Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Life and Times of Silvo Fenn

In 1882 Silvo Fenn traveled 4,000 miles to make a new life for himself in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

A young Christian Frederick Silvo Fenn.

He was born on June 7, 1864, in Saalfeld; a mining town at the edge of the Thuringian Slate Mountains in central Germany.

The Saalfeld of Silvo Fenn’s youth.

The details of Fenn's life in Germany have been lost. What is known is that while in his teens he was trained as a brewer. He appears to have been eager to abandon whatever else his early life entailed. Fenn left Germany when he turned 18. He traveled north to Bremen, boarded the S.S Oder, and was gone. They had a phrase for what he was doing. Fenn was passing into eternity.

The S.S. Oder.

Fenn was two weeks at sea. He wasn’t alone. Ernst Lang, an 18-year-old brewer from Saxony, became his traveling companion. They deboarded together when the Oder reached New York City on October 13, 1882.

Fenn and Lang headed west. They stopped when they reached Oshkosh. On the south side they met August Horn, who had come to America from Bavaria 30 years earlier. Horn hired both of them to work at his brewery.

August Horn.

Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery was launched in 1865 by German-born brewer Leonhardt Schwalm. A year later Schwalm brought in his brother-in-law August Horn. Then, in 1873, Schwalm died unexpectedly. The entire brewery burned to the ground six years later.

The original Horn & Schwalm Brooklyn Brewery in the 1600 block of Doty.

August Horn had a new, much larger brewery built. Leonhard Schwalm's son Theodore stepped in to take over his dead father's role in the brewhouse. But Theodore's all-consuming alcoholism soon rendered him incapable of much of anything. That’s when Fenn and Lang arrived.

Silvo Fenn went to work in the brewhouse. He also bunked there for his first year or so in Oshkosh. Ernst Lang moved into the house next door to the brewery. Lang’s job was to coax Oshkosh saloon owners into buying the Brooklyn Brewery’s beer. Horn’s brewery began hitting its stride. By 1889 the Brooklyn Brewery was selling more beer than any other brewery in Winnebago County.

The new Brooklyn Brewery, built after the 1879 fire.

Time spent hawking beer in Oshkosh saloons made an impression on Ernst Lang. He quit the brewery and in 1889 opened a saloon at the northeast corner of 6th and Oregon. Lang took Leonhard Schwalm's daughter Hannah with him. The couple moved into the apartment above their saloon. They were in the heart of the Morgan Company complex. Thirsty workers were drawn to their bar night and day. Lang’s place was an immediate success.

Ernst Lang's saloon (on the right) at the northeast corner of Oregon and sixth.

Fenn, meanwhile, settled into the life of an Oshkosh brewer. In the spring of 1886, he married Anna Ritschke, who with her family had come to Oshkosh from Germany in 1871. Silvo and Anna had their first child a year after their wedding. Anna had another child, two years after that. And just about every year or so thereafter there was another. They would have seven kids in all.

In 1889, the Fenns bought an empty lot on Doty Street and built a home. The property was sold to them by Frederick Voelkel. He lived next door at the corner of Doty and 17th where he had run a saloon and white-beer brewery. Fenn’s neighbor to the north was a beer salesman for the Brooklyn Brewery. Across the street was the brewery where they worked and the mansion of their boss, August Horn. Fenn was fully immersed in the south side brewing scene.

 The Fenn family home at what is now 1663 Doty Street. The house still stands.

The August Horn home built in 1879 at 1662 Doty Street.

There was no rest in Fenn. He also worked as a finisher at Buckstaff, in addition to his job at the brewery. In 1892, Fenn took on another project. He began bottling beer.

Beer bottling in the 1890s was a messy affair. The Brooklyn Brewery, like many other American breweries, wanted nothing to do with it. The process was slow, laborious, and involved a senseless taxation protocol. It just wasn't worth the bother. But some people were willing to pay a premium for bottled beer. So a host of independents stepped in to fill the void.

An ad from the Oshkosh Labor Advocate of November 3, 1893.
Silvo Fenn listed among the bottlers of the Brooklyn Brewery’s beer.

Fenn wasn’t the first independent beer bottler in Oshkosh, but his operation would grow to be the most successful and enduring. Early on, he worked from his home. He'd buy kegs of beer from the Brooklyn Brewery, haul them across the street, and drain their contents into bottles by hand.

Then he had to peddle that beer. Sunday was the best day for it. Fenn would load a wagon full of beer bottles and go trolling through town. The sound of those bottles on a beer wagon was unmistakable. When the wagon came clattering the chime of the jingling glass was as distinctive as the music of an ice-cream truck. It brought people running.
The Brooklyn Brewery was growing prodigiously. Fenn was one of three bottlers for the brewery’s beer. His domain was the south side. Working at the brewery gave him a leg up on the others. August Horn was among the first business owners in Oshkosh to have a phone installed. If a call came in for bottled beer, Fenn was there to take it.

In 1894, Horn combined the Brooklyn Brewery with two other Oshkosh breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). The merger created one of the largest breweries in Northeast Wisconsin. Fenn became OBC's primary independent bottler.

An early ad for the Oshkosh Brewing Company that appeared in the Wisconsin Telegraph,
a German-language newspaper published in Oshkosh. Fenn is listed on the right
under “Aus Flaschen gef├╝llt von” identifying the beer bottlers for the new brewery.

Fenn’s bottling operation had completely outgrown its makeshift beginnings. He borrowed money – and probably advice – from Christian Elser who, before his retirement, had been the bottler for Glatz's Union Brewery. The bottling plant Fenn built behind the family home was the largest of its type in Oshkosh.

Detail from a 1903 Sanborn Map of Oshkosh. Fenn’s Bottling plant is at
287 Nebraska (now 1664 Nebraska). His home is shown at 52 Doty (now 1663 Doty).

The separation between his work and family life was non-existent. For example: in 1896 Fenn’s three-year-old son Sizzo spotted him behind the house sorting beer kegs. The toddler waddled over and...

The father hurled a heavy oaken keg to one side and the child received the full effect of the blow. He was crushed to the ground and picked up by the parent for dead. Medical assistance was summoned and it was found that the infant was suffering a long, deep scalp wound, a fractured skull, and a right leg broken in two places between the knee and the instep. His chances for recovery are considered doubtful.
     – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 6, 1896

Sizzo survived. It wasn’t his last brush with an early death. He took a stray bullet to the neck while out hunting in 1933. That didn't stop him, either. Sizzo lived to be 98.

Sizzo Fenn on the left in 1929. At the time, Sizzo was the secretary for
the Oshkosh Pure Ice Company where this picture was taken.

Silvo Fenn finally quit his job at the brewery and went full-time into bottling beer. It still wasn't enough. He began getting help from Robert Nachtrab who had recently moved from a farm in the Town of Nekimi and into the house next door. By 1898, Fenn and Nachtrab had formed a partnership. Nachtrab focused on beer sales. Fenn focused on getting all that beer into those bottles.

The early Fenn and Nachtrab bottles were manufactured in Illinois, Indiana, and Milwaukee. They were pint-sized with the surnames of the bottlers embossed on the face. The blobbed top was sealed by a porcelain stopper held in place by a wire hinge and cuffed with a rubber gasket. A box of 12 pints went for about 50 cents (approximately $16 today).

The bottling houses in Oshkosh operated like ad hoc saloons with beer flowing freely from bottles and kegs. It annoyed the saloon keepers to no end. Unlike the bottlers, the saloon men paid a hefty licensing fee for the privilege of slinging their suds.

In November 1908, Fenn was ratted out and arrested. He was charged with selling liquor without a license at his bottling house. Fenn pleaded guilty and paid a $50 fine (about $1,450 today). After that, he ponied up the $200 licensing fee and continued pouring beer for his guests.

From the 1908 Oshkosh City Directory.

The business continued to grow. Family help was in constant rotation at the bottling plant. And by 1910, Fenn and Nachtrab had hired two additional full-time employees.

The Fenn and Nachtrab bottling plant, circa 1911, at what is now 1664 Nebraska.
The left (northern) portion of the building behind the beer barrels contained the ice house where
beer was stored both before and after bottling. The opposite wing housed the bottling line.
Fenn’s home can be seen through the opening at the end of the driveway.

From left to right: Hank Ritschke, Silvo Fenn’s brother in law. Laurence Nachtrab, Robert Nachtrab’s son. On the horse is Ernst Fenn, Silvo’s son. Silvo Fenn is in the white shirt with suspenders. Oscar Rand, an employee of the bottling plant, has his arms crossed. An unidentified youth, possibly Sizzo Fenn, wears a hat slanted on his head. Robert Nachtrab is in bib overalls at the extreme right.

They were working on borrowed time. Independent bottlers like Fenn were falling by the wayside. Breweries were warming to the idea of taking their bottling in-house. For the Oshkosh Brewing Company, that time arrived in 1912. When Fenn walked out onto the front steps of his home that spring he saw this looming over him....

Completed in 1912, the new brewery of the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

OBC had been doing at least some of its own bottling since 1894. With the completion of its new brewery in 1912, the company decided it was time to do away with the independent bottlers and take that business for its own. Things had changed. The burdensome tax laws had been streamlined and bottling technology had improved considerably. OBC's new brewery had a pipe running from its tanks to a bottling line in the old Horn and Schwalm brewery. Fenn had known this day was coming.

OBC began terminating its bottling agreements. Fenn and Nachtrab were the only bottlers to survive the culling. The others were given the less lucrative option of becoming distributors for OBC's beer. Fenn's long relationship with the brewery may have been what saved them. But the old ties that had bound the Southsiders were fraying. August Horn, the first president of OBC and Fenn’s early benefactor, had died in 1904. His successor, William Glatz, was not the sentimental type when it came to the beer business.

William Glatz

Fenn didn’t seem especially concerned about remaining in the good graces of Glatz. OBC had been the dominant player in the Oshkosh beer market for close to 20 years. The first formidable challenge to that dominance came in 1913 when Peoples Brewing began making beer just a stone's throw away from the OBC plant. Glatz was furious. He publicly railed against the upstart brewery that had been funded, in part, by Oshkosh saloon keepers. Fenn rubbed salt in the wound. He began distributing the new brewery’s beer.

It could have been a ploy to gain leverage. If it was, it worked. Within a year, Fenn dropped Peoples from his portfolio and was back to dealing and bottling OBC beer exclusively.

By the end of 1915, Fenn and Nachtrab had become the only independent beer bottlers still operating in Oshkosh. That distinction wasn’t theirs for long. In 1916, Fenn's bottling agreement with OBC ended. Like all the others, Fenn and Nachtrab were relegated to distribution. It was time for Fenn to bow out.

He hung around just long enough to enjoy one last beer bash. The old battle over Oshkosh saloons being open on Sundays had reignited. Sunday had always been the big day for beer drinking in Oshkosh. The local dries had been throwing fits about it for decades. In early 1917, the anti-fun crowd momentarily gained the upper hand forcing Oshkosh saloons to close on the Sabbath. Suddenly, the services of people like Fenn were in high demand. The old beer wagons were loaded up for another round.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, January 1, 1917.

That was the last hurrah. In July 1917, Fenn dissolved his partnership with Robert Nachtrab and quit the beer business. Nachtrab tried to keep the distribution operation afloat. He partnered with Ernst Berndt, who had been working for them since 1910. But with Prohibition on the horizon, there was little chance of the business surviving. It closed in 1919.

Fenn took a job as a fireman at the Deltox Grass Rug Company. His world had been upended. His entire adult life had revolved around beer. All of that was made illegal when Prohibition arrived in 1920. The bottling plant that he had built in his backyard sat vacant. The big brewery across the street that he had helped to make a success was turning out soda water and a dispirited, non-alcoholic brew named Pep.

Fenn decided to get away for a while. He had two sisters still living in Germany. He hadn’t seen them in 40 years. His flight-plan was similar to the one that had taken him to America. He headed north to catch a boat across the Atlantic. Fenn boarded the Empress of Scotland at the Port of Quebec on May 30, 1922. He was going home.

Silvo Fenn’s 1922 U.S. passport photo.

Fenn returned to Oshkosh in the late summer of 1922. He went back to work at Deltox. He quit that a few years later and took a job as a watchman at Gould Manufacturing. He retired in the early 1930s. Prohibition was about to be repealed. Fenn was 69 years old when it finally happened. Beer was legal again, but that world was just a memory for him now.

On December 12, 1944, Silvo Fenn died from a heart attack at his home on Doty Street. He was 77 years old. Fenn was survived by his wife, three sons, and two daughters. Silvo Fenn is buried in Peace Lutheran Cemetery.

Silvo Fenn’s weathered headstone.

End Notes
Oshkosh's independent beer bottlers were a fascinating and group. I've written a two part survey about them that can be found here: Part 1 / Part 2.

About five years ago, Oshkosh bottle collector Steve Schrage mentioned that I ought to write a longer piece about Silvo Fenn. I’ve been intending to do that ever since. The push that got me going came this summer from Tim Fenn, Silvo Fenn’s great grandson. Tim was a great help in making this piece happen. He also supplied several of the pictures in this post.

Thanks also to Bob Bergman, Matt Hostak, and Steve Schrage. Each of them helped me out with this in various ways.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Fifty Years Ago...

The Oshkosh Brewing Company ceased production 50 years ago today on October 18, 1971. With that, Peoples Brewing became Oshkosh's sole brewery. It was the first time since 1849 that Oshkosh was home to just one brewery. Two weeks after the closing, it was announced that Peoples Brewing had purchased the brands of the Oshkosh Brewing Company and would continue producing Chief Oshkosh Beer. Peoples Brewing would close a year later in November 1972.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Wildcat Breweries of Oshkosh | Librarian Learns

Prohibition was the law in the 1920s, but in Oshkosh the beer never stopped flowing. It was made by wildcat breweries in almost every part of the city. Here’s a video Michael McArthur of the Oshkosh Public Library and I made where we check out a few of Oshkosh’s wildcat brewery sites.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Dringoli Pils

 Bare Bones just released Dringoli Pils. If you’re into lagers, you should get your hands on this one. 

This is an Italian-style Pils, which is a hop-forward sub-style that emerged in Milan, Italy in the mid-1990s. This is the first time the style has been made by an Oshkosh brewery. It was dry-hopped with German Saphir, giving it a wonderful, floral aroma. It’s out now, on draft and in cans.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Barrel Sampling at Fifth Ward

Saturday, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward pulled samples from 38 barrels to get a handle on the different flavors being produced in those casks. It was the first step in coming up with blends that will present the best of those flavors. Some of the beer coming out of these barrels will be ready in time for Fifth Ward’s anniversary celebration in November. I'll have much more on that as the date approaches. In the meantime...