Sunday, April 18, 2021

A Barrel of Fun

Here’s a jewel from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of Monday, June 9, 1879.

“There was a lively row on Seventh street last night. A small but select party got a keg of beer and took it to a private house and proposed to have a little picnic of their own. After the disappearance of the beer a row ensued in which a man named John Florrip was terrible pounded. In fact Florrip was almost killed, and was not able to attend court this morning when the case came up.”

By Tuesday, Florrip was well enough to stand in court and face the two men who had “terrible pounded” him. John Baker and Louis Terrill were brought in on charges of assault. They told the judge that it was all Florrip’s fault.

"The defendants claimed that Florrip abused the hospitality and was too much at home; that he played on the accordion, sang, whistled and raised Ned generally."

So they beat the hell out of him. Then they tossed him out the door leaving him in a bloody heap. This is what can happen when you "raise Ned" with an accordion in Oshkosh.

Florrip’s rebuttal was to wave a shirt caked with blood that had come from the wounds pounded into his skull. The judge took pity. He fined Baker $5. Terrill got a $3 fine.

About a Keg
That’s a nice story, but as always, I’m here for the beer. So what about that fateful keg at the heart of this drama?

Most likely, it was an eighth-barrel keg holding about four gallons of beer. During this period, these small wooden kegs were the most popular form of packaged beer in Oshkosh. They were much more common than bottled beer, which in 1879 was still relatively rare and too pricey for the average drinker. The small, wooden kegs were the go-to for people having a beer party at home.

Kegs stacked outside Josef Fenzl’s saloon at 10th and Rugby (now Jeff’s on Rugby).
Atop the pile is an eighth-barrel keg.
Beneath it are quarter barrels and half barrels.

Kegs leaving the Kuenzl’s Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Ave.
Most of the vertically stacked kegs appear to be eighth-barrels.
The photo is from the early 1890s when Kuenzl had 300 eighth-barrel kegs in his inventory.

A standard, eighth-barrel keg was approximately 16 inches in length and 13 inches in diameter at its midsection. If it was full of beer it weighed about 55 pounds. The barrels were lined with pitch to preserve the flavor of the beer. To get at that beer, you hammered in a spigot (made of either brass or wood), loosened the bung, and let gravity do the rest. You could get about 30 pints of beer out of one of these diminutive barrels.

So where did Florrip, Baker, and Terrill get that keg? It was common to purchase these kegs directly from the brewery that made the beer. The Oshkosh breweries kept plenty of them in stock. For example, the Horn & Schwalm Brewery on the south side had 1,500 of these kegs in its inventory. They accounted for almost half of all the brewery’s kegs.

There's a decent chance that the Horn & Schwalm Brewery was the source of the keg that Florrip and his pals drained on that Sunday evening in June. It was, after all, the nearest brewery to their picnic on Seventh Street. Here's a look at one of those eighth-barrel kegs from Horn & Schwalm. This barrel is at least 130 years old (and probably quite a bit older than that). You can’t see it in this picture, but on the head of the keg is the Horn & Schwalm brand.

Of course, the beer that inspired that south-side brawl could have come from any number of sources. In 1879, this city was beer soaked in a way that's almost unimaginable now. Oshkosh was home to six breweries in 1879. The previous year, those breweries had combined to produce more than 3,800 barrels of beer. Most of that beer was consumed here in Oshkosh.

Let's put that in perspective.

In 1879, Oshkosh’s population was about 15,000. That means there was one brewery for every 2,500 people. Today the ratio is one active brewery for every 22,257 people. If we were keeping pace with the spirit of 1879, we'd now have 26 breweries in this city.

Here's another way of looking at it. The breweries of 1879 were producing 7.85 gallons of beer for every person living here. Last year, our breweries produced less than four ounces of beer for every person living in this city.

This makes one thing absolutely clear: it's incumbent upon each of us to drink more locally made beer. I'll end here so as to not keep you any longer from that mission. Have one for me while you're at it.


  1. Thanks for sharing this article. It's amazing to think about life back then. Unfortunately, I can't help with the mission since I hate the taste of beer. However, I am certain that there are more than enough people who are willing and able to take my place...

    1. Thanks, Laura, I'll try to pick up the slack!