Thursday, December 30, 2021

Oshkosh 2021: The Year in Beer

The 2021 Rebound
It's been a good year for beer in Oshkosh. In 2021, the beer scene here rebounded from the wounds inflicted in 2020 by the pandemic. Despite this latest wave of COVID, the future looks more promising than it did at this time last year.

The most tangible element of that promise is the sharp rise in output at Oshkosh's three breweries. By mid-year, total beer production here was up 80 percent. And the breweries continued to gain momentum as this year wore on. The final numbers aren’t in yet, but Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River will all break their previous production records this year.

But we also lost a brewery along the way. In September, HighHolder Brewing officially ceased to exist. HighHolder was Oshkosh’s first and only nano-brewery. But its failure isn’t indicative of what's happening here. The brewery’s end was caused by internal issues. It was intentional. It could have been otherwise.

The Beer Garden
The June 9th beer garden in Menominee Park may have been the highlight of 2021.

Menominee Park, June 9, 2021.

It was the first time in 150 years that a beer garden on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh served local beer. It was an undoing of the dourness that had loomed over 2020. It was a celebration of what had gone missing.

Each of Oshkosh’s three breweries had their beer on tap. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers provided homebrewed beer. It wasn’t enough. The lines were long, and most of the beer ran out an hour before the scheduled end. People enjoyed themselves anyway. It was an encouraging start to what is likely to become a renewed tradition.

The Beer Here
The number of unique beers released here in 2021 is unprecedented. Combined, Oshkosh’s three breweries released over 125 different beers this year. I tried keeping track. By April I had given up.

Fifth Ward’s release schedule has been blistering. It wasn’t unusual to see the brewery release two new beers a week. Most of those were small batches of either fruited sour or flavored IPA.

Like everywhere else, there's a prominent share of customers here who want something different each time they step into a taproom. And they usually get it. But there are downsides to all the variety.

First, when the customers are so intensely focused on the next new thing, there's little incentive for a brewer to develop a beer and make it truly excellent over time. We'd probably have better beer here if there was less insistence on novelty. Second, the recurring hype around new releases leads to its own kind of tedium. When almost everything is “special,” the uncommon becomes commonplace. It leads to an odd, dulling effect.

That said, there were several beers released this year that were authentically unique and worth calling out.

The first of those was released in February by Bare Bones. The brewery’s Native Grisette was the first beer produced by a commercial brewery that was fermented entirely with wild yeast captured and propagated in Oshkosh.

Native Grisette

Bare Bones followed up in April with a barleywine named Inoculator. At 24.8% ABV, Inoculator may have been the strongest beer ever produced by a Wisconsin brewery.

Erin Bloch of Bare Bones with a five-ounce pour of Inoculator.

June saw a collaboration between 10 breweries and a meadery; all of them from our 920 area code. The beer they made was in commemoration of their businesses having survived the shutdowns and restrictions inflicted upon them in 2020. All three Oshkosh breweries had a hand in the cucumber-dosed Kolsch that came out of that project.

Lager beer underwent a revival this year. At Fox River, head brewer Drew Roth released a series of novel lagers that were well received. Included among them were dry-hopped pilsners, and bock beers brewed with honey and chocolate.

Fox River’s Red Ram Golden Bock was released in May.

At Bare Bones, lager beer became a mainstay this year with the brewery turning out a set of distinctive lagers throughout the year. In 2021, Oshkosh Lager became Bare Bones' best-selling beer.

Between Bare Bones and Fox River, there hasn't been this kind of variety in lager beer brewing here since the early 1890s. That was celebrated in November with the release of The Fox and The Hound, a dry-hopped lager brewed in collaboration by Fox River and Bare Bones.

Brewers Drew Roth (left) of Fox River, and Jody Cleveland of Bare Bones collaborating at Fox River Brewing.

At Fifth Ward, their barrel-aged beer program came into full bloom this year. The brewery had more than 40 spirits barrels in production, far and away the most ever employed here. The results were showcased at Fifth Ward's Anniversary party in November. The barrel-aged releases included imperial stouts, barleywines, and fruited sours.

Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward tending to barrels in September of 2021.

Homebrewing continues to be the linchpin for the beer scene in Oshkosh. What’s happening here at the commercial level is a direct outgrowth of the city’s homebrewing culture, which continues to thrive.

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrewing club had an active year, and got back to having in-person meetings. Beginning in spring, the SOBs celebrated its 30th Anniversary by brewing beers made from club-member recipes at Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River. It was illustrative of the sense of community that exists between the pro-brewers and homebrewers in Oshkosh. That bond is tighter here than in any other Wisconsin city.

SOBs in the Bare Bones brewhouse in May.

This year also saw the election of Scott Westpfahl as the new president of the SOBs. Westpfahl, who has been part of the club since 2006, replaces longtime SOB president Mike Engel, who moved to North Carolina.

Scott Westpfahl (left) and Mike Engel in the brewhouse at Fifth Ward in June.

The Changing Scene
We’re getting deep into a period of transition. The pandemic has accelerated changes that began more than a decade ago. It's become especially pronounced at local taverns.

The beer scene here used to be framed by neighborhood taverns serving beer made by the city’s breweries. That's over. Today, the neighborhood taverns are disconnected from locally made beer. And those neighborhood taverns are becoming fewer every year. This year, the City of Oshkosh revoked the liquor licenses of four more small taverns that couldn't present viable plans for re-opening post-pandemic.

Historic Witzke’s had its liquor license rescinded in June after having been closed for more than a year.
The tavern was built by the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1902.

Are we headed for a place where brewery taprooms and craft-centric beer bars and restaurants such as Dublin’s, Oblio’s, and Ruby Owl take the place of those dwindling neighborhood taverns? If that’s the trend line, then Oshkosh – with its enthused drinking culture – will need more than three breweries.

The flux is also on vivid display at stores that carry craft beer. The pandemic greatly increased the amount of craft beer going into cans and retailers have yet to adapt to the torrent. Their shelves are packed with high-priced beer cans wrapped in cartoonish labels. Those cans may look good on Instagram, but it looks like clown vomit when they’re huddled on warm shelves with the beer inside turning to sludge. At a mere $24 a four-pack, what’s not to love? I’m guessing this is just another part of the journey; that we are nowhere near anything resembling a destination. One can only hope.

Beer is Culture
Perspective is a hard thing to come by when you're surrounded by what you’re trying to see. With that in mind, here’s something I’ve been thinking about…

It was 50 years ago this year that the largest brewery Oshkosh has ever known went bankrupt and closed. The Oshkosh Brewing Company failed in 1971. Nobody could have seen that coming when the brewery was in its prime. And in 1971, nobody would have imagined that the beer culture here would rebound the way that it has. But now it's grown familiar again. It gets easier and easier to take it for granted.

Fox River Brewing is heading into its 27th year. Bare Bones is approaching its seventh year. Fifth Ward just celebrated its fourth anniversary. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers has been around for 30 years. Then there are places like Oblio’s and O'Marro's, still with us and vital, that were trying to drum up interest in good beer back when that meant nothing to most people here.

This is what it looks like when a beer culture matures and when local breweries make their way into the fabric of a community. But like the Oshkosh Brewing Company, this too will end. Make the most of it!

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Lost on Parkway: Theodore Kitz and the Treasure Chest

Here’s a lost saloon that once captured the essence of the eastside. It stood at the southwest corner of Parkway and Monroe.

The southwest corner of Parkway and Monroe, circa 1977.

It was built in 1908 to house the saloon and grocery of Theodore Kitz. But the seed of it was planted decades earlier by his father. This is one of those stories where you have to know the father to understand the son. The father’s name is Frank Kitz.

Brass Horns and Lager Beer
Frank Kitz was born in 1834 in the city of Duisdorf, in Germany's Rhineland. When he was 19 he sailed away from his homeland with his parents and siblings. The Kitz family landed in New York on June 3, 1853. They settled for a short time in Hoboken. Then they moved to Toledo. In 1856, they arrived in Oshkosh. They were here to stay.

Oshkosh in the 1850s.

Frank married a German immigrant named Elizabeth Victoris. Frank was 22, Elizabeth was 23. A year hadn’t passed before Elizabeth gave birth to their first child. They would have 11 children in all. Ten would survive infancy.

Frank worked a series of disparate jobs to support them. He did stonework. He made soap. He played his cornet at receptions and parties. For a few years, he was the teacher at Oshkosh’s German Catholic School. His own children were part of the class.

Frank Kitz with his students at the German Catholic School, circa 1868.

In 1874, Elizabeth gave birth to her ninth child; their fifth son. They named him Theodore. When Theodore was five, the family moved into a large, wood-framed building at the northwest corner of Merritt and Monroe in the old Fourth Ward. Frank converted it into a combination saloon, grocery store, and concert hall.

Most of the first floor was taken up by the saloon and grocery. The second floor became Kitz Hall where the neighborhood came to hear music and celebrate. The children slept in cubbies scattered throughout the building. Frank Kitz formed a brass band. Kitz Hall was their venue.

The 14-piece Frank Kitz Band. The man in the back row standing next to the
Horn and Schwalm Lager Beer sign appears to be Frank Kitz.
The photo is believed to have been taken in front of his saloon at Merritt and Monroe, circa 1883.

A late-night fire broke out there in 1883. Frank and Elizabeth barely managed to collect all of the children before the entire place filled with smoke. The concert hall and stage were destroyed. What was burnt was rebuilt. The band played on.

Theodore Kitz was raised in that flowing, convivial atmosphere of food, music, and beer. It was the ethnic eastside encapsulated. The Kitz saloon was on one side of the street and St. Mary’s Catholic Church was on the other. The surrounding neighborhood included tight-knit clans of German immigrants. Those days and nights left a lasting impression on Theodore. He would devote himself to recreating the ways of life that informed his childhood.

Looking east down Merritt. The former saloon, grocery, and music hall of Frank Kitz is
shown on the left. A portion of St. Mary’s Catholic Church is seen at the opposite corner.

Frank Kitz sold his saloon and grocery in 1886. He moved the family into a home up the street at the northwest corner of Parkway and Monroe. Frank switched gears again. He built a beer bottling plant on the new property. Theodore Kitz was 13 when he quit school and went to work helping his father bottle beer.

A rare, surviving specimen from the beer bottling plant of Frank Kitz.

Kitz & Head
When he was 19, Theodore went out on his own. He made money as a trunk maker and as an itinerant musician. In three years, he had banked enough to start a business. Theodore would follow in his father’s footsteps with rigid precision.

In 1897, Theodore opened a grocery and saloon at the southeast corner of Parkway and Monroe. He was in partnership with a man named Herman Head. Like Theodore, Head was born in Wisconsin to parents from Germany. Head was eight years older than Theodore. For the last few years, he had been running a saloon at the corner of Parkway and Grand (it still stands, now it’s the Electric Lounge).

A token good for a glass of beer at the Kitz and Head Saloon.

Both men were well-known in the neighborhood. That familiarity counted for much among the German-speaking people of the Fourth Ward. Their saloon/grocery acted as a nucleus for the neighborhood. Come closing time, Theodore would walk across the street and fall into one of the open beds at his father's home on the opposite corner. It was almost like old times.

The former Kitz and Head saloon and grocery at the southeast corner of Parkway and Monroe.

The saloon/grocery wasn't Theodore’s only pursuit. He was becoming well known in Oshkosh as a musician. Like his father, Theodore played the cornet. Around the turn of the century, he joined the Arion Orchestra. It was Oshkosh's premier concert band. Theodore would become the Arion’s conductor.

The Arion Orchestra at the turn of the century.
Theodore Kitz is the dark-haired man standing in the middle of the back row.

Theodore got his first major jolt in 1902. His partner, 35-year-old Herman Head, contracted winter cholera and died suddenly. Theodore hired family members living in the neighborhood and kept the saloon and grocery running. He wasn’t just getting by. He was flourishing. The next step would be to marry one of the German-speaking girls from the Fourth Ward. This time he didn’t follow the script.

Ted and Nellie
Theodore was seeing a woman eight years younger than him. Her name was Nellie McCarthy. Her parents were Irish immigrants. The McCarthys did not speak German and they were not flourishing. Nellie and 10 other members of the extended McCarthy family lived on the northside in a rented home shrouded by the exhaust of manufacturing plants. Nellie worked as a timekeeper in one of the nearby factories. Theodore was going to take her out of there.

Nellie McCarthy.

Theodore began laying the groundwork for their future. In March of 1904, he bought the property at the southwest corner of Parkway and Monroe. The house on that lot faced the broad side of his grocery. It would soon face a wrecking crew. Then he set his sights on a house on the north side of Parkway. This one faced directly into his saloon. He got that property in July. Two months later, he and Nellie were married. They moved into the house facing the saloon. Their wedding home still stands at the northeast corner of Parkway and Monroe.

The former home of Theodore and Nellie Kitz.

Theodore had a lease on the building containing his saloon and grocery. He wanted out of that. He wanted his own place. It was why he had bought the house facing his grocery. His plan was to rip that house down and build a new place there for his business. But his land grabs had cut into his finances. He needed investors. He went to the people who spoke his language.

August Horn (left) and Charles Rahr.

August Horn and Charles Rahr were the barons of the Oshkosh beer scene. They'd been in the beer business before Theodore was even born. They had done business with his father. Horn was president of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Rahr was owner of Oshkosh's Rahr Brewing Company. Theodore borrowed $2,500 from each man (for a total of about $150,000 today).

As part of the deal, Theodore agreed to sell Oshkosh Brewing Company beer and Rahr beer in his saloon. It was an unusual set of contracts. Normally, brewers would lend money this way only if they were assured exclusive rights to a saloon's beer sales. Theodore's new saloon would be the exception to the rule.
A set of ads from a 1910 edition of the Journal of the Travelers’ Goods
and Leather Novelty Workers’ International Union

The Lay of the Land
In the image below, the property designated as A was the Kitz and Head saloon/grocery. Theodore operated that business on his own from 1902 until 1908. B became the home of Theodore and Nellie Kitz. C was the home (and former beer bottling plant) of Frank Kitz, Theodore’s father. D was the location of the new saloon/grocery Theodore opened in 1908.

Everything was set. But the opening had to be pushed back. In October 1907, Nellie gave birth to their first child, a girl named Ruth. A few weeks later, Theodore came down with an acute case of pleurisy that nearly killed him. He wasn't well enough to get around again until the first of the year. By the spring of 1908, his health had returned and he was in the new place.

The building was two stories constructed of brick. There was ornamental molding along the roof line and thick stone beams above the windows. Panels of sheet glass exposed the interior of the grocery in the east wing of the building and the saloon on the west. The new Kitz place became the social hub of the neighborhood. For decades, this would be where his neighbors came when they needed food, or a beer, or conversation, or just to get away for a while. It was their home away from home.

The former saloon and grocery of Theodore Kitz in the early 2000s.

The appearance was modern. The intention was not. Theodore had created an homage to his childhood. His father had launched his saloon/grocery in the 1870s. The concept was already falling out of fashion then. Some thirty years later, it was an anachronism. There were still a few saloon/grocery combos left in Oshkosh, but they had come out of that earlier era. Nobody was doing this kind of thing anymore. Theodore’s father had watched it materialize from his porch across the street. One can only imagine his thoughts.

Playing Hard
On May 1, 1913, Nellie gave birth to their second child. It was another girl. They gave her Nellie's middle name, Helen. Nellie died seven days later from complications of her daughter's birth.

Only Theodore knew the essence of his grief. He buried himself in music. While Nellie was pregnant, he had made arrangements for the Oshkosh Military Band to play a concert under his leadership in Menominee Park. Then Nellie died. Theodore still honored the commitment. On the Sunday evening of June 23, he played for more than two hours to a crowd estimated at over 5,000. When he finally put down his horn it was so dark that people had a hard time finding their way out of the park.

The massively attended June 23rd concert was followed by calls for improvements to Menominee Park that included lighting and a new bandstand. The postcard here shows the updates that were later made.

For the next year, Theodore remained constantly busy. He continued to run both the grocery and saloon while also promoting and leading the exceptionally popular Oshkosh Military Band. In September of 1914, he added the directorship of the Oshkosh Normal School Orchestra to his schedule. All the hustle left little time for his young daughters. They were, most likely, being tended to by family members living in the neighborhood.

Later that fall, Theodore married for a second time. He was 40-years-old, as was Mary Dettlaff. Before their marriage, she had been working as a “sales lady” at Heymann's department store downtown. She came from one of those eastside, German-speaking families. It was just as it was supposed to be. Mary's relationship with Theodore's daughters would become contentious. But she seemed to have a good effect on him. They went to Chicago for a short honeymoon. When they returned Theodore dialed down his frenzied pace.

He took on his first partner since the death of Herman Head 14-years earlier. Theodore had known Henry Erbes for years. Erbes lived in the neighborhood and had a pedigree nearly identical to Theodore's. Erbes would run the grocery and Theodore would tend to the saloon. It appears the arrangement worked well. Nevertheless, it all came undone in 1920. It wasn't their fault. For people like Kitz and Erbes, almost everything went to hell that year.

Drying Up
The march to Prohibition was fueled by bigotry. Central to the prohibitionist's project was the “Americanization” of Americans who had maintained their ethnic identities. Criminalizing their behavior was a tool for accomplishing that. On January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect. Selling alcohol was made illegal. Oshkosh’s ethnic Germans were nearly unanimous in their rejection of the new law. Theodore wasn't with them on this one.

In the 1920s, ethnic Germans remained numerous in the neighborhood surrounding Theodore’s saloon and grocery. Shown here are members of the Pueppke family. Gottlieb and Henrietta Pueppke migrated from Germany in the 1860s and built their home on Monroe Street. This photo was taken in the early 1920s. Theodore’s building is seen in the background.

In 1920, Theodore dutifully closed his saloon. Kitz and Erbes tried to make up for the lost revenue by opening a lunch counter. It flopped and their partnership fell apart. After that, Theodore had a change of heart.

A speakeasy had opened on the other side of Monroe, in what had been Theodore's first saloon. It was the push he needed. In 1922, Theodore took out a license to sell soft drinks and reopened his bar as a speakeasy selling wildcat beer and bootleg liquor. Just like most other Oshkosh saloon keepers had done two years earlier.

Still, it wasn't the same. And it never would be. He spent less and less time running the bar. Often, he had others taking care of it for him. The situation was ideal for the sale of illicit goods. The bar was tucked away in a residential area beyond the prowl of federal agents. Local police had no interest in enforcing the law. The neighbors themselves formed a wall of protection. Theodore was family to them. This was their place.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Theodore got a liquor license and returned to operating legally. It hardly mattered. He was drifting away. He had already given up on the grocery side of the business. He leased that portion of the building to a series of different grocers. They would come and go.

In 1936, Theodore quit the saloon side. He leased the tavern to Richard Hayes who had lived in the neighborhood and had been running a tavern on Wisconsin Street. Hayes died on the job two years later. Nobody seemed to stick at the old Kitz place. The tavern’s name would change with every new operator. It was Hank’s, Johnny’s, George’s, Pete’s, Milt’s, and on and on...

An ad for the tavern from 1952 when John “Schnock-eyes” Neustifter was running it.

The neighborhood was changing, too. The old ways fell away as the neighborhood's ethnic identity faded into the dull horizon of post-war consumer culture. As late as the 1970s, though, there still remained a sense of community around the tavern. As one neighbor recalled, “You could take children there for a pop and there would always be people from the neighborhood there playing cards. It was really a family gathering place.” That spirit of congeniality was permanently stomped out in 1995.

On August 28, 1995, a new nightclub named the Treasure Chest went into business at the old Kitz place. Opening night climaxed with a brawl involving a lead pipe, a hammer, and at least one semi-conscious patron being carried off by police. But it wasn’t the violence that got people excited about the Treasure Chest. It was the women dancing there. They were bare-chested.

The Treasure Chest, late August 1995.

A topless bar in the midst of a residential neighborhood would be problematic enough. But a topless bar next door to the new Boys and Girls Club was more than some could stomach.

In 1993, the Boys and Girls Club had moved into a new facility near the southeast corner of Parkway and Broad. Next door was the former Kitz place, now called the Stepping Stone Saloon. The club and the nightclub coexisted with minimal discord. Then came the Treasure Chest and all those topless women.

"It was a shock," said Dan Thorn, who lived on Parkway. "Our main concern is with the kids. A lot of kids will be walking by this place." Dick Rouser, who also lived nearby, told a reporter, "I don't know if anything can be done to stop this, but we're sure not going to welcome them to the neighborhood."

They were appalled that the Oshkosh Common Council hadn’t stopped it from happening. The council had unanimously approved the Treasure Chest's request for a liquor license. The application had specifically stated that the club would feature topless female dancers.

"Personally, I didn't read (the application)," said Oshkosh Mayor Richard Wollangk. "Would it have been better if we discussed it and let the neighbors know it was coming? Would they have felt better? I don't know."

While city officials contemplated their inadequacy, folks in the neighborhood got busy. Children were allegedly being sent into the bar at the direction of their parents as part of an unauthorized sting operation. Calls to police grew so numerous that Police Chief David Erickson addressed the neighborhood, telling people there that the false reports had to stop. “I have a real big concern if you use our department to harass this business,” Erickson warned them.

Their target was Treasure Chest manager Russ Wilson. The Menasha native had no interest in pacifying the anger of his new neighbors. Wilson could be exceptionally crass and sometimes hideously comical. When a reporter asked him about the concerns of those living nearby, Wilson replied “They have nothing to fear. I don't run into very many perverts in here.” He touted his experience saying the Treasure Chest wasn’t the first strip club he had opened. "It's a good way to make fast money," Wilson said.

Russ Wilson

The rancor grew. In September a crowd from the neighborhood packed into the Boys and Girls Club for an airing of grievances. They lashed out at city officials. But their most caustic venom was spent on Russ Wilson. After several testy exchanges, an angry neighbor asked him if he’d like to have his children living next door to a topless bar. Though he had no children, Wilson assured her that he would never allow it. “I could afford to live in a better neighborhood than this,” Wilson explained.

The uproar persisted for almost a year. The caught-napping Common Council tried to redeem itself by hastily passing a new ordinance making it nearly impossible for a business of this type to ever again open in Oshkosh.

All the while, people in the neighborhood continued hounding Wilson. He seemed puzzled by the hostility. “If people didn’t like what I do here, I wouldn’t make any money,” Wilson mused in December of 1995. He buckled five months later.

“I’ve had enough,” he said on May 20, 1996. “I don’t need this anymore.” Wilson said business had been good, but he couldn’t stand dealing with the neighbors and their harassment. Wilson skipped town and the Treasure Chest closed.

The owner of the real estate was Thomas Sosinski. He was the grandson of Theodore Kitz. Sosinski had inherited the property in 1988. The mistake of leasing it to Wilson proved ruinous. Now, he owned a shuttered bar that had no chance of ever being granted another liquor license.

Sosinski sold the property to the Boys and Girls Club three months after the Treasure Chest closed. The building was converted into a teen recreation center. It was torn down in the summer of 2007.

A recent photo of the southwest corner of Parkway and Monroe.

The demolition coincided with the building's centennial. Nobody noticed. Those who might have remembered were long gone. Theodore was long gone, too. He died at Mercy Hospital three days after Christmas in 1946. Theodore Kitz was 72 years old.

"For many years he had operated a grocery and tavern at the corner of Monroe Avenue and Parkway... The deceased was prominent in Oshkosh musical circles... Mr. Kitz had conducted the old Military, Arion, and Acme bands. At one time his musical group was composed of 25 members, 17 of whom were members of the Kitz family… Internment will be at Riverside cemetery"
   - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, December 28, 1946.

Theodore Kitz