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.

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