Sunday, July 31, 2022

An 1840s Beer Blast

The history of beer drinking in Oshkosh begins in a mist. By the 1840s, beer was flowing like a river into this place. But there’s next to nothing from that period about Oshkoshers getting down to the actual business of drinking beer. There's one notable exception to that silence.

The oldest story I’ve found about beer drinking here takes place in the late 1840s. The author of the tale is William Wallace Wright. He was born in New York in 1819 and came to Oshkosh when he was 18 years old.
William Wright

Wright told his 1840s beer story from the vantage point of 1899 when he was 80 years old. Here it is…

In the spring of 1845, P.V. Wright erected a business house on what is 91 Main street, where he carried a stock of general merchandise and among the stock was some Milwaukee beer. The writer (William Wright) was at one time left in the store while the proprietor was out. Mr. Chauncey King, an old settler that many will remember, was also in the store and asked for a glass of beer, but found the keg empty. A fresh keg must be tapped. That was a business I did not understand, but thought I could do it all right. The faucet and the hammer were procured and the cork was being driven into the keg, when the beer blew out the stopple and shot the writer squarely in the face and eyes. Mr. King clapped his thumb into the vent and stopped the flow of beer, or he would not have had his glass.

We’re a long way from the gas-charged aluminum kegs and stainless-steel beer faucets used today. What Wright and King were engaged with would have looked similar to this…

There’s not much in the way of context in Wright’s tale, so let’s flesh it out some. First, what about this place on Main Street where they were draining those kegs of Milwaukee beer? The store in question was owned by P.V. Wright, William Wright’s brother.
P.V. (Philip Van Renselaer) Wright

P.V. Wright described his place as a shanty where he offered a mix of random goods. He stocked everything from gunpowder to fish, and greased the wheels of commerce with plenty of Milwaukee beer.

From the Oshkosh True Democrat of February 23, 1849.

The store was located at what is now 217 N. Main Street. It was destroyed in May of 1859 by the great fire that wiped out the south end of what was then called Ferry Street. There was a recent gusher there that didn’t end as happily as the beer blast William Wright set off 170 years ago.

The former site of P.V. Wright’s store at 217 N. Main Street. The current building’s sprinkler system burst in February leading to catastrophic water damage. The future of the property remains in limbo.

So, when was that fateful glass of beer poured for Chauncey King?

William Wright sandwiches his beer story between events that occurred in 1844 and 1848. It appears, though, that Chauncey King - a boat builder with a shop on Main Street - didn't reach Oshkosh until 1849. That year may be the better bet.

The beer story Wright told was just one of many tales he passed on about the early days of Oshkosh. He knew this place as intimately as anyone ever would. Wright was there to see Oshkosh develop from a frontier outpost into a thriving city. His father, George Wright, was the third white settler here. William was on hand at his father's home near Algoma and Main when in 1839 Oshkosh was given its name following an alcohol-fueled debate.

Wright later made a name for himself as a real estate developer. He came to own and then subdivide most of the land south of Irving Avenue between Jackson and Main streets. His standing was such that Wright was referred to as the "Father of Oshkosh" in some early accounts of the city.

William Wright died in 1903. It's fitting that he would be the source of our first beer story.

William Wright as depicted in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of July 7, 1899.

William Wright's beer story, along with many of his other tales of early Oshkosh, can be found in History of Winnebago County published in 1908.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Leroy Youngwirth on the Southside

Leroy's Bar at the corner of 7th and Knapp is a Southside institution. The first saloon there opened in the summer of 1914. Leroy's gets its name from Leroy Youngwirth, the proprietor of the bar from 1949 until 1991.

Leroy's Bar at 701 Knapp Street.

I recently met a longtime Oshkosher who said he spent a lot of time at Leroy's in the 1960s. He said he got to know Leroy Youngwirth pretty well. I asked the guy if he had any Leroy stories. Here’s what he told me...

Leroy, him and his buddies. There were four or five of them who were on the road every afternoon going around to the bars and they'd just drink. And all of them had stuff wrong with them like diabetes and everything. And they weren't drinking beer. They would just drink alcohol, almost straight alcohol. Yeah, Leroy was a different guy…

When he was tending bar, and there were like three guys drinking and two of them were drinking fast and one of them was drinking slow and had like half a bottle of beer left, Leroy would put another bottle in front of the slow guy. The guy would say, 'I don't need one yet.' Leroy would tell him, 'You catch up or you go out and sit on the stoop.' He was so impatient. He'd do that to everybody.

There was a lot of gambling there and cash raffles and whatnot. Sunday mornings they'd have these big raffles. Leroy got caught all the time. He'd get fined and then the next Sunday he'd have another raffle all over again. Leroy, he was just... I don't know. They could have made a movie about Leroy.

Leroy Youngwirth behind his bar in 1991.

Leroy Youngwirth was born in Oshkosh in 1919. Prohibition began the following year. Leroy’s father, Butch Youngwirth, was a bootlegger who ran several wildcat breweries in and around Oshkosh during the so-called dry years (Butch's story can be found here). Leroy Youngwirth died on March 27, 2000. He was 80 years old.

Leroy's grave marker in Lake View Memorial Park.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Beers of 1946

1946 was a watershed year for Oshkosh. The previous 26 years had been riddled with hardships: Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II. But now the war was over and the men who had been away were returning home. Tavern life in the city came roaring back.

Nigl's “Chieftin” Tavern at 9th and Ohio in the 1940s.

It wasn’t all back to normal. The federal government had yet to drop the price controls it began enacting in 1942 to curb inflation triggered by the war. Beer sold in taverns was one of the commodities subject to price-fixing.

Oshkosh tavern owners took their marching orders from the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA). The OPA dictated the prices tavern keepers were allowed to charge for bottled beer.

Not surprisingly, Oshkosh tavern owners hated being told what to do by the OPA. The bar keepers resisted (a story for another day) and for good reason. Most of the beer sold in Oshkosh was made at the city's three breweries: The Oshkosh Brewing Company, Peoples Brewing, and Rahr Brewing. The OPA's pricing structure placed the beer from these breweries at the extreme low end. And that meant less revenue for Oshkosh taverns.

Without going too deep into the morass of the OPA, it's clear that the price lists dreamed up by these bureaucrats served the interests of large "shipping" breweries with wide distribution networks. Meanwhile, smaller breweries - like those in Oshkosh - had their beer consigned to low-price ghettos.

For us, there's a silver lining in this mess. The OPA's pricing sheets present a nearly comprehensive list of the beers available in Oshkosh 75 years ago.

The following is from a price list issued by the Green Bay office of the OPA on March 1, 1946. The prices are for a 12-ounce bottled beer sold in taverns for off-premise consumption. In parenthesis are prices adjusted for inflation; an approximation of what it would cost today. OK, let's get to the beer...

Tier 1
15¢ ($1.99) per bottle / 90¢ ($11.94) for a six pack.

Ballantine Ale
Newark, NJ

Just one beer in this bracket and one of just three ales in a list dominated by lager beer. Six-packs weren’t yet common in 1946, but P. Ballantine and Sons was instrumental in changing that. The Newark brewery was the third largest in America at this point and Ballantine Ale was then the most expensive bottled beer sold in Oshkosh.

Tier 2
14¢ ($1.85) per bottle / 85¢ ($11.10) for a six pack.

Budweiser Beer
St. Louis

Miller High Life

Schlitz Beer

Here you have those large shipping breweries being allowed to charge top-dollar for their product. Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) and Schlitz produced over three million barrels of beer in 1946. Miller was closing in on a million barrels. Of course, all three of these brands are now much cheaper. Can you imagine paying $11.10 for a six-pack of High Life?

Tier 3
13.5¢ ($1.79) per bottle / 81¢ ($10.74) for a six pack.
The fraction of a cent was applied when multiple bottles were included in the sale.

Heileman’s Old Style Lager
La Crosse

Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer

Pabst Blue Ribbon Ale

Pabst was the largest brewery in America in 1946. In 1947, Pabst lost that title to Schlitz, never to regain it. Today, Pabst is basically a shell company and owns the Heileman’s Old Style brand. Old style has been kicking around Oshkosh since the early 1900s. The brand took off here after Prohibition when Lee Beverage began distributing it. And to this day Lee Beverage distributes Old Style. It wasn't until the 1980s that Old Style lost its "Premium Beer" status around here. You can now get a 30-pack of Old Style in Oshkosh for less than $20.

Tier 4
13¢ ($1.72) per bottle / 78¢ ($10.32) for a six pack.

Hamm’s Beer
St. Paul

Kingsbury Ale
Manitowoc and Sheboygan

Rhinelander Export Beer

Modern Oshkosh beer drinkers might find it hard to believe that Hamm's, Kingsbury, and Rhinelander were once considered premium beers. Today, Hamm's is often the cheapest beer available in Oshkosh with 30 packs going for just a few bucks more than the (adjusted) cost of a 1946 six-pack. I'm sure Kingsbury and Rhinelander were better beers back in the 1940s. By the time I got to them in the 1980s both were dreadful. That didn't keep me from drinking them.

Tier 5
12.5¢ ($1.66) per bottle / 75¢ ($9.96) for a six pack.

Blatz Pilsner

Braumeister Pilsner Beer

Gettelman's Rathskeller

Kingsbury Pale Beer
Manitowoc and Sheboygan

Silver Fox de Luxe Beer

Schoen’s Lager Beer

Now we're into the thick of it. Aside from Blatz, which appears to be on life support, all of these brands have died. If I could revive one of them it would be Gettelman. After Prohibition, Gettelman beer grew to be quite popular in Oshkosh. The brand began fading in the 1960s after Miller aquired it. There remain a few lingering traces of Gettelman around town, though. The last time I checked, the sign below was still tacked to the front door at Andy's Pub & Grub on 9th Ave.

Tier 6
12¢ ($1.59) per bottle / 72¢ ($9.54) for a six pack.

Fauerbach Beer

North Star Lager Beer

Here we go into the bottom half of the list where small, Wisconsin breweries were fighting an uphill battle against industry consolidation and stagnating prices. Then along comes the OPA to enforce that stagnation. North Star Lager was made at Mathie-Ruder Brewing, which closed in 1955. The Fauerbach brewery went out in 1966.

Tier 7
11.5¢ (1.53) per bottle / 69¢ ($9.18) for a six pack.

Meister Brau Beer

Just one beer in this tier, the lowly Meister Brau. In 1946, MB was being made by Peter Hand Brewing of Chicago. It was already cutting a path to the budget bin. Miller bought the brand in 1972 and made it into a true cellar dweller. By 1973, Meister Brau was selling for $2.50 a case in Oshkosh. Only the loathsome Buckhorn and Bohemian Club were priced lower.

Tier 8
11¢ (1.46) per bottle / 66¢ ($8.76) for a six pack.

Berlin Export Beer
Berlin, Wis.

Knapstein Beer
New London, Wis.

Lager beer from a couple of small-town, Wisconsin breweries. These weren't cheeky, little boutique breweries squeezing out a few hundred barrels of gimmick-laden "craft" beer per annum. These were production breweries making thousands of barrels of down-home lager each year. Throughout the 1940s you could find breweries like these servicing communities across Wisconsin. Now those towns are flooded with Busch Light. How sad.

Tier 9
10.5¢ ($1.39) per bottle / 63¢ ($8.34) for a six pack.

Fox de Luxe Beer

Haas Extra Pale Pilsner
Houghton, Michigan

Hochgreve’s Beer
Green Bay

Jung Pilsner Beer
Random Lake

The stinker in this group is Fox de Luxe. This iteration of de Puxe came out of the Peter Hand Brewery in Chicago. It was an early example of a large brewery dumping cheap beer into smaller markets. Schlitz would later perfect this strategy with Old Milwaukee. The beer that looks the most interesting to me in this set is the Jung beer brewed in Random Lake. The brewery described it as an amber, fully-aged "Old Country Lager." Most breweries at this time were boasting about how pale their beer was. Not Jung! None of that watery, feeble bullshit for them.

Photo courtesy of Tom Traxler.

Tier 10
10¢ ($1.32) per bottle / 60¢ ($7.92) for a six pack.

Adler Brau Beer

Chief Oshkosh Beer

Oconto Pilsener Beer

Peoples Beer

Rahr’s Old Imperial Beer
Green Bay

Red Ribbon Beer

Here come the Oshkosh beers bringing up the rear. You may have noticed that Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh is missing. That may have something to do with Rahr's limited distribution during this time. This list applied to nearly all of Northeast Wisconsin. Rahr’s beer was, for the most part, confined to Oshkosh. Perhaps Rahr didn't rise to the level of OPA scrutiny. The 10¢ limit set on bottles of Chief Oshkosh and Peoples was pathetic. The price had been at that level for nearly a decade. Then comes the federal government mandating that price limit while the cost of making that beer had risen substantially. It's a wonder these breweries survived.

Tier 11
9.5¢ ($1.26) per bottle / 57¢ ($7.56) for a six pack.

Mellow Brew Beer

Point Special Beer
Stevens Point

The bottom of the barrel, so to speak. Point Special is the perfect example of just how thick headed these pricing schemes tended to be. Point was almost certainly a superior beer to Schlitz even as far back as 1946. Yet the value of Point was capped at 47 percent below that of Schlitz. What a sick making application of policy. Point is the only small, Wisconsin brewery on this list that’s still with us. The Electric City Brewing Company of Kaukauna, maker of Mellow Brew Beer, closed in 1947. That same year, the highly controversial OPA was abolished.

The rest of the small breweries in this list were driven out by the 1970s. The large breweries then turned to cannibalizing one another. By the 1980s, the American brewing industry had become an oligopoly with the six largest breweries producing 92 percent of the beer made in America. That market domination is no better today despite the emergence of craft beer and the more recent proliferation of extremely small breweries.

Just about everything else here has been turned on its head. The premium beers of 1946 have been reduced to budget-beer status. While the beer made by Oshkosh's new and smaller breweries is sold at a premium price. But the taverns in Oshkosh no longer favor the locally brewed beer. The city's three breweries (Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River) probably make less than 5% of the beer sold in Oshkosh taverns. The connection has been lost. It’s a whole other world.

Bare Bones Brewery, 2017.

The barroom at the Oshkosh Elk’s Club in the 1940s.

Friday, July 1, 2022

A Public Service Announcement from Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh

This holiday weekend, stay on the safe side and drink Rahr’s Special Brew…

From the summer of 1916.