Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Oshkosh Rat Pit

Oshkosh was coming into its own in 1871. It was Wisconsin's third-largest city, a lumber-rich boomtown that was growing famous.

Oshkosh 1871, looking north towards the Main Street Bridge.

But Oshkosh’s notoriety wasn’t due to its rising economic stature. Its renown was born of the city's riotous social life. "Fun with the boys in Oshkosh" became a catchphrase for drunken, violent excess. In newspapers across the nation, Oshkosh was portrayed as larger than life. A city of myth.

Oshkosh continues to pile up evidence of being a city, a real live metropolis. Heretofore, the evidence has been fires, "fun mit der poys," Turkish baths, litigation about loose sidewalks and trousers, rat pits... The last exciting incident at the "Metropolis," is a variation, a perfect nugget for morbid lovers of sensation.
     – Menasha Saturday Evening Press, February 18, 1871.

The Menasha paper was laying it on a touch thick. There were not multiple rat pits in Oshkosh. There was just one.

The Oshkosh Rat Pit was attached to Henry Schwabe's Excelsior Saloon on the “nickel side” of Main Street about halfway up the block from Ceape.

An 1869 ad for Schwabe's Excelsior. The street address shown in the piece is not coincident with the current numbering system used in Oshkosh. The Excelsior was on the east side of Main in what is now the 100 block.

The splashy name was the equivalent of dousing a pig with perfume. The Excelsior was a dive crouched in a two-story, wood-framed fire-trap. Schwabe was a 26-year-old Prussian immigrant with a saloon catering to a hardcore sporting crowd. He provided the amusements they craved: billiards, bowling, gambling, and all the lager beer and liquor they could stomach.

The southern end of Main Street in the early 1870s. The red arrow points the way into the Excelsior Saloon and the Oshkosh Rat Pit.

The Rat Pit was conceived and operated by two men known only as Reed and Lewis. They fit the Excelsior with an octagon pit five-foot deep and twelve feet across. This was a bloodsport theater. A number of rats would be released into the pit and then a dog was sent in to annihilate them. The carcasses were cleared and another dog would have its chance at a fresh pack of rats. The exhibition was preceded by wagers placed on which dog would prove most efficient at the slaughter.

An1800s depiction of a rat pit amphitheater.

The Oshkosh rat pit made its debut on the Saturday evening of February 4, 1871. The reporter from the Northwestern was enthralled.

The latest attraction in the sporting line is the rat pit of Reed & Lewis, at 36 Main street, which was formally opened to the public on Saturday evening… In this were placed the rats, ten in number for each dog. The first dog let into the pit was Stevenson’s bull terrier, weight 20 pounds; time 2 ½ minutes. John O’Brien’s black and tan terrier, weight 11 pounds, next took the pit and succeeded in dispatching her ten rats in 4 minutes. An immense crowd thronged the room and while the fight lasted the sport was tremendous. A fight with another dog was intended, but owing to the crowd in the room, a large number of rats in the cage escaped into the room and there were not enough.
    – Oshkosh Northwestern, February 9, 1871

That’s an extraordinary bit of reporting, if for nothing else, how altogether agreeable that night in the pit is made to seem. As if this were just the latest high-spirited spectacle in gay, old Oshkosh. But that's not how outsiders saw it.

Newspapers around the state got wind of the pit and published a flurry of articles that were equal parts disbelief, disgust, and mockery.

The “boys” at Oshkosh are having a great deal of what they call “fun” at the rat-pit there. They had an orgie last Saturday evening, and probably think it’s a good way to get ready for Sunday.”
    – Milwaukee Daily News, February 17, 1871

The naysayers were of no concern to Reed and Lewis. They mouthed about civic virtue, claiming their pit was helping rid Oshkosh of its vermin. They offered $10 a hundred for any quantity of rats. Within a week, they found there weren't enough rats in Oshkosh to feed the pit. So they began importing them, "full, plump fellows with keen bright eyes" from Chicago, Cleveland, La Crosse, and Milwaukee.

By the end of February, Reed and Lewis had the hottest show in town with a heavy stream of rats, ratters, gamblers, and geeks descending upon the Main Street pit. They were pulling an even better crowd than the vaunted evangelist who came to save Oshkosh from its wicked ways.

Margaret Newton Van Cott.

The opening of the Rat Pit coincided with the arrival of Maggie Van Cott, a national celebrity known as "the most popular, most laborious, and most successful preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church." Her specialty was breaking the deviant wills of diehard sinners. Much of her fame rested on having saved countless wretched souls in New York City's notorious Five Points neighborhood. Now she was going to do the same for Oshkosh.

The Van Cott visit was not without controversy. Folks in Appleton were pissed because she broke her promise to go there and, instead, went to campaign against "the naturally greater wickedness" of Oshkosh. Van Cott took up residence on Church Street at the Methodist Episcopal Church where she held non-stop revival meetings attempting to pray away the sinfulness gripping the city. It didn't work.

After three weeks of supplication, Van Cott packed up and headed back to New York. The Oshkosh Journal provided the epigram, "Mrs. Van Cott has departed from the city, and the rat pit still draws large crowds."

Van Cott’s leaving coincided with the coming of a mob of loggers on holiday from lumber camps in the Northwoods. The axemen were Rat-Pit naturals. Reed and Lewis lured them in by papering the city with handbills printed with the following…

When a Winneconne preacher came across one of the flyers he was said to have remarked that if Jesus Christ had come to Oshkosh he would have found it too hot.

Yet Reed and Lewis abided. The denunciations continued to pour in from around the state and by mid-March both the Oshkosh Times and Oshkosh Journal had joined the jeering chorus. At the Northwestern, though, the vicious enthusiasm never waned for “The rat pit and its rats, and terriers, and brass band, and crowd of ‘boys’” that made for such a “lively sport.”

Most everyone else had seen enough, though. Attendance at the pit began falling off as the novelty of it waned. With the loggers drifting back to their camps, Reed and Lewis attempted to shore up the sagging enterprise. They increased the rat packs from 10 to 25 and raised the winner's purse to $25. It was to no avail. The Oshkosh Journal published its Rat-Pit obituary on April 1.

We are informed that services at the rat-pit have been discontinued, owing to a lack of interest in that “inspiring” amusement. Like a new broom, it swept clean at first, calling together crowds composed of all occupations except, perhaps, the ministry. Not even the frequent reports of the Northwestern could keep up the appetite for the “sport,” and ye rat-pit has “gone where the woodbine twineth.”
     – Oshkosh Journal, April 1, 1871.

The site was cauterized four years later. On April 28, 1875, Oshkosh’s fifth and last great fire burned away any remaining traces of the Excelsior Saloon and the Oshkosh Rat Pit.

Among the ruins of Main Street, 1875.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Upping the Ante on the Downtown Beer Scene

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

Adam Carlson likes what he's seeing downtown. “For years, there was so much attention given to what was happening west of 41, but now you’re seeing the focus come back to downtown. And you have business owners who want to support that. There are resources being focused down here. People are beginning to realize that there's a lot of untapped potential in downtown Oshkosh.”

Carlson is among those tapping in. Along with his father, John Carlson, and his aunt Julie Wolk, Adam Carlson owns and operates Gardina's Kitchen & Bar at 448 N. Main, and The Ruby Owl Tap Room at 421 N. Main. In November the Carlson group, which does business as Carlson's Fine Foods, purchased two additional downtown establishments: The Varsity Club, a pub and pool hall; and Fletch's Local Tap House. Both are in the 500 block of N. Main Street.

The acquisitions have led to an unusual consolidation that last occurred in the 1940s, when the Oshkosh Brewing Company owned six downtown taverns. The brewery's influence extended to the approximately 24 draft lines serving beer in those establishments. That figure is dwarfed by what Adam Carlson now has under his control.

"We have 92 draft lines between the four places," Carlson says. "It's a lot of beer on tap, which is great. What I want is a well-curated selection that has diverse tastes and price points. It's easy to fall into the trap of letting a beer distributor guide you. We've tried to stay away from that. We want to keep the customer in mind, not the distributor."

Adam Carlson

Having that sort of buying power is something Carlson has been anticipating. "We've been looking to expand like this on and off for the last couple of years," he says. "We looked at a fair number of places, but they just weren't the right fit. When the opportunity with Jeremy came along it had everything we were looking for."

Jeremy West owned and operated the Varsity Club and Fletch's before selling both businesses to the Carlson family. "It just started as a conversation and it was immediately apparent that we were so aligned," Carlson says. "I can't sing his praises highly enough. Truly, I can see why there was such a great outpouring when he announced that he was selling, because he's done such a fabulous job and had a great vision."

The Varsity Club billiards parlor.

Carlson intends to honor that vision. "We're not making any changes to either the Varsity Club or Fletch's. Jeremy and his staff have done a phenomenal job building those businesses to where they are today. We're coming in looking to continue that level of service. And Jeremy is going to stay on to help with the pool side of things. He wants to continue doing that. He's a big name in the pool industry in Northeastern Wisconsin. He's done so much for pool in this area."

Carlson believes the commitment to downtown will pay off in the years to come. "I think we have four distinct businesses now and the key is that they're all on Main Street," he says. "If I'm looking at the long view of things and the plans for the Sawdust District and South Main Street, if they can bring that vision to fruition, then I think that will be significant for the success that downtown as a whole can enjoy. Oshkosh's downtown is a fairly small area. Expanding that to South Main Street helps everybody's cause for sure. Especially for our industry, downtown is a great place to be."

Sunday, December 11, 2022

A Mirage on Main Street.

Click photo to enlarge.

The older photo is from about 1890. It shows Charles Raasch’s lager-beer saloon on the east side of Main Street just south of Otter. 

Raasch was born in Germany 1841 and came to America when he was 10. He ran this saloon from 1882 until 1895. Raasch is seen second from the left and I suspect that the two young men flanking him are his sons. The beer signs at the entrance advertise the John Glatz Brewery and the Lorenz Kuenzl Brewery. Both were Oshkosh-based producers of lager beer. All that’s left of the old Raasch place are pictures.

The 100 block of N. Main.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test of 1977

In 1977, the beer scene in Oshkosh was at low ebb. The city had been without a brewery for five years. All of the beer here was being trucked in from somewhere else, and nearly all of it was mass-produced pale lager. The beer may not have been anything special, but at least there was plenty of it.

Dozens of brands filled beer depot shelves. Choosing the best was like trying to identify the ultimate shade of white. It amounted to minor variations on a minor theme. In the fall of 1977, the challenge was taken up at the Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test.

Sinking a sample at the 1977 taste test.

The competition, sponsored by a UW-Oshkosh student organization, took place on the Thursday evening of November 3, 1977 at Reeve Memorial Union on Algoma Boulevard. About 110 drinkers turned out for a blind sampling of 15 beers. The participants were asked to rate each beer on a scale from one to five, with five being the highest score. Here were the results along with the average score of each beer.

1: Old Style - 3.59
2: Olympia - 3.55
3: Miller High Life - 3.52
4: Hamm’s and Stroh’s (tied) - 3.46
5: Pabst - 3.41
6: Leinenkugels - 3.14
7: Special Export - 3.08
8: Budweiser - 3.05
9: Heineken - 2.90
10: Anheuser-Busch Light - 2.56
11: Miller Lite - 2.48
12: Coors - 2.45
13: Point - 2.28
14: Augsburger - 2.02
15: Schlitz Light - Score not reported

A taste-test volunteer wearing a Chief Oshkosh Beer t-shirt pours samples of Coor’s.

The beer selection didn't quite match up with what peoples in Oshkosh were actually drinking in 1977. Nationally distributed brands accounted for all but two of the 15 entries. Missing were brands such as Rhinelander, Kingsbury, Bohemian Club; regional beers brewed in Wisconsin that were widely popular here. The event’s advisor was almost certainly unaware of that.

Thaine Johnson, on the left, officiating at the Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test.

Thaine Johnson was a newcomer to Oshkosh but no stranger to beer. Born in 1920, Johnson was a chemist and a journeyman brewer who had made beer at Falstaff in St. Louis, George Wiedemann in Kentucky, and at Hamm’s in St. Paul. He was working as a brewmaster for Hamm’s when the brewery was sold to Olympia in 1975. The new owners replaced Johnson with one of their own.

A few months before the 1977 taste test, Johnson and his wife, Annella, left Minnesota for Oshkosh where he became vice president of manufacturing at the Oshkosh Seven-Up Bottling Company. But soda just wasn't his thing. Johnson was 57 and still had the itch to make beer.

In 1978, he went to Philadelphia to become the brewmaster for Christian Schmidt Brewing. After that brewery closed in 1987, Johnson was recruited by the newly formed Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland. He finished his brewing career at Great Lakes where, among other things, Johnson developed the recipe for the highly awarded Dortmunder Gold Lager.

There was nothing at the 1977 tasting that tasted anything like that one. Johnson’s full-flavored Dortmunder became one of those early craft-beer success stories that helped create a new beer culture in America. The old brewer had turned pioneer.

Dortmunder Gold is still worth seeking out. And if you find one, raise a toast to our former neighbor.

Thaine Johnson (center) with Pat and Dan Conway, the brothers who launched Great Lakes in 1988.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Dark Side of the Moonshine

Prohibition led to a flood of novel mayhem in Oshkosh. Here's one of those stories…

There once was a little grocery store at the corner of Elmwood and Woodland. It was run by an old-timer named Amos Luessen. His store had been in the neighborhood for years.

Thieves broke into Luessen's store on the night of October 24, 1923. They didn't get much: 90 cents and several cartons of cigarettes. Luessen figured it was neighborhood kids. He was going to find out. He was going to take care of this himself.

The former site of Amos Luessen's corner store is now occupied by the Halsey Science Center on the UW-Oshkosh campus.

A couple of nights after the Luessen break-in, Winnebago County sheriff's deputies raided a desolate resort on Stroebe Island. The place had been turned into a speakeasy. The cops barged in, arrested Harry Stroebe, and confiscated his stock of moonshine. Stroebe was set free on bond. His booze was taken to the county jail in Oshkosh and locked in a cell on the second floor.

Stroebe Island in the Fox River at Menasha.

After asking around, Amos Luessen concluded that the break-in at his store wasn't the work of neighborhood kids. He called the police and reported the crime.

A few days later, the cops heard about a couple of local delinquents peddling stolen cigarettes. Albert Youngworth, 19, and Louis Kaltenbach, 18, were arrested and charged with the burglary of the Luessen store. They were taken to the county jail and locked in a cell on the second floor.

The old Winnebago County Courthouse at the northeast corner of Ceape and Court streets. To the immediate right of the courthouse is the jail where Youngworth and Kaltenbach were held.

Neither Youngworth nor Kaltenbach could make bail. These were not young men of means. They were from poor families, and they had been in trouble before. There was nothing to do but wait for their court date. And think about how to get their hands on some of that moonshine sitting there in the opposite cell.

On the Friday afternoon of November 10, Youngworth or Kaltenbach succeeded in their quest to obtain the moonshine. The jailers were never able to explain how they did it. But by dinner time the two young men were full of shine and wicked ambition. They dreamed up another plan.

At 6:20 pm, jailers Fred Radkey and Herman Nass entered the jail cell to collect the prisoner's dinner plates. Youngworth was ready, waiting with a bunk chain wrapped in a towel. "They came at us like wild animals on their prey," Radkey later said.

Youngworth chain-whipped the jailers and then dashed through the jail-cell door. Kaltenbach was trailing him, but his escape was blocked when Radkey stumbled into the cell door, slamming it closed.

Youngworth kept running. “(He) ran down the stairs carrying the towel containing the bunk chain with him," Radkey said. "He probably expected to encounter someone in the hall. He ran out the side door dropping his weapon just outside”

In Youngworth's other hand was a bottle of moonshine. He held it tight as he sprinted into the dark.

The jailers called the police. The cops arrived to find Radkey and Nass drenched in gore from flowing head wounds. The two-pound, iron bunk chain they’d been whipped with had connected with such force that it broke through the towel it was wrapped in.

Youngworth had darted across Ceape Avenue heading for the factory complex making up the Oshkosh Gas Works and the Robert Brand Company. The adrenaline spike seems to have deserted him after about 100 yards. He hid behind a building and rewarded himself with another draw of moonshine. Liberty. For a little while.

The Robert Brand Company at the lower left and the Oshkosh Gas Works at the lower right. A portion of Ceape Ave. can be seen running left to right (east/west) in the image.

At 7:45 pm, Youngworth was found by a motorcycle cop named Roy Welton. The bottle of moonshine was half empty and Youngworth was so drunk, Welton said, that “he hardly knew what he was about.”

A few days before Christmas 1923, Youngworth was convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm. He was sent to the reformatory in Green Bay. The assault charge against Kaltenbach was dismissed. He was given a short jail stay for the burglary charge. Kaltenbach was on parole and back on the street in the spring of 1924.

Albert Youngworth returned to Oshkosh in early 1925. He picked up where he had left off. In June of 1925, Youngworth stuck a gun into the ribs of a speakeasy operator and demanded a bag of cash. There was no bag of cash to be had. Youngworth ran away.

The Reptile Palace at 141 High Street, where Albert Youngworth attempted his failed stick-up. In 1925, this was a speakeasy called the Blue Front Buffet.

Youngworth was arrested two days later and again placed in the county lockup. It was a reunion of sorts. Kaltenbach, who had been picked up on a parole violation, was at the jail with him. This time there was no moonshine.

Youngworth was sent to Waupun where he did five years of hard labor. The judge threw in a bonus: once a year Youngworth was to serve 24 hours in solitary confinement. After his release from Waupun, Youngworth left Wisconsin and ended up in San Francisco working as a janitor. There he appears to have led a rather solitary and more settled life.

Kaltenbach never lost his appetite for trouble. He got married in 1924, beat his wife, and was soon divorced. He remained on perpetual probation for a litany of petty offenses, and in 1926 was given a 19-month stay at the reformatory in Green Bay. He returned to Oshkosh and continued racking up the arrests: drunken driving, drunk in public, petty theft. In 1932, he was convicted of committing a string of burglaries and was sentenced to three years at Waupun. It went on and on like this.

For the last 30 years of his life, Kaltenbach lived in a rented segment of a tumbledown home on Division Street. Where the trains swept by his doorstep day and night.

The Soo Line rumbling down the 500 block of Division Street. Kaltenbach lived on the west side of the street (right side of this photo) in a home near the bend in the track.

Kaltenbach remained a reprobate all the while. His last arrest was in the summer of 1973. He was 68 years old and taken into custody for disorderly conduct.

Louis Kaltenbach died at home on September 18, 1984. There was no one to mourn him. His brief obituary ran the following day and was as devoid of affection as his entire life seemed to be.

He's buried somewhere out there in Riverside Cemetery.

End Note
Newspaper writers applied a number of creative interpretations to the Youngworth and Kaltenbach names during the years when these two men were up to their worst. I've used the spelling that Youngworth and Kaltenbach favored when signing documents.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Sodom of the Northwest

People have been telling mythical stories about Oshkosh ever since the city has existed. Here’s a taste from 1878. The article below first appeared in the Fond du Lac Commonwealth newspaper. This is an abridged version, but you’ll get the drift...

π—’π˜€π—΅π—Έπ—Όπ˜€π—΅, 𝗔𝗽𝗿𝗢𝗹 𝟯𝟬  – 𝗔 π—ͺ𝗢𝗰𝗸𝗲𝗱 π—–π—Άπ˜π˜†. This is a hard town to write about, because if you tell the truth you have to write hard things. Three years ago Sunday, Oshkosh was nearly consumed by a fire started by Spaulding & Peck’s mill. To commemorate the third anniversary, a brewery burned Sunday night. Immediately back of the Beckwith House is a man who administers Turkish baths, and he told me nearly all citizens of Oshkosh who have lived here five or more years are web-footed. Many people in this city eat fish with neither salt or pepper, but with their fingers. Yes, Oshkosh is the Sodom of the Northwest.

I've posted a few other stories like this one. If you'd like more in this vein you can get it HERE and HERE.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Badger Brew: A Lost Oshkosh Beer

Badger Brew wasn’t intended to be a memorable beer. On the contrary, it was an efficient beer for erasing memories. Badger Brew was produced fast, cheap, and without any pretense. This was a lager for those with an eye towards price and a forgiving sense of taste.
A case of Badger Brew.

The first batch of Badger Brew was released on September 4, 1954, by Effinger Brewing in Baraboo. Effinger was taking a stab at the budget beer market. The targets were mid-sized Wisconsin cities like Janesville, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and Oshkosh.

he Effinger Brewing Company of Baraboo in the early 1960s.

Badger Brew was usually the cheapest beer on the shelf. You could get a case of it for as little as $1.98. Shockingly cheap compared to something like Hamm’s or Pabst, which sold for about $3.50 a case.

The bottle label for Effinger's Badger Brew. The beer was never packaged in cans.

There was never much of a budget for promotion. Newspaper ads would lead with played-out hokum: "Refreshingly light." Or pointless drivel: "From Baraboo's oldest industry." But the bottom line was always consistent: "Beer to meet your budget." It was all about the price.

It wasn’t enough to save Effinger Brewing. The company lost money year after year until Effinger finally failed in February 1966.

How low can you go? Cases of Badger Brew were sold-off at closeout prices after Effinger went out of business. Sheboygan Press, August 12, 1966.

Along came the Oshkosh Brewing Company. OBC agreed to purchase the Badger Brew brand in March 1966. The deal was sealed a month later. Fred Effinger packed up Badger Brew and sent it to Oshkosh, bottle caps and all.

Click to enlarge.

OBC continued pushing Badger Brew down the same path that had been cut by Effinger. Though the price had lifted slightly, Badger Brew remained the cheapest of the cheap. Had the beer changed now that it was flowing out of OBC's tanks? Probably. Did anyone care? Probably not. The flavor was never the point.

The Oshkosh version of Badger Brew listed Lakeside Brewing Company as the producer on the label. In reality, it was an OBC beer.

Badger Brew was no savior for OBC, either. The Oshkosh Brewing Company failed in October 1971. But once again, Badger Brew survived.

After OBC collapsed, its neighboring brewery came by to pick through the rubble. Peoples Brewing of Oshkosh salvaged the Badger Brew brand in early November 1971. By the end of the year Peoples was making its own version of the beer. The Badger Brew never stopped flowing.

Theodore Mack (left) of Peoples Brewing and Harold Kriz of the defunct Oshkosh Brewing Company during their announcement that the OBC brands – including Badger Brew – had been sold to Peoples. Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 5, 1971.

Grant Peterson worked as a delivery driver for Peoples Brewing. He recalls hauling cases of Badger Brew to country taverns around Oshkosh.

“We didn't really have a cheap seller before that. All these old farmer taverns loved it because it was so cheap. A case sold for 95 cents wholesale to the taverns. Those farmers wanted a cold bottle of beer and they didn't want to pay a lot for it. And really, you drink six of them and you're going to get just as drunk as if you drink six of these,” Peterson says hoisting a Miller High Life.

In 1972, the curse of Badger Brew struck again. Peoples Brewing Company failed. This time, nobody came to the rescue. Badger Brew was dead.

It wasn’t a sudden death. Cases of expiring Badger Brew lingered on beer depot shelves well into 1973. And the price was still $1.98 a case. Just like it was almost 20 years earlier.

End Note
I've long suspected that the Badger Brew produced by the Oshkosh Brewing Company was actually Chief Oshkosh Beer with just a different label wrapped around it. You can check into that here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Judge Luther

Here’s a bit of a follow up to the post I had the other day about Gary Luther, the former brewmaster for Miller who hails from Oshkosh. 

The story below (click the image to enlarge it) is from 1993 when Luther was a judge at the Great American Beer Festival. I suspect he is the only Oshkosh native to ever have judged at the GABF (if anyone knows otherwise, I’d love to hear about it). 

After reading that I went looking through the GABF medal winners of 1993 and got hit with a wave of nostalgia. The list is filled with beers like Berghoff Dark, Liberty Ale from Anchor, Downtown Brown from Lost Coast, Burning River Pale Ale from Great Lakes, Old Crustacean from Rogue, and of course Point Special which won bronze in 1993 in the American Premium Lager category. Go Point!

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Gary Luther: A Brewer’s Journey

As a kid in Oshkosh, Gary Luther never dreamed of being a beer brewer. But that outcome wasn’t too surprising. There were those early influences. Luther's mother was part of the Nigl family, an extended clan of Bavarian and Bohemian immigrants who had been central to Oshkosh's beer and brewing culture since the 1880s. Born in 1943, Luther came of age in a city awash with beer.

Young Gary Luther with his older sister Faye.

“The Rahr's brewery was right down the street from our first house on Eveline Street,” Luther says. “The Chief Oshkosh Brewery and the Peoples Brewery were still around then. My Uncle Ray was a brewer at Peoples. We moved over to Ninth Street when I was four. They had Peoples Beer at all the German taverns around that area, like Punky Nigl's and the Gemuchlichkeit, or the Bohmerwald on Ninth and Knapp, or the Chieftain at Ninth and Ohio. When I was 10 or 12 years old, I would go over to Leo Lang’s Midway Bar on Ninth and stock the coolers with that beer."

Luther was the second of six children and the Southside was his domain. “It was the St. Vincent parish area at that time,” he says. “It was a great neighborhood. We had friends all over the place. The Dettlaffs were our best friends. There were 17 kids in the family. All these little rascals were all over.”

Another pack of “little rascals” from the Southside. Gary Luther is at top left.

He was schooled at St. Vincent where Luther thought he had found his calling. “I was very religious,” he says. “I was an altar boy and served every chance I could. In 8th grade I decided I wanted to become a priest and went to Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida.” He had a change of heart three years later. “I just found it wasn't for me. I began to feel this drawing away from the priesthood.”

At Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida, Wisconsin, 1961.

Luther came home to Oshkosh and graduated from Lourdes High School in 1962. From there, he went to the Wisconsin State College at Oshkosh (now UW-O).

“Where I majored in going to bars,” he says grinning. “I started in pre-architecture, then switched to economics, and then to history. Finally, I said this isn’t doing me any good. After three years of college I wanted to do something with my life other than partying. I decided to go into the Military.”

The recruiter tried talking him out of it. When that didn't work, he steered Luther towards the Army Intelligence Corps. After basic training at Fort Knox, Luther joined the 511th Army Intelligence Company in Furth, Germany. "I knew how to say Ein Bier, bitte (A beer, please), but that was about it. So they sent me to an immersion school where I learned to speak German."

Bayreuth, Germany, 1967.

Luther found that life in Germany agreed with him. It was where he became acquainted with his wife-to-be. "I met Marianna in Bayreuth. I was still in the military. We had to wait to get married or they would have pulled my top-secret clearance. I knew if we waited until just before my discharge there would be no problem. So we married in November and I was discharged in February 1969."

He also knew what he wanted to do next. Luther had gotten to know the technical director for the EKU Brewery in Kulmbach, Germany. "I asked him how you became a brewer. He was from a brewing family. He explained it all to me. I said, I gotta do this."

Luther spent the next six months working at Bavarian breweries in Kulmbach and Bayreuth. The practical experience helped him gain entry to the Munich Technical University’s prestigious brewing school at Weihenstephan. Luther's training there came under the auspices of the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian purity law that limits brewers to the use of just four ingredients: barley malt, hops, water, and yeast. He soon arrived at a place where rules like that meant nothing.

Luther graduated from Weihenstephan in November 1973, and two months later was on his way to the Antarctica Brewery in SΓ£o Paulo, Brazil. "Where we used sugar, we used corn, we used rice, we used starch... you adapt to it very fast."

Luther on his way to Brazil in 1974.

The beer was good. SΓ£o Paulo was not. "It was not a pretty city at that time. We had an apartment across from the brewery. Marianna hated being there. So they gave me a brewery called Polar in southern Brazil. We got down there and there was nothing to rent. I put Marianna on an airplane back to Germany and I stayed in a hotel."

The situation was untenable. "I was going back to Germany and on the way back, I visited my parents in Oshkosh, and my buddies in Milwaukee. I stopped by Schlitz and Pabst and Miller. Miller was going like gangbusters. Miller Lite had just gotten on the market. They said, what if we want to hire you? I gave them my number and got on the plane. When I came into the house Marianna said a company named Miller called."

The Luthers headed for Wisconsin. "I started at Miller in January 1976 and said, this is it, we're going to be happy here for the rest of our lives.” Six months later he was sent to New York. After the launch of Miller's Fulton, New York brewery, Luther went to Eden, North Carolina to set-up a new brewery there. "We were growing like crazy. We went from 12 million barrels a year to 24 million barrels just like that. We were running 500-barrel brew kettles and making 48 brews a day, seven days a week."

The Miller brewery at Fulton, New York.

The Luthers were flourishing, as well. Gary and Marianna now had two daughters. The family found their way home to Wisconsin after Miller called Gary back to Milwaukee. As his role with the brewery continued to expand, Luther helped pilot Miller’s initial foray into craft beer. The initiative included the extension of the Leinenkugel’s brand acquired by Miller in 1987.

At the Leinenkugel’s innovation brewery on 10th Street in Milwaukee.

"At one point, I went over to England and talked with Charlie Bamforth and told him I needed some top-fermenting yeast. He gave me four nice tubes. He said this is the Bass yeast, you'll be happy with that. I went back and formulated the Reserve Amber Ale. It was a delicious beer, but when you’re making that in Milwaukee, you’re making 500 barrels of it. That was just too much."

Luther has been awarded an Honorary Life Membership in the Master Brewers Association of the Americas. This 1999 photo shows him when Luther was president of the organization. With him is Hugo Patino, then of Coors Brewing, who would succeed Luther as Master Brewers president.

Luther remained with Miller until his retirement in 2000. The brewery was at its peak then producing nearly 50 million barrels of beer annually. Miller had become the largest brewery ever based in Wisconsin. And Gary Luther was Principal Brewer.

Marianna and Gary Luther.

He didn't leave the beer world behind him. Since retiring, Luther has consulted for breweries both at home and abroad. And he devotes significant time to preserving the heritage that has informed his life. He’s active in Wisconsin’s German-American community taking part in choral groups and recording the oral histories of German-born Americans.

Luther was also instrumental in creating the ongoing Brewing Experience program at Old World Wisconsin where visitors step into the world of an 1860s Wisconsin brewery. "We actually started talking about that around 2003. We were starting from nothing, just like the Germans did when they came over here. They were doing small volumes and working with what was available to them. So we did that, we started a hop garden, and barley field, we had wooden vessels. It was authentic. It was a lot of fun."

Making beer at Old World Wisconsin. Luther is on the right wearing the green vest.

The Luthers now have five grandchildren and divide their time between their home near Milwaukee and a home in Bavaria. That's a long way for a Southside kid who used to fill tavern coolers with Oshkosh beer. The journey has had a significance all its own.

Gary Luther came of age amid a legacy initiated by immigrants who transported their beer culture to Wisconsin from Germany. He went back to the source to become a brewer himself. Meanwhile, the breweries of his hometown were washed away in a tide of beer let loose by industrial-sized breweries. Luther rose to the top of his profession at just such a brewery. He has spanned the breadth of American brewing.

Gary Luther and family.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

An Inflated Union Brewery

Here’s another exaggerated illustration of an Oshkosh brewery. This 1891 drawing of the Union Brewery inflated the reality of what actually stood down there at the end of Doty Street.

Here's the real thing.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

As it Never Was

Here's an impressive rendering of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. This was produced by the Tuchfarber Company in Cincinnati in the late 1890s.

But there was never anything in Oshkosh that looked like this. The artist took the liberty of combining OBC’s three separate facilities into one big, beautiful brewery. 

In the image below is the key to unlocking this amalgamation. The building highlighted in red was at 16th and Doty. The building in blue was further down the road near 24th and Doty. The one in yellow was way over on the other side of town on Harney Avenue. This sort of overstated representation was common at the turn of the century when it came to breweries.