Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Best to You!

Hey Gang, first off, thanks so much for checking out the blog in 2023. I truly appreciate it!

Second, there won’t be much new content here for the next couple months. I'm working on a short book (about historic Oshkosh beer recipes) that I need to complete by the end of February. And in March, I'm giving a presentation about the Omro Saloon Wars at the Omro Public Library. Combined, these two projects will absorb most of my free time until March. But after that, things will get rolling again. There's so much more to tell!

Until next time, Happy New Year!
Prost,
Lee




Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Unmaking of Witzke’s

The origin of Witzke’s Bar traces back to 1873. That’s when a German immigrant named Henry Schmidt bought the property at 17th and Oregon to establish a saloon there. What Schmidt set in motion was still going strong 100 years later. But in 1973, there was no centennial celebration at Witzke’s. By then, no one could recall how it all got started.

Est. 1850? The guess was off by 23 years.

The forgetting began long before the 1970s. A 1948 article in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern said the tavern's “early history has been lost from memory.” What memories remained resided with the man who ran the place in the 1970s. Kenneth Frederick Witzke had been there all his life.

Ken Witzke was born in 1924. His father, August "Fuddy" Wtizke, had just finished a jail sentence for serving moonshine in the speakeasy bearing his name. Ken grew up amid a criminal enterprise in the apartment attached to the speakeasy. None of this was especially unusual in the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition made a lot of Oshkosh parents into outlaws.

Witzke’s became a legal bar again after Prohibition ended in 1933. In 1942, Ken Witzke turned 18, got drafted into an Army infantry unit, and was sent to fight in the South Pacific. He came home four years later with a bronze star for bravery. “We were in a lot of the thick of it,” Witzke later said.

Ken Witzke, on the right wearing t-shirt and glasses, circa 1944.

Back in Oshkosh, Witzke went to work tending bar at his father’s tavern. And when Fuddy retired in 1966, Ken Witzke took over. He ran the place for the next 30 years and launched a few traditions of his own. They were informed less by the past than by Witzke’s droll humor.

At Christmastime, he would stand a fresh cut balsam in the barroom. After the 1980 holiday, Witzke decided to re-use the same tree next year. Each year thereafter, the increasingly brown evergreen, trimmings and all, was dragged up from the basement and propped in a corner by the pool cues. Bartender Cliff Sweet gave the tree a shot of vodka every morning to keep its spirits up. “The needles are petrified,” Sweet said in 1995. “They don’t even fall off anymore”

Older yet was the ossified moose head mounted on the wall opposite the bar. The head was said to have been separated from its source sometime around the turn of the century. It became a rite of passage for newlyweds to come in and kiss the snout of the hoary totem. The moose head became the perennial symbol of Witzke’s.

Moose head and all... Inside Witzke's 1983. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Ken Witzke retired in the summer of 1996 and sold the family bar. For the first time in 82 years, there was not a Witzke pouring beer at 1700 Oregon. The new owner, Harold Salzer, played a transitional role. He was a 34-year-old Oshkosh native who had recently started a home siding business. Salzer’s partner at Witzke’s was John Rasmussen. He was 35 and had been working at the Morgan Company mill. At the end of the 1990s, Rasmussen became the sole owner of Witzke's, leading the tavern into its third century.

John Rasmussen behind the bar at Witzke's, 1997.

Rasmussen was eager to emphasize Witzke’s significance to Oshkosh. “The history of the bar is so interesting,” he said in 1997, “so we’ve tried to accent that.” But the history had a downside. There had been little investment in the property over the previous three decades. The place looked worn out. Rasmussen promised to address that.
Witzke's, circa 2001.

In 2003, Rasmussen began sharing his renovation plans. He met with local preservationists and the Oshkosh Landmarks Commission to assure them that he would retain the character of the property. He was true to his word. The tavern Rasmussen started with was a ramshackle offcut of its past glory. The Witzke’s of 2008 was an eye-catching homage to enduring Southside traditions. Witzke’s hadn’t looked this good since its first remodeling in 1901.

2010

In addition to the restoration, Rasmussen added a banquet hall and video archery range behind the original saloon building. It took five years and more than $300,000 to complete the project. Witzke’s appeared poised for another successful run. But it wasn’t to be.

In July 2017, Wells Fargo Bank filed a notice of intent to foreclose on the property. Later that summer, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue began issuing tax warrants against the business. Over the next two years, Witzke’s Tavern, LLC was hounded by creditors baying for payment. Initially, Rasmussen was able to navigate the storm. But by 2019, his options had run out.

Rasmussen announced Witzke’s closing at the end of September 2019. A handwritten sign was taped to the front door: “CLOSED until further notice. Thanks for your understanding! Management.” The “further notice” never came, and the “understanding” was in short supply among those Rasmussen was indebted to.


He renewed the tavern’s liquor license in 2020. The 2021 application was more closely scrutinized. Rasmussen told the Common Council that he hoped to have Witzke's back in business by the end of 2021. There was little chance of that. The delinquent taxes remained unpaid. And since closing, the tavern “had sustained significant water damage.” Rasmussen couldn’t say how he would address the issues. The liquor license was revoked. And on October 19, 2023, the title to the property was transferred to Winnebago County for non-payment of taxes.

This year is the sesquicentennial of Witzke’s founding. But like the tavern’s centennial, this anniversary passes without celebration. One of the southside’s most historically significant properties sits vacant, neglected, and moldering. An abandoned Oshkosh landmark at the edge of oblivion.

October 2023

This is the third in a series of three stories about the history of Witzke's. Here are links to Part 1 (The Garden Where Witzke's Grew) and Part 2 (Witzke's Wild Years). If you would like to receive an update when I release new content, send an email to OshkoshBeer@gmail.com with “Subscribe” in the subject box. Your email address will never be shared or sold.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Witzke’s Wild Years

The saloon and beer garden at 17th and Oregon was already 40 years old in 1914. The Oshkosh Brewing Company, owner of the property since 1897, was looking for someone new to run the place. Fuddy Witzke was the perfect fit.

Witzks’s bar room in the early 1940s. Fuddy Witzke is behind the bar on the right, the shorter of the two men.

Becoming Fuddy
August Herman Friedrich “Fuddy” Witzke was born in Oshkosh on July 19, 1886. He was raised on 18th Street, just a block away from the saloon that would later bear his name. His parents, Charles and Augusta Witzke, were German-speaking immigrants. So were most of their neighbors. Charles Witzke was a millworker for the Morgan Company and was involved in Southside labor politics. He and his union brethren often rallied at the 17th and Oregon saloon and beer garden. This place was always part of Fuddy’s life.
May 5, 1911. At this time, Theodore Bork was the proprietor of the saloon and beer garden.

Fuddy quit school at 13 and followed his father into the mills. His first job was at the Campbell & Cameron box factory. The boy walked an hour every morning from his home on 18th Street to his job in the factory next to Campbell Creek.

The foot bridge over Campbell Creek leading to the Campbell & Cameron box factory. It was the last leg of Fuddy’s daily journey to work.

He grew up and found a marginally better job at Diamond Match. And from there, he drifted to the McMillen Company. By age 25, he had a dozen years of factory time under his belt. That was enough.

In 1911, Fuddy got a job tending bar for Louis Clute at his saloon on 7th Street. Clute’s place was an Oshkosh Brewing Company tied house. OBC liked what it saw in Fuddy. In May 1914, the brewery recruited the 28-year-old bartender for its showcase saloon at 17th and Oregon. Hereafter, it was called Witzke’s.
A bar glass from Augie Witzke’s Tavern. The address, 1701 Oregon, reflects the old numbering system in Oshkosh. That address is now 1700 Oregon.

At Witzke’s you could get any beer you wanted. So long as it was brewed by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. But that seems to have been about the only limitation the brewery placed upon its new tenant. Witzke made the place his own.

He lived up to his nickname. Fuddy was 5’6” tall, 170 pounds, and reliably grouchy. But he was a good man. His customers leaned on him when they had trouble. He’d bail them out of jail. He’d use his connections to get them jobs. People trusted him. No one more so than his wife, Ella.

They probably met at Diamond Match in 1907 when they both worked there. Fuddy was 21 then. Ella was 17. She had a one-year-old daughter named Wilma and had just gotten divorced. Her former husband had beaten her repeatedly. The last beating was just before Christmas 1905. Ella was five months pregnant with Wilma at the time.

Fuddy and Ella were married in July 1914, a couple of months after he had gotten the saloon at 17th and Oregon. Fuddy adopted Wilma, and the three of them moved into the apartment connected to the bar.

Fuddy Witzke behind his bar, circa 1915.

These were salad days for Fuddy and Ella Witzke. The saloon ran seven days a week. If Fuddy skipped out on a Saturday morning to go ice fishing, Ella would pull duty behind the bar. The Witzkes leaned into the traditions that had long ago made the place so popular with southsiders. Right down to the annual Labor Day dance and picnic in the beer garden.

May 5, 1914.

The Undry Land
The high times turned into hard times with the arrival of Prohibition in 1920. Fuddy had been gearing up for this. The previous summer, he purchased a license to sell soft drinks. It allowed him to keep his saloon open after the dry law went into effect. But Fuddy could not have cared less about soft drinks. Every bar owner in Oshkosh knew that you couldn’t make the rent selling soda. Witzke’s became a speakeasy.

The cops in Oshkosh showed little interest in Prohibition violations. ​​Even the mayor, Arthur McHenry, was against the new law, saying that “the City of Oshkosh was not in sympathy with Prohibition enforcement.” Oshkosh ran wide open that first year. By the summer of 1921, the city had grown notorious as a place where Prohibition did not apply. And that brought the feds to town.

Federal agents made their first major raids in Oshkosh on the Friday evening of August 26, 1921. They aimed their initial thrusts at the most prominent targets. On the northside, they hit the Annex Thirst Parlor (now Oblio’s Lounge). On the Southside they headed for Witzke’s.

The feds poured through the door to find Witzke mixing drinks from a tumbler of moonshine. He was ready for this. He just needed to give the tumbler a nudge. It would drop into the sink and send the liquor down the drain. Fuddy’s plan failed. The feds said he was so alarmed by their sudden appearance that Witzke forgot his trick.

They arrested Fuddy and took him to the city jail. He pleaded guilty when his trial came up in September. The district attorney recommended the minimum penalty: $100 (about $900 today). Fuddy could turn on the charm if he needed to. The DA commented that Witzke had been “very fair and decent in this matter.” Fuddy paid the fine and went straight back to his bar.

The Man with the Moon
The striking building at 17th and Oregon was an advantage in the heady days before Prohibition. Standing tall at the south entrance to the Southside, Witzke’s Saloon could not be missed. But the prominence became a liability when liquor became illegal. As a speakeasy, Witzke’s was too conspicuous. He got caught again in 1924.

The agents rushed in at about 7 pm on the Monday evening of April 28th. They found Witzke holding two quarts of moonshine. They searched Fuddy and Ella’s apartment and found another bottle of liquor on the kitchen table. They hauled Fuddy to jail where he said he’d just as soon plead guilty now and skip the trial. Fuddy changed his tune when they told him this second offense would mean mandatory jail time.

At his trial, Witzke asked for leniency. He said he was quitting the business and promised to stop selling bootleg liquor. The judge didn’t even bother to comment. He slapped Witzke with a $300 fine (about $5,000 in today’s money) and sent him to the county jail for 30 days of hard labor. Witzke served his sentence, went back home, and reopened his speakeasy. But he was cagier now. He pulled off a six-year run before they got him again.


In the fall of 1931, federal agents made a series of raids on speakeasies in Oshkosh. There had been rumblings for weeks that a housecleaning was in the works. On October 17, a squad of 29 agents invaded the city. Of course, they paid a visit to their old buddy Fuddy. But he wasn’t home.

He had stepped away for a moment, asking his friend Henry Drew to watch the bar. Fuddy walked out, and an undercover federal agent walked in. The agent called for a beer. It was the first beer Henry Drew poured as a bartender. It was also the last. The agent immediately arrested Drew. A reporter saw his arrival at the city jail. “His jaws and knees shook noticeably. ‘Heck of a note,’ he remarked, ‘J-j-just doing a favor for a friend.’”

The feds met up with Fuddy the following day. His case was settled in May, 1932. Witzke was fined $250 and handed over to an officer from the House of Corrections in Milwaukee to serve six months behind bars.

Free at Last
Things were getting better when he got back to Oshkosh in late 1932. Prohibition was being dismantled. In April 1933, beer became legal again. Full repeal came at the end of the year. But by then, Prohibition had changed everything for the saloon keepers. Fuddy could see that through his back door.

The dry law led to the closing of the beer garden that had accompanied the saloon for decades. People in Oshkosh did not stop drinking during Prohibition, but they wouldn’t do it in a park in broad daylight. In 1927, the Oshkosh Brewing Company sold the beer garden to a charity group. The pavilion later became home to the Florian Lampert Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The site of the beer garden pavilion on the south side of Seventeenth Avenue near Oregon Street as it is today.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company also shed many of its saloon properties during Prohibition. The brewery sold Witzke’s in 1930. After 16 hard years there, Fuddy became the owner of the building. It would remain his until his death in 1969.
Fuddy retired from his bar in 1966. He was 79 years old. But his retirement was more of an easing up than a hard stop. Fuddy and Ella still lived in the apartment attached to the tavern, and Fuddy still dropped in at the bar to pour beer now and then. His presence at 17th and Oregon lingered even after his death. From 1914 until its closing in 2019, the tavern was never known as anything other than Witzke’s.

This post is the second in a series of three stories about the history of Witzke’s. The first story (The Garden Where Witzke's Grew) was published on November 5th. Part 3, the Unmaking of Witzke's, was published on December 3. If you would like to receive an update when I release new content, send an email to OshkoshBeer@gmail.com with “Subscribe” in the subject box. Your email address will never be shared or sold.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Fifth Ward... Six Years.

Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh is celebrating its Sixth Anniversary this week. And every year around this time I snap a picture of the brewery’s founders, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark, in front of their tap handles. Here we go again with another round of Fifth Ward.

Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark on opening night at the Fifth Ward Taproom, November 12, 2017.

November 7, 2018.

November 4, 2019.

November 10, 2020.

October 28, 2021.

2022

November 9, 2023.


Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Garden Where Witzke's Grew

There’s a non-certified landmark at 17th and Oregon. And it’s falling apart.

The abandoned Witzke’s Bar at 1700 Oregon Street.

That building is the last remnant of a historically important site. This isn’t just another forsaken tavern property. This corner was the cultural home of Oshkosh's southside. The story that follows will be the first in a series of three about the history of this place and how it came to its current predicament.

Enter the Garden
Like so many of the early Oshkosh saloons, this one was born in a grocery store. It started in the spring of 1873 after an immigrant from Mecklenburg, Germany bought the spacious, empty lot at the southeast corner of 17th and Oregon. His name was Henry Schmidt. He was 43, and he had recently closed a saloon he’d been running on Main Street.

Schmidt had a lot more room down on Oregon. His new property contained better than an acre of land. On the corner of the lot he built a boxy, two-storied, wood-framed structure. Schmidt, his wife, Maria, and their three children lived in the rooms upstairs. Below, they put in a grocery and saloon.

The grocery/saloon combo was already becoming commonplace on the southside. What made this corner different was the field out back where Schmidt planted a beer garden. Southsiders would gather there for the next 40 years.

An 1890 Sanborn map with the grocery, saloon, dancing pavilion, and beer garden at 17th and Oregon.

Schmidt sold the property in 1883, but the essence of the place never changed. The proprietors who came after him were also immigrants from Germanic lands. There were a lot of such folks flocking to Oshkosh.

By the 1870s, more than 30 percent of the city’s population was foreign born. The greatest concentration was south of the river, where migrants from Central Europe made up the majority. With them came their culture of pleasure. The saloon and beer garden at 17th and Oregon was a welcoming spot where they could relax, foster a sense of community, and feel at home again.

The name of the beer garden changed with each succeeding proprietor. First, it was Schmidt’s Garden, and when he left it became Thom’s Garden. After Augusta Thom took over the business, she renamed it the White Clover Summer Garden. Later, it was Scherck's Grove, Abrams Beer Garden, and then Bork’s Park. Whatever the name, the beer garden was always about more than beer.

This was the southside’s summer resort. Music and dancing were almost always part of the attraction. The Sunday afternoon sessions featured Oshkosh’s most popular bands. Among them were the Arion Band, the American Cornet Band, and the Acme Orchestra.

The Arion Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Bob Bergman.

If there wasn’t music, there might be boxing matches, gymnastics exhibitions, or roller skating. There were Oktoberfest celebrations in fall, and on May Days and Labor Days crowds would gather there to hear pro-labor speakers urging them to organize for better pay and working conditions.
Beer Garden events in the early 1900s when it was run by Theodore Bork.

A Noise from the Northside
The free-flowing Gem├╝tlichkeit didn’t sit well with Yankee elites living north of the river. Complaints from the American-born upper crust were common from the start. In the summer of 1880, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, ever the advocate of the bosses, ran a slanted article suggesting the city council should shut the place down. The paper smeared the beer-garden goers describing them as “the roughs who congregate there every Sunday.” The so-called “roughs” included women, children, and people of every age.

The bigotry was served with a side of moralism. “Our German citizens” at “their beer garden in the south wood” were accused of having too much fun on Sundays. On the north side, they thumped their pulpits and demanded that the Sabbath be kept sacred, free from the stain of vice and worldly concerns. The Southsiders paid no heed. Many of them labored 60-70 hours a week in grim lumber mills. Sunday was the one day they had for themselves. They would spend it as they pleased.

The Oshkosh branch of the German Kriegerverein in the beer garden, circa 1906. The group was composed of men who served in the German army before their immigration to the United States.

The Rise of the Southside
The nattering died down by the end of the 1800s. Even the gray Daily Northwestern managed to concede a degree of appreciation for “The German with his long-stemmed pipe and a big stein of beer in front of him, the picture of solid comfort.” But the compliments also missed their mark. On the “Brooklyn” side of town it wasn’t all pipes and beer steins. They were working to create their own rendition of the American Dream.

Oregon and South Main streets became the domain of German-speaking merchants and their butcher shops, grocery stores, carriage works, and saloons. Near the beer garden were Oshkosh’s two largest breweries. Both were run by German immigrants who teamed up in 1894 to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The President of OBC, Bavarian-born August Horn, decided that the southside’s cherished resort was due for an upgrade.

August Horn and his wife, Amailie.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company purchased the saloon and beer garden in January 1897. A wholesale renovation of the property began in the summer of 1901. The beer garden pavilion was replaced with a 600-foot dance hall. Henry Schmidt's old grocery and saloon was gutted and given a Queen Anne makeover. The turret added to the northwest corner of the building remains a familiar beacon more than 120 years later.

The reconstructed saloon at 17th and Oregon in the early 1900s.

A 1903 Sanborn map illustrates the changes to the property.

In 1914, the saloon at 17th and Oregon took on the name that most people in Oshkosh still know it by. “Witzke’s” was coined by August Herman Friedrich “Fuddy” Witzke. He was 33 and cut from the same cloth as the saloon keepers who came to that corner before him. Witzke, though, would face a challenge his predecessors could not have imagined. But they certainly would have admired his response.

The second part of this story, Witzke's Wild Years, was posted on Sunday, November 19. Part 3, The Unmaking of Witzke's, was posted on December 3. If you would like to receive an update when I release new content, send me an email at OshkoshBeer@gmail.com with “Subscribe” in the subject box. Your email address will never be shared or sold.

Finally, here’s a chronology of the first 40 years of this historic Oshkosh saloon and beer garden.

1873-1882: Henry Schmidt
Before moving to the south side, Schmidt ran a saloon on the west side of Main Street near the river. His partner in that venture was a fellow German expat named Conrad Schuri. After closing their saloon, Schuri also moved to the south side and launched a vinegar factory with another German named August Fugleberg. The vinegar factory was on the site of what is now Fugleberg Park at 2000 Doty St.

1876

Sorry about the diversion, but I’m fascinated by Schuri and that vinegar plant. OK, let’s get back to Henry Schmidt… He bought the 17th and Oregon property on April 8, 1873; just before the great financial panic of that year. The tight money supply may have slowed Schmidt’s plans. It seems he didn’t get the saloon/grocery up and running until 1875. The beer garden was introduced later. By the spring of 1880, though, the beer garden was a vital piece of southside culture.

Schmidt sold the business and property in 1882. He moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa where he passed away in 1915.

1882-1883: Gustav Thom
Gus Thom bought the property from Schmidt on April 22, 1882. Thom was born in 1840 in northern Prussia. He came to America in 1854 and later fought in the Civil War. He was a popular southside figure, having been a city assessor and operator of a grocery store at 12th and Minnesota. His career on Oregon Street was sad and short. In early 1883, he came down with dropsy and experienced a horrific death. His obituary notes, “His limbs swelled to enormous proportions. The disease latterly affected the heart, and for days before his death his sufferings were intense.”

1883-1887: Augusta and Richard Thom
Augusta Thom took over the business following the death of her husband, Gustav. She was 40 years old at the time. Augusta was among a small number of women who ran saloons in Oshkosh prior to the 1900s. And by all accounts, she was quite successful. She was responsible for re-branding Thom’s Garden as the White Clover Summer Garden. Nice touch! In 1887, Augusta married a former Winnebago County farmer named David Way. She then left Oshkosh to be with Way on his farm in South Dakota.

When Augusta left, she put her son Richard in charge. Richard Thom was born in Oshkosh in 1866 and began working in the family business as a teenager. He turned 21 just before taking over the grocery, saloon, and beer garden. But the young man just wasn't into it. He almost immediately leased the business to Charles Scherck.

1887-1890: Charles Scherck
F. Hans Charles Scherck looked like a good fit for the place. He was born in Prussia in 1836 and had connections to the beer business in Oshkosh, having worked as a cooper (barrel maker) before taking over the saloon. But what looked good on paper was awful in practice. Scherck attracted a rough, thuggish crowd. The bruisers included his son Otto, who liked to sit at his father's bar and throw down a few drinks and then start throwing punches. All the fighting and police activity led to Scherck’s ouster in late summer 1890. And with that, Richard Thom returned to a job he wasn’t all that fond of.

1890-1896: Richard Thom
Here’s where things get messy…
Richard Thom’s second tour seemed to go well enough at first. But things changed after his mother died in 1892. Ownership of the property fell to Richard and his two brothers, Ernst and Gustav Jr. Before long, the Thom Trio had the place mortgaged to the hilt. One of the loans came from Oshkosh whiskey distiller John Thielen. If you were a whiskey drinker in the Thom brother’s saloon, you can bet it was Thielen’s whiskey you were snorting.


The folks at Schlitz Brewing might have sniffed out that the Thom boys had taken on more debt than they could manage. In 1893, word leaked that Schlitz was trying to acquire the property. But before that could happen, Christian Elser finagled his way in. Elser was tight with the folks who ran the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Schlitz got outmaneuvered by Elser when he managed to acquire a majority stake ownership in the property.

Richard and Ernst Thom were still running the bar, but they were running on fumes. They closed the grocery and launched a barbershop in the space. Christian Elser was not impressed. He wedged out the Thom brothers in 1896, and then sold the property to the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1897. This may have been the plan all along.

1896-1905: Fred Abrams
Two months after getting title to the property, August Horn of the Oshkosh Brewing Company brought in Fred Abrams to run the saloon and beer garden. Horn and Abrams were old pals. Abrams had been running saloons selling Horn’s beer back when Horn was still running Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery.

Oshkosh Brewing invested heavily in the saloon and beer garden during the Abrams years. The 1901 reconstruction of the property cost about $5,000 (or about 475,000 in today's money). The brewery made a point of putting its stamp on the fancy, new digs. The Oshkosh Brewing Company name is still on the parapet facing Oregon Street.


1906-1914: Theodore Bork
Fred Abrams bid adieu to the saloon trade in June 1906. That same month, 36-year-old Theodore Bork quit his job as an Oshkosh cop. Bork’s beat was the southside. He seems to have made surprisingly few enemies during his six-year stint with the night stick. The 6' 3" Bork showed more restraint than his fellow officers of that era. Anyway, Bork handed in his badge and slid behind the bar.

Theodore Bork, 1902.

He was just the kind of guy the Oshkosh Brewing Company needed for its showcase estate. Under Bork, both the saloon and beer garden flourished. If you take a peruse through the newspapers of those years, you’ll see a stream of advertising for the Sunday events at Bork’s Park. These were peak years for the southside's favorite gathering place.

There’s more to come…
1914 brings us to the start of the Witzke era. I’ll get to that with the next post in this series. Prost!

Sunday, October 8, 2023

The Last Oshkosh Bootlegger

Adolph Seibold got caught on Jackson Street trying to move 1,700 gallons of moonshine. The arrests that followed triggered the downfall of the largest syndicate of bootleggers in the State of Wisconsin. Seibold had been flirting with this kind of trouble for years. You could see it coming from a long way off.

 Adolph Seibold

A Son of the Southside
Adolph Seibold Jr. was born in Oshkosh in 1894. He was the second child of Adolph Seibold, a Bavarian immigrant, and Theresa Mueller Seibold, who migrated to Oshkosh from Bohemia. The family lived in a home that still stands at what is now 423 W. 14th Avenue.

The Seibold family home, ca 1935.

Seibold quit school at 15. Like his father, he got a job at a woodworking mill. But the Morgan Company couldn’t hold him. Adolph possessed a restless energy. It led him to a more stimulating job at Chris Genal’s saloon on Oregon Street.

1309 Oregon Street, the former saloon of Chris Genal.

Genal’s saloon was launched in 1891 by a beer bottler named Frank Lutz. Around 1904, a pair of bowling alleys were grafted onto the back of the building. The Rahr Brewing Company bought the bar in 1913, turned it into a tied house, and installed Chris Genal as the proprietor. Genal renamed the saloon Elk’s Head Alleys. The name change was probably at the behest of the Rahrs, who had just come out with Elk’s Head Beer. Seibold was there by 1917, slinging mugs of Elk’s Head.

From a 1916 advertisement for Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer.

Seibold’s first stab at his new vocation came to a sudden end in 1918. It was a hell of a year. In mid-April he got his girlfriend pregnant. She was a 23-year-old northsider named Maude Zwickie. Adolph wasn’t around to see the birth of their child. The conception had coincided with the arrival of his draft notice. July found him in France flung into World War I. Seibold may not have known he was going to be a father.

He was assigned to the 6th Division’s supply train and sent to the Western Front. There he endured the Meuse–Argonne offensive, the deadliest battle in the history of the United States Army. More than 350,000 casualties were suffered in 47 days of non-stop fighting. Seibold’s luck held. He came through the war unscathed.
Adolph Seibold in France.

On June 10, 1919, Seibold boarded a ship in Brest, France and began his journey home. He was back in Oshkosh by early July and finally met his daughter Dolores. She was six months old. And at the end of August, Adolph Seibold and Maude Zwickie were married.

Maude and Adolph, seated on their wedding day.

Outlaw
Seibold returned to a land less free than the one he left in 1918. While he was away, the Federal Government imposed the Wartime Prohibition Act, a draconian measure aimed at crippling the saloon trade. And then came national Prohibition in January 1920. Seibold’s vocation was outlawed. He would be an outlaw for the next 16 years.

His old job at Chris Genal’s saloon was waiting for him. Only it wasn’t a saloon anymore. It was a speakeasy. Rahr Brewing still owned the building, but it was up to Genal what to do with it. What he did was get busted.

State prohibition agents raided Genal's place in early February 1924. They uncovered a cache of wine, and arrested Chris Genal in his apartment above the bar. In court, Genal said the wine wasn’t his. He said the bar wasn’t his either. Adolph Seibold had taken over. The judge told the prosecutors to get their story straight. The case fell apart, and the charge was dropped.

Seibold’s first brush with the sponge squad seemed to bolster his enthusiasm for bucking Prohibition. Elk's Head Alleys ran wide open every night of the week. It was also around this time that Seibold became acquainted with the Wainer Gang.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 27, 1924. The clipping shows the old address of 1308 Oregon. The address became 1309 Oregon after  the city's 1957 lot renumbering.

The Wainer Gang
The Wainer Gang was formed from a tight group of New London cattlemen making hay from the mire of Prohibition. It started with two Russian-born brothers: Hyman, better known as Heinie, and Louis Wainer. Their younger brother Sam was soon part of the mix, along with the Blink brothers, Donald and Earl. The Blinks had connections in Oshkosh and may have been responsible for bringing Seibold into the fold.

The Wainer Gang got into bootlegging with a cow and false-bottom cattle truck. They’d transport moonshine in one-gallon cans hidden under the truck’s false deck. The cow stood on top acting as a blind. The beast acquired its own degree of underworld fame becoming known as the state’s most traveled bovine.

The Wainers were soon running scores of trucks hauling liquor from stills in Antigo, Appleton, Fond du Lac, New London, and Galesburg, Illinois. The Appleton still alone consumed over 275,000 pounds of sugar a week. The enterprise grew into Wisconsin’s largest bootlegging ring, and became known as the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate. By 1925, the syndicate’s moonshine, beer, and wine were being sold across Wisconsin and into Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

Exactly when Adolph Seibold came on board is not known. He appears to have been at least somewhat involved by 1926. By 1929 he was in deep.

Adolph Seibold in the late 1920s.

Seibold ran the Oshkosh hub of the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate from a backroom at Elk's Head Alleys. The liquor was routed through a 13-acre farm Seibold bought one mile north of Oshkosh. He told his neighbors that he intended to raise guinea pigs on the farm. He did, in fact, keep guinea pigs, but the rodents served the same purpose as the Wainer’s cow. The little pigs were there to distract from the main objective: the distribution of bootleg alcohol.

Seibold’s Farm just north of Oshkosh where US Highway 41 now crosses Highway 110.

All In
Maude had given birth to their second child, Arthur, in 1921. In 1928, the family moved into the apartment above Elk's Head Alleys. But by the spring of 1930, running the syndicate’s liquor, the speakeasy, and bowling alley proved to be more than Seibold could keep up with. The real money was in the booze. So he sublet the bar to his friend Joe Dichtl and concentrated on bootlegging.

Seibold was enjoying the fruits of his risky business. He purchased property at Plummers Point on Lake Butte des Morts where he kept a summer cottage and boat house. But the money brought with it an ever-present sense of jeopardy. The threat was nearly realized in the summer of 1931.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 26, 1931.

When federal agents swept into Oshkosh on August 25, 1931, they went directly to Seibold’s farm. They discovered a few guinea pigs and 159 gallons of alcohol worth almost $2,400 (or about $47,000 today). They also uncovered more than 4,000 empty tins used for transporting moonshine. What they didn’t find was any trace of Adolph Seibold. The feds claimed that a boy was in charge of the farm and that he ran off before they could grab him.

The agents may have been told to get their noses out of Seibold’s affairs. The Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate’s influence allegedly extended deep into the ranks of law enforcement, on both the local and federal levels. In this case, payoffs may have paid off. Though Seibold owned and operated the farm, his name never came up in connection with the raid. The entire matter was dropped.

Family Man
All the while, Seibold’s family life continued apace. When his mother died in 1931, he moved his family out of the apartment above the speakeasy and into the 14th Street home where he had been raised, and where his father still lived. Adolph’s father would reside with them for the remainder of his life.

Adolph Seibold Sr. at the family home on 14th St.

Adolph Seibold Sr. was born in 1864, and was a Bavarian farmer before coming to America at 19. He could hardly have imagined the things 1931 would show him. In his homeland they were falling under the spell of a lunatic named Adolf. Here in Oshkosh, he lived with an American outlaw named Adolph. His son, at least, didn’t trade in the hate that came to be associated with the name they all shared. Adolph Seibold’s partners, the Wainer brothers, were Jewish.

The Seibolds were Catholics. The kids went to school at St. Vincent’s. Aside from Adolph’s underworld occupation, the Seibolds were like most other Southside families. Maude gave birth to their third child, Kenneth, on January 12, 1933. But again, Adolph was taken away when she needed him most.

Friday the 13th
On January 13, 1933, the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate sent an enormous haul of moonshine through Oshkosh bound for Illinois. It came in what was later described as “a brand new super-size truck and trailer.” The truck carried 31 metal barrels, each holding 55 gallons of moonshine. In all, it was worth about $26,000 (close to $590,000 in today’s money).

Earl Blink drove the truck. Sam Wainer, acting as guard, tailed him in a sedan. The truck broke down on Jackson Street as it approached New York Avenue.

Sam Wainer called for help. Shortly after, another syndicate truck arrived. It was never determined how or when Seibold came on the scene. He may have been traveling with either Blink or Wainer. Or he may have driven the replacement truck. In any case, the three of them went to work transferring the moonshine into the new vehicle.

Each barrel weighed near 500 pounds. It was close to midnight. They didn’t know that federal agents were trolling in Oshkosh. They found out the hard way. Blink, Seibold, and Wainer got snared when a car carrying two agents came cruising down Jackson. The feds knew at once that they had landed a big one.

Appleton Post-Crescent, Saturday, January 14, 1933.

All three were arrested and taken to the city jail. Seibold protested. He told the feds he was an innocent bystander, a good samaritan helping a couple of fellows in need. Sam Wainer gave them a false name. The young Wainer was in a bad way, with an outstanding violation from a raid on a New London whiskey depository six months earlier. Another charge would mean jail.

The agents knew they were onto something more than a local moonshine outfit. They called in the head of the Milwaukee bureau. He arrived the following morning and identified Sam Wainer, calling him “One of the bigshot bootleggers in Wisconsin.” The downfall of the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate was underway.

Blink, Seibold, and Wainer were denied bail and sent to Green Bay. They were held over the weekend in the Brown County jail. They were arraigned in federal court on Monday afternoon, charged with possession and transportation of alcohol. Later that evening, all three were granted bail and released. Adolph Seibold went home to Oshkosh and met his new son.

Adolph Seibold with his son Kenneth.

The Syndicate
Back in Oshkosh, Seibold was at loose ends. He had a wife, three children, and a father to support. And no job. He couldn’t go back to the speakeasy. Even a minor liquor violation would land him in the House of Corrections. But at the end of 1933, the scene changed. Prohibition was repealed on December 5th. And in 1934, Seibold went back behind the familiar bar at 1309 Oregon.

Adolph Seibold behind the bar at 1309 Oregon. Photo courtesy of Jen Seibold.

The dry law was nullified, but Seibold’s dry-law offense was not. He could do nothing but wait for the hammer to drop. Meanwhile, the feds were putting all of the pieces together. It wasn’t just Adolph Seibold, Earl Blink, and Sam Wainer they were gunning for. They were going after the entire Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate. By the end of the investigation, Seibold was one of 22 indicted co-conspirators. The only problem the feds had was getting them into court.

Sam Wainer and Earl Blink jumped bail and went into hiding. Then in early 1934, Heinie and Louis Wainer went on the lam. Heinie and Louis were captured nine months later. But while the brothers were away, their cohorts began telling stories to the feds. Their depositions revealed the unsparing tactics of the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate. It all came spilling out when the trial finally began in federal court in Milwaukee on December 2, 1935; nearly two years after the fateful breakdown on Jackson Street.

The syndicate ran like a machine pumping torrents of liquor and kneecapping anyone who interfered. Witnesses told of severe beatings dealt to those who crossed the Wainers. And of threats made to local officials found sniffing around. The operation was byzantine. A complex web of warehouses, breweries, and distilleries operating at capacity. Syndicate liquor was distributed by rail and by trucks shadowed by armed guards.

Seibold clung to his “Good Samaritan” defense. And it got shot full of holes by witnesses who said his Oshkosh guinea pig farm was a ruse to conceal his role in the syndicate. He used a local produce dealer's rail account to ship moonshine and deliver corn sugar in boxcars billed for hauling vegetables. Seibold wasn’t implicated in the violence, but was exposed as a Wainer associate in every other respect.

As the trial went on, it became clear that the ultimate target was Heinie Wainer. He was the “Master Mind.” His brother Louis was the money man who financed syndicate members and handled payoffs. Donald Blink and his at-large brother Earl were the traffic managers directing shipments of equipment, supplies, and liquor.

The trial lasted four days. The jury deliberated for less than an hour. Of the 21 indicted, 14 stood trial. All of them were found guilty. Heinie and Louis Wainer were given six-year sentences in the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Donald Blink got just three months in the Milwaukee House of Corrections. Adolph Seibold walked away with the lightest punishment of all, a $100 fine (about $2,500 in today’s money).

The Last Oshkosh Bootlegger
The Wainer’s attorney told his clients they’d get no more than four years in prison. The six-year sentence sent a shock through the courtroom. Heinie Wainer complained to the judge that he had “never heard anything like this before.” Equally shocking were the light sentences handed down to the other members of the syndicate. Seibold’s fine was a slap on the wrist.

The leniency may have inspired the retribution that followed. Donald Blink hadn’t even completed his three-month term before being dragged back into court on an older charge involving a distillery in Stevens Point. Don Blink was swiftly convicted. This time, the prosecution got the sort of punishment they were after – a one to two year term in the state prison at Waupun.

Adolph Seibold was next. State treasury agents raided his cottage at Plummer’s Point on the Monday afternoon of July 30, 1936. Just seven months after his conviction in federal court. When asked what inspired the raid, the treasury men said “numerous complaints.” End of story. They would not disclose the nature or source of those complaints.

The agents at Plummers Point canvassed the property and then honed in on the garage at the back of the lot. The Wainer Gang had been notorious for using false floors to conceal stockpiled liquor. The treasury men went at Seibold’s garage floor with a sledge hammer. The blows were fruitless. But while scrounging around in the boathouse they came up with a gallon and a half of moonshine hidden in a cabinet. It was hardly the bonanza they’d been seeking. They arrested Seibold all the same.

Seibold’s boathouse in the foreground at Plummers Point.

The agents should have pursued their initial hunch more vigorously. Seibold’s garage did indeed have a false floor. If the cops had been less busy with the hammer, they might have discovered the concealed switch at the back of the garage. Flipping it would have triggered a concrete floor panel on a hydraulic lift to descend, elevator like, into a hidden compartment below. In that space there are still barrels – now rusted and drained – of the type used by the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate for transporting moonshine.

Seibold's trial was in Oshkosh on July 22, 1936. The prosecution pleaded with the judge to make an example of him, claiming Seibold was still running significant quantities of bootleg liquor. But the treasury department couldn’t produce an example of him selling the stuff. And the paltry amount of unstamped liquor they caught him with suggested he wasn’t much of a dealer.

Adolph Seibold had plenty of practice feeding nonsense to judges. He said he had no idea how that liquor had gotten into his boathouse. The judge dispatched the entire sorry mess by handing Seibold a $200 fine (about $4,300 in today’s money). Oshkosh’s last Prohibition-era bootlegger paid up and walked away one last time.

The irony of it could not have escaped him. His $200 fine for holding 192 ounces of moonshine was double the fine he got in 1934 after years spent handling thousands of gallons of illegal liquor. Adolph Seibold was about to turn 42. And he was finally done with all that bootlegging business.


Adolph Seibold at Plummers Point.

The Old Gang
Adolph Seibold began pouring his energy into his bar at 1309 Oregon. Rahr Brewing still owned the building, but Seibold treated it as his own. He remodeled the old saloon, took out the bowling alleys, and put in a dining hall that could seat 150 people. He renamed it Cy's Casino. The grand reopening of the “South Side’s Largest Tavern” was on December 17, 1936.


Seibold and his family left the homestead at 14th Avenue after his father died in 1942. They updated the cottage at Plummers Point and made it their permanent home. There have been Seibolds living at Plummers Point ever since.

The boathouse at Plummers Point.

In 1946, Seibold sold the guinea pig farm that had been the Oshkosh hub for the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate. The property would later achieve a second round of notoriety as a “gentlemen's club” called The Loft.


The other members of the Wainer Gang made their way in and out of jail. After Donald Blink's release from Waupun, he moved into the apartment above Cy’s Casino and went to work tending bar for Seibold. His brother Earl Blink – who had been arrested with Seibold on Jackson Street in 1933 – remained a fugitive until 1937. In 1938, he was sentenced to six months in jail. Earl Blink later moved to Oshkosh and became a bartender at Cy’s Casino.


Sam Wainer, also arrested with Seibold in 1933, remained on the run until his capture in 1938. He would spend four months in jail and then move to Chicago. He was joined there by his brother Heinie. Heinie Wainer was fresh from Leavenworth and ready for action. He dove back into the underworld, peddling stolen liquor to taverns in the Chicagoland area. His career ended when he got gunned down by a rival at his Chicago apartment in 1959.

Hyman “Heinie” Wainer

Devil May Care
The crimes of the Fox Valley Liquor Syndicate and the Wainer Gang were front-page news in the 1930s. Some of the tales were told again in 1959 after the murder of Heinie Wainer. Among the scattered anecdotes was the Wainer Gang’s alleged war with Al Capone’s mob for control of the liquor trade in southern Wisconsin. These were stories Adolph Seibold never shared.

Adolph and Maude Seibold with their granddaughter Melissa, 1970.

Seibold rarely spoke of his experiences as a bootlegger. The crimes, the arrests, and the peril that stalked him during that era belonged to the past. He put all of it to rest.

But the devil-may-care spirit that marked almost everything Seibold did remained with him. He was 79 and suffering from a heart condition when he was admitted to Mercy Hospital on Hazel Street in August 1973. He did not want to be there. So he jumped out of a second floor hospital window attempting to get away. He didn’t get away. He broke his hip and died four weeks later. Adolph Seibold was buried in Oshkosh’s Calvary Cemetery on September 4, 1973.


At Plummers Point there are people who still tell stories about the bootlegger who lived in their midst. The stories are second hand, filled with gaps and hearsay. We can’t know what is lost. Most of what Adolph Seibold saw and did during the dry years remained known only to him. He took those stories to the grave.

About this story...
I first came across Adolph Seibold in 2015 while researching another story. I’ve been picking up bits and pieces about him ever since. This past summer, I was contacted by Melissa Seibold, a granddaughter of Adolph. She asked if I was aware of him. At that time, I knew only the outline of his life as a bootlegger. Melissa and I began talking, and she shared with me what she had heard of her grandfather. Those conversations set this story in motion. Melissa deserves the lion’s share of the credit for making this piece happen. I’m sure Adolph would be proud of her.

Adolph Seibold and his granddaughter Melissa.