Thursday, September 30, 2021

Big Ed's Hop Yard Honey Bock

Last Thursday, Fox River Brewing released its 2021 version of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale. Big Ed’s is a wet hop beer using fresh hops that go directly from the hop bine to the brew kettle without being dried or processed. The hops used in Big Ed’s come from Steve Sobojinski’s hop yard in the Town of Nekimi.

Picking hops for the 2021 Big Ed's.

This year marks the sixth year that Fox River has produced Big Ed’s. When the beer was introduced in 2016, it became the first commercial beer made in Oshkosh in more than 130 years to use locally sourced hops. This year, Fox River was able to gather 41 pounds of hops from Sobojinski’s yard.

Big Ed’s changes from year to year. As Sobojinski’s hop yard has matured, the flavor coming out of the field has grown deeper, more complex. Over the last couple of years, those hops have settled into a nice groove. The flavor is bright and slightly lemony with a piney undertow.

The base beer has also changed. Big Ed’s began life as a pale ale. But since 2019, when Drew Roth took over as head brewer at Fox River, the beer has gone through different iterations. Last year, Big Ed’s was a Cascadian Dark Ale. This year, it’s an American Bock made with an addition of honey from Talbot's Apiary in Ripon.

The 2021 version of Big Ed's.

“We seem to get a consistent character from the wet hops,” says Roth. “We have been trying things out (with the base beer) to find what we like. By changing it up we keep it interesting.”

Roth may have finally found the sweet spot with this year’s version of Big Ed’s. “It is by far the best batch of Big Ed’s we have done,” he says. “It’s a damn tasty lager.”

Big Ed’s in on tap now at Fox River in Oshkosh and Appleton. It will also soon be available in bottles.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Adam Carlson, Ruby Owl, and a Decade of Craft Beer in Oshkosh

For a decade now, Adam Carlson has been putting his stamp on the Oshkosh beer scene. You've known his influence if you've ever purchased beer at Gardina's Kitchen & Bar or The Ruby Owl Tap Room; each located on North Main Street in Oshkosh. In addition to being part owner and manager of Ruby Owl, Carlson curates the beer line-up for both venues. The taplists at these places tend to stand apart from what you'll find in other taprooms in town. That's because Carlson is not your typical, Oshkosh beer purveyor.

Adam Carlson

Carlson came to beer from the wine world. His drinks career began in 2010 as bar manager for what was then called Gardina's Wine Bar & Cafe. There, his nascent interest in craft beer got the better of him. It led to Gardina's installing a draft-beer system that Carlson filled with an ever-rotating cast of hard-to-obtain specialty ales. “The focus from day one was to be all craft all the time,” Carlson says. The success of the endeavor led to the opening of the beer-centric Ruby Owl in 2016.

Since then, Ruby Owl has become the benchmark bar for craft beer in Oshkosh. When Ruby Owl was launched five years ago, craft beer here was still something of a niche product. It went mainstream in the interim. And with that has come a new type of consumer.

"The snobby seriousness attached to the early days of craft beer has fallen," Carlson says. "We see a lot of people now that just want to enjoy a beverage and if that beverage happens to be beer, well that's great. But they're not involved in the minutia or the provenance. They just want something that's going to taste really good, something that might even transcend beer."

Which has led to Carlson pouring beers of a sort that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. "There's now a lot of overlap with things like hard seltzer and cocktails," he says. "The distributors will come to us with beers that are so packed full of fruit purees, and milk sugars, and those sorts of adjuncts that they barely qualify as beer. That's not to denigrate those things, but if you're a beer purist, that's not going to appeal to you."

The point, he says, is to draw from a larger pool of consumers. "The breweries are marketing these beers to compete in other categories. In a way, that's brilliant. We see where it's engaging a segment of the market that in years past would not have been at all interested in traditional beer."

"I can see a similar arc with wine, where it was a trend started by vinophiles and it picked up steam and hit the mainstream and you had an explosion of mass-marketed wine. It's not traditionally acceptable to do to wine what is being done to beer, but similarly to beer, these are wines made to attract that mainstream consumer who just wants something fruity and fun to drink."

Carlson isn't judgmental about the direction the market has taken. "To point these things out is not an indictment of anything," he says. "It's not that a brewery is wrong for making something like a marshmallow pina colada sour. It's just the cycle of things." The current cycle may not end anytime soon, but Carlson is noticing that some consumers appear to have grown weary of it.

"We're seeing more people coming in looking for lagers and for some bitterness in their IPAs," he says. “We’re also seeing more people who want less alcohol. Eventually you come to the realization that it's as much about the people you're with as the beer, and that you'd rather have two or three 4.5 percent beers instead of one super-high alcohol beer. There's a growing demand for well-made beer that doesn't have anything to hide. It's reverting back to something that's clean and crisp and refreshing."

That's a segment that Carlson likes to encourage. "A lot of what I put on tap is driven by what I want to drink," he says. "There are a number of breweries I'm loyal to that make consistently good beer. Breweries like Lakefront, New Glarus, Lazy Monk. I find myself coming back to their beers. They may not be flashy, but everything is always well made and their prices are fair. Those aren't the breweries that are going to set us apart, but I always like to have them in the mix."

All of which hasn't made Carlson's job any easier. Curating a tap list that can satisfy such diverse expectations has grown increasingly challenging. "When I started, the options were so limited," he says. "But now there are so many vendors, distributors, and salespeople out there vying for your draft lines, and vying for your time, that it's become dizzying. Everything is moving at such a hyper-speed that it's kind of crazy. It's never been like this before."

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Heritage Series: Rahr's Centennial Brew

In 1953, the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh made a beer that was rare for its time. Oshkosh was celebrating its Centennial that year. To mark the event, the Rahr family produced a beer that was a nod to the Oshkosh beers of 1853. Rahr's Oshkosh Centennial Brew was an all-malt lager beer. Released in June of 1953, Centennial Brew was one of the few American beers of the period made without cereal adjuncts such as corn or rice. That special beer is about to make a brief comeback.

On Saturday, October 2, Bare Bones Brewery will release a one-barrel batch of Rahr's Oshkosh Centennial Brew as part of the brewery's Heritage Series of historic Oshkosh beers. Centennial Brew is a 4.7% ABV golden lager. The Rahr's labelled it a Pilsner. The beer recalled the original iteration of the style. The color was deeper and the flavor more rounded and full than is found in most American Pilsners brewed today.

The recipe and process used at Bare Bones were provided by the original brewer. His name was Charles "Chuck" Rahr. Chuck was the fourth generation of Rahr-family brewmasters at the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh.

Chuck Rahr

Chuck was born in 1928. He grew up in and around the family brewery. "From a very young age I helped out around the brewery," he said. "Even as a little kid I used to watch my dad brew the beer. It was our life.” Chuck would be the last brewmaster at Rahr. Unable to compete with Oshkosh's larger breweries, the Rahr brewery closed in 1956.

The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh.

The Bare Bones version of Rahr's Centennial Brew was made on August 6, 2021. It underwent a cold fermentation followed by six weeks of lagering (cold maturation). The Rahr's were always sticklers about those extended periods of lagering for their beer. As they noted in their advertising, "artificial aging never had a look-in at Rahr's. Old Father Time always did the aging at this brewery."

In the brewhouse on August 6 were Bare Bones head brewer Jody Cleveland, Gary Fenrich, and myself. Gary is an Oshkosh homebrewer. Gary had gotten to know Chuck Rahr and at one point explored the idea with him of relaunching the Rahr brand.

Jody Cleveland (left) and Gary Fenrich.

There was another reason it was fitting that Gary was there for the brew day. In 1953 his mother, Carol (Genal) Fenrich, was named Oshkosh's Centennial Queen. We're hoping she'll be able to join us at Bare Bones on Saturday.

From 1953, Oshkosh Centennial Queen Carol Genal.

Unfortunately, Chuck Rahr isn't around to see his beer revived. Chuck passed away in 2016. I once asked him if he had been much of a beer drinker back when he was still brewing. "I loved beer," Chuck said. I'll bet he would have liked this one.

The Bare Bones Brewery version of Rahr's Centennial Brew.

Rahr's Oshkosh Centennial Brew will begin pouring at noon on Saturday, October 2. The beer will be available only on draft. If you can make it to Bare Bones on Saturday for a pint, you'll also receive a commemorative postcard like those shown at the top of the post. Hope to see you there.

I've written a couple of pieces about Chuck Rahr for the blog. You can find those here and here.

A few years back I made a short video covering the history of Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh. You can see that here.

The recipe for the beer that was brewed at Bare Bones is very similar to the recipe for Rahr's Elk's Head. The basic difference being the exclusion of corn and a slight reduction of black malt to keep the color from drifting into the amber range. You can find that recipe here.

Monday, September 27, 2021

B’Gosh it’s Good at Fifth Ward on Sunday

The third B’Gosh it’s Good Brewery Collectables Trade Show is this Sunday at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh. Stop by, grab a beer, and check out the incredible array of brewery memorabilia this event pulls in. The show begins at noon and it's free!

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Bier Hall at The Gibson this Thursday

This Thursday, September 23, the Gibson Social Club will open to the public for the first in an ongoing series of Thursday-night Bier Hall events. "We're going with an authentic German Bier Hall vibe," says Will Amacher, the Food & Beverage Director at the Gibson. "There's really nothing I like better than seeing big mugs of beer sliding around."

The Gibson Social Club opened in August after a year of extensive renovation to the historic building it occupies at 537 N. Main Street. Primarily a private event space, the venue will also host public events from time to time. Hence the Bier Hall.

"The place already kind of looks like a German Bier Hall, so that aspect of it won't be too difficult," Amacher says. "We'll have eight beers on tap, including at least a couple of Oktoberfest beers along with beers from local breweries like Fifth Ward and Lion's Tail. I'm a big fan of the malty stuff, so this is really my season."

Amacher behind the bar at The Gibson Social Club.

"We're kicking it off with Danny Jerabek from Copper Box playing," Amacher says. "My goal today is to hook up a Hammerschlagen source. That's about the last detail and we're good to go."

The Bier Hall at the Gibson opens at 6 p.m. Thursday. There's no cover. The event is open to the public. For more details visit The Gibson's Facebook event page.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Beer Production in Oshkosh Has Spiked

Last year was nearly a disaster for the breweries of Oshkosh. Slammed by the repercussions of COVID, overall beer production in the city fell by 18 percent. This year, it’s an entirely different story.

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue has released its beer production reports for the first seven month of 2021. They show a remarkable turnaround in the works.

Compared to the same period of a year ago, total beer production in Oshkosh is up a full 80 percent. Here’s how that’s playing out at each of our three breweries.

Click the graph to enlarge it.

Fox River leads the way with a 115 percent spike in production this year compared to the same period last year. Bare Bones is up 61 percent. Fifth Ward is up 44 percent. All three breweries are on pace to have a record breaking year.

Sustaining that pace, though, may become increasingly difficult in the weeks ahead. With COVID infection rates again on the rise in Oshkosh, the immediate future appears less promising. We’ll see. For now, at least, the momentum is heading in the right direction.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Omro Saloon Wars

Omro was once a village at war with itself. On one side were the drinkers and saloonkeepers. They populated the Main Street saloons owned by lager-beer breweries from Oshkosh and Milwaukee. On the other side were the dries. They were prohibitionists who detested the beer parlors clustered in the heart of their idyllic village.

The battle in Omro raged for almost 40 years. It ended in 1915 with a provisional victory for the prohibitionists. The saloons were abolished. Their once-vital presence faded from memory. Our aim here is to shed light on what has become a lost chapter of Omro history.

Omro in the 1890s. Looking east along the south side of West Main and the
wooden boardwalk in front of Saloon Row.

The Battle Joined
The conflict had been simmering for years. The Omro Union newspaper fanned the flames.

“The editor of that paper has been, ever since we knew him, howling in his feeble way over the sale of liquor in that place,” wrote the editor of the Ripon Representative in 1868. “When we read such sickish twaddle in a paper that professes temperance principles we feel like saying something that don’t look well in print.”

The “sickish twaddle” attracted few converts in Omro. The divide was fixed. It ran along ethnic lines. The temperance crusaders were drawn, for the most part, from native-born stock with Yankee roots. The loud crowd inhabiting the saloons tended to be immigrants from Europe who refused to be weaned from their taste for alcohol.

In 1879, a decade of resentment boiled over. Village officials at the behest of temperance agitators began rejecting applications for liquor licenses. Omro saloon owners like Henry Jassen, an immigrant from Denmark, were told to go dry or get out. Jassen didn’t blink. He went on slinging beer. Until they threw him in jail.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 28, 1880.

Jassen was bailed out by his backer, Oshkosh brewer Charles Rahr. Jassen then pulled a no-show at his court date and jumped bail. Rahr hunted Jassen down and pounded him. Jassen went on the offensive. He sued Rahr for the beating and won 16 bucks. He also sued the Omro officials who had been dogging him. During that ordeal, Jassen subpoenaed "a large number of respectable ladies of Omro.'' He dragged them into court for no purpose other than the joy he obtained in harassing them in kind.

None of it helped. In the fall of 1880, the Omro Saloon War claimed its first victim. Battered and broke, Jassen lost his bar to his creditors. He moved to Oshkosh and got a job tending bar in a saloon owned by a fellow Dane. Jassen died in Oshkosh in the fall of 1886. Cause of death unknown. Henry Jassen was all of 31.

Jassen’s Omro cohort was George Mischler, an immigrant from the Germanic Alsace region of France. Mischler kept a rough and conspicuous saloon on the south side of Omro’s Main Street. Among its other claims to fame, Mischler’s place had been ground zero for an 1879 “mob riot” led by John and James Goggins, brothers who achieved legendary reputations for the creation of drunken mayhem in the village.

Omro officials spent much of the early 1880s trying to shut the Mischler place down. At one point, under threat of arrest, Mischler hid out in Winneconne only to get busted there for his part in a drunken brawl. All the while, the cunning saloonkeeper managed to keep his dive in Omro afloat.

But Mischler grew tired of the battle. In 1884, he followed Jassen to Oshkosh where Mischler took over a disorderly saloon on Main Street. He died there in the fall of 1886. George Mischler was 46. His death was caused by an obstructed bowel.

The New Breed
While Jassen and Mischler were meeting the eternal end, the saloon scene in Omro was beginning anew. Things had quieted by the time Richard Rumsey opened his saloon in Omro in the mid-1880s. The Omro dries had no use for him, but the tactics they had employed on Jassen and Mischler weren't going to work with this guy. Rumsey was a Yankee and an Omro boy. He was one of their own.

Richard Rumsey was born in upstate New York in 1841. He was eight when his family moved to Winnebago County. The Rumseys settled just north of the village on 95 acres of land in Section 5 of the Omro township. Richard Rumsey worked that farm for the better part of his life.

The change came after his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1878. Rumsey and his two daughters left the farm and moved to the village. He was done with country living. Rumsey opened a saloon in a building he leased on the south side of West Main Street, just west of Webster.

An annotated Sanborn map from 1887. Rumsey’s original saloon is shown at #145.

Omro's street names and numbering system have changed over the years. For the sake of clarity, we'll use the current street names for properties mentioned in this story. We’ll use the numbering system shown on maps from the period to illustrate the locations of various saloons.

Richard Rumsey became the first of a new breed of saloonkeeper in Omro. There was nobody like them in all of Winnebago County. The saloon culture that grew up in the other nearby cities and villages was established by immigrants, usually from Germany or Bohemia, who imported their drinking culture to their new homeland. It looked like it would be that way in Omro until the sobriety fanatics ran Jassen and Mischler out of town.

Richard Rumsey and the Omro barmen he brought in were different. They were native-born, from families well-known in the area. They were far too familiar for the prohibitionists to effectively demonize.

Rumsey was the oldest of the bunch and its guiding light. Others followed, creating an informal alliance. Their paths braided over the years. Their families intermarried and they would go in and out of partnerships with one another. They would swap locations with a frequency that bewildered outsiders. It all began to take shape after a bleak week in February of 1890.

Fire and Murder
It started with the Sunday morning fire of February 17. The blaze took out everything on the south side of West Main Street between Jefferson and Webster. Rumsey's saloon went with it. Newspaper reports – informed by temperance supporters – immediately placed blame on the crowd hanging around Rumsey's place. There was no need for evidence at a time like this.

"The cause of the fire is a mystery, but the prevailing idea is that it was the result of a drunken carousal, carried on by a lot of drinking and gambling hoodlums that have infested this place for several months past, and whose blasphemies and orgies outrivaled the savage, after sacking the burning saloon."
     – Wood County Reporter, February 20, 1890.

The orgy wasn’t over. Two nights later a fight broke out among the "gambling hoodlums" during a session above a stable overlooking the ashes of West Main. John Goggins, who had played a starring role in the 1879 riot at Mischler's saloon, was beaten to death during the melee. A newspaper profile of Goggins' earlier exploits remarked that he had “already done enough devilment during his short career on earth to entitle him to a front rank among the criminals of the land.” Omro was now rid of him.

The prohibitionists had cause to celebrate. In a single week, the village had been cleansed by fire and murder. The gambling ring was broken. Rumsey's saloon was ash. But not for long. Rumsey and his brother-in-law Charles Buckalew immediately began rebuilding. Three weeks later, he was back in business.

The wreckage of 1890 seems to have inspired Rumsey. He purchased what had been a restaurant two doors west of his original saloon and turned it into a saloon run by Buckalew and Dan Winchester. Both Buckalew and Winchester came from well-known farming families that had been in the county for decades.

By the end of 1895, there were three saloons standing in a row on the south side of West Main. Rumsey had a hand in two of them. The prohibitionists were losing ground. And Rumsey, now 55 years old, wasn't letting up.

The Rumsey-owned saloon (located at #143 in the 1895 Sanborn map below), run by Buckalew and Winchester. Signs for Pabst Beer adorn the entrance. Photo circa 1896, courtesy of John Steiner.

Detail from the 1895 Sanborn map of Omro.

Boom Town
Rumsey added a couple of new partners to the fold. The first was Euclid Tritt, the son of a beloved Civil War vet whose family had been farming in the county since 1850. Tritt had been making cheese before getting his training from Rumsey in the saloon trade.

Euclid Tritt

Then Rumsey brought in Pabst. In 1895, Rumsey signed a contract with Pabst Brewing that supplied him with financing in exchange for an agreement to sell Pabst’s beer exclusively. The two Rumsey saloons became tied houses. Pabst was setting itself up to take over the beer market in Omro. Then came Schlitz.

In 1897, Charles Maulick and Frank Kitz bought the Day and Larrabee dry goods store at the south west corner of West Main and Webster (#146). Maulick and Kitz couldn't have cared less about dry goods. They were saloon men from Oshkosh. They ran the bar that’s now named Oblio's. Maulick was also the agent for Schlitz Beer in the area. The purchase of the Day and Larrabee property was financed by Schlitz with the understanding that the store would be converted into a saloon selling the brewery’s beer. Omro had another tied house.

Maulick's saloonkeepers didn't fit the Rumsey mode. When Elmer Bresee went behind the bar to sell Schlitz, he was 29 years old and relatively new to the Omro area. His first partner was Will Oatman, a fourth-grade dropout who'd been working as a day laborer in Oshkosh before moving into the village.
The Bresee/Oatman partnership lasted only a couple of years. Will Oatman peeled off and moved down the block where his older brother Frank had opened a saloon (#136) in the Wilson Block. That saloon would become tied to the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

The Wilson Block, circa 1906, indicated by the red arrow. A dark sign with a white border
hangs in front of the Oatman saloon and advertises the Oshkosh Brewing Company's beer.

Eight years earlier, a fire had leveled the south side of West Main and brought down the only saloon there. By the end of 1898, the rebuilt block was home to five saloons. The boom was being financed by breweries in Milwaukee and Oshkosh. The worst fears of the prohibitionists were being realized in the heart of the village.

Detail of the 1900 Sanborn map of Omro showing Saloon Row.
The Schlitz tied house was at 146. The Oatman saloon was at 136.

Easy Bresee
Richard Rumsey and Pabst were still a force on the south side of West Main, but now there was real competition at both ends of the block. In 1899, Rumsey’s partner Euclid Tritt decided it was time to jump ship. The timing was not coincidental.

Tritt signed on with Elmer Bresee at the corner saloon now solely owned by Charles Maulick with backing from Schlitz. But Maulick had gotten into some trouble in Oshkosh after a man drank himself to death in his saloon there. Maulick was looking to get out of the business entirely. Bresee and Tritt were going to make the most of his unfortunate situation.

First, they signed onto a land contract with Maulick to purchase the building at a price that was about 40 percent below market value. With Maulick on the way out, that contract ended up in the hands of the new Oshkosh agent for Schlitz, Peter Henrichs. But Henrich's was on his way out too. He turned around and sold the contract to the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). Bresse and Tritt made their meager payments to OBC for the next couple of years. With little overhead, they were able to pile up money selling OBC's beer.

In 1903, Bresse and Tritt cashed in. They satisfied the contract held by OBC then immediately sold the property to Pabst at a handsome profit. They also got a cheap lease on the place in exchange for the promise to sell nothing but Pabst’s beer. It was not unusual in the early 1900s for saloonkeepers to play breweries against one another this way. Few, however, exploited the situation as deftly as Bresse and Tritt just had. It was a game Bresee would continue playing throughout his career.

Pabst, for its part, was eager to pay up. Pabst purchasing agent Fred Ruenzel made his case for buying the saloon in a 1903 letter to his boss in Milwaukee. “To purchase the place in question would not only be a good investment, but we would acquire a valuable beer stand, better than anything we could get in Oshkosh for the same amount of money,” Ruenzel wrote. “Furthermore it would practically give us the control of the beer business in the town.”

Pabst had grounds for being bullish on Omro. The village was thriving. It was growing into something more than a farm service community. In 1902, Omro had been connected to Oshkosh by an interurban line that ran all day and half the night. The coaches carried 500 people through town on a daily basis. And every one of those trains slid to a stop just a few feet from the saloons clustered on the south side of West Main.

An interurban car at rest in front of Saloon Row.

Saloon Row
To the utter dismay of the dries, the beer flowed freely along the south side of West Main. Six saloons had crowded into the short stretch between Jefferson and Webster. And like the interurban line, their taps ran day and night. Most of the bars opened at 5 a.m. and remained open well into the evening. But Omro's prohibitionists weren't giving up.

Near the end of 1903, the dries convinced the village board to adopt a resolution corralling the saloons. The ordinance limited "The sale of strong, spirituous, malt, ardent or intoxicating liquors within the village of Omro" to the stretch along West Main where Rumsey, Bresee, and the others were already slinging beer. The unofficial saloon row was now officially Saloon Row.

As if looking for a fight, the Oshkosh Brewing Company promptly purchased a building outside of the restricted area at the north west corner of West Main and Webster. The brewery announced its plan to have the saloon ordinance repealed and put a new beer parlor directly across the street from Saloon Row. The dries were beside themselves. They promised to fight the brewery every inch of the way. It was a fight OBC appeared to relish and eventually won.

The red arrow is over the Oshkosh Brewing Company saloon that came to be
known as the Fountain Inn. The current address of that location is 103 West Main. 

Meanwhile, a new player arrived on Saloon Row. In the fall of 1904, Miller Brewing bought what had been a former harness and saddle shop owned by J.T. Russell (#141). Naturally, the brewery stripped the place and turned it into an outlet for its beer. The wood-frame building featured a broad, bill-board like facade upon which Miller painted its slogan. The huge script looming over West Main read: MILLER THE BEST MILWAUKEE BEER. It was enough to make a small-town prohibitionist sick.

Looking west down Saloon Row, circa 1908. The Miller Brewing Saloon stands at
about mid-block. Large, white lettering is visible on the facade above the entrance.

The Interurban Giveth and The Interurban Taketh Away
The dries had been set back on their heels, but their crude persistence had not been extinguished. One of their more base tactics was beginning to pay dividends.

For decades, prohibitionists had been working to indoctrinate children with their panicked message that alcohol was the liquid incarnation of Evil. They had even managed to get their lessons embedded in public school curriculums where children were coerced into taking oaths promising never to drink alcohol nor associate with those who did. It was all part of the prohibitionist's long game. One day those children would be old enough to vote.

The echoes of their proselytizing can be heard in Miriam Smith's voluminous The History of Omro, published in 1976. Smith's book contains little about the old Omro saloons but has a telling passage of how children were made to view them. Smith quotes one of her sources saying, "At that time all of us girls took it as a sin to look into a barbershop or a saloon window." Smith goes on to write that, "No woman ever found herself by them [the saloons] on that side of the street. If she did by chance, she was in danger of being ostracized from society!"

The fear-mongering paid off in 1906. For years, the dries had been placing a “no-license” referendum on the spring ballot that would forbid the granting of liquor licenses in the village. No license meant no saloon. Year after year the measure went down to defeat. But in 1906, the dries eked out a win. No-license was passed by 18 votes. Omro had just voted itself dry.

It wasn't a good look. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern poked fun at the village noting that the interurban would need to add more cars to its line to accommodate people fleeing Omro in search of a drink. The quip got picked up and reprinted in newspapers across the state.

Days later, the jokes had worn thin and the Daily Northwestern was reporting that "There are a good many people living in Omro who are already sorry that the town voted ‘no license’ at the recent spring election."

The regret was inspired by the hit the village was about to take to its annual budget. Each year, each saloon paid a $500 licensing fee. The money was used to pay for necessities like road maintenance. But that money had now been rejected by the voters. The shortfall would have to be made up by direct taxation. One angry Omroite remarked, "The prohibitionists, however, don't consider that feature of the saloon business at all. With them it is anything to beat the devil."

A year of watching dollars flow out of the village convinced Omro voters that they had been sold a bum steer. In April of 1907, they returned to the polls and in a landslide voted the saloons back into business. The dries had been put down again. At least for the time being.

The Senate
The hiccup of 1906 did nothing to dampen the spirits of the saloonists. They sprang into action in 1907, picking up where they'd left off. Elmer Bresee came roaring back.

After cashing in on Pabst, Bresee and Euclid Tritt parted ways. Bresee remained at the corner saloon (#146) where he partnered with Fred Glines, who was no stranger to the Omro scene. Born in 1867, Glines had grown up in the village and had briefly run a bar on Saloon Row at the turn of the century. Before joining Bresee, Glines had been working for Pabst selling the brewery's beer in Winneconne.

Under Bresee, Glines, and Pabst, the saloon at the south west corner of West Main and Webster became Omro's premier beer hall. It was called The Senate Sample Room. The Senate was the cornerstone of Saloon Row.

The Senate at the south west corner of West Main and Webster.
Photo courtesy of John Steiner.

Bresee was too restless to remain partners with anyone for very long. In 1907, the Bresee/Glines partnership came undone. Bresee stepped out and Euclid Tritt stepped back in, returning to his old stand. Tritt, Glines, and Pabst carried on at the corner. Elmer Bresee moved into a new place a few doors down on Saloon Row.

All of which brings us to an item that has been a source of deep confusion over the ensuing years. The B&G Omro beer bottle.
These embossed beer bottles were produced in the early 1900s. Some were made of clear glass, others were brown. Some have Omro incorrectly spelled Orma on them. That was the first mistake attached to them.

The next was the often-repeated assumption that these bottles were issued by an Omro brewery. That's not the case. Omro has been home to just one brewery: Omega Brewing Experience, launched by Steve Zink in 2017. These bottles pre-date Omro's sole brewery by more than a century.

Prior to 1920, it was not uncommon for American breweries to job their bottling out to independent bottlers. The Omro bottles came out of that circumstance. The beer that once resided in those bottles was produced by a brewery that sold kegged beer to an independent bottler who repackaged it in glass. But who in Omro was doing the bottling? That brings us to the next mistake.

In 1976, Wayne Kroll published Badger Breweries Past & Present. Kroll's book is the "bible" for collectors of embossed, pre-Prohibition beer bottles like those that came from Omro. Badger Breweries is an incredible work of research, but the Omro entry includes an error. Kroll wrote that "Elmer Bresee & Fred Glines were saloon operators that bottled beer for a very short while."

As we've mentioned above, Bresee and Glines were tied to Pabst. At that time, Pabst was no longer jobbing out its bottling to independents. Most of Pabst's bottled beer was packaged at the brewery's bottling plant in Milwaukee. When it made economic sense to outsource bottling, it was done in Pabst branch facilities like the one in Oshkosh. It wasn't Pabst in those Omro bottles. And the embossed "G" on them had nothing to do with Fred Glines.

G is for Goggins
The Goggins name in Omro was already well known by the time Andrew Goggins attached it to a bar on Saloon Row. Around 1850, his parents had migrated from Ireland to settle a farm in Section 6 of the Township of Omro. The Goggins clan had been there ever since. Andrew, born in 1876, was the youngest. Among his older siblings were the notorious Omro hooligans James and John Goggins.

Andrew was of a somewhat different stripe. Unlike his troublesome brothers, he'd received a high school education and had spent much of his early life building up the family's dairy farm. His résumé was not without blemish, though. In 1896, Goggins was prosecuted and convicted by the state for selling adulterated milk. In 1904, with his marriage falling apart, Goggins moved to the village and got a job tending bar.

Andrew Goggins
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Goggins.

Goggins entered the saloon trade as a bartender at Will Oatman's White Seal Sample Room, a swank lounge tied to the Oshkosh Brewing Company at the western end of Saloon Row (#136). He went out on his own after the 1906 dry spell and took over the saloon three doors down from the corner of West Main and Webster (#144). It was there that Goggins began his partnership with Elmer Bresee.

Goggins' first saloon with a read arrow over his "A. Goggins" above the front door.

The shingle out front read Goggins, but by 1909 Elmer Bresee was in there as well. In June of that year, Bresee signed onto the lease. Six months later, another deal was spun that brought Pabst into ownership of the saloon. The ink hadn’t dried on that compact before Bresee and Goggins were onto their next venture.

A new, cement-block building had gone up a couple of doors down (#142). In September of 1909, Bresee and Goggins purchased that building and put a saloon into it. Today that building is the home of Club Omreau (the attached Legend Lanes Bowling Alley was built some 40 years later).

Saloon Row, circa 1908, with a red arrow over what became the Bresee/Goggins saloon.

It was a typical Bresee arrangement with he and Goggins using brewery cash to finance their operation. Over the past 12 years, Bresee had taken money from Schlitz, Oshkosh Brewing, and Pabst. This time he tapped the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh. This new deal was more complex, though, than anything Saloon Row had seen before.

In addition to the saloon, Bresee and Goggins would bottle Rahr beer for distribution in and around Omro. Rahr of Oshkosh was one of just two Winnebago County breweries at this point that didn't operate its own bottling facility. There was plenty of Rahr floating around in glass, but all of it was being packaged by independent bottlers.

Bresee and Goggins quickly put up a bottling plant. That facility appears to have been directly behind their saloon. The map below is from 1913 and shows the Bresee and Goggins saloon at 142 with the bottling plant behind it at 142 1/2.

Detail of the 1913 Sanborn map of Omro.

By 1910, Bresse and Goggins were advertising their bottling works with slogans like, "Bottled beer delivered for family trade" and "Bottled beer for family trade a specialty." The prohibitionists must have bristled at the association of family with beer. The bottles coming out of the Bresse/Goggins facility were filled with Rahr Beer and embossed with B & G.

Swinging Doors
At the April election of 1910, Omro voters were asked again if they wanted to prohibit the sale of alcohol in the village. It was becoming an annual event. This time, the dries made "strenuous efforts" to swing the voters back in their favor. They failed again. Omro remained wet.

Richard Rumsey died eight months after the votes had been tallied. He was 70 years old when he succumbed to heart failure at his home in Omro. Before Rumsey, the dries had run roughshod over anyone who dared provide what the majority wanted: a drink. Rumsey was the bulwark. He had established what grew into Saloon Row. It could all be traced back to him.

At the time of Rumsey's death, there were six saloons and a beer bottling plant packed into Saloon Row. The ceaseless churn was still in play.

In 1912, the ever-restless Elmer Bresee ended his partnership with Andrew Goggins. Bresee went back into the arms of Pabst and the former Rumsey saloon that the brewery now owned (#145) next door to the Senate Sample Room. The split was acrimonious and sent Goggins down another path. He moved to Fond du Lac to sell life insurance. The saloon and bottling house that he and Bresee had run ended up in the hands of their benefactor, Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh.

Andrew Goggins in a bow tie and white apron behind the bar near the end of his saloon career.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Goggins.

Bresee couldn't stop moving. Near the close of 1912, Pabst decided to tear down and rebuild the saloon Bresee had just moved into (#145). Bresee moved out and down a couple of doors into the Miller Brewing Saloon (#141).

In 1913, Fred Glines quit Pabst and the Senate Sample Room. He aligned himself with the Oshkosh Brewing Company and moved into the OBC-owned Fountain Inn across the street from the Senate. Bresee didn't miss a beat. He ditched the Miller saloon and went back to the open spot behind the bar at The Senate. It was his last stop on his farewell tour of Saloon Row.

The Irresistible Wave
The antics of the prohibitionists were treated like a running gag among the barmen of Saloon Row. Each year, the referendum to vote Omro dry would appear on the ballot. Each year it would get shot down. "One saloonkeeper was so sure that the 'no license' proposition would be defeated that as a joke he jocularly advised his friends to vote in favor of it," the Daily Northwestern reported after the debacle of the 1906 vote. But even the 1906 outcome wasn’t enough to jolt the saloonkeepers out of their complacency. They were in no way prepared for what was bearing down on them.

The dries had been racking up "no-license" victories across Wisconsin since 1911. They'd had little success in urban areas. But their influence was proving irresistible in townships and villages. In terms of population, 75% of Wisconsin residents lived in municipalities where liquor was legal. But geographically, half the state was under an alcohol ban. In 1914 alone prohibitionists in Wisconsin dragged another 33 towns and villages into the dry zone. Omro was in their crosshairs.

The ballot for the spring election of 1915 was published on March 22 and it again carried the no-license referendum. Two weeks later, 289 Omro residents voted on the matter. The dries won by 43 votes. The saloons were abolished again. This time, though, 18 years would pass before Omro issued another license to sell alcohol.

The regret that had followed the 1906 vote was even deeper in 1915. The Omro Journal, which for years had been stumping for the dries, was moved to address the town’s glum mood. "Some are prophesying a dull town," wrote the editor of the Journal. "Why? You will have all the more money to take your wife to the movies and treat her to ice cream and fruit." His blather only helped to affirm the prophecies of dullness.

One by one, the keepers of Saloon Row took their leave of Omro. Elmer Bresee, always ready to pick up and go, was among the first to decamp. He got as far as the west side of Oshkosh where he opened a saloon on Oshkosh Avenue. Bresee didn't stick there, either. With national Prohibition looming, he left the saloon trade and ended up in Michigan working as a machinist. Bresee died there in 1919 after he stepped on a steel shaving at work and contracted tetanus. Elmer Bresee was 51 years old when he died.

Bresee's first saloon partner, Will Oatman, also made for Oshkosh. Oatman took over a saloon on North Main Street that ran without incident until Prohibition arrived in 1920. By then, Oatman had apparently had his fill of do-gooders interfering with his livelihood. He turned his saloon into a speakeasy and began selling wildcat beer and moonshine. Oatman got busted for it in 1926. The arrest was accompanied by a criminal charge for supplying alcohol to a man who subsequently drank himself to death. That was enough. Will Oatman closed his speakeasy and started a chicken farm.

Will Oatman’s older brother Frank also went rogue. He left Saloon Row and moved to the Town of Oshkosh. There he opened a saloon that ran for less than a year before he had his license pulled for selling booze to minors.

Fred Glines held on longer than the others. He had purchased the Fountain Inn from the Oshkosh Brewing Company prior to Omro going dry. After the 1915 vote, Glines tried to keep the business going as a banquet hall. He gave up in 1918 and sold the place back to OBC. Glines moved to Poygan and opened a cheese factory.

The saloonists weren't the only people abandoning Omro. After the dry law went into effect, the population of the village fell by almost 19 percent, hitting a low in 1920 of 1,042. It would be another 20 years before Omro fully recovered from the exodus.

The former Senate Sample Room gone dry.

The Last Battle
Ironically, the Oshkosh Brewing Company hadn't given up on the dwindling village. Following the dry vote, OBC mailed a card to every address in Omro saying it would be happy to deliver beer directly to the homes of those who asked for it. The brewery was flooded with requests. OBC loaded a wagon with beer, hitched it to horses, and pulled it the 11 miles from the brewery to the village. The dries were beside themselves. Omro officials retaliated, suing the brewery for violating the dry law. Thereafter, beer deliveries to Omro were banned.

An Oshkosh Brewing Company beer wagon.

There are just two remaining pieces of Saloon Row: the former Senate Sample Room at the corner of West Main and Webster; and the former Bresee/Goggins saloon, which is now home to the Club Omreau portion of the Legend Lanes Bowling Alley.

The former Senate Sample Room.

The former Bresee/Goggins saloon.

Both of these properties are included in the City of Omro's Historic Walking Tour. But the tour's program has nothing to say about the saloons that inhabited these buildings or Saloon Row in general. These are unfortunate but understandable oversights. It's part of the legacy of Omro's prohibitionists.

The dries lost their war in 1933 when national Prohibition was repealed. With that, you could again legally purchase alcohol in Omro. But the dries of Omro were not entirely defeated. Their one, sustaining victory has been the erasure of Omro's early saloon culture from the city's history. It's time they lose that battle, too.

The idea for this post came from Dale Applebee, who was born and raised in Omro. Dale and I first met in 2019 and by that time he had already done an extensive amount of research on Omro's history and Saloon Row. Without Dale's persistence and enthusiasm, this post would have never happened. I consider this as much the product of his work as my own.

A special thanks to Jennifer Goggins and John Steiner, both of whom were especially generous in sharing their knowledge and photos.

Saloon Row, 2021.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Closing Time for HighHolder

It's been a foregone conclusion for a while, but now it's official. HighHolder Brewing Company is no more.

HighHolder's Wisconsin beer production permit expired on August 31. The brewery, which began selling its beer in 2018, hadn't produced beer since March of 2020. Mike Schlosser of HighHolder said late last year that he anticipated getting the brewery back to full production in early 2021. It never happened. And now we’re back to having three breweries in Oshkosh.

I've been tracking the HighHolder story on this blog since 2015 when the project was launched as Sawdust City Brewing. After all they went through to get this brewery going, it's a damned shame this didn't work out