Sunday, June 27, 2021

Tales of an Eastside Saloon

Prohibition amounted to a cruel farce in places like Oshkosh. Drinking was too much a part of the culture here for it to end with the introduction of a mere law. Yet Prohibition was the law. And like other unjust laws, it led to absurd outcomes. Things went uniquely cockeyed at the southeast corner of Boyd and Merritt.

701 Merritt Avenue.

Long before Prohibition, there had been a saloon at that corner. The first of them was run by a German immigrant named John Dresch. He and his wife Lizzie had come to Oshkosh in the late 1860s. They lived in a wood-framed house at the corner of Boyd and Merritt. Around 1882, Dresch converted his home into a grocery store and saloon.

The combination of beer joint and grocery was a popular one in Oshkosh in the 1880s. Especially on the east side in the old Fourth Ward. It was a typical Wisconsin arrangement. A small saloon in the shadow of a big German Catholic church.

The Dresch saloon lasted just a couple of years. John and Lizzie moved on and a bakery moved in. That didn't last either. In 1890 the bakery failed and the building was left vacant.

An 1888 insurance map showing the unfinished St. Mary’s Church with the
old church on the north side of the street.
The former Dresch saloon is shown here at 206 and 208.
Grocery/saloons were also at 177 and 203 (click the image to enlarge it). 

Around the corner on Boyd Street lived a cigar maker named August Klawun. He too was an immigrant from Germany. Klawun was 14 when he came to America. He went to Milwaukee where he started rolling cigars. He was 28 when he married Katherina Mohr in West Bend. The next year, the couple moved to Oshkosh and started having kids. Klawun got a job making cigars at Herman Derksen’s shop on Main Street.

The decorated window of Herman Derksen’s Cigar Shop on Main.

In 1891, Klawun quit the cigar business. He moved his family into the former bakery/grocery/saloon at Boyd and Merritt. Klawun was 33 when he swapped careers and began slinging beer. He had found his calling. And that didn't sit well with his neighbor.

St. Mary’s Church.

The big church next door to Klawun was getting bigger every day. By 1886 St. Mary's had outgrown its old church on the north side of Merritt Avenue and had laid the cornerstone for an imposing, gothic temple on the south side of the street. The ambitious man behind that ambitious project was Roman Scholter.

Reverend Roman Scholter.

Scholter had been bouncing around small-town Wisconsin churches before reaching Oshkosh in 1881. The ultra-conservative Reverend was not charmed by the Oshkosh habit of putting up a saloon on every damned corner. Especially those corners surrounding his new church.

Scholter had tried at least twice before to banish saloons on the corners adjacent to St. Mary's. Now here came Klawun. Scholter went to the city council and tried again. And he once again got snubbed. Klawun got his liquor license and proceeded to do a booming business.

Things went so well that in 1900 he tore down the old, wood-framed home and saloon that Dresch had opened and replaced it with the brick, Queen-Anne style building that stands there today. It was an altogether up-to-date kind of place. Klawun served fresh, lager beer made in Oshkosh at the Rahr Brewing Company, and the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

From the 1905 Oshkosh City Directory.

Klawun later joined with a group of other Oshkosh saloon keepers attempting to launch a brewery of their own. Their scheme was realized in the summer of 1913. Klawun's saloon was one of the first to serve beer from the Peoples Brewing Company.

The immigrant cigar maker had come a long way. In 1918, Klawun turned 60. His son Albert was now part of the business and was poised to take over when his father retired. That never came to pass. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect on January 17, 1920. Prohibition had come to Oshkosh. It was all over for Klawun. The business he had been building for almost 30 years had been made illegal.

Most saloon keepers in Oshkosh revolted. They took out "soft drink" permits and sold wildcat beer and bootleg booze on the sly. Klawun didn't go that route. He converted his saloon into a confectionery. His son Albert was in charge. They sold Bonita Bars and Log Cabin Rolls. That didn't cut it. In 1922, the Klawun family left their corner at Boyd and Merritt. That's when things went weird.

August 8, 1923.

In 1923 Mueller-Potter Drug Stores put its third Oshkosh location into Klawun's old stand. This was unusual. Drug stores in Oshkosh didn't slip in where saloons had slipped out.

There were drug stores in Oshkosh that used Prohibition as an opportunity to traffic in booze disguised as medicine. But that appears not to have been the case at the Mueller-Potter store on Merritt. Instead, they sold jazz records, cheap cameras, trusses, paints, pills, powders... all kinds of shit. The lack of liquor may explain why the Mueller-Potter store on Merritt was closed a couple of years after it opened. The guy who moved in next wouldn't make that mistake. He wasted no time getting the place boozed-up again.

From a 1927 ad showing the pre-1957 address for the building at what is now 701 Merritt.

Sylvester Charles Stack was born in Menasha in 1887. He'd been working odd jobs in Appleton before he wandered down to Oshkosh around 1911. His path was set after he landed a job as a clerk at the Weeden Drug Store on Main Street.

Stack worked his way into the pharmacy at Weeden and then into a job down the street as an assistant pharmacist at the Coe Drug store. While working at Coe, he took the pharmacist's exam. Stack hadn't been through pharmacy school. Instead, he was going on experience. He eked out a passing score on his exam and in 1916 became a registered pharmacist. That certificate became a cash cow when Prohibition hit.

From Stack's 1916 Pharmacist Exam.

Stack left Coe and went solo. In 1926, he took over the former saloon at the corner of Boyd and Merritt. He began doling out patent medicines. The only thing they cured was sobriety. The Beef, Iron, and Wine tonic on Stack's shelf was 16% alcohol. He sold pints of it for a buck.

Better yet, Stack was also licensed to sell whiskey. It was legal during Prohibition for a pharmacist to sell “medicinal liquors” so long as they had the proper permit. Stack had such a permit. It allowed him to bring up Kentucky whiskey from the Frankfort Distillery in Louisville. He sold it to folks who had talked their doctors into writing them a prescription for liquor.

It wasn't cheap. A pint of stock whiskey from Stack went for about $50 in today's money. Druggists of his ilk were referred to as bootleggers for the rich. Yet, he didn't lack customers. During a single month in 1930 Stack filled more than 30 prescriptions for "medicinal" whiskey. He was on his way to accumulating a small fortune.

Stack's whiskey permit.

Stack closed up his shop in the old saloon on Merritt in 1935. Prohibition had ended. The price of Beef, Iron, and Wine tonic had dropped by 25%. Stack moved his business to Main Street and changed his approach. He got a Class A liquor license and filled his shelves with booze. And now you didn't need a prescription to buy it from him.

The former home of Stack’s Drugs & Liquor in the Webster Building at what is now 501 N. Main.

Klawun's old saloon sat vacant for a few years before it became a bar again. It was reopened in 1940 as Pep's Tavern by longtime Oshkosh barman Clarence "Pep" Steinhilber. After Steinhilber sold the saloon in 1950 he went to work as a bartender at Trail's End; just up the street on Merritt. He stayed there for more than 40 years. The late Oshkosh historian Larry Spanbauer once told me that Pep was the guy who came up with the sauce for the Trail's End Chili Dog.
The bar at Boyd and Merritt has changed hands nine times since Pep Steinhilber moved out of there.

The Church and the tavern, then named The Office (red dot on roof), in 1958. 

1977, when it was the Sports Club Tavern.

These days, it's called Boot's Saloon, which opened in 2015. This is the first time since August Kluwan was there that the bar has had the word saloon attached to it.

John Dresch, who had the first saloon on that corner, died in 1908. His funeral was held at St. Mary's Church. The service was officiated by Rev. Roman Scholter, who wanted none of those saloons in his neighborhood.

Roman Scholter died in 1914. He left all his worldly possessions to his live-in housekeeper, Amalia Wehling, with whom he had adopted and raised six children.

Sylvester Stack died in Oshkosh in 1955. He was selling booze on Main Street right up to the end. After his death, the Northwestern ran an article mentioning that Stack had left an unusually large estate.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933. That was too late for August Klawun. By then, he was already four years in the ground. Klawun had been betrayed by his adopted country. He didn't live to see the correction of that cruel mistake.

Klawun's headstone in Riverside Cemetery.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Menominee Park Beer Garden

Wednesday night's beer garden in Menominee Park was an overwhelming success. So overwhelming, in fact, that the beer ran out. Within an hour of the start, hundreds of people had poured into the park.

Earlier that morning I was interviewed by WBAY to talk about the history of beer gardens in Oshkosh (you can see that HERE). I tried to get across that an event like this is a natural fit for this city. What happened Wednesday night bears that out. These public beer gardens deserve to become a traditional part of summer in Oshkosh.

The Parks Department, which organizes the beer gardens, has a few things to work out. The main issue was the long lines of people waiting to get a beer.

That shouldn't be too difficult to address. We'll find out in July. The next Menominee Park Beer Garden will begin at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 14.

The 920 Brew Project

It was mid-March and Dan Dringoli was finally seeing brighter days ahead. COVID-19 had been a fact of life in Oshkosh for a year now. Bare Bones Brewery, which Dringoli co-owns with his wife Patti, had struggled through that year battered by waves of restrictions and public fear concerning the sort of gatherings that the Dringoli's business relies upon. But the tide was turning. People were being vaccinated. Restrictions were being eased. Something closer to normal was on the horizon.

On March 18, Dringoli sent an email to his fellow brewers in the area suggesting they collaborate on a beer to mark the passing of what for all of them had been an exceptionally difficult period. "We overcame significant adversity together," Dringoli wrote. "We've leaned on each other quite a bit. We came up with collective solutions to battle this unprecedented time and we survived."

Patti and Dan Dringoli of Bare Bones.

Dringoli then presented the seed of an idea that would be cultivated over the coming weeks by those he had reached out to. "Let's do a different kind of collaboration, built around the strength of the brewing community," he wrote. "We owe a ton of gratitude to our fellow breweries and our customers who kept coming in and getting beer to go. We truly owe them everything. So let's come up with a collaborative thank you to our collective customers. A beer created by all of us."

Dringoli's proposal has led to the largest brewing collaboration of its type in the State of Wisconsin. It involves a meadery and 10 breweries scattered across three counties. Taking part in the collaboration are Oshkosh's Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River breweries. Neenah-based breweries Barrel 41 and Lion's Tail. Appleton's Stone Arch Brewpub, McFleshman's Brewing, and Appleton Beer Factory. Knuth Brewing from Ripon. Omega Brewing of Omro, and Rushford Meadery & Winery.

The group's working title became The 920 Brew Project, after their shared area code. They had quickly come together, but then came the first hurdle: how to find agreement among 11 independent-minded brewers on what to brew. It turned out to be no problem at all.

"It was like a subconscious thing," says Bobby Fleshman of McFleshman's Brewing Company. "I was talking to Jody (Cleveland, head brewer of Bare Bones), and I mentioned this idea for a cucumber Kolsch. Jody took that to mean, 'hey, let's do a cucumber Kolsch.' He put it out there and everyone agreed on it right away. We were all in the same frame of mind. It came together so quick."

Bobby Fleshman in the brewhouse at McFleshman's.

It was agreed that the beer would be produced at the Bare Bones facility. In early April, Cleveland sent out his recipe for the Kolsch, a German-style of light ale noted for its clean, quenching drinkability. The idea would be to enhance those characteristics with the bright flavor of cucumber while maintaining the more subtle aspects of the base beer. For the cucumber flavor, they discussed purchasing a pre-processed, aseptic puree, but then decided against it. Instead, they'd begin with fresh cucumbers. "I think we all kind of know what our strengths are and where our input is useful," Fleshman says. “That’s where Shane came in.”

Shane Coombs of Rushford Meadery & Winery has a deep background in working with a variety of fresh, plant-based ingredients that he sometimes incorporates into his meads and wines. For the trial beer, Coombs pressed and processed 72 cucumbers then handed off the “cuke juice” to Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward Brewing. Clark and Wenger began experimenting with dosing rates using their 1869 Blonde Ale to get a sense for what might work with the Kolsch. By the end of April, the blended samples were being passed around among the other brewers.
Shane Coombs
"I don't even know how many people from the breweries were involved at this point," says Fleshman. "It must have been about 18 or so of us. We all kind of picked out our favorite dosing rate. I think we landed on something that people are going to really dig."

On May 24 and 25, brewers from Barrel 41, Fox River, Lion's Tail, Omega, and Rushford got together with Jody Cleveland at Bare Bones to brew 25-barrels of Kolsch. As the beer completed its fermentation Coombs processed 124 pounds of fresh cucumbers. And on June 8, the final blend of the beer was prepared by Cleveland, Coombs, Fleshman, and Steve Zink of Omega Brewing.

May 24th in the brewhouse at Bare Bones. From left to right,
Steve Zink of Omega, Jody Cleveland of Bare Bones, and Jeff Eaton of Lion' s Tail.

"We could not have pulled off something like this if we had not already been so close knit," says Fleshman. “I think most brewers would be hesitant to get into something like this because of that ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ kind of thing. But we're already so tight that we figured it could work. We'll probably even do something like this again."

The 920 Brew Project's Cucumber Kolsch will begin pouring in the taprooms of each of the collaborators in mid-June. The beer will likely be on tap through the remainder of the month. In Oshkosh, Cucumber Kolsch will also be available in cans at Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The SOBs Celebrate 30 Years

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrewing club is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month with a series of beers made in collaboration with three Oshkosh breweries. The first of those beers will be released at Bare Bones Brewery on June 10. It will be followed by beer releases at Fox River Brewing on June 17, and Fifth Ward Brewing on June 26. The three beers were produced from recipes supplied by members of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers; or as they've come to be known locally, the SOBs.

A few of the SOBs during a recent group brew at Bare Bones.
In back on the steps of the brew deck is founding member Al Jacobson.

Al Jacobson's Christmas in June, a spiced ale, was brewed at Bare Bones and will be the first in the series to begin pouring. Jacobson is an original SOB. He was on hand when the club was launched in April 1991 at the now-defunct Galaxy Hobby on Oregon Street. He's also the last of the original members still active in the club. "It started with brewing classes at Galaxy," Jacobson says. "The club came out of those. There were about 10 or 12 of us in the beginning. We'd meet and try each other's homebrews and exchange ideas and recipes. That part of it hasn't changed much."

Some of those early brews were more powerful than expected. "I'm probably the only one that ever hit the ceiling at Galaxy Hobby," Jacobson says. "I took the cap off a beer I made and it shot out of the bottle and hit the ceiling." Remembering it still makes him laugh. "We were learning," Jacobson says. "You never knew what you'd get. We were making beer in soup pots."

SOBs making beer on a stove top in the early 1990s.

As a group, they accumulated knowledge and became a training ground for at least a dozen members who have gone on to brew professionally. Bare Bones' head brewer Jody Cleveland, and Fifth Ward's brewing team of Ian Wenger and Zach Clark are among the club’s alumni who have joined the professional ranks.

Future Oshkosh brewery owners Ian Wenger and Zach Clark during
an SOB visit to the Milwaukee Brewing Company in 2015.

The SOBs' influence has also spread beyond Oshkosh. The club has been the starting point for similar groups in Appleton and Fond du Lac and has been instrumental in re-shaping Wisconsin’s homebrewing laws. In 2012, the SOBs hosted Cask and Caskets, the first all-homebrewed beer festival in the state.

Jeff Eaton, who now brews for Lion’s Tail in Neenah, serving his homebrew
while dressed as a hot dog at Cask and Caskets.

Mike Engel has been the SOBs' president for 15 of the past 17 years. He's guided the club through its most dramatic period of growth. There are now more than 50 members in the club making it among the largest, most active organizations of its type in Wisconsin. “I can’t believe how successful the club has become over the past few years,” Engel says. “We seem to get one or two new members at almost every meeting.”

Engel's Pumpernickel Rye Ale will go on tap at Fifth Ward on Saturday, June 26. It's a rustic beer brewed with flaked rye, molasses, and caraway seeds. "What really gives it the flavor is the caraway seeds," he says. "It’s almost like drinking liquid rye bread." This is the third time Engel has had this beer produced by a commercial brewery. "It feels great," says Engel, who is stepping down as the club's president this year. "It’s kind of like the icing on the cake of my brewing career."

Mike Engel at Oblio’s pouring his 2013 version of Pumpernickel Rye
made by Stone Cellar (now Stone Arch) Brewpub.

But new brewers still come to the SOBs for the same reasons that Al Jacobson did 30 years ago. Logan Anderson joined the club in 2017 "I was 21 at that point," he says. "It was only a few months after I started brewing. I knew from the get-go that I was going to need to find some people who knew what they were doing to give me pointers. That was the best choice I could have made"

Logan Anderson filling a carboy during an SOB wort share last July at Fifth Ward Brewing.

Anderson, who recently graduated from UW-Platteville with a degree in engineering, will have his Kellerbier, a German-style lager, released at Fox River on June 17. "Having the opportunity to brew one of my beers on a large system is like a dream come true," he says. "Looking back five years ago, I never would have expected that I’d make it to this point."

Anderson says the club's appeal extends beyond brewing. "The real benefits go back to that community of beer thing," he says. "I’ve made lifelong friends and could not imagine a group of more enthusiastic and fun-loving people. We have a great beer history in Oshkosh, and I think that people who know about it are proud. So, to be part of that community and history was really a great draw."

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers will hold their next meeting on Thursday, June 17 at 7 pm in the Taproom of Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh. The meeting will be open to the public.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Cerveceria Mexus

Cerveceria Mexus is a Neenah-based brewing company that launched last year. I started seeing their beer pop up in the Fox Valley earlier this year. The brewery currently has two beers in its line-up.

I haven't tried Chela, yet. If you look closely in the picture above, you can see that the brewery describes Chela as both an ale and a lager. Go figure.

Then there's Cheve. I came across a six-pack of this at the recently revived Club Liquor in Menasha. Cheve is a Vienna Lager and it is absolutely exceptional. It's among the best American-made Vienna lagers I've had.

Cerveceria Mexus is run by Alejandro Lagunes Gallina in Neenah. He's brewing these beers on contract at Titletown Brewing in Green Bay.

All of this brings to mind Chief Oshkosh Red Lager. Like Cheve, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was a contract-brewed Vienna Lager. When it was introduced in 1991 it became (arguably) the first American craft beer packaged in cans. At the time, that was considered a strike against it. Now, of course, it's practically a requirement that craft beer be packaged in cans.

On the Cerveceria Mexus website, there's beer locator showing where you can find Chela and Cheve. If you dig Vienna Lager, you'll want to get after this one.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Oshkosh's Summer Beer Gardens

It’s been 150 years since Oshkosh last had a lakeside beer garden. Brews on the Bay is about to end that drought with a series of pop-up beer gardens that will begin on June 9 at the Kiwanis Shelter in Menominee Park. It will be followed by beer gardens in the park on July 14, August 11, and September 8. The monthly beer gardens will run from 5-9 p.m. and are being organized by the Parks Department.

Local beer may be the rally flag for these events, but Jen McCollian of the Parks Department says they're about more than that. "We'll have family yard games, and live music, and we'll definitely have food trucks," McCollian says. "We try to find things to do that are inexpensive to bring people and families to the park so they can get to know what we have to offer. Oftentimes, people aren't aware of the Children's Amusement Center or that we rent kayaks, and canoes, and aqua bikes, and those facilities are going to be open during that time as well."

But it wouldn't be a beer garden without beer. Oshkosh's Bare Bones Brewery, Fifth Ward Brewing, and Fox River Brewing, along with Omega Brewing from Omro will have their beer pouring at all four of the events. "They'll each have a line where they can feature whatever brew they choose," McCollian says. "We'll also have domestic beers, and water, and soda." Members of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrewing club will participate by pouring samples of their homebrewed beers.

McCollian anticipates this year's beer gardens will provide the launch for what will become an annual summer occurrence. "We've been approved to have four through the city council this year," she says, "but we do want to see this grow and possibly even travel into other parks next year. It's definitely something we plan on doing into the future."

Traveling beer gardens have grown in popularity over the past decade. Oshkosh joins other Wisconsin municipalities such as De Pere, Glendale, Milwaukee, and Oak Creek in coordinating these public-park-based events. For Oshkosh, it will be the resumption of a legacy initiated in the 19th century.

Throughout the latter half of the 1800s, summer beer gardens were a staple here. Most wards featured an outdoor "beer resort" of some sort. The most ambitious of them was on the lakeshore just south of Menominee Park.

Oshkosh City Directory, 1869.

In 1869, Oshkosh hotelier Gustavus Bogk established Bogk's Pleasure Garden at what is now the end of Otter Avenue on the shore of Lake Winnebago. Bogk's resort was a sprawling, ten-acre beer garden that featured a bathing house, a dance hall, a restaurant, and a brass band playing every Sunday afternoon. The beer served there appears to have been provided by the three Oshkosh breweries then in operation. But it was a short-lived affair. Bogk, a serial entrepreneur who constantly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, was forced by his creditors to abandon the property in 1871. It was the last of Oshkosh's lakeside beer gardens.

Brews on the Bay will revive that tradition with more backing than Gustavus Bogk was ever able to muster. "There's no way possible that we'd be able to do this without the help of the Oshkosh community," Jen McCollian says "We have some really great sponsors in addition to the breweries and the local restaurants. It's just something we would not be able to do without the support of the Oshkosh area community."

This post also appears in today's Oshkosh Herald.