Sunday, July 25, 2021

Fifth Ward Breweries

For most Oshkoshers, the name Fifth Ward Brewery means one thing. This place:

Fifth Ward Brewing Company, 1009 S. Main St., Oshkosh.

But this isn’t the only Oshkosh brewery to have carried the Fifth Ward name. That name goes way back. A couple of maps will lead us where it all started.

Oshkosh map collector Matt Hostak recently shared with me his comprehensive archive of 19th century Oshkosh maps. Among the first items I went looking for was an illustration depicting the footprint of the original Fifth Ward Brewery. It didn't take long to find. Here's a map from 1858 showing the earliest representation on record of the Fifth Ward Brewery.

The Fifth Ward Brewery on Lot 18 of block 109; north side of Algoma Blvd., just south of Vine Ave.
From Harrison's Map of 1858.

Lot 18 was purchased by Tobias Fischer and Christian Kaehler in 1857. By early 1858 their brewery was up and running. That same year, Fischer moved to St. Louis leaving the Fifth Ward Brewery to Kaehler.

From the 1872 Oshkosh City Directory.

Here's another map from Hostak's collection. This pinpoints the exact location of Kaehler's expanded brewery. This is from 1872 when the brewery was at its peak.

From the Stranahan Bros. 1872 Map of Oshkosh.

The original Fifth Ward Brewery closed in 1880. Then, some 130 years later, this happened...

Ian Wenger (at the kettle) and Zach Clark (right) making homebrew in 2013.

That basement where Zach Clark and Ian Wenger taught themselves to make beer is at 842 Prospect Avenue. The two of them were drawing up plans to start a brewery before they had even finished their first batch. They decided to call it Fifth Ward Brewing Company; an homage to the old brewery that once stood in their neighborhood.

The image below has a piece from the 1872 map superimposed over a recent satellite view of that area. The red arrow on the right side of the image points to the home where Ian and Zach began homebrewing in 2012.

In 2017 – almost 160 years after Kaehler and Fischer had launched the original Fifth Ward Brewery – Clark and Wenger began making beer at their new Fifth Ward Brewing Company on South Main Street.

September 2017. Zach Clark (left) and Ian Wenger in their new brewery.

During its peak years, in the early 1870s, the original Fifth Ward Brewery produced approximately 500 barrels of beer a year. Today's Fifth Ward Brewing Company is on track this year to surpass that mark for the first time. We have a long and vital tradition of beer making in Oshkosh. It's a living thing!

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Unearthing Our Buried History

It's probably the last place you would go in search of treasure. After all, the pit of an outhouse is not usually where a thing of value gets deposited. But Bob Bergman and Matt Hostak will tell you otherwise. They’ve recovered scores of valuable and historic items from the sites of old Oshkosh privies. Some of the underground chambers they’ve explored have held their secrets for more than 100 years.

Bob Bergman (in the hole) and Matt Hostak during a recent dig on the east side of Oshkosh.

Before the 1890s, most people in Oshkosh did their "business" in outhouses adjacent to their homes. Those privies were phased out as the Oshkosh sewer system developed in the 1890s.

An 1887 photo showing privies behind homes on Otter Street.
Photo courtesy of Matt Hostak.

By the turn of the century, many of the outhouses had taken on a new role. "Basically, what they had was this continually dropping garbage pit," Hostak says. "Often, they were used that way for 50 years or more. So as you dig down, you see a pretty clear downward aging of artifacts."

A sampling of the Oshkosh beer bottles dug from privies (click image to enlarge).

Bergman and Hostak are members of the Winnebago County Historical and Archaeological Society and they've been doing this kind of exploration in the Oshkosh area for decades. "If you're not interested in history, this is not the kind of thing you would do," Bergman says. "The history that goes along with it is just amazing."

It's their study of Oshkosh history that leads them to the point where they put shovels into the ground. "I've collected a comprehensive archive of Oshkosh maps beginning with pre-Civil War era maps," Hostak says. "We begin by consulting those maps and establishing the historic use of a property, including detailed information about any structures that were on it. Some of these historic maps actually show the location of the outhouse structure."

Detail from 1890 fire-insurance map of Oshkosh showing privy locations.

Often, their research takes them to either the east side of Oshkosh or to the south side of the city along the Fox River. "The closer to the river and the closer to Main Street are usually the best," says Hostak. "Those are the areas where this community grew out from."

Next, they survey the property in question. "The privies were kind of hidden from the view of the street," Bergman says. "Normally they would be behind the residence. A favorite spot was in the corner at the rear of the lot. We'll look for depressions or low spots in the ground. Often you'll see lilac bushes near where the outhouse would have been. That's usually a dead giveaway."

Then comes the ticklish part: explaining to a property owner that an outhouse once stood in their yard and asking for permission to dig it up. "Let's just say it's not something a shy person would be very good at," Bergman says. "You get all kinds of different reactions. Usually, though, after you explain your interest in history and exactly what you're looking to do they get really intrigued and interested in what you're doing."

Part of that explanation includes the assurance that the property won't be damaged. "Nothing is mechanically done, it's all done with hand tools," Bergman says. "And we don't dig randomly. We check for utilities and we use a probe that does no damage to find the exact location of the privy. When we're done, the hole is filled and the turf is put back in place. We like to say that it looks better when we leave than when we arrived."

Bergman and Hostak prepping the dig site.

"Most owners are responsive," Hostak says. "What often happens is that once we begin digging on one property, the adjacent property owners very frequently become interested, and then they offer us the opportunity to dig on theirs. It kind of just snowballs in that respect."

Their average excavation is four feet in diameter and approximately five feet deep. Contrary to expectations, there's nothing especially onerous about the process. The biological contents of the pit have long since been broken down and converted to odorless soil. As Hostak says, "There's nothing 'icky' about it."

It's a methodical undertaking. They descend layer by layer, reading the soil as they go and taking care not to damage anything that may be hidden below. "We'll find the most delicate items," Hostak says. "We've found light bulbs from the 1800s that were still intact." During one dig Bergman, who collects antique bottles, uncovered the oldest bottle in his extensive collection – an 1869 bottle from Oshkosh soda water producers Hickey and Holcomb.

Bergman holds his 1869 Hickey and Holcomb bottle.

The most commonly found item, says Bergman, are medicine bottles that held elixirs prepared by local pharmacists. "It was like they were all drug addicts back then," he says. "You find a multitude from every pharmacist that was on Main Street." The mix of items often ranges widely. "Pistols, false teeth, syringes, breast pumps, eyeglasses; you just never know," Bergman says. "I once found a Morgan silver dollar."

Bergman with a host of bottles and flasks recovered during a dig on School Ave.

Their discoveries are a tangible representation of Oshkosh life as it was in an earlier era. "We almost always find things," Hostak says. "The remnants of anything used in a household will come up." Items of particular value are often divided among the diggers and property owners, but much of what they unearth is given away.

"I love finding the old stuff, but I can always find someone for whom it's more important or has more meaning, so it usually goes home with them," Hostak says. "We have donated many items to museums, historical societies, and other interested individuals. It's not at all just about us going home with stuff."

Bergman and Hostak are currently seeking sites for future digs. Interested property owners can contact either Bob Bergman at (920) 235-2871 or Matt Hostak at (920) 252-5844.

A slightly different version of this article appears in today's Oshkosh Herald.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Jill's Pils at Fox River

 Here's a beer to check out if you're a homebrewer or a lover of lager beer.

That’s Jill’s Pils and it went on tap this past Thursday at Fox River in Oshkosh.

This is actual Pilsner; as opposed to those washed-out, bland beers that masquerade as Pilsner It was brewed with an American hop named Contessa. This is my first brush with this hop. To me, this is the only American hop that really hits those notes you expect to get from a German noble hop. Now I need to find some for myself.