Monday, August 3, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Cabinet

The Oshkosh City Directory of 1903 lists more than 120 saloons. That means there was one bar for every 220 people living here. The ratio today is approximately one bar for every 1,500 people in the Oshkosh metro area. We still like our social drinking, but we're no match for those earlier Oshkosh quaffers.

Beers at an unidentified Oshkosh saloon in the early 1900s.

Those early-1900s saloons were not only numerous, they were also lovely. At least some of them. And thanks to the Oshkosh Fire and Police departments, we get to take a virtual crawl through a few of Oshkosh's lavish "drinking-hells" (as the prudes used to call them). But before we start the tour, let's set the stage for how this slice of history came to be.

Oshkosh Up to Date
In 1902, Oshkosh's cops and firefighters were trying to drum up money for their relief association; a kind of insurance program that paid benefits to members in need. One of their efforts resulted in a book published in December 1902 titled Oshkosh Up To Date.

Oshkosh Up to Date Cover.

Oshkosh Up to Date was presented as a souvenir guidebook. It was filled with images of the city at its best. The 186 glossy pages were printed by Castle-Pierce of Oshkosh and had pictures of street scenes, stately homes, stores full of goods, churches, schools, headshots of cops, firefighters, politicos… And, of course, saloons. It wouldn’t have been Oshkosh or Up to Date without saloons. To be in the book, you had to offer a donation to the Firemen's and Policemen's Relief Association. This is where it gets a little sticky.

This type of publication was common at the turn of the century and they were commonly seen as shakedown operations. If you wanted to be treated well by folks carrying badges, well then it was probably in your best interest to show them your support in the form of a donation. And as we'll see, some of the saloon keepers who paid to present their establishment in Oshkosh Up to Date were dabbling in things that depended upon the leniency of the police. For example...

The Cabinet, 206 N. Main Street.
William Grady, Proprietor.

William "Billy" Grady was born in Canada in 1864. He was the son of Irish immigrants. Grady moved to Oshkosh when he was 20 to work in the lumber mills here. A few years later, he began bartending. By 1900 he was running his own place. The Cabinet was his jewel.

The Cabinet, 206 N. Main Street.

See what I mean about lovely? There are a few things in that picture that we’ll see more of in the saloons to come. First, there's the complete lack of bar stools. If you were taking your drink at the bar you were standing. Prior to 1920, that's how it worked in most places. The brass foot rail was the sole aid to repose. Tucked inside the foot rail you'll see four, large brass spittoons. Or if you prefer, cuspidors. There was a lot of spit flying in these places. Think of the poor soul who had to clean those out.

Would you have guessed that this place also operated as a brothel? It did. Maybe that's why Grady ponied up the money to have this picture included in Oshkosh Up to Date. His saloon was notorious. Grady needed to have the cops on his side.

The Cabinet was known as a stall saloon. These were saloons with back-room booths - stalls really - where a customer could privately engage in "disgraceful scenes" with a woman whose favors were available for purchase. Unfortunately, none of the Cabinets cabinets can be seen in this shot. The picture here shows the front half of the space looking towards the Main Street entrance. 

At the time this picture was taken there was an ongoing chorus of calls from local religious leaders to have Grady's license revoked. It would have solved nothing. As Rev. Anderson of the First Methodist Church remarked, "When Grady's license is revoked and the offenders punished, the old iniquity will go on just the same. This is like purifying the Fox River by dipping out a few pails of dirty water at the Main street bridge.”

The building that was home to Grady’s place still stands. But long gone are the fancy bar, the flying spit, the stalls, and the whores. Grady’s pleasure temple has been given over to a pursuit much more mundane.

The Hennig brokerage firm, current occupant of 206 N. Main Street.

The next stop on the crawl is The Baebler Saloon, on Opera House Square. . 
Links to each of the stops along the crawl are posted here.

Notes & Sources
Oshkosh Up to Date can be viewed online here.

The controversy surrounding the revocation of Grady's license was covered in the December 19, 1900 edition of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

More info on the 206 N. Main Street site is available here via the Wisconsin Historical Society.


  1. I know it's not BUT--it sure looks like Witzkes

    1. That's what I thought at first too, sure looks like Witzke's

  2. When I bought the Overflow tavern in 1972, I wanted to call it The Overflow Saloon.
    The city said no.....they had an ordinance on the books at that time, going way back, to the city trying to clean up the tavern image, by not allowing calling it a saloon...