Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Return of Oshkosh Bock

On Saturday, April 2, Bare Bones Brewery will release the seventh beer in the Oshkosh Heritage Series. It's the return of the Oshkosh Brewing Company's Bock Beer. This is a brew with deep roots in our community.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company released its first Bock beer on March 23, 1894. OBC had been created just two days earlier from the merger of the Glatz, Horn & Schwalm, and Kuenzl breweries. The new bock should have made a splash as OBC's first release. But that didn’t happen.

For reasons never revealed, the Oshkosh Brewing Company attempted to keep a lid on the merger that had led to the brewery's creation. So instead of releasing its first beer under the OBC banner, the new bock was sent out as a Glatz Brewery beer.
The Glatz Brewery, where the first Oshkosh Brewing Company Bock Beer was brewed. The brewery was located on the west side of Doty Street, south of 24th Avenue.

"We feel inclined to say a word or two about our beer, especially our Bock beer, which will be on draught at all our customer’s places Friday and Saturday… We unhesitatingly place it alongside of any beer no matter by whom manufactured for its purity, strength and quality…. 
Respectfully, J. Glatz & Son."
     – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 22, 1894.

Six days later, word leaked out that J. Glatz & Son had been subsumed into the Oshkosh Brewing Company. And two days after that, OBC released its second beer. It was another bock. This one was brewed at what had been the Kuenzl Brewery on Harney Ave.

It's fitting that the largest brewery ever to do business in Oshkosh would get its start by releasing a flood of bock beer. This darker, stronger style of lager beer had been popular in Oshkosh since the 1850s. It was treated as a local delicacy and eagerly anticipated.

February 15, 1917.

Breweries in Oshkosh would release their annual bock beer just as winter was giving way to spring. The release dates fluctuated. Sometimes the bock would begin flowing as early as February. Other times you had to wait until May. A placard illustrated with a goat's head would go up on the doors of saloons where the beer was being served. Bock is German for goat. The symbol was the sign that this year's bock beer had begun flowing.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company's Bock Beer was renamed Chief Oshkosh Bock in 1934. The bottle labels featured the traditional symbol.

The original, 1934 label for Chief Oshkosh Bock.

Variations on this label were used from the 1940s well into the 1960s.

Oshkosh Bock at Bar Bones
The bock beer going on tap at Bare Bones was brewed on February 9th and has been lagering for the past six weeks. It was made from the 1950s recipe used for Chief Oshkosh Bock. The recipe comes directly from the Oshkosh Brewing Company’s logbooks of that period. This is an American-style bock, with a ruby hue and a pronounced malt flavor. At 5.5% ABV, it's light enough to be sessionable but strong enough to ease the chill lingering in the spring air.

Oshkosh Bock goes on tap at noon on Saturday at Bare Bones in the brewery's taproom. This is a draft-only release. You'll know it's pouring when you arrive at Bare Bones and see the sign of the goat greeting you at the door. See you there. Prost!

A couple of extra notes...
If you’re looking for more on the history of bock beer in Oshkosh, check this out.

I mentioned that the Oshkosh Brewing Company attempted to keep the 1894 merger a secret. Here’s more on that.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Remembering Ron Akin

Dr. Ronald Akin of Oshkosh passed away on Monday, March 21st. Ron was a leading figure in the field of Wisconsin breweriana and the preeminent collector of breweriana related to Oshkosh.

Ron Akin

He was born and raised in Hortonville. Ron came to Oshkosh in 1955 to attend UW-Oshkosh where he excelled as an athlete. Ron would later become a full professor at UW-Oshkosh while also coaching several sports.

His interest in breweriana was instigated by his sons Dan and David after they began collecting beer cans in the early 1970s.

"So, I became a collector too, collecting anything related to any of the closed Oshkosh breweries," Ron once explained to me. "Back then, there was so little information available on those breweries. I wanted to know more. Collecting breweriana became part of that and as I learned more, I discovered how important the breweries were to the history of Oshkosh.”

Ron with his sons, David (in the middle) and Dan.

The collection Ron built was unrivaled. His fellow collectors came to know him for his tenacity. But Ron was equally generous in sharing his discoveries. He often invited inquisitive strangers into his home to acquaint them with the incredible pieces he was dedicated to preserving.

As his knowledge and collection grew, Ron began publishing articles in breweriana journals. People started asking him to give talks about Oshkosh brewing history. He was always happy to oblige.

Ron and Kenlynn Akin.

I met Ron for the first time in December of 2010. We were at the Oshkosh Public Library to hear a lecture about Frank J. Hess & Sons, a Madison cooperage that made wooden beer barrels in the early 1900s. After the talk, Ron's wife, Kenlynn, introduced us. She had somehow diagnosed that I shared her husband's affliction: a consuming interest in anything related to old breweries.

They invited me to their home and Ron led me through his immense collection. I was stunned. I didn't realize it then, but our destination was already being set. Not long after that visit, Ron suggested that we collaborate on a book about the history of Oshkosh’s breweries. We went straight to work. The Breweries of Oshkosh was published in September of 2012.

Ron with a proof of the Breweries of Oshkosh cover. To his left is his brother George and son David.

I wasn't the only person to be swept into Ron's orbit. As breweriana collector Dale Applebee recently told me, "Ron definitely inspired a lot of people into collecting Oshkosh memorabilia." He seemed to have a knack for spotting those who shared his passion. He kept that fire burning even in his last years, becoming a mentor to younger collectors like Jared Sanchez.

Ron with Jared Sanchez and Jared’s daughter Emmalynn.

"I had bought a Tonka Truck off of eBay and I had no idea that the seller was Ron Akin," Jared says. "When I arrived to pick up my purchase we talked for a few minutes and he asked if I collected anything else. I told him I collected Chief Oshkosh Beer items and his face lit up. He asked me if I wanted to see his collection. The moment I saw his basement, my life was never the same."

Jared has gone on to establish the B'Gosh It's Good Breweriana Show held bi-annually at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh. It’s a prime example of Ron's abiding influence.

Ron Akin will be sorely missed. But his presence will be felt for years to come. He will continue to inspire.

A few additional notes…
Ron had a remarkable career at UW-Oshkosh. Here are a few more notes about his athletic and coaching accomplishments there.

In 2003, Ron gave a talk about the Oshkosh Brewing Company at the Grand Opera House. His presentation was filmed by Oshkosh Community Access Television. The Oshkosh Public Library has a copy of it on DVD. You can check that out here.

There are numerous stories about Ron inviting folks into his home to see his collection of Oshkosh breweriana up-close. My friend Frankie wrote about her visit. You can see that here

The next edition of Jared Sanchez’s B'Gosh It's Good Breweriana Show will take place on May 1, 2022. There’s more information on that here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Two Roads Diverged

When I began this blog 12 years ago, there was no fixed plan for the direction it would take. But its course quickly became apparent. About half of the posts have focused on the current beer scene in Oshkosh. The rest have been about the incredible history this city has with beer. I'm at a point now where I don't have enough free time to continue pursuing both paths.

I'm going to stop writing about the current beer scene. From now on, this blog will be about the beer history and saloons of Oshkosh, and the influence the beer culture here has had on our city as a whole. It's a deep well. I have hundreds of story ideas waiting to be explored. And that list grows each time I get into the research phase of one of these stories. 

The current scene speaks for itself and certainly doesn't need me as an intermediary. My time is better spent trying to discover the aspects of Oshkosh's beer culture that have been forgotten. It's something I love doing and look forward to doing for as long as I can. Prost!

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Holes of Iniquity: The Stall Saloons of Oshkosh

Thursday morning, December 6, 1894...
Rudolph Weisbrod knew he had to do something about these saloon keepers and their whores on Main Street. Last night's episode caused a sensation. Now the eyes were on him. Weisbrod summoned a reporter from the Daily Northwestern to his office at City Hall. And so it began...

The Dirty Old Town: looking south down the 400 block of North Main Street at the turn of the century.

“Are these fellows running the city or is it the people?” the police chief bellowed as he paced the room. The journalist began taking notes. “These holes of iniquity would place a Hurley or Ironwood den in the shade when it comes to a matter of comparison. If a citizen's league would start a crusade against these black holes, it would be of untold benefit to the moral atmosphere of the city."

Weisbrod sounded as if he were reciting a prepared speech. His "holes of iniquity" were Main Street saloons offering chasers of flesh in companion to their liquid goods. They were called stall saloons. City officials, including the Chief of Police, had looked the other way. Until they couldn't.

Weisbrod was driven to act by what the Daily Northwestern called an "outrageous hubbub." The trouble began after police arrested a woman in one of the stall saloons. She was "in a beastly state of intoxication." The cops dragged her into the winter night wearing nothing but a low-cut wrapper. She went howling all the way to the jail on Court Street. The lurid spectacle inspired an equally lurid account of it on Thursday’s front page.

Her "screams, curses, and malediction" continued well into the morning, the Daily Northwestern reported. "The noise that resulted was terrific. The woman seemed to be possessed of a fiend incarnate."

The stall saloons had become too loud to ignore.

Kicking in the Stalls
Weisbrod had laid it on thick for the Daily Northwestern reporter. How much of his moralizing he actually believed is questionable. Weisbrod was an old-school sort of cop. He was a Civil-War vet who had been appointed chief of police for the first time in 1887. Weisbrod's views on prostitution were hardly consistent with the Progressive attitudes of the 1890s. That is, he wasn't altogether opposed to commodified sex.

Oshkosh Police Chief Rudolph Weisbrod in his Civil War suit.

Prostitution in Oshkosh flourished during Weisbrod's tenure as chief of police. Most of the sex trade was sequestered in an area on the north side; along what is now Ashland Street south of Murdock. A sense of decorum and discretion prevailed there. Downtown, it was a different story. Sex in the stall saloons was a grubbier affair.

That they were called "stalls" says it all. The term captured the barnyard spirit of the matter. In fact, “stall” may have been too charitable. In some places, the stall amounted to nothing more than a curtain. Others were glorified closets. An extravagant stall might even have a door.

A catalog illustration of an ornate bar screen made by R. Brand & Sons of Oshkosh. Oshkosh wasn't the only Wisconsin city with a stall-saloon problem. Brand's screens were used for stalls in saloons throughout the Midwest.

The stalls were tucked at the back of the barroom, usually near a rear entrance to an alley. This allowed prostitutes to slip in and out without drawing the attention of gawkers on Main Street. Yet it was no secret what was going on. There were at least a dozen stall saloons in Oshkosh. Eight of them were on Main Street.

The view north on Main Street from Washington Avenue; the heart of the stall saloon district. There were at least four stall saloons on Main Street between Washington and Merritt.

Weisbrod's rant in the Daily Northwestern caused the stir he intended. A week later, the chief issued an order to remove the stalls from the saloons. He had the support of the mayor and the city attorney, but the legality of the order was in doubt. Weisbrod realized he was pushing the limits of his authority. When asked what he would do if the saloon keepers disregarded his demand, Weisbrod bluffed saying he wasn’t at liberty to discuss it. That challenge was put off for the time being.

Most of the stalls were removed even before Weisbrod's order was made official. Harry Maxwell, who had an elaborate set of stalls in his saloon, said he was happy to remove them. "The change will be better for the moral atmosphere of the city," he told a Daily Northwestern reporter. Maxwell even managed to maintain a straight face when he said it.

The barroom of Harry Maxwell's stall saloon at what is now 416 N. Main. Maxwell was a notorious saloon man and gambler. In the back bar mirror is the reflection of a painting inside of a draped frame. It shows a nude sprawled across a bed.

The saloon keepers bent to Weisbrod's will so willingly that it immediately aroused suspicion. Their rationale was explained by an anonymous Oshkosh resident who seems to have had inside knowledge.

"Mark my words well, the stall feature of the saloons has not been stamped out of existence. Let me tell you that the partitions have not been taken apart, and that the parts of the stalls have only been stored away for future use."
     – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; December 18, 1894.

The Long Debauch
It took little more than a year, but as predicted the stalls returned. By 1897, the selling of sex on Main Street was as brisk as ever. Chief Weisbrod threw away his order. He insisted that the common council needed to take up the matter.

In early 1898, a city ordinance was introduced that would ban stall saloons. But there wasn’t enough support for it to bring it to a vote. Then, as if on cue, there occurred another sensational episode that set Oshkosh on edge.

It would later be referred to as a “Long Debauch” and it involved a series of men and three young women ranging in ages from 17 to 21. The women had come to Oshkosh from Neenah on the Thursday afternoon of March 17, 1898. That evening, they attended a dance at the North Side Turner Hall. It was there that the "handsome maiden only seventeen years of age" took her first drink. There was no turning back.

Ground zero for the Long Debauch: the northside Turner Hall at the northeast corner of Merritt and Jefferson.

The three young women met two Oshkosh men at the Turner Hall dance. On Friday, their new friends took them on a tour of the southside saloons. Later, they went to Main Street and into a stall saloon where they spent the remainder of the evening. Whatever took place there was clearly transformative.

By Saturday, the women were "in the charge" of a middle-aged man. He brought them back to Main Street for another go. They spent time in at least two stall saloons. Near midnight, the women were picked up by police on Merritt Street. One of the women was injured; she said a man had kicked her. Another was too drunk to walk. All three were carted to the police station. The city physician was called in to tend to them. They were held over until Sunday evening.

The story was front-page news in both the Daily Northwestern and the Oshkosh Times. A member of the common council told the Northwestern he was witness to at least some of what had taken place over the weekend. "I wish every other of the twenty-six aldermen could have seen what I saw," he said. "It was a pitiable thing."

The unattributed quote was likely given by second-ward alderman Charles D. Heath.

Charles D. Heath

Heath was the longest-serving member of the Oshkosh Common Council, having won his seat in 1882. He'd been a saloon owner even longer than that. Heath hadn’t chosen his profession. He was born into it.

His father had launched a saloon on the south side of Washington Avenue near Main in the mid-1860s. Heath, born in 1853, had grown up working in that saloon. When he was 25, his father died. Heath took over the bar and named it the Senate Sample Room. His life was wrapped up in that saloon.

It wasn't always a good fit. Heath was notoriously kindhearted and charitable. Sometimes to a fault. Somehow, after almost 30 years in a business known for creating misanthropes, Heath had managed not to have the empathy beaten out of him. His compassion would cost him dearly in the days to come.

Heath's Senate Sample Room no longer stands. The parking lot behind the Exclusive Company now occupies that space. The Senate is seen here in the background with its protruding sign highlighted in yellow above the awning.

Charles Heath and the Evil Temptation
Heath was one of six saloon owners on the Oshkosh Common Council in 1898. As a group, they managed to sidetrack a number of saloon reform measures. Among them was the languishing proposal that would ban stall saloons in Oshkosh. But Heath parted ways with his fellow saloonists after conducting his own examination of the stall saloons.

"Never before in any city of the country has such prostitution existed," Heath railed at his fellow aldermen. He told of "the disgraceful scenes being enacted in the stalls" and how they were far worse than he could have imagined. Heath said that during his investigations he had encountered "five or six little girls" in stall saloons.

He described an episode where two 15-year-old girls had recently been lured into a stall saloon with an offer of ginger ale. "They took the ginger ale, which was 'doped' with the most evil of purposes and most evil results," Heath said. The fathers of the girls went to the district attorney demanding that charges be pressed, only to recant at the pleading of their daughters who feared the "disgrace of such a proceeding."

Heath collected other stories that were equally disturbing. His dive into the stall saloons seemed to unhinge him. He told his fellow alderman that eliminating the stalls wasn't good enough. He demanded that women be altogether banned from saloons. 

436 North Main was once the home of a bustling stall saloon run by Charles Lemon. It's now home to Eroding Winds Record Shop.

The anti-stall folks were glad to have Heath on board. But even they were taken aback by his extremism. They questioned if a ban on women would even be legal. Heath responded darkly, "I don't consider this matter as a question of personal liberty in any sense. It is a question of protecting the girls and boys of this city from ruin."

The Daily Northwestern steered clear of Heath's more strident proposals, calling them "anti-female." But the paper helped lend credence to his horror stories about "the evil doings in those stalls."

“In a conversation with a Northwestern reporter recently, a commercial traveler said that the stall saloon district of this city was rapidly becoming notorious throughout the state. “It has often been spoken of as one of the worst spots in the state”
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; March 23, 1898.

 The "Finest Saloon in the State" in "one of the worst spots in the state." Nic Stein's Place was a stall saloon in the 400 block of North Main Street (the building no longer stands). Smiling Nic Stein is seen on the right strolling down Main Street.

There was now no doubt that the common council would pass the anti-stall ordinance. Before it came to a vote, Heath attempted to introduce his more radical measures “to prevent the practice of prostitution in saloons and to prevent the corruption of young women and girls in the city of Oshkosh.” The aldermen rejected it.

On April 12, 1898, the common council passed an ordinance outlawing stalls, compartments, and private rooms in Oshkosh saloons. The only dissenting vote came from Charles Heath. He said he couldn't support it because it didn't go far enough. It didn't prohibit "the evil temptation" of women in saloons.

A Ward in Heaven
With the new law in place, Chief Weisbrod sent his men out to tell the bar keepers they had three days to tear out their stalls. Once again, they complied. Once again, the moral panic dissipated. Once again, it reemerged (a story for another day).

Charles Heath was never the same. After the passage of the anti-stall ordinance, Heath renounced his profession and sold his saloon. Yet he remained haunted. In 1905, Heath ran for mayor on what the Daily Northwestern described as an "ultra-radical" platform of moral reform.

Heath promised to run all of the prostitutes out of town. He vowed to destroy every nickel slot machine in Oshkosh. He said he would move the saloons into a segregated area away from Main Street and force them to close on Sundays. That was just the warm-up. Heath's 12-point plan was a puritan’s wish list that included an "Absolute prohibition of the demimonde element parading our streets for the purpose of showing themselves."

His crusading zeal made Heath an object of ridicule. The La Crosse Chronicle ran an article mocking his plans for the city: "If Oshkosh elects Charles D. Heath and he keeps his promise, the famous city will indeed become a suitable spot for a ward in heaven."

Heath was soundly defeated. A year later, he moved away.

Heath went to Marinette, Wisconsin where he became the proprietor of a fashionable hotel. He remained there until his death at the age of 68. Still, his dissolute hometown retained a hold on his heart. Heath left instructions that he wanted to be buried here. His body was brought back to Oshkosh in a rail car. Charles D. Heath was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery on April 25, 1921.

Charles Heath's return to the dirt of Oshkosh.

End Notes
I've previously written about Rudolph Weisbrod's approach to regulating prostitution in Oshkosh. You can find that story here.

If you're interested in the Oshkosh saloons of this period, there's a starting point here that leads to a tour through some of the old, downtown saloons.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Beer of the Moment: Driving Miss Hazy

It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since Oshkosh’s Fox River Brewing Company released its first Hazy IPA. At the time, the style was just starting to make headway in Wisconsin. What was novel then is ubiquitous now. There’s been a lot of Hazy brewed by Fox River since 2018, but their latest may be their best. This is the sort of beer that comes only with experience.

Driving Miss Hazy

Driving Miss Hazy just went on tap at the Fox River taproom in Oshkosh and it delivers everything a HAZY IPA lover could want: an intense, fruity aroma; a full and soft mouthfeel, and a slightly sweet finish that invites you back to the glass. It’s a beer with volumes of hop flavor ranging from peach to guava to passionfruit.

Drew Roth, the head brewer at Fox River, takes an innovative approach to making his hazies. Among the hopping techniques he employs is a method called "dip hopping," which helps to minimize bitterness while preserving more delicate hop flavors. He’s also developed a proprietary yeast blend that accentuates hop aromatics. “This one was hopped with Galaxy, Sabro, and Citra and has really strong tropical fruit notes,” Roth says.

Some 20 years ago, Fox River became the first Oshkosh brewery to brew an IPA. They’ve been making a wide variety of IPAs ever since and have produced every iteration of the modern style. Few other Wisconsin breweries are able to pull from such a deep well of experience where beers like this are concerned. That methodical honing of craft is evident in a pint of Driving Miss Hazy.

Beer of the Moment is an ongoing series I’m writing for the Visit Oshkosh website. Its purpose is to provide a glimpse into the local beer culture for people considering a visit to Oshkosh. I also post them here in hopes of building a representative overview of the sort of beer that is being made here now. Most beers featured in this series have been selected by the brewers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Oshkosh Underground

In the late 1860s, there were at least six sets of subterranean beer caves in Oshkosh. Here's the only set of those caves that hasn't been filled in. This picture was taken in 2012.

That's beneath the old Horn and Schwalm Brewery on the east side of Doty Street just south of 16th. If you could go back 150 years, you would have seen that cave packed with barrels full of lager beer in various stages of maturation and blocks of ice cut from Lake Winnebago to keep it cold.

Construction of the Horn and Schwalm caves began in 1865. Here's how it looks down there today.

The Horn and Schwalm Brewery.
The top photo is from the 1880s.
The bottom photo was taken last summer.

Just down the street there once was another set of elaborate caves beneath the Glatz Brewery. They've been filled in, but you can get a look at them here.