Thursday, September 14, 2023

Saturday Walking Tour

Just a very quick post to note that as part of this Saturday’s B'Gosh It's Good Breweriana Show, I’ll be leading a very informal walking tour of historic saloon and beer-related spots along North Main Street. The walk begins at 6pm, leaving from the parking lot behind Oblio’s. There’s no fee, or need to sign-up. Just show up at 6pm and away we’ll go. Hope to see you there. Prost!

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Kro-Bar Club of Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The Kro-Bar Club was hatched in a chicken coop behind a home on Witzel Avenue 85 years ago. The old coop is gone, but the Kro-Bar Club survives. “It started as a kind of a family club, a neighborhood club,” says Dan Lenz, who has been a club member for 35 years. “It wasn’t too long, though, before it expanded beyond that.”

Dan Lenz at the Kro-Bar Club.

The Kro-Bar Club is a living example of the working-class men's clubs that first became popular in Oshkosh in the late 1800s. Some of the clubs were based upon a single, well defined aspiration. The Skat Club, established in 1889, was created for the “purpose of beer drinking on Sunday.” Others were organized around a more relaxed set of intentions grounded in beer consumption, card playing, and mutual fellowship. These were social clubs. The predominant aim in all cases was to foster a sense of camaraderie among club members.

Most of the early clubs lasted a few years and then dissolved without leaving a trace. But a few of them, like the Midnight Club and Hank’s Club – both can trace their lineage back to the turn of the 20th century – are still active. The slightly younger Kro-Bar Club was formally organized in 1938. “They had a kind of informal club before that,” Lenz says. “The way my dad explained it, these guys would get together to play cards in that chicken coop behind Joe Robl’s house. That’s how it started.”

Joe Robl in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Joseph “Kro-Bar” Robl was born in Oshkosh in 1909. His nickname was derived from the brand of candybar he favored. Robl lived near the corner of Witzel and Guenther. Behind his house was the fabled chicken coop that rarely, if ever, saw a chicken. During Prohibition, the space had been used as a bottling plant by a bootlegger named Elmer Steinhilber.

“I was told they bottled beer and stuff in there, and it just kind of became the neighborhood hang out,” Lenz says. The neighbors hanging out there in the mid-1930s were froggers, a species of Oshkosher now extinct. The froggers would canvas local marsh lands filling gunny sacks with leaping amphibians. Robl and his crew would sell their harvest to Elmer Steinhilber who had quit his bootlegging venture and was tending to the sprawling frog farm he established near the northeast corner of Witzel and Josslyn. The frog farm was just across the street from the ersatz chicken coop.

“I knew Elmer,” Lenz says. “He was still around when I was a kid. He was gruff, like all those old guys from back then. He was all right.”

Elmer Steinhilber

The froggers would unload their haul on Steinhilber and then head to Robl’s coop for a few beers. At one such gathering in March of 1938, the collective drew-up a charter formalizing their association. It was a clear, practical document with guiding principles such as, “Only members of the club can shoot crap in the club room, and one cannot shoot more than 10 cents at one time.” After the members settled on a name, the secretary noted that “It is no more than right to name the club after our esteemed and honorable founder, Joseph Kro-Bar Robl.”

Dan Lenz was introduced to the Kro-Bar Club some 30 years later. The chicken coop was a distant memory by then. In 1955, the club moved to its current headquarters on the opposite end of the frog farm. "My grandfather, Oscar Lenz, was here almost every day,” Lenz says as he leans on the bar at the Kro-Bar Clubhouse. “I would come here after school and help him clean up and restock. We’d go pick up the beer at Chief Oshkosh and Peoples and Jordy's. We’d get Bireley's Orange Soda. You had to have Bireley's. I literally grew up here.”

The bar they were stocking was as native to Oshkosh as the Kro-Bar Club itself. It was built in 1937 by Robert Brand and Sons on Ceape Avenue. From the Brand plant the bar went into the tavern of former Green Bay Packer Champ Seibold on Commerce Street. After the tavern closed in 1965, the Kro-Bar Club rescued the historic fixture. It remains the centerpiece of the their clubhouse.

The new bar at Champ Seibold’s Heidelberg Tavern, 1937. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Dan Lenz became an official club member in 1988. “You have to be sponsored by a member to join,” Lenz says. “You can't just walk through the door and fill out an application. In fact, we don't even have an application. My father was a longtime member. He sponsored me. But you don’t need to have a family member in the club to join. Most of our members aren’t related.”

“We’re at about 25 members now. Our bylaws let us go as high as 60, so we're a little low. It ebbs and flows. We’re still a men’s club, but we have a thing now called the family membership where you can bring in your kids and your wife. We have a social once a month, and other get togethers. We have a lot of fun. You know, I just really enjoy having a place to come to where it’s not like a bar where you have to scream to talk to the person next to you. I don’t know how to put it, there’s just something special about this.”

To learn more about the Kro-Bar Club or explore the possibility of becoming a member, contact Dan Lenz at (920) 422-8041.

End Notes
Eventually, I’ll write something more in depth about Elmer Steinhilber. By some accounts, he was the most prolific bootlegger operating in Oshkosh during Prohibition. In this story, I mentioned that Steinhilber used the chicken coop as a bottling plant. At that time, the home and the coop were owned by a man named Leo Sperka, who worked as a baker. Sperka’s access to sugar came in handy for Steinhilber when he got into producing moonshine. Steinhilber had launched his bootlegging operation as a wildcat beer brewer. I’ll leave it there, for now, but Steinhilber is one of those Oshkosh characters who absolutely deserves to be much better known.

Finally, I got a lot of help with this story and I need to thank some folks who pitched in. This piece would have never happened without the help of my fellow SOBs (Society of Oshkosh Brewers) Al Jacobson and Dan Lenz. Al suggested this story to me years ago, but there didn’t seem to be a way to get it done until Dan revealed to me that he was a KB Club member. Dan cleared the way with the Kro-Bar Club membership to make this happen. Dan’s uncle Bud Lenz was also a great help. Bud is the Kro-Bar Club historian and has done more than anyone to preserve the club’s history. Dan Radig, whose father Norman was one of the original KB Club members, gave me some pointers and helped with images. Mike Robl also came through, supplying that excellent Elmer Steinhilber FROG CATCHERS! sign. Thanks guys!

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Trails End: The History of an Oshkosh Tavern

There is no other place like Bob's Trails End. The tavern at 500 Merritt Avenue is the product of a distinct Oshkosh neighborhood and the persistence of the tavern keepers who have made this place their life's work. Trails End is an institution unto itself.

Bob Winkelman of Bob’s Trails End.

Bob Winkelman has been running the tavern since buying Trails End in 1985. But like many Oshkosh natives, this place has been a part of Winkelman’s life for almost all of his life. “Oh yeah,” he says, “I had hot dogs here when I was a kid, and we'd come in here on Friday nights and have fish, or get chicken on Saturdays.”

At that time, it was called Van’s Tavern. And by then, it was already 60 years old.

The Trail Begins
The tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Merritt put down its roots in the spring of 1892 after a Swiss immigrant named Rosina Rhyner purchased the property. Rhyner’s acquisition was at the behest of her son-in-law, a fellow Swiss named John P. Steier. The 23-year-old Steier, left his job in construction and put a saloon into the building that is home to Trails End today. Steier and his wife, Rachel, moved into the house next door. By the close of 1892 Steier’s Place was up and running.

The location was excellent. The neighborhood, in the heart of the old Fourth Ward, was populated with beer-loving European immigrants. And from across the street came a steady flow of traffic from the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Depot. Passengers deboarding the train would immediately see the sign for Oshkosh Beer hanging at the entrance to Steier’s Place.

The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Depot on Broad Street. Looking north from Washington towards Merritt.

Steier was new to the saloon trade. But he was a quick study and seemed to know what he was after. In 1895, he convinced the Oshkosh Brewing Company to become a partner in his fledgling business. It was the start of a long-term relationship between the tavern and Oshkosh’s largest brewery.

A 1903 drawing of John Steier.

The saloon came to reflect Steier’s obsessions. He was a sporting man. When he wasn’t behind the bar, he was hunting, or bowling, or setting up a smoker where local brawlers would go at it before a crowd of gamblers. Steier had a thing for blood sports. He installed a rat pit in his saloon where packs of rodents would meet their ultimate fate in the jaws of a frenzied terrier. Steier’s Place became one the most popular spots on the east side.

February 2, 1898; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

In the fall of 1896, Steier cut another deal with the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The brewery agreed to purchase the saloon with the stipulation that Steier would continue running it. The arrangement meant the brewery would cover the property expenses. In return, Steier agreed to sell no other beer than that of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Steier’s Place had become a tied house.

Steier put the brewery’s deep pockets to work. He built a narrow addition onto the saloon that stretched along the east side of Broad Street. The structure ran from the back door to the north end of the lot line. Just big enough for two bowling alleys.

A Sanborn map from 1903 alongside a recent picture of the addition built to accommodate the saloon’s bowling alleys.

Steier left the saloon in 1902. His bowling alleys were removed about a decade later. But there remains a lingering feature from this early period: the oak back bar built by the Robert Brand and Sons Company on Ceape Avenue in Oshkosh. The back bar at Trails End is one of the oldest surviving Brand pieces in Oshkosh.

The back bar at Bob’s Trails End.

See the timeline at the bottom of this post for more on the period between 1902 and 1923.

Vandenberg’s Speakeasy
The rowdy saloon devolved into little more than a lunch room after Prohibition arrived in 1920. Beer and liquor were out. That left soft drinks and sandwiches. And that was never going to cut it in Oshkosh. The place was tanking when Bill Vandenberg bought the business in early 1923. Vandenberg swept in and put his own name on the sign. And then he put booze in the soda cups.

Bill Vandenberg in striped shirt and tie, behind his bar in the late 1940s.

William Alfred Vandenberg was born in 1894 in DePere. At 14, he quit school and went to work full-time. He was 16 when he came to Oshkosh and got a job cutting wood at the Morgan Company. By 1921, he’d had his fill of that kind of labor. Vandenberg left the mills and started tending bar at an east-side speakeasy at the corner of Monroe and Parkway. Two years later, he went out on his own. Vandenberg never looked back.

In the spring of 1923, Vandenberg, his wife, Ida, and their two daughters, Dorothy and Kathryn, moved into the home that still stands hip-to-hip with Bob’s Trails End. The proximity of the residence to what was then being called a “soft drink parlor” was crucial.

The former home and speakeasy of Bill Vandenberg.

Michelle Benton is William Vandenberg’s great granddaughter. The story of how Vandenberg concealed his liquor trade during Prohibition was told to her by her grandmother. “There was a doorway that connected the house and the bar,” Benton says. “The patrons would have a special knock for different alcoholic beverages. My great grandmother ran the door from inside the house and would serve the drinks from there.”

It was one of the better speakeasy setups in Oshkosh. But it wasn’t bootleg booze that made Vandenberg famous. It was the hot dogs.

The backstory on Vandenberg’s famous hot dog was passed down from Clarence “Pep” Steinhilber. Pep worked for Vandenberg and had known him since the mid-1920s. Pep said Vandenberg was smitten with a hot dog served at a diner on Main Street. The smothering of special sauce made it exceptional. Vandenberg tried to buy the recipe, but the owner wasn’t selling. He changed his mind after his restaurant went under. Vandenberg got the secret recipe and, in 1926, began selling the encased-meat treat at his place. The rest is hot-dog history.
Two million and counting in the 1970s.

But it took more than a good hot dog to pull a saloon through the dry years. Vandenberg’s, like every other speakeasy in Oshkosh, struggled. At one point, in the late 1920s, Vandenberg’s even offered the services of an in-house barber. Speakeasy / hot-dog parlor / barbershop is a business combination Oshkosh will probably never see again.

By the early 1930s, Vandenberg could see light at the end of the tunnel. Prohibition was on its last leg. In April 1933, light beer (less than 4% ABV) became legal. Meanwhile, the 21st Amendment, which would repeal Prohibition, was passing through State Houses on its way to being ratified. There came a close call near the end.

Vandenberg’s was raided on September 20, 1933. But Vandenberg laughed last. The cops found nothing but an illegal gambling machine. He got off with a warning. Prohibition was repealed three months later, and Vandenberg’s was reborn as Van’s Tavern. Happy days and real beer were back at Broad and Merritt.

The western exterior wall of Van’s Tavern in the 1930s.

Van’s Tavern
Prohibition was over, but the hard times were not. The Great Depression was in full effect. But Vandenberg's was a place almost anyone could afford. The Friday night fish fry was five cents. On Saturday’s it was chicken with all the trimmings for 15 cents (about $3.50 in today’s money). There were 5-cent hot dogs and sandwiches all week long, and for a dime you could wash it all down with a hefty schooner of Chief Oshkosh Beer.

Big beers out in back at Van's Tavern. The huge goblet of Chief Oshkosh was a Van's speciality.

It worked. Vandenberg remodeled and expanded the tavern “to meet our increasing patronage” at a time when others were just barely getting by. During the 1930s and early 1940s Van’s became something more than just another tavern. It passed into the realm of Oshkosh institution.

All sorts of people assembled at Van's. There was the shot-and-a-beer crowd, there were families there for a meal, there were strangers passing through town by rail, and there were kids from the neighborhood who would wander in just because the door was open.

The family that drinks together... Van's in the 1940s.

Tom Krumenauer was one of those east-side kids attracted to Van’s. Krumenauer passed away in 2010, but his son Scott recalls the stories his father told him about his adventures at the tavern. “He would go to the train depot and when the train came in he’d go in the passenger car and go around taking orders for beer and hot dogs. He’d add like a nickel or a dime to the price, so he could make some money. Then he’d run over to Van’s and put the order in. So while they were getting that together, he’d hang around by this parrot they had in there. Well, everybody that came into the bar would try to teach that parrot a new word, and of course, it was always a cuss word. My dad said that bird was the most foul-mouthed thing you ever heard. He said that the bird taught him how to swear.”

The Chicago & Northwestern Depot was also a portal through which Oshkosh’s enlisted men passed when leaving for and returning from military service during World War II. A visit to Van’s was a rite of that passage. For many it was their first taste of home after having been away for years. For some, it was their last meal in Oshkosh.

The war years at Van's.

The Van’s Tavern that older Oshkoshers still remember presented itself in the 1950s. And when those folks reminisce about the tavern, they tend to talk about Pep Steinhilber. Pep was an eastsider born on Broad Street, a block north of Van's. He got to know Vandenberg during Prohibition when Pep was still a teenager. Pep would do odd jobs around the tavern, like helping slaughter chickens in the back yard in preparation for the Saturday night special.

In 1940, Pep opened his own place. Pep's Tavern was a block east of Van’s at the southeast corner of Boyd and Merritt. Pep did well enough there, but he got tired of being the boss. So in 1950, he went back to work for Vandenberg.

Pep Steinhilber behind the bar at Van's in the 1950s. The woman with him is believed to have been a coworker there.

Bob Winkelman remembers Pep well. “He was a great guy,” Winkelman says, “I don't think he ever said a bad word about anybody. Pep was an old-time bartender. He always wore a bar apron when he was working.”

Jim Philipp began working at Van’s Tavern about the same time that Pep came on board. Philipp was Vandenberg’s son-in-law and the heir apparent to Van’s Tavern. In 1953, Vandenberg added Philipp’s name to the liquor license.

Jim Philipp in the bowler and white t-shirt behind the bar in 1953.

Bill Vandenberg was preparing for his exit. The Vandenbergs had lived near the tavern for 30 years, but now Bill and his wife, Ida, moved to a home in Butte des Morts. He was easing his way out. Vandenberg’s landlord led him to the door.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company had owned the property since 1895. But in 1960, the brewery’s president, Arthur Schwalm, and vice-president, Earl Horn, were looking to sell their majority stake in the company. They were also dealing off their remaining tavern properties. The 66-year-old Vandenberg wasn’t buying. It was Jim Philipp’s turn.

Philipp purchased Van’s Tavern on a land contract on May 26, 1960. And within a few months, Van’s Tavern was no more.

December 09, 1960; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

Trails End
Van’s Tavern became Trails End. The Western motif was new, but that was about it. The hot dogs were still famous, and Philipp, Pep, and Van were still behind the bar pulling mugs of Chief Oshkosh beer. Albeit in bow ties and cowboy hats. 

From left to right: Pep Steinhilber, Jim Philipp, and Bill Vandenberg in 1960.

Trails End in the mid-1960s.

It would take years before people adapted to calling the tavern Trails End. For a generation that had come of age at that bar it would always be Van’s.

The new name acquired a poignance Philipp never intended. Vandenberg retired soon after the transition to Trails End, and passed away in 1968. The old neighborhood was passing, too.

The tavern had always been rooted in the blue-collar culture of its patrons. Broad Street along the railroad track was home to manufacturing plants like the Schmit Brothers Trunk Company and the Dunphy Boat Company. The tavern was a haunt for the workers at those factories. It was where they stopped for beer when the workday ended. It was where they cashed their checks on Friday. By the end of the 1960s, those manufacturing jobs and those workers were gone.

Dunphy Boat on Broad Street.

In 1971, the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad ended its passenger service along the Oshkosh route. The depot that had brought travelers to the tavern’s doorstep for the past 80 years went silent.

The former Chicago & Northwestern Depot as it now appears.

Maybe Jim Philipp could see where this was heading. He turned 58 in 1974 and had been working at the tavern for 25 years. That was enough. On July 1, 1974, Philipp sold Trails End to Eddie Parada, a 51-year-old car salesman from Connecticut who had moved to Oshkosh about a decade earlier. One by one, the connections to the past were giving way.

Trails End became unmoored. Between 1974 and 1984 the tavern changed hands seven times. The situation grew so muddled that the city threatened to revoke the bar’s license over the confusion about who was actually running the place. Trails End had turned into a dead end.

Bob’s Trails End
The tavern was sold again in 1985. This time it was different. “They kept trying to sell it on a land contract,” says Bob Winkelman. “They would sell it, and the thing would fall through, and they would get it right back. Then they sold it to me. After that, they didn't get it back.”

Winkelman was committed to making it work. “I thought of it as something long term,” he says. “I sold my house to buy this place. It pretty much became my life.”

He began rebuilding the business and brought Pep Steinhilber back to help. Pep had left the tavern during the turmoil of the early 1980s. He was in his 70s now, the last of the old guard, but still willing to give it another go. “In fact, Pep wanted me to reopen the restaurant and start serving chicken and fish again on the weekends,” Winkelman says. “I checked into it, but thought it would be better if we kept things how they are.”

Pep at Trails End after his 1985 return to the tavern.

Pep wasn’t the only Van’s original making a comeback. “After I bought the place, Pep told me the people before me had changed the recipe for the hot dog sauce," Winkelman says. "So I said, let's put it back to the original recipe. We put everything back to the original recipe that Vandenberg first used.”

A year after Winkelman took over, Julie Feldner became part of the crew. She and Winkelman would be the stewards of the revitalized tavern.

Julie Feldner at the tavern, Thanksgiving 2014.

Feldner and Winkelman have brought Trails End into the tavern’s third century. The journey has included steering the bar through its second pandemic. The 1918 flu pandemic led to a ban on public gatherings that wreaked havoc for the saloon at Broad and Merritt. Feldner and Winkelman experienced that same trial beginning in March 2020 when a similar ban was imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Julie and myself were the only ones here then, and we worked for free,” Winkelman says. “We just had carry outs and curbside pickup. We're still short-handed, so now I'm working seven days a week.”

Winkelman is there most days by 4 a.m. “Yeah, it's hard, but I get up early every morning anyway, so it's all right with me,” he says. “I would like to take a little time off and travel on the motorcycle, though. But now it's not going anywhere. I get to ride it back and forth to work.”

Bob in the kitchen in 2023.

It’s been 38 years since Winkelman took over Trails End. He’s 73 now, and has replaced Bill Vandenberg as the tavern’s longest-tenured owner. “Everybody asks me when I'm going to retire. Why should I retire?” That’s an attitude Pep Steinhilber would have appreciated. Pep continued working at Trails End until shortly before his death in 2000. He was 88.

The tavern is now more than 130 years old. There’s no concealing its age. The floor gently slopes. The bar shows plenty of wear. The well-maintained space is washed by the patina of time. Pinned to the back bar is an unusual, colorful painting. It sometimes baffles newcomers. The painting is of an old fisherman holding the reins of a white horse. Strapped to the side of the horse is an enormous blue fish.

The symbolism is inescapable. The blue fish is a traditional symbol of good luck and prosperity. The fabled white horse appears in countless folk tales carrying the patron saint to their destination. The patron saint in this painting happens to be Pep Steinhilber.

The painting, dated 1993, is by Dan Steinhilber. “He painted it for his grandpa,” Winkelman says. “Pep brought it down here, and then I hung it up there.” Winkelman nods towards the painting as a sly grin crosses his face. “That’s Pep. With a fish. Tied to a horse.”

Up next is a timeline, but before I get to that, there are some people I need to thank. Bob Winkelman and Julie Feldner were both incredibly patient with my questions and generous with their time. This is a story I've wanted to write for a long time. When I finally went to Bob and Julie with it, they could not have been any more obliging. I also need to thank Michelle Benton, the great-granddaughter of Bill Vandenberg and the granddaughter of Jim Philipp. I don't know how many times I sent Michelle pictures and question in hopes that she could clear up my confusion. She never failed. And a big thanks also to Scott Krumenauer whose photographic memory came in especially handy when I was trying to get to the bottom of that foul-mouthed parrot legend.

A Trails End Timeline
This tavern has such a long and involved history that it became impossible to present all of it within the main portion of the blog post. This timeline will fill some of the gaps.

The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Depot is built.

The Chicago & Northwestern Depot in its early days.

There have been several pieces written about this tavern that claim 1887 as its starting date. The original source for this date, I believe, is Larry Spanbauer’s 2012 book Oshkosh Neighborhood Taverns and the People Who Ran Them. I was a friend of Larry’s and wrote favorably about his book when it was released, but he got this one wrong. It happens.

Spanbauer identifies John Chamberlain as the proprietor of a tavern/boarding house at the northeast corner of Merritt and Broad Streets in 1887. That’s not correct. Chamberlain was indeed the proprietor of a boarding house in 1887 – the Waldemer House on Broad Street – but it was located south of Merritt, not north of it.

The Sanborn map below is from 1890 and shows the east side of Broad Street where it intersects with Merritt. Chamberlain’s “Waldemer Ho.” is clearly shown. The location of Bob’s Trails End is indicated by the red X. As the map illustrates, the corner portion of the lot where the saloon was later built was still vacant in 1890.

The land where the saloon would be built was owned by John McPartlin, a land surveyor born in Canada in 1843. McPartlin had purchased the property on September 19, 1865. McPartlin sold the property to Rosina Rhyner, the mother-in-law of John Steier, on March 18, 1892.

The first mention of a saloon at the northeast corner of Broad and Merritt appears in A.G. Wright’s 1893 Directory of Oshkosh. Wright’s Directory went to press in January of 1893. The information contained within the directory, including the mention of Steier’s saloon, was gathered in 1892. This 1892 date is entirely consistent with the land records for the property. 1892 is undoubtedly the first year this saloon was in operation.

It was a bold move for Steier to start a new saloon at this location. During this period, Reverend Roman Scholter of the nearby St. Mary’s Church was raising hell over the saloons that surrounded his church. Scholter went to the city council and tried to get a saloon-free zone imposed around St. Mary’s. The council rejected the idea. 1892 is also the year that Scholter built the St. Mary’s Church that now stands at the southeast corner of Merritt and Monroe. Before this, the church was directly across the street on the north side of Merritt

The Oshkosh Brewing Company’s financial interest in this saloon began on August 6, when the brewery loaned Steier $1,600 (about $55,000 in today’s money). OBC was definitely bullish on Steier’s Place. The saloon was a tied house from this date until the start of Prohibition.

Oshkosh Brewing Company purchased the saloon on October 24 for $3,100 (about $103,000 in today’s money).

The saloon’s bowling alley was first mentioned in newspaper articles in early January of 1898. The reporting suggests that the lanes were already in operation before this time. It appears they were bowling at the saloon by the fall/winter of 1897.

A note about the bowling alley: within a few months of the alleys being open, a “house” tournament was held. The winner was Oshkosh Brewing Company president William Glatz. I suspect Glatz was instrumental in having the lanes installed. He was an avid bowler and often rolled at Steier’s lanes.

By this time, Steier had become surprisingly popular in Oshkosh. Rumors were swirling that Oshkosh Mayor John Mulva wanted to appoint Steier as the city’s chief of police. Quite an endorsement for a guy who, a couple years earlier, had been running a rat pit. The ad below – wherein a gun manufacturer touts its product by stating that Steier uses it – gives an indication of his notoriety.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; August 21, 1901.

In April, Steier sold the saloon business to Otto Joergers, who quit his job as a conductor for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to run the bar. It didn’t work out for Joergers. A year later he was gone.

Henry Guilliaume took over the saloon in 1903 and renamed it the Northwestern Lunch Room. That name, however, was pretty flexible. There are advertisements from the early 1900s that also refer to the saloon as the Northwestern Buffett and the Northwestern Sample Room. Guilliaume had been a fireman and a cop before taking over the saloon.

Henry Guilliaume in 1902 wearing his Oshkosh Police uniform.

The saloon’s bowling alley appears to have closed in either 1911 or 1912. Guilliaume was building up the lunch room aspect of the saloon at this point and may have been the one who converted that space into a dining room.

Guilliaume retires, and later moves to Milwaukee. Herman Dahms takes over. This is the start of a rocky period for the saloon with a new saloon keeper coming in every couple of years until Vandenberg arrives to put the place back on track.

Dahms is out and John Bischofberger is in. Bischofberger was a veteran Oshkosh saloon man. He had been running a saloon on Main Street prior to taking over the tavern at Broad and Merritt. Bischofberger was also instrumental in the launch of Peoples Brewing Company. Now, three years after Peoples got started, Bischofberger found himself running a saloon owned by the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Bischofberger’s previous saloon on Main Street. Bischofberger is probably the man with the dog at his feet.

Bischofberger was robbed at gunpoint at the saloon in January of 1918. He died later that year, but I haven’t been able to find his cause of death. Was he a victim of the 1918 flu? He was 50 years old at the time of his death. A number of sources, including Oshkosh Brewing Company records, suggest that the saloon is struggling at this point.

After Bischofberger’s departure, Frank X. Winkler came in. Prior to this, Winkler had been running a saloon just down the street at the northwest corner of Merritt and Monroe. Winkler was at the saloon when Prohibition arrived and seems to have resisted the urge that gripped practically every other saloon keeper in Oshkosh. The record is free of any indication that Winkler sold bootleg booze. Instead, he took out a soft drink license and started selling PEP, the Oshkosh Brewing Company’s unpopular, non-alcoholic “near beer.”

Winkler quits and, that spring, Bill Vandenberg comes in. Vandenberg would own the business for the next 37 years. From 1923 until the end of 1933, this place is a speakeasy that also serves food. It’s called Vandenberg’s.

From April 22, 1932. Vandenberg is selling tickets to see heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling fight an exhibition bout in Oshkosh.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company transfers its real estate holdings to Gilt Edge Realty, a shell corporation under the domain of the brewery. Gilt Edge Realty was controlled by the officers of OBC.

Prohibition ends and Van’s Tavern is born. The clipping below advertises “Heavy Beer” for 10 cents. This was the full strength beer that became legal again after repeal. The pre-repeal beer, still being sold for a nickel, would soon be discontinued.

December 13, 1933.

For the first time, the tavern is now offering beer that wasn't made by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Among the new rules imposed in the wake of repeal was a law forbidding the old tied-house system where a saloon could be forced to sell only their patron brewery’s beer. The picture below was taken in Van’s in the 1940s. The surprised woman is drinking Peoples Beer.

Vandenberg is doing so well that he opens a second location on the southside at 8th and South Main (the building no longer stands). Vandenberg’s son-in-law Roman Langkau was the bar manager. But Vandenberg’s attempt to replicate his success on the southside failed. Vandenberg closed his southside tavern in either late 1944 or early 1945.

A full-page (and roughly handled) ad for the opening of Van’s southside tavern. September 3, 1943.

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, November 13, masked gunmen rob the tavern. Bartenders Edward Carrick and Roman Langkau, who were closing the bar, were tied up by the gunmen who got away with $4,175. Later that morning one of the gunmen shot a Madsion police officer who attempted to pull them over. The men were apprehended later that week, and Vandenberg got most of his money back.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 13, 1945.

The tavern's exterior was remodeled during the summer of 1950. A wooden parapet over the front entrance was removed and the windows facing Merritt were reduced to the size they are today.

Pep Steinhilber sells his tavern at Boyd and Merritt (that place is now known as Boots Saloon). Pep goes to work at Van’s shortly thereafter.

Inside Pep’s Tavern at Boyd and Merritt (now Boots Saloon) in the late 1940s. That might be Pep behind the bar.

On May 26, 1960, the Oshkosh Brewing Company (via Gilt Edge Realty) sells the property to James R. Philipp on a land contract. Vandenberg then sells the tavern business to Philipp. Van’s Tavern becomes Trails End.

On November 29, Philipp satisfies the land contract and now owns the property outright.

The Trails End keglers win the 1972 city bowling championship. May 25, 1972.

On July 1, Jim Philipp sells Trails End to Edmund J. Parada. Philipp retains a mortgage on the property for $10,000. This is the start of a rocky period for the tavern.

Parada still owns the tavern but the liquor license is given to Marcel Hrnak. In October, the license was transferred to John R. Abraham.

On July 15, Eddie Parada sells the tavern to John R. Abraham and Edward K. John.

In October the liquor license was transferred to Robert W. Gensler in preparation for the sale of the tavern.

On November 3, Abraham and John sell the tavern on a land contract to J.C. Smith for $75,000. Smith is something of a notorious character. He’s involved in numerous real estate deals in Oshkosh during this time. Almost all of them go bad. Smith is forced to declare bankruptcy. The title to the property becomes clouded due to Smith’s ongoing financial troubles. The tavern spins through a series of proprietors over the next four years.

May: The liquor license is transferred to James C. Jischke. Less than two weeks later it is transferred to Clifford A. Olsen. Olsen lives in the home next to the tavern.

On December 23, a lawsuit is filed against J.C. Smith for defaulting on his land contract. The situation at Trails End is becoming increasingly chaotic.

In April, the liquor license is transferred to Gary Basler, who had been running the Ohio Street Station tavern at 9th and Ohio.

Throughout the spring and summer, the status of the tavern is in jeopardy. City Attorney John Pence schedules a hearing to have the liquor license revoked. The situation begins to resolve in September after J.C. Smith relinquishes his claim to the property. Gary Basler voluntarily surrenders the liquor license. Ownership of the property reverts to John Abrahm and Edward John. The liquor license is put back in John Abrahm’s name.

April 19, 1985: John Abraham and Edward John sell the tavern to Robert C. Winkelman on a land contract. The liquor license is put in Winkelman’s name. The tavern reemerges as Bob’s Trails End. And so it remains.

Bob's Trail End, July 2023.

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Friday, July 14, 2023

Kellerbier Update

Last year, I won the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrew competition with a Kelleribier. And as I mentioned here back in May, Bare Bones Brewery asked if I would share the recipe for that beer so they could brew it. I was happy to, and today that beer gets released at the Bare Bones Tap Room in Oshkosh. I haven’t had a chance to try the beer yet, but I’m hearing good things. If you stop by Bare Bones in the near future, just ask for a Helen and they’ll serve you one of these. Prost!

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Sin City Beer Gardens

The first Brews on the Bay of the 2023 season is tonight in Menominee Park. A beer garden hosted in a city park is hardly unusual these days. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the mere idea of it inspired fits of fear and trembling.

The sale of beer in Oshkosh city parks was illegal from 1889 until 1940. When the law changed, some folks lost their shit. Among them was William Beck, a fun-starved cynic with an overactive imagination. Beck protested long and loud about the Oshkosh parks being “desecrated” with beer. I thought today would be a good time to share a taste of his ranting.

Here are a few passages from a lengthy and delusional letter Beck wrote to the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern in the summer of 1941. You won't see this sort of “fun” at Menominee Park tonight.

Can the parks commissioners remember back to the days before we had city parks, when Sunday picnics and holiday celebrations were held in private parks and groves and were commercialized from the sale of beer and liquor?

Can they recall the disgusting sights of men and boys staggering about in all stages of intoxication? The frequent drunken brawls? The bloody fights with fists, clubs, and rocks, when knives and guns were drawn and used with serious and sometimes fatal effect? When women and children were terrorized, knocked down, trampled, and stampeded in all directions, and many families who had planned a pleasant outing for the day fled in panic for their homes in fear of being injured by drink-crazed men and rowdies?

It was to prevent such occurrences that the people wanted a city park where no intoxicating beverages would be sold. They demand a stop to such frightful, shocking, and disgraceful conditions for once and for good.
     – William R. Beck, June 21, 1940.

Beck's vision of Oshkosh's private beer gardens is almost entirely divorced from reality. He didn't know a damned thing about them. Beck was born in 1878 and was a lifelong bachelor who spent most of his adult life raising chickens in the Town of Oshkosh. During Beck's time there, the township was under the thumb of anti-alcohol zealots. Beck and his ilk voted the Town of Oshkosh dry in 1911.

Beck moved to sin city after he retired from his chicken farm. He planted himself in an apartment on Merritt Avenue, where he had to suffer the spectacle of fun seekers going to and from Menominee Park. Maybe that's what did him in. Beck died two years after penning his beer-garden letter.

Poor William. If you get to the beer garden tonight, raise a glass to our nervous, gloomy friend. Prost!

... such frightful, shocking, and disgraceful conditions.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Fred Zielke Was a Bad Man

Fred Zielke was 17 when he got on a ship leaving Germany for America. What kind of young man was this? Fred would soon become known as a notorious grifter, a panderer, and a wellspring for violence. Was all that rancid ambition already boiling in him when he walked on that boat? Or was it something about Oshkosh that ignited the worst in him? Fred Zielke was on his way to prove just how bad he could be.

Fred was born in 1844 in Danzig, a Prussian city on the Baltic Sea. In 1861 he left for America with his father and older brothers, Rudolph and Herman. The Zielkes first went to Milwaukee, where Fred’s father appears to have run a liquor store. But by 1865, the Zielke clan had left Milwaukee for Winnebago County. They settled on a farm in the Town of Nekimi. Fred’s brothers were there for the rest of their lives. But not Fred. Oshkosh was calling him.

Fred borrowed money from his father, and on April 8, 1870, he purchased Joseph Mayer’s grocery store on the east side of Kansas Street (today it’s South Main Street) just above 8th. By the end of summer, the groceries were gone, and Fred had his saloon going there. He was 26 now.

A detail from an 1867 drawing. The red arrow points to the back of Fred’s saloon on what is now South Main Street north of 8th Avenue.

It took Fred a few years to fully establish his infamy. Unfortunately, there isn’t a complete list of his early-period mischief. There were the usual brawls and drunkenness, but that was hardly uncommon for an Oshkosh saloon in the 1870s. The devil was in the details that weren’t shared.

As one newspaper article stated, the facts surrounding Fred’s exploits “would not look well in print.” At the same time, journalists never tired of hurling insults his way. In print, Fred was called disgusting, amoral, dishonorable, a brute… a bad egg even.

He must have become all of that. In 1875, Fred was stripped of his liquor license; a rare occurrence in a city famous for scandalous saloons. Fred left town without a fight. He sold the property on Kansas Street and headed for Ripon.

Blood and Beer
The move was both bold and foolhardy. Ripon was not the sort of place that was going to open its arms to a guy like Fred. The Ripon of 1875 was a socially conservative town inhabited by 3,500 gentle souls.

"Its inhabitants are largely composed of men retired from various occupations, and the place has therefore a clean, quiet, comfortable air, quite in contrast to the usual hustle and bustle of Western cities."
     – History of Fond du Lac County, 1880.

Fred came in like a buzzsaw cutting straight to the heart. He planted his saloon on Ripon’s town square. There were brawls on a near daily basis and a constant series of calls to have his “dishonorable” dive closed by the city council. Fred came to be such an object of derision that after being attacked during a fight at his saloon, the Ripon Free Press reported that “Zielke got his head badly bruised, but not as badly as he deserved.”

Ripon’s Town Square, Fred’s stomping grounds.

It wasn’t just the fighting that upset the natives. Fred seems to have brought some Oshkosh “talent” with him to Ripon. Again, the newspapers were less than explicit, but the Ripon Free Press made it known that Fred was engaged in practices “which are licensed in St. Louis, but not in Ripon.” It was an obtuse way of saying that Fred was a flesh merchant.

In the 1870s, St. Louis experimented with something akin to legalized prostitution. Brothels and prostitutes were licensed and regulated by the city. That was more hustle and bustle than Ripon was ready for.

In February 1876, Ripon’s council voted to rescind Fred’s liquor license. Fred was irate. He said the revocation was unconstitutional. He said that Ripon had betrayed him. He said that a corrupt council member promised to reinstate his license in return for a payoff. Fred said his attorney told him to ignore the revocation. And that’s just what he did.

The blood and the beer never stopped flowing. Six months after losing his liquor license, the Free Press reported that Fred was still running wide open and hosting more brawls than ever. “He can get up a row with his lager (beer) in the shortest possible time.”

It went on this way for more than a year. Until Fred pulled the plug in May 1877. Ripon was happy to be rid of him.

“It will be glad tidings to all to know that Zielke, the saloon man, has sold and that the newcomer is tearing down the bar. Zielke was a bad egg and kept a bad house. His departure will please every lover of decency in this place.”
     – Ripon Free Press; May 10, 1877.

The Oshkosh Encore
Ripon’s embarrassment might have gone on indefinitely if Fred hadn’t spotted an opportunity to return to the scene of his previous crimes on the Brooklyn side of Oshkosh. Before leaving Ripon, Fred struck a deal with Hypolite “Hyp” Dauben, an old, Kansas Street comrade. Hyp had launched a confectionery and restaurant just north of 8th Avenue in 1868. He’d been Fred’s neighbor during the turbulence of the early 1870s when Fred’s first Oshkosh saloon was going full tilt.

Hyp was now looking to move his business north of the river. On May 2, 1877, he sold his South Main Street property to Fred. The bad man was back.

Both of Fred’s Oshkosh saloons were demolished long ago. They were located on lots that later became home to Recreation Lanes. His first saloon (1870) occupied the northern portion of the property, the second saloon (1877) was on the southern half.

Fred didn't get much of a welcome upon his return to Oshkosh. The Northwestern ran a story that rehashed his exploits in Ripon and described his new bar as “the toughest hole on the south side.” The trouble at the new place percolated for a year before boiling over in the summer of 1878.

On the Friday afternoon of August 23, Fred’s saloon was visited by a trusting rube from Shawano named Post. After having a couple drinks, Post wished to close his tab and handed Fred a $20 bill (worth about $500 in today’s money). Post waited for his change. He didn’t get it. Fred pocketed the $20 and told Post to go to hell. The Shawano man went to the police.

Oshkosh Police in the 1880s.

The desk sergeant dispatched a knuckle dragger named John “Jack” Merton to collect Fred and bring him to the station. Officer Merton was an unredeemed thug, the presiding skull cracker on the Oshkosh police force. Fred went along willingly. At the station, Fred told his side of the story. The cops didn’t buy it. Fred was arrested and charged with larceny. When Merton went to put Fred in handcuffs, the fighting began.

It wasn’t much of a fight. A Northwestern reporter said that “Policeman Merton choked him and pounded him fearfully.” Fred retaliated by biting the cop. When Merton finally got the cuffs on him, he pulled out his revolver and hammered Fred’s skull with the butt of it. Merton got in a few more licks on the way to the holding cell. He punched and pistol whipped Fred until his head was mapped with welts.

There would have been an indictment for police brutality if anyone other than Fred had been on the receiving end of that assault. But the best Fred could do was file a civil suit against the deputized sadist. The Northwestern’s coverage of the case mentioned the strong public sentiment against Merton, “not however from any sympathy with Zielke, who is much disliked and who stands in very bad repute on the South Side.”

In the courtroom the defense turned the tables on Fred, bringing in a fleet of witnesses “as to the character of Zielke and the place he keeps, the testimony of whom was not at all flattering.” In the end, Fred lost his civil suit and was convicted of resisting arrest.

The wave of bad publicity helped tank his bar business. Struggling to stay afloat, Fred opened a clothing store in the saloon. Fred said he intended to close his saloon and concentrate on this new venture. But he never followed through. And by 1879, Fred was running a hybrid business that had never been seen in Oshkosh and hasn’t been replicated since. Fred created Oshkosh’s one and only clothing store/saloon.

It was a total failure. But even Fred’s failures had panache. In October 1878, he managed to secure a loan for $2,000 (about $43,000 in today's money) from Max Landauer, Wisconsin’s leading clothing wholesaler. As part of the deal, Fred would carry Landauer’s line of goods. This Landauer was famous for his business savvy. How Fred, with all his squalid notoriety, managed to hoodwink Landauer into backing him is a mystery that passeth all understanding.

The ever dapper Max Landauer.

If Fred ever intended to repay Landauer, he soon nixed that idea. Fred stiffed him. Landauer could at least console himself in the knowledge that he wasn’t the only one taken in. Fred spent a good part of 1879 in courtrooms facing his creditors. Judgements were rendered, and he still never paid up. His family, though, knew better than to seek satisfaction from Fred in a courtroom.

On the Tuesday afternoon of May 25, 1880, Fred’s father and brothers rode in from Nekimi on their horses to visit with their wayward kin. The Zielkes weren’t there to talk with Fred. According to the police report, they went straight to “violently assaulting and beating him and doing him serious personal injury.” One of the witnesses remarked that “Fred got pretty badly pounded.” He got beat, but he was not broke.

The east side of South Main Street north of 8th Ave. where there’s not a trace left of Fred’s Oshkosh saloons.

Omro Infested
Fred had tucked away enough cash to finance his flight from the debt bomb he dropped in Oshkosh. In March of 1880, he used part of that money to purchase a small store in Omro under his wife’s name. By the close of 1880 he had converted the property into a saloon. Fred's occupancy of Omro was as lively as his residency in Ripon.

Omro in 1880 was a village at war with itself. The conflict was over alcohol and pit Omro’s temperance fanatics against anyone who liked to take a drink now and then. The temperance brigade was agitating to make Omro dry and force the village board to stop issuing liquor licenses. The dries would eventually win their battle in Omro. Fred's antics helped fuel their fire.

Looking west down what is now E. Main St. in Omro. Zielke’s saloon stood one lot west of where the bell tower was later constructed. The saloon was on the eastern portion of the lot that is now addressed as 136 E. Main Street, in Omro.

It didn’t take long for Fred to make an impression. In June of 1881, he was called into court to testify on behalf of a troublesome Omro saloon operator named Henry Jassen. Jassen had recently been beaten up by Oshkosh brewery owner Charles Rahr. Jassen sued. Now the two men were battling one another in front of a judge.

Fred delivered his testimony on behalf of Jassen, and was then cross-examined by attorney Menzo Eaton. The Oshkosh lawyer knew all about Fred. Eaton grilled Fred about his lack of character, his vile reputation, and his penchant for lying. Fred grew enraged. When the court adjourned, “Zielke followed Eaton into the street and made a rush for him; Eaton’s friends grabbed Zielke and quite a contest ensued.” Once again it wasn’t much of a fight. Fred took yet another drubbing.
Menzo Eaton

Fred seems to have made at least one concession to his neighbors in Omro. There were no intimations of his involvement with prostitution during his time there. But Fred’s lust for mayhem remained unquenched. As in all his saloons, brawling was a feature of his Omro dive. And as usual, Fred took his share of the blows. During a melee in January 1884, a patron went at Fred with a club beating him to the floor and breaking his arm.

Then there were the arrests. First, for selling liquor to minors and then for selling booze to “posted” men – helpless alcoholics forbidden by law to purchase liquor in Omro. When the village refused to grant Fred a continuation on his liquor license, he took a page from his Ripon days and refused to close. Like the officials in Ripon, the folks overseeing the Omro saloons couldn’t seem to stop him.

A newspaper screed published in the fall of 1884, summed up Fred’s position in the village. His saloon was called a “low den” and Fred was condemned as one “of the worst nuisances that ever infested Omro.”

Maybe all that hate finally got to him. In February of 1885, Fred sold his Omro saloon and then moved away. He went to a place where there were no saloons. A place unstained by the urban debaucheries that had been his stock in trade for the past 15 years. Fred moved to rural Fentress County, Tennessee.

The simple life in Fentress County, Tennessee was still intact more than 50 years after Fred moved there. This photo is from 1942.

Fentress County was nothing like Oshkosh, Ripon, or Omro. Fred went there seeking something else. And this time, his neighbors welcomed him.

"Mr. Zielke, one of our farmers, has his new barn finished. It is 28x50 feet, and is the best barn on the mountain, at least around here. He has the foundation of his new house laid, which, when completed, will be a splendid building. He also has twenty acres cleared up, grubbed and ready to plow.”
   – Rugby Gazette and East Tennessee News; October 23, 1886.

Fred was 42 then. He had another 33 years ahead of him. Fred was a gentleman and a farmer for the rest of his days.