Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Wanderings of an 800-Pound Chief

Here we have about 800 pounds of baked earth. It's six-feet in diameter, 110 years old, and well-traveled.

For 75 years, that clay medallion was the emblem of the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). After OBC closed in 1971, the emblem remained on the face of the defunct brewery for 15 more years. It endured in stark contrast to the decay gathering all around it.

The emblem was produced in 1911. It was to be the crowning jewel on the new brewery OBC was building at 16th and Doty. They had gone to Chicago and commissioned the nation's premier supplier of terracotta work.

"Up in Oshkosh, once the home of the red man, now the home of the lumber kings and yachting regattas, the Oshkosh Brewing Company has caused its somewhat unique trademark to be “done” in terra cotta, and the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company was called upon to do the job.”
    – The Clay-Worker, February 1912.

The Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago.

The knowing gaze of the chief had been fixed in place by the time the new brewery opened to the public in May 1912.

The new brewery of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. 1600 block of Doty Street.

And there the emblem remained even as the brewery was being torn down. On December 27, 1986, with the demolition well underway, the emblem was put up for auction.

A flyer for the 1986 auction.

About 100 people gathered in front of the crumbling brewery on that Saturday morning. Nine of them, including Lynne Webster, had come to place bids. Webster was an Oshkosh Chamber official and was there to bid on behalf of the City of Oshkosh. She could go as high as $6,600. But within minutes of the first call, Webster was out of the running.

Auctioneer Don Wagner taking bids.

The minimum bid was set at $1,000. From there, the price quickly shot past $7,000. In 20 minutes it was over. The winning bid of $8,800 was placed by Paul Winter, a 27-year-old former Oshkosh resident who had, at one time, lived near the brewery. Winter said he spent about $1,000 more than he had intended to. “A person gets kind of caught up with an auction,” he said. The total with tax came to $9,240. That didn't include the cost of getting the embedded piece down off the brewery. Winter was given two weeks to accomplish that.

Lynne Webster was disappointed but unbowed. In the days following the auction, she began recruiting donors to raise money to purchase the emblem from Winter. The primary donor would be A. Thomas Schwalm. His family had helped to found OBC in 1894.

Catherine (Schwalm) Clark and her brother Thomas Schwalm.

A. Thomas Schwalm was also a past brewmaster at OBC. He had left the brewery in August of 1950 to become co-publisher of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. Schwalm was not at all happy that the emblem had fallen into the hands of a private collector. "We were going to get that emblem a long time ago," he said, "I didn't want it to be lost."

OBC in the 1960s.

It almost certainly would have been lost had Thomas Schwalm not filled the funding gap needed to get it back. "I think his connection over there at the brewery – it touched him," Lynne Webster later recalled. "He saved a bit of his personal history, but also a part of the city's history."

A week after the auction, Paul Winter was persuaded to sell the emblem to the city for $9,040. That was $200 less than he had committed to pay for it. "It was a really tough decision," Winter said. He wanted it to stay in Oshkosh “where everyone could share in its beauty.”

As part of the deal, the city agreed to have a fiberglass reproduction of the emblem made for Winter. The replica was expected to cost another $2,500. Lynne Webster said that Thomas Schwalm also paid for that.
Bringing down the emblem in January 1987.

City officials immediately announced plans to turn the emblem into a monument. Thomas Schwalm said he hoped it would help remind people that Oshkosh was once a center for brewing. The last brewery in Oshkosh – Peoples Brewing – had closed 15 years earlier. “This is a segment of Oshkosh history that we no longer have," said Lynne Webster. "This monument will commemorate all the different breweries that are no longer here.”

The demolition Peoples Brewing, 1974.

Meanwhile, the city needed to decide where the emblem would go. An advisory committee that included Webster was formed to identify potential locations. Three months later, they had narrowed the choices to three: The exterior west-facing wall of the Oshkosh Public Museum; the south exterior wall of the Oshkosh Centre near the Main Street Bridge; and in South Park near the intersection of West South Park and Ohio.

While the committee deliberated, James Metz – editorial page editor of the Oshkosh Northwestern, campaigned for the emblem to be placed at the museum. Metz ran an informal poll in the paper and then announced the museum site to be the overwhelming favorite of those who responded. Metz and his cohort didn't have their way.

In July 1987, the emblem was placed on the south wall of the Oshkosh Centre. The site was favored by the Landmarks Commission for being the most visible location of those under consideration. Thomas Schwalm paid for the mounting. The emblem remained there for the next 20 years.

Looking north over the Main Street Bridge towards the Oshkosh Centre.
The Chief Oshkosh emblem is highlighted in yellow.

After two decades, the emblem came down again. It was removed to make way for the 2008 remodeling of the Oshkosh Centre, which is now the Oshkosh Convention Center.

This time, there wasn't a debate about where it would go next. The Oshkosh Public Museum took possession of the emblem in March of 2008. Museum director Brad Larson said it would cost about $12,000 to create a proper display for the piece. The Kuenzl Foundation donated $5,000 towards the project. The Kuenzl family had launched the Gambrinus Brewery in Oshkosh in 1875 and was one of the three founding families behind the formation of the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

The emblem was placed in a brushed-metal framework and covered with a clear, thermoplastic shield. In September 2009 it was mounted outside the main entrance to the Oshkosh Public Museum. You can see it there today. The 110-year-old face of clay at the center of the emblem appears as composed as ever.

Oshkosh Public Museum.

A Few Notes...
A word of thanks to Paul Winter. Thanks also to Anna Cannizzo of the Oshkosh Public Museum. They both helped to clarify information related to the emblem and the replica that was made from it. And thanks to Tom Denow and Scott Krumenauer for sharing their pictures of the emblem while it was still on the brewery.

About that replica: It was created by the Oshkosh Public Museum from a latex mold reinforced with plaster. The fiberglass reproduction was then painted to match the colors of the original emblem. The museum kept the mold, but it eventually deteriorated and has since been discarded. Winter said he was pleased with how the reproduction of the emblem turned out.

A couple of weeks ago I put up a related post about the years of decay and eventual demolition of the Oshkosh Brewing Company's brewery. That can be found here.

You can find more on the tangled history of Chief Oshkosh and beer here.


  1. Tha
    Thanks for another great article.

  2. Any clue if that person still has the reproduction? I was in fifth grade when I was in the bottling building. Being that young and the brew house abandoned, it was a very imposing building. My other buddies had gone in it but I couldn’t overcome my fear to enter it. I could kick myself to this day for not going in that beautiful building.

    1. Brian, yes, he still has the reproduction.