Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Charlotte Ecke’s Brewery

In 1871 Charlotte Ecke became the first woman in Oshkosh to take sole ownership of a brewery. It was probably the last thing she wanted.

Charlotte Ecke

Charlotte Maria Timm was born in 1836 in Langenhagen, a Prussian city now part of northwest Germany. She was 17 in 1854 when her family left Germany for America. The Timms settled in Stevens Point where Charlotte met another young German immigrant named Gottlieb Ecke. The two were married in December 1858. Nine months later Charlotte gave birth to Amanda, the first of their five children. They were up to three kids by the time they moved to Oshkosh in 1865.

Gottlieb Ecke

Gottlieb Ecke had been working as a butcher in Stevens Point. But when they came to Oshkosh, he switched careers and began making beer at the Lake Brewery. It had been Oshkosh's first brewery when it was built by Jacob Konrad in 1849. It stood near the shore of Lake Winnebago, about a block down from the southeast corner of Ceape and Lake streets. Gottlieb Ecke became the brewery's third owner when he purchased it in October of 1865.

In 1867, Charlotte gave birth to Carl, her fourth child. He died shortly after birth. The following year, Gottlieb began building a new brewery. The old brewery on the shore of the lake was already outdated by the time the Eckes had arrived here. The brewery that would replace it was going to be a more modern and much larger facility. It was built on Harney Avenue less than a quarter-mile west of the Lake Brewery. Upon its completion in 1869, it became the largest brewery in Oshkosh. It would later come to be known as the Gambrinus Brewery.

The brewery Ecke built on Harney Avenue.

The Ecke's thrived. The business grew rapidly and by 1870 Gottlieb Ecke was producing 600 barrels of beer a year. And then it all fell apart. Gottlieb Ecke died unexpectedly on the Sunday night of November 19, 1871. He was 37-years old. The official cause of Ecke's death went unreported. He appears to have committed suicide. His will, written the day of his death, left everything in the hands of his "beloved wife Charlotte Ecke."

The transcription of Gottlieb Ecke's will filed at the Winnebago County Courthouse six days after his death.

Charlotte Ecke was left with four children between the ages of three and twelve years old. And the brewery. And the pile of debt her late husband had acquired in making that brewery a reality. Production at the Ecke Brewery ceased for several months after Gottlieb's death. The cash flow required to support the facility dwindled to a trickle. The creditors came calling.

Charlotte began to reorganize the operation in 1872. She was at a considerable disadvantage. The Ecke Brewery was almost entirely dependent upon the sale of kegged beer to saloons. But in 1870s Oshkosh, it was unheard of for a woman to enter a saloon to broker deals and sell beer.

She took on Philip Neumann as a partner in the business. Neumann was a German immigrant and was married to Charlotte's younger sister Amanda. He was a Civil War vet who had been working in Stevens Point as a butcher. But unlike Gottlieb Ecke, Neuman wasn’t able to make the successful leap from butcher to brewer.

Charlotte was facing a market that had grown intensely competitive. When the Eckes had arrived in Oshkosh, their brewery was one of three in the city. Now there were six with more on the way. And the balance of power had shifted to the south side where the Horn & Schwalm Brewery and the Glatz & Elser Brewery were ramping up production and beginning to outpace the others.

By the summer of 1874, Charlotte could no longer keep the brewery's creditors at bay. The property went into foreclosure. At the last moment, her brother Henry Timm, saved the brewery from being taken by purchasing it at Sheriff's Sale.

Charlotte Ecke and Phillip Neuman dissolved their partnership and Charlotte put the brewery up for sale. Below is the announcement she ran in the Wisconsin Telegraph, a German-language newspaper published in Oshkosh.

Here’s a translation of that...

Dissolution of Business Ownership
The company previously known as "Ecke and Neumann," whose ownership was shared between Philipp Neumann and the undersigned, has been dissolved. All those who may have demands for the company should contact the undersigned with the nature of such demands. I am also offering to sell or lease the brewery.

Oshkosh, the 28th of July 1875
Charlotte Ecke

A couple of months later, Charlotte was free of all of it. Louis Ecke, Gottlieb's brother, had pointed Lorenz Kuenzl in the direction of Oshkosh. Kuenzl was brewmaster for the Stevens Point Brewery. He left that position and took over the Ecke brewery in September 1875. Kuenzl would later merge the brewery with two others to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The last Ecke to work in the brewery Gottlieb built was Otto Ecke, the son of Charlotte and Gottlieb. At age 13, he quit school and went to work for Lorenz Kuenzl in the Gambrinus Brewery. Otto was 41 and living in Michigan when he committed suicide.

Otto Ecke

Charlotte Ecke remained in Oshkosh. In the early 1880s, she moved the family away from Harney Avenue and the brewery and into a home on 12th Avenue just west of South Main Street. Charlotte was there until her death in 1893. She was 57-years old when she died of complications caused by bronchitis and a weakened heart. Charlotte Ecke was buried in Riverside Cemetery alongside the grave of her husband.