Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Oshkosh Rat Pit

Oshkosh was coming into its own in 1871. It was Wisconsin's third-largest city, a lumber-rich boomtown that was growing famous.

Oshkosh 1871, looking north towards the Main Street Bridge.

But Oshkosh’s notoriety wasn’t due to its rising economic stature. Its renown was born of the city's riotous social life. "Fun with the boys in Oshkosh" became a catchphrase for drunken, violent excess. In newspapers across the nation, Oshkosh was portrayed as larger than life. A city of myth.

Oshkosh continues to pile up evidence of being a city, a real live metropolis. Heretofore, the evidence has been fires, "fun mit der poys," Turkish baths, litigation about loose sidewalks and trousers, rat pits... The last exciting incident at the "Metropolis," is a variation, a perfect nugget for morbid lovers of sensation.
     – Menasha Saturday Evening Press, February 18, 1871.

The Menasha paper was laying it on a touch thick. There were not multiple rat pits in Oshkosh. There was just one.

The Oshkosh Rat Pit was attached to Henry Schwabe's Excelsior Saloon on the “nickel side” of Main Street about halfway up the block from Ceape.

An 1869 ad for Schwabe's Excelsior. The street address shown in the piece is not coincident with the current numbering system used in Oshkosh. The Excelsior was on the east side of Main in what is now the 100 block.

The splashy name was the equivalent of dousing a pig with perfume. The Excelsior was a dive crouched in a two-story, wood-framed fire-trap. Schwabe was a 26-year-old Prussian immigrant with a saloon catering to a hardcore sporting crowd. He provided the amusements they craved: billiards, bowling, gambling, and all the lager beer and liquor they could stomach.

The southern end of Main Street in the early 1870s. The red arrow points the way into the Excelsior Saloon and the Oshkosh Rat Pit.

The Rat Pit was conceived and operated by two men known only as Reed and Lewis. They fit the Excelsior with an octagon pit five-foot deep and twelve feet across. This was a bloodsport theater. A number of rats would be released into the pit and then a dog was sent in to annihilate them. The carcasses were cleared and another dog would have its chance at a fresh pack of rats. The exhibition was preceded by wagers placed on which dog would prove most efficient at the slaughter.

An1800s depiction of a rat pit amphitheater.

The Oshkosh rat pit made its debut on the Saturday evening of February 4, 1871. The reporter from the Northwestern was enthralled.

The latest attraction in the sporting line is the rat pit of Reed & Lewis, at 36 Main street, which was formally opened to the public on Saturday evening… In this were placed the rats, ten in number for each dog. The first dog let into the pit was Stevenson’s bull terrier, weight 20 pounds; time 2 ½ minutes. John O’Brien’s black and tan terrier, weight 11 pounds, next took the pit and succeeded in dispatching her ten rats in 4 minutes. An immense crowd thronged the room and while the fight lasted the sport was tremendous. A fight with another dog was intended, but owing to the crowd in the room, a large number of rats in the cage escaped into the room and there were not enough.
    – Oshkosh Northwestern, February 9, 1871

That’s an extraordinary bit of reporting, if for nothing else, how altogether agreeable that night in the pit is made to seem. As if this were just the latest high-spirited spectacle in gay, old Oshkosh. But that's not how outsiders saw it.

Newspapers around the state got wind of the pit and published a flurry of articles that were equal parts disbelief, disgust, and mockery.

The “boys” at Oshkosh are having a great deal of what they call “fun” at the rat-pit there. They had an orgie last Saturday evening, and probably think it’s a good way to get ready for Sunday.”
    – Milwaukee Daily News, February 17, 1871

The naysayers were of no concern to Reed and Lewis. They mouthed about civic virtue, claiming their pit was helping rid Oshkosh of its vermin. They offered $10 a hundred for any quantity of rats. Within a week, they found there weren't enough rats in Oshkosh to feed the pit. So they began importing them, "full, plump fellows with keen bright eyes" from Chicago, Cleveland, La Crosse, and Milwaukee.

By the end of February, Reed and Lewis had the hottest show in town with a heavy stream of rats, ratters, gamblers, and geeks descending upon the Main Street pit. They were pulling an even better crowd than the vaunted evangelist who came to save Oshkosh from its wicked ways.

Margaret Newton Van Cott.

The opening of the Rat Pit coincided with the arrival of Maggie Van Cott, a national celebrity known as "the most popular, most laborious, and most successful preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church." Her specialty was breaking the deviant wills of diehard sinners. Much of her fame rested on having saved countless wretched souls in New York City's notorious Five Points neighborhood. Now she was going to do the same for Oshkosh.

The Van Cott visit was not without controversy. Folks in Appleton were pissed because she broke her promise to go there and, instead, went to campaign against "the naturally greater wickedness" of Oshkosh. Van Cott took up residence on Church Street at the Methodist Episcopal Church where she held non-stop revival meetings attempting to pray away the sinfulness gripping the city. It didn't work.

After three weeks of supplication, Van Cott packed up and headed back to New York. The Oshkosh Journal provided the epigram, "Mrs. Van Cott has departed from the city, and the rat pit still draws large crowds."

Van Cott’s leaving coincided with the coming of a mob of loggers on holiday from lumber camps in the Northwoods. The axemen were Rat-Pit naturals. Reed and Lewis lured them in by papering the city with handbills printed with the following…

When a Winneconne preacher came across one of the flyers he was said to have remarked that if Jesus Christ had come to Oshkosh he would have found it too hot.

Yet Reed and Lewis abided. The denunciations continued to pour in from around the state and by mid-March both the Oshkosh Times and Oshkosh Journal had joined the jeering chorus. At the Northwestern, though, the vicious enthusiasm never waned for “The rat pit and its rats, and terriers, and brass band, and crowd of ‘boys’” that made for such a “lively sport.”

Most everyone else had seen enough, though. Attendance at the pit began falling off as the novelty of it waned. With the loggers drifting back to their camps, Reed and Lewis attempted to shore up the sagging enterprise. They increased the rat packs from 10 to 25 and raised the winner's purse to $25. It was to no avail. The Oshkosh Journal published its Rat-Pit obituary on April 1.

We are informed that services at the rat-pit have been discontinued, owing to a lack of interest in that “inspiring” amusement. Like a new broom, it swept clean at first, calling together crowds composed of all occupations except, perhaps, the ministry. Not even the frequent reports of the Northwestern could keep up the appetite for the “sport,” and ye rat-pit has “gone where the woodbine twineth.”
     – Oshkosh Journal, April 1, 1871.

The site was cauterized four years later. On April 28, 1875, Oshkosh’s fifth and last great fire burned away any remaining traces of the Excelsior Saloon and the Oshkosh Rat Pit.

Among the ruins of Main Street, 1875.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Upping the Ante on the Downtown Beer Scene

A slightly different version of this story appears in today's Oshkosh Herald.

Adam Carlson likes what he's seeing downtown. “For years, there was so much attention given to what was happening west of 41, but now you’re seeing the focus come back to downtown. And you have business owners who want to support that. There are resources being focused down here. People are beginning to realize that there's a lot of untapped potential in downtown Oshkosh.”

Carlson is among those tapping in. Along with his father, John Carlson, and his aunt Julie Wolk, Adam Carlson owns and operates Gardina's Kitchen & Bar at 448 N. Main, and The Ruby Owl Tap Room at 421 N. Main. In November the Carlson group, which does business as Carlson's Fine Foods, purchased two additional downtown establishments: The Varsity Club, a pub and pool hall; and Fletch's Local Tap House. Both are in the 500 block of N. Main Street.

The acquisitions have led to an unusual consolidation that last occurred in the 1940s, when the Oshkosh Brewing Company owned six downtown taverns. The brewery's influence extended to the approximately 24 draft lines serving beer in those establishments. That figure is dwarfed by what Adam Carlson now has under his control.

"We have 92 draft lines between the four places," Carlson says. "It's a lot of beer on tap, which is great. What I want is a well-curated selection that has diverse tastes and price points. It's easy to fall into the trap of letting a beer distributor guide you. We've tried to stay away from that. We want to keep the customer in mind, not the distributor."

Adam Carlson

Having that sort of buying power is something Carlson has been anticipating. "We've been looking to expand like this on and off for the last couple of years," he says. "We looked at a fair number of places, but they just weren't the right fit. When the opportunity with Jeremy came along it had everything we were looking for."

Jeremy West owned and operated the Varsity Club and Fletch's before selling both businesses to the Carlson family. "It just started as a conversation and it was immediately apparent that we were so aligned," Carlson says. "I can't sing his praises highly enough. Truly, I can see why there was such a great outpouring when he announced that he was selling, because he's done such a fabulous job and had a great vision."

The Varsity Club billiards parlor.

Carlson intends to honor that vision. "We're not making any changes to either the Varsity Club or Fletch's. Jeremy and his staff have done a phenomenal job building those businesses to where they are today. We're coming in looking to continue that level of service. And Jeremy is going to stay on to help with the pool side of things. He wants to continue doing that. He's a big name in the pool industry in Northeastern Wisconsin. He's done so much for pool in this area."

Carlson believes the commitment to downtown will pay off in the years to come. "I think we have four distinct businesses now and the key is that they're all on Main Street," he says. "If I'm looking at the long view of things and the plans for the Sawdust District and South Main Street, if they can bring that vision to fruition, then I think that will be significant for the success that downtown as a whole can enjoy. Oshkosh's downtown is a fairly small area. Expanding that to South Main Street helps everybody's cause for sure. Especially for our industry, downtown is a great place to be."

Sunday, December 11, 2022

A Mirage on Main Street.

Click photo to enlarge.

The older photo is from about 1890. It shows Charles Raasch’s lager-beer saloon on the east side of Main Street just south of Otter. 

Raasch was born in Germany 1841 and came to America when he was 10. He ran this saloon from 1882 until 1895. Raasch is seen second from the left and I suspect that the two young men flanking him are his sons. The beer signs at the entrance advertise the John Glatz Brewery and the Lorenz Kuenzl Brewery. Both were Oshkosh-based producers of lager beer. All that’s left of the old Raasch place are pictures.

The 100 block of N. Main.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test of 1977

In 1977, the beer scene in Oshkosh was at low ebb. The city had been without a brewery for five years. All of the beer here was being trucked in from somewhere else, and nearly all of it was mass-produced pale lager. The beer may not have been anything special, but at least there was plenty of it.

Dozens of brands filled beer depot shelves. Choosing the best was like trying to identify the ultimate shade of white. It amounted to minor variations on a minor theme. In the fall of 1977, the challenge was taken up at the Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test.

Sinking a sample at the 1977 taste test.

The competition, sponsored by a UW-Oshkosh student organization, took place on the Thursday evening of November 3, 1977 at Reeve Memorial Union on Algoma Boulevard. About 110 drinkers turned out for a blind sampling of 15 beers. The participants were asked to rate each beer on a scale from one to five, with five being the highest score. Here were the results along with the average score of each beer.

1: Old Style - 3.59
2: Olympia - 3.55
3: Miller High Life - 3.52
4: Hamm’s and Stroh’s (tied) - 3.46
5: Pabst - 3.41
6: Leinenkugels - 3.14
7: Special Export - 3.08
8: Budweiser - 3.05
9: Heineken - 2.90
10: Anheuser-Busch Light - 2.56
11: Miller Lite - 2.48
12: Coors - 2.45
13: Point - 2.28
14: Augsburger - 2.02
15: Schlitz Light - Score not reported

A taste-test volunteer wearing a Chief Oshkosh Beer t-shirt pours samples of Coor’s.

The beer selection didn't quite match up with what peoples in Oshkosh were actually drinking in 1977. Nationally distributed brands accounted for all but two of the 15 entries. Missing were brands such as Rhinelander, Kingsbury, Bohemian Club; regional beers brewed in Wisconsin that were widely popular here. The event’s advisor was almost certainly unaware of that.

Thaine Johnson, on the left, officiating at the Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test.

Thaine Johnson was a newcomer to Oshkosh but no stranger to beer. Born in 1920, Johnson was a chemist and a journeyman brewer who had made beer at Falstaff in St. Louis, George Wiedemann in Kentucky, and at Hamm’s in St. Paul. He was working as a brewmaster for Hamm’s when the brewery was sold to Olympia in 1975. The new owners replaced Johnson with one of their own.

A few months before the 1977 taste test, Johnson and his wife, Annella, left Minnesota for Oshkosh where he became vice president of manufacturing at the Oshkosh Seven-Up Bottling Company. But soda just wasn't his thing. Johnson was 57 and still had the itch to make beer.

In 1978, he went to Philadelphia to become the brewmaster for Christian Schmidt Brewing. After that brewery closed in 1987, Johnson was recruited by the newly formed Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland. He finished his brewing career at Great Lakes where, among other things, Johnson developed the recipe for the highly awarded Dortmunder Gold Lager.

There was nothing at the 1977 tasting that tasted anything like that one. Johnson’s full-flavored Dortmunder became one of those early craft-beer success stories that helped create a new beer culture in America. The old brewer had turned pioneer.

Dortmunder Gold is still worth seeking out. And if you find one, raise a toast to our former neighbor.

Thaine Johnson (center) with Pat and Dan Conway, the brothers who launched Great Lakes in 1988.