Thursday, April 7, 2022

Beer Bash, 1933

Friday, April 7, 1933: At midnight, the breweries let their whistles scream. It was a wail of relief. They'd been waiting for this moment for almost 14 years. Beer was finally legal again.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company.

As the whistles blared, people came out of their homes and gathered outside the brewhouses at Oshkosh Brewing, Peoples, and Rahr. A spontaneous celebration ensued. At one of the breweries, a German band appeared and began playing for the crowd. The early morning was awash with beer.

The headline from March 22, 1933.

They had known for two weeks that beer would become legal at midnight on April 7th. City officials feared a repeat of June 30, 1919; the last day of legal drinking in Oshkosh. On that date, the bars were filled to overflowing. When they closed at midnight the drunken throngs collected in the middle of Main Street where they continued boozing until the last bottle had been emptied and smashed. “It was more or less a wild night about town,” The Daily Northwestern reported the following afternoon.

In advance of April 7th, the City of Oshkosh announced plans for an official celebration that would take place 10 days later, on April 17th. The delay was supposedly made in deference to those observing the Lenten season. More likely, it was a ploy to tamp down the excitement. It didn't work. Oshkoshers had waited long enough. The concern proved unwarranted.

The early morning beer binge of April 7th went off without incident. When the sun came up it was back to business as usual. At the breweries, there had been no such thing as business as usual since the start of the Wartime Prohibition Act in 1919.

Peoples Brewing Company.

As the crowds dispersed, the folks at the breweries went to work. In the previous two weeks, hundreds of orders for beer had come in from soda parlors (soon to be taverns again), hotels, restaurants, and private homes. People had been anticipating this day since late 1932 when President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised to bring back legal beer.

All three Oshkosh breweries – under the pretense of producing non-alcoholic beer – had filled their tanks to capacity with real beer in preparation for this moment. By dawn, the brewery trucks were on the road delivering beer to every part of the city.

In advance of April 7, Oshkosh breweries encouraged people to send in their orders for beer. This set of ads, all from March 22, promise the delivery of beer on April 7. Click the image to enlarge it.

This wasn't the beer Oshkosh had grown accustomed to drinking. For the past decade, the city had been home to a score of wildcat breweries producing bootleg ale that made the pre-Prohibition beer seem downright meek. This new beer was weaker yet. The bill Roosevelt signed legalized beer that was 4% ABV or less. It would be another eight months before full-strength beer became legal again.

In the meantime, the milder brew would have to do. The new beer from the Oshkosh Brewing Company was named Chief Oshkosh. The brand had been introduced as a non-alcoholic beer in 1928. Peoples Brewing issued an altogether new brand called Würtzer; a name that played to the brewery's German roots. Only Rahr Brewing revived its pre-Prohibition brand. Rahr's Elk's Head had been introduced in 1916.

The post-Prohibiton label for Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer.

There's an old story that beautifully captures the excitement surrounding April 7, 1933. It occurred at Sitter Beverage, a beer distributorship that was located on Harney Avenue.
The Sitter family had been involved in the beer business in Oshkosh since 1883. In 1933, Sitter Beverage was being run by Matt Sitter. His grand-nephew Tom Sitter tells the story of that first load of legal beer delivered to Harney Ave in 1933...

"I was at work and a customer stopped by. He asked if I was related to Matt. He was the driver of the first load of beer to come to Oshkosh for Matt. I wish I could remember his name and what brand.

He said everything was going fine with his trip back from Milwaukee. He approached the Main Street bridge from the south and as he crossed the river he almost crapped his pants. Both sides of the street were lined with people waiting for the first loads of beer to arrive (I can only think of the song “Happy Days are Here Again!”). It scared him so much that he was happy that his first turn was to go down Ceape Street.

He got to Harney Avenue and was instructed to back the truck up the narrow driveway to unload. As he was backing up someone yelled out to him “stop, stop, you are going to snap the wire.” It was a wire for the telephone. At that point Matt Sitter yelled out, 'That beer is worth more than any God Damn wire, get that truck back here to unload!'"

Happy Days indeed. Raise a mug today to 1933.

End Notes
The chronology of Prohibition’s arrival and demise is fairly muddled. I thought it might be better to address that here instead of in the body of the story. Here’s a basic rundown of what happened…

January 16, 1919
The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxicating liquors. It will go into effect one year later.

June 30, 1919
The Wartime Prohibition Act (aimed at conserving grain for the war effort) goes into effect. This is the "unofficial" beginning of Prohibition.

January 17, 1920
The Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect, enforced by the Volstead Act. National Prohibition has arrived.

April 7, 1933
The Beer Revenue Act modifies the Volstead Act. This legalizes beer and wine with an alcohol content of up to 4% alcohol by volume.

December 5, 1933
The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is repealed." Nationwide prohibition has ended.

About those wildcat breweries in Oshkosh… I love researching and writing about them and I’ve done a lot of that. Here’s a link that acts as a sort of catch-all page to the history of Wildcat beer and brewing in Oshkosh. That page includes an interactive map that will lead you to the story of each of the known wildcat breweries that called Oshkosh home. And here's the full list of all the wildcat stories that have appeared on this blog.

Speaking of wildcats… at Sitter Beverage, they weren’t just sitting on their hands waiting for Prohibition to end. They were making bootleg beer. Here’s the story of Sitter’s Wildcat Brewery on Harney Avenue.

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