Sunday, June 26, 2022

Grant Peterson and the End of Peoples Brewing

Grant Peterson and I had been talking for more than an hour about Peoples Brewing Company before we got to the photographs I had brought along. The first picture was almost 60 years old. It showed the old brewery when it towered over the 1500 block of South Main street. Peterson examined the photo for a moment. “That's beautiful," he said. It went without saying that he wasn't merely commenting on the architecture.

Grant Peterson invested three years of his life in that brewery. His memories of those days, some 50 years gone, remain strikingly fresh. Peterson was 25 years old when he began working at Peoples. He was there when the brewery closed. He was there tying up the loose ends after everyone else had left.

Grant Peterson

"I started in January of 1970," Peterson says. "I was working at the Universal Foundry and my shift was from nine at night until five in the morning. It was awful. All we did was shovel sand. So I went around looking. I put my name in all over. Then one day I got a call from the brewery."

Peterson was interviewed by Harold "Ziggy" Ziegenhagen, the 53-year-old president of Peoples who had been with the brewery since the early 1940s. Ziegenhagen hired Peterson as a delivery driver. "I was just lucky I guess. I don't know why they picked me."

No more night shifts. Now his work day began at 7 a.m. when Peterson would back his delivery truck up to a dock on the north side of the brewery to load it with kegs of beer. "There was a great old guy that worked there, Johnny Fuller. Everybody loved Johnny. He'd roll those barrels out on a rubber mat and you'd load them in. Then you'd go around to the other dock on the other side of the brewery and load the cases of bottled beer."

Peterson would hit the road with a truck full of Peoples Beer. His winding routes included taverns, beer depots, and grocery stores within 50 miles or so of Oshkosh. "Some of the routes you wouldn't believe," Peterson says. "You had to memorize these county roads. There were taverns way out where you didn't know there was anything there."

Much of his time was spent in Oshkosh. Some of the taverns Peterson serviced had been in business when the brewery opened in 1913. They had been selling Peoples Beer ever since. "All the Oshkosh taverns took Peoples. Most places would take six to eight half-barrels and within a few days they'd sell them."

Maneuvering 175-pound kegs full of beer into a basement cooler at an older tavern was never easy. "We had steel kegs, everybody else had those lighter aluminum kegs by then. Trying to get them into some of those places was terrible. I'd go to Utecht's (413 Ohio) on Mondays, and there and at Charlie's Glass Bar (now Ratch & Debs Pizza at 720 Merritt), they had basement ceilings that were like four and a half feet high so you had to carry those damned kegs around all bent over."

Beer depots were easier. "I'll tell you the best two beer depots were Ray's over on New York, that was incredible, and Beverage Mart on Main Street. They both sold a lot of Peoples. But then Jordy's (W. 9th Avenue) was a good seller also. Then I'd get to the Sacred Heart Church and they'd want 80 cases of beer because they had that dartball league in the basement. That church was my biggest seller." Peterson shakes his head and laughs about it.

He was working at the very end of a 120-year period when Oshkosh-brewed beer was predominant wherever beer was sold in the city. Part of that culture was the tradition of the delivery driver buying a round for the bar when he brought in a fresh batch of beer. "You got so much money a week to buy drinks, but I didn't do it all that often. If there were only two or three guys in there, then you did it. But if the bar was packed you'd end up spending your own money. And it was always like you had to drink with them. I've always been a beer drinker and I was a Peoples drinker, but I didn't like drinking when I was on the job."

The chance to relax came when Peterson returned to the brewery. "Behind the office, there was a big room and they had this cooler and you'd open the door and there'd be about 50 cases of cold Peoples Beer in there. You could sit there all night and drink if you wanted to. Another thing, when they canned beer they'd weigh the cases at the end and if it was down more than three or four ounces they'd put that aside and we could buy those. You'd get eight 6-packs of beer for three bucks. Even if it was down an ounce, you'd never notice that."

Peterson says there wasn't all that much beer drinking inside the brewery. The novelty of having beer on the job had long since worn off for workers who had been with Peoples for decades. "A lot of them were old guys that were working there since the 40s," he says. "Most of them were married and at the end of the day they'd just go home."

Those brewery veterans had been on hand when Peoples was at its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s. The high point was followed by a period of aggressive consolidation in the brewing industry driven by large, nationally distributing breweries such as Pabst and Schlitz. Smaller breweries, like those in Oshkosh, were being driven out. Peoples Brewing was caught in the receding tide.

"One of the old-timers told me that in 1960 they went to Berlin (in Green Lake County) twice a week with two guys on the truck each time because every single tavern there had Peoples on tap. It was a big seller there casewise and everything. But by the time I got there, I had Berlin, I went once every two weeks and I would sell like 20 or 35 cases of beer. There was not one tap account left. It was all bottled beer and hardly any to the taverns. They had like three beer depots and that's where we sold all the Peoples. But not much, not like years ago when every time they went they sold 100 cases."

The slump worsened after the brewery was sold in April of 1970 to a group of black entrepreneurs from Milwaukee led by Theodore Mack. The announcement of the sale was followed by rumors that Ted Mack and company intended to fire all of the white workers at Peoples. There was, in fact, no such plan. But the misinformation spread quickly and led to numerous tavern owners in and around Oshkosh refusing to sell Peoples Beer. Mack moved to Oshkosh and quickly put the rumors to rest. Peterson says that sales at his accounts returned to normal, with one notable exception.

"I'll tell you one though, one was the holy land, Mt. Calvary (in Fond du Lac County). When Mack bought the brewery those people down there never sold another case of Peoples. It was awful. And they were supposed to be religious."

The turmoil surrounding the brewery seemed to have little impact on those working within it. "I thought Ted Mack was a great guy. I always got along with him perfectly. Everybody did, I think. When they were bottling he'd sometimes walk around singing old work songs or spirituals or something. He had a great voice. The only people I've ever heard talk shit about him were people who didn't really know him."

Theodore Mack

But the arrival of Mack hastened the end of the brewery. The purchase had been facilitated by loans from the Small Business Administration. To service the debt, Peoples Brewing needed to sell more beer than it ever had. Mack's plan to achieve that was to greatly expand distribution, focusing on urban areas. The strategy failed. By the close of 1971, Peoples was in deep financial trouble.

"At the very end they started having problems with the machinery, especially the bottle capper. If you got one little piece of air in the bottle and it sat for a week the beer would go bad. Quite a few places would call up and complain. I don't know if that was ever fixed, because they didn't have any money left. That was the problem. They didn't have any money to fix anything."

The curtain fell in November of 1972. "We knew something was going on. We didn't talk about it much. Probably everybody above us knew something before we did. One day they came around and said it's closing. I don't remember too much about that. I remember after that a bunch of tavern owners coming around trying to get as much Peoples Beer as they could before there wasn't any left. It was a good, reasonable beer. They didn't know what else to go to."

His job didn't end there. Peterson continued to drive his old routes, retrieving as much of the brewery's inventory as possible. "The brewery was already closed. Nobody was there. I still wore a Peoples Beer uniform and drove a Peoples truck. I went all over picking up empties and half-barrels and everything. They wanted it all back, they were going to have a federal auction. At the end of the day, I'd go back to the brewery to unload everything. See, I had a whole truckload of empties."

The checks were still being signed by Ted Mack. "He had like an office, it was in the basement of his house. They had papers spread all over the basement. I guess they were getting everything ready to give to the feds. I don't know how that worked. I always cashed the checks. They never bounced."

His work for Peoples extended into 1973. When it was over, Peterson took a job with a beer distributor in Van Dyne delivering Hamm’s and Miller. "But then they were bought out by a big outfit. I liked working with smaller groups. So I quit and luckily I got on with the city. How I got on with the city is that I put Pearl Mack's name as a reference."

Pearl Mack, the wife of Ted Mack, had also worked at Peoples. "Pearl was one of the nicest people you'll ever meet in your life. She was working on the first floor at City Hall then and when the guy saw that I had her as a reference he went right down and talked to her and came back up and hired me on the spot." Peterson remained with the city for more than 30 years, retiring from the Public Works Department.

His interest in the brewery he worked for has never waned. Peterson still collects memorabilia related to Peoples Brewing. "I've always liked antique stores, but I didn't begin collecting things until later, after Peoples closed."

Grant Peterson and I met on a Tuesday afternoon in June to talk about all of these things. It was near dark by the time we got to the last of the photographs. The picture was from 1974. It was taken from the south end of the brewery property looking north toward the dock where he used to fill his truck with cases of bottled beer before heading out each morning on his route. “Here it is at the end,” I said. Peterson looked at the photo without saying anything.

I said, "This was taken just before the brewery was demolished." He said he couldn't remember anything about that. After a moment, he points to a detail in the photo where an old sign for Peoples Beer had been discarded alongside a loading dock. "Look at that," he says with the exuberance returning to his voice. "Boy, I wish I had that. Those were gorgeous."

Sunday, June 12, 2022


Bottling beer at the Oshkosh Brewing Company, circa 1895. At this point, most of the work of getting beer into bottles was still being done by hand. Here they’re bottling Oshkosh Export, a pale lager that was popular in Oshkosh well into the 1900s.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Butt's Speakeasy

 One hundred years ago, this place was a speakeasy. 

 The B & E Lounge at 1022 Oregon Street, Oshkosh.

It was raided in 1922, two years after the start of Prohibition. The proprietor, 40-year old August Butt, was arrested and fined for selling moonshine.

August Butt and his wife Bertha.

A couple years later, Butt opened another speakeasy. This one was hidden in the back of a building at the SW corner of 9th and South Main.

The southwest corner of 9th and South Main. Butt's speakeasy here was locared in the back of the building.

Butt got busted for selling booze there in 1925. That arrest earned him a three-month stay in the House of Corrections in Milwaukee. When he got out of jail, Butt returned to Oshkosh and his wife Bertha. And that was the end of his career in the illicit liquor business. He went back to his old woodworking job. August Charles Wilhelm Butt died in Oshkosh in 1957. He was 75 years old.