent as the name changes. This building hosted significant fires in 1897, 1927, 1930, 1970, and 1986.

The fire of January 26, 1986.

The hotel Edwin Fowler built in 1876 was reduced to rubble by that one. The last remnant of the early Fowler House was the adjacent building where the hotel had maintained an additional set of rooms during the peak years of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The former east wing of the Fowler House in gold and grey.

Last year, that went up in flames, too.

November 24th 2018.

If William Crook were alive to see what is now the empty corner at High and Division, he'd have to wonder, what the hell happened here? It's all gone. There are a lot of places like this in Oshkosh. Paved over lots in old neighborhoods that beg that question... what the hell happened here?

1 comment:

  1. My brother and sister used to clubbing when it was Bobby McGees, my dad took me in there for a soda after hitting a few buckets of golf balls, and my friends had a rental room in the house that used to be across the street- it can be seen in the pic looking up Division st /the old Italionette. That was really a hot spot during the Disco era.