Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Two Brewers. Six Years. Six Pictures.

Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh held its grand opening on November 12, 2017. I went there that evening to grab a beer and congratulate my friends Ian Wenger and Zach Clark who had been working hard for the past three years trying to get a brewery started.

I asked them to stand in front of their beer taps for a picture. It turned into something we’ve done once a year, (nearly) every year since. Here, finally, is the latest installment.

There’s a great book by Patti Smith entitled Just Kids that came to mind when I looked through these pictures again today. Just Kids…

Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark; November 12, 2017.

November 7, 2018.

November 4, 2019.

November 10, 2020.

October 28, 2021.

March 23, 2023


Peoples Brewing Closed in 1972, but the sign below held its place at Jordy’s Beverage Mart for another 40 years. 

When Jordy’s opened at 9th & Rugby in 1962, there were just seven Class “A” (retail) liquor licenses held in the City of Oshkosh. When Jordy’s closed in 2012, there were more than 120 of them, and almost every gas station and grocery store in town was selling beer. Jordy’s was the last of the true beer depots in Oshkosh.

Jordy's Beverage Mart

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Kempf's Nordheim Speakeasy

Oshkosh was home to scores of speakeasies after Prohibition began in 1920. But there were speakeasies around here even before Prohibition. The roadhouse at the northwest corner of Harrison and Gruenwald may have been the first of them.

The northwest corner of Harrison and Gruenwald.

The first saloon at this location was called Charley’s Place. In 1913, seven years before the start of Prohibition, Charley’s Place got busted for being a speakeasy. Or, as it was called at the time, a Blind Pig. The story of this saloon begins with the fabled neighborhood known as Nordheim.

Nordheim on the north end of Oshkosh, 1919.

Nordheim was born in the 1890s when the land north of Murdock and east of Jackson was platted for residential development. The idea was to attract the middle-class, German-speaking folks who were flocking to Oshkosh and settling in the old 6th Ward south of the river. As would often be the case in Nordheim, things didn’t go as planned.

Nordheim became a special kind of place. It grew notorious for its roughneck residents and even rougher saloons. Harrison Street, called Grand Avenue in Nordheim, offered hardcore roadhouses where civility was just a rumor. If you found the Oshkosh saloons too stiff, you could jump on a streetcar and take the short ride up to Nordheim and get as low as you cared to go.

The Interurban trolly line ran up the middle of North Main Street and into the Nordheim neighborhood.

Nordheim was just right for a guy like Charles Kempf. He was born in Albany, New York in 1852; the son of German immigrants. Kempf reached Oshkosh in 1894 and first settled on the east side. He moved up to Nordheim sometime around 1904.

A newspaper ad from 1903 for lots in Nordheim. The lots were selling for around $200, or about 6,500 in today’s money.

Kempf worked as a roofer. But after a couple of falls from high places, he quit with the shingles and built a roadhouse at the northwest corner of Harrison and Gruenwald. Kempf opened Charley’s Place in the summer of 1907.

Charley’s Place was a classic Nordheim roadhouse. Though primarily a beer hall, Kempf provided added diversions like live music and free lunches of wild game. He later added a “stall,” a nasty nook that amounted to a semi-private closet where transactional affairs of the flesh could be conducted. Sex tourism was part of Nordheim’s allure.

If that wasn’t enough, there was always the thrilling prospect of violence. Kempf found himself on the receiving end in 1908 after he drew a pistol on a highwayman who stopped by to rob him. Kempf lost the duel and was shot just above the collarbone. The slug narrowly missed his jugular vein, grazed his spine, and burrowed into a knot of muscle at the base of his neck. It was no worse than falling from roofs. The following afternoon Kempf was reported to be “in a comfortable condition and able to smoke a cigar.”

The lawlessness was facilitated by Nordheim’s interzone status. Though generally regarded as a part of Oshkosh, Nordheim was outside the city’s jurisdiction and within the legal limits of the Town of Oshkosh. The merry enclave was frowned upon by the country bumpkins to Nordheim’s north.

A couple of ads for Charley’s place from 1908.

The townies were soon making trouble for Kempf. His first bust came in 1910 when the constable pinched him for the high crime of selling beer on a Sunday. In the spring of 1911, the yokels made a play to outlaw his saloon. They placed a referendum on the ballot banning liquor sales in the Town of Oshkosh. The measure passed by 30 votes. Guys like Kempf were expected to dry up and go away. Guys like Kempf never quit that easy.

Kempf tipped his hat to the new law by hanging an ice cream parlor sign. But it seems that little else changed. And in 1913, he was arrested by sheriff's deputies for selling beer in a dry territory. Kempf had to know it was coming. He must have wondered what took them so long.

The court didn’t go easy on him. His fines totaled almost $180 (more than $5,000 in today’s money). Kempf refused to pay. So they sentenced him to the county workhouse for three months of labor. Kempf claimed he was too feeble to work. So they dumped him in the county jail. Kempf did his time and then went straight back to Nordheim. He was 61 years old and still brimming with piss and vinegar.

Kemp would get the last laugh. The following spring, the Town of Oshkosh voted again on the liquor question. This time the Nordheimers turned out en masse and swung the township back into the wet column. Not that it had ever really been dry. After the vote, The town clerk conceded that the town had been “unsuccessful in keeping a lid on the saloons.”

When national Prohibition arrived in 1920, Kempf – then 68 years old – took it in stride. His saloon, now called Kempf’s Inn, became a speakeasy again. And so it remained until he retired around 1924. Kempf left the place in good hands. Henry Grusnick, an infamous Oshkosh bootlegger, ran the speakeasy until 1932. Prohibition was repealed the following year.

The roadhouse Kempf built was damaged by fire in 1934 and rebuilt soon after. There have been taverns and supper clubs there ever since. It was George’s Gaslight Inn from 1972 until 2016.

It’s been Karmali's Bar & Grill since 2016. The recent remodeling has made for a clean and welcoming tavern atmosphere that’s appealing in every way. Old Nordheim ain’t what it used to be.

In 1956, Nordheim was divorced from the Town of Oshkosh and took its rightful place as part of the City of Oshkosh. Charley Kempf was gone by then.

Kempf passed away at Mercy Hospital in 1945 at the age of 93. His obituary described him as a “pioneer resident.” He was certainly that. Kempf pioneered the local fight against the tyrannical liquor laws of the early 1900s. But that part of his life was left out of his obituary. By 1945, the story had already been forgotten.

Charles Kempf’s headstone in Riverside Cemetery. Kempf was preceded in death by his wife and their two children. His date of death was never added to his headstone.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Wilhelm Kohlhoff and the return of Peoples Bock

In the last year of his life, Wilhelm Kohlhoff shared a beer recipe that was so familiar to him that he could recite it from memory more than 50 years after he last brewed it. Kohlhoff was once a lead brewer at Peoples Brewing Company in Oshkosh. The beer he recalled was Peoples Bock; a malty, amber lager that Kohlhoff brewed annually for more than a dozen years. On March 18, Bare Bones Brewery in Oshkosh will pay tribute to Kohlhoff with a new release of Peoples Bock made from the recipe he provided.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff

Kohlhoff’s life was as extraordinary as his memory. He was born in 1927 in the north of Germany near the Baltic Sea. As a young man, he apprenticed as a cabinet maker, but his plan for the future was shattered by World War II.

"We lost our part of Germany," Kohlhoff said in an interview I conducted with him in 2018. "They gave it to Poland and we had to get out of the country. We lost everything. A couple million people had to leave Pomerania. A lot of them died."

Young Kohlhoff in Pommeren.

At 17, Kohlhoff was conscripted into the German Army six months before the end of the war. Five months later, he suffered a shrapnel wound to his back. Kohlhoff recovered from the injury, but his life was transformed. “The war ended and everybody went their own way,” he said. “I didn't know anybody. I had no home, I had no parents, I had no relatives. I was lost."

He wandered to Bavaria in the south of Germany where Kohlhoff found work at a brewery in the town of Stettfeld. "There was a brewery in a little tavern,” Kohlhoff said. “I went in to get something to eat. It was hard to get food at that time. There was a boss there, the owner. He said, 'Where are you going?' I told him I didn't know. I told him I was looking for a job. I needed to get at least room and board so I could sleep and eat. He said, 'I got a brewery in the back. I need a helper.' So I stayed with him and learned to brew beer."

Kohlhoff rebuilt his life. He married in 1948 and started a family. In 1952, the Kohlhoffs migrated to America as part of a program for the resettlement of people displaced by the war. A year later, they came to Oshkosh, and Wilhelm began working as a brewer at Peoples Brewing.

Kohlhoff in Oshkosh.

The relative calm of brewery life was restorative. The friendships he made were affirming. During one of our interviews, Kohlhoff leafed through pictures I had collected of his former coworkers. Though five decades had passed, he recalled each of their names. As Kohlhoff told stories about them, he fell into using their nicknames. "They all had funny names," he said. "They called me Bill. Nobody ever called me Wilhelm."

In 1966, Kohlhoff retired from brewing to take a job at the Buckstaff Company in Oshkosh. "They paid me a quarter an hour more and they gave me 48 hours a week with time and a half," he said. "I was married with four kids, so that helped. And I got back to my carpenter training. I'm a cabinet maker from the start. I learned it from my dad."

Kohlhoff reconnected with the brewing community in Oshkosh in 2019, more than 50 years after he left the brewhouse at Peoples. With the help of family and friends, he met several Oshkosh homebrewers and professional brewers who had become aware of the German brewmaster in their midst.

Kohlhoff with his daughter Margaret.

Margaret Meyer was instrumental in bringing her father to the attention of a younger generation of brewers. “My dad was a pretty humble person and I think he was overwhelmed to even think that anyone still cared about this stuff,” she said. “That was such a unique opportunity for him. I just think he never expected the attention or the interest or even to talk to other brewers again. I know he thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. It meant a lot to him.”

The appreciation was mutual. Kohlhoff connected his younger counterparts to a period of the brewing culture here that was lost when Peoples closed in 1972. He was the last of the German-born brewers to make beer in Oshkosh. “I hope he felt like a rock star,” said Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones. “He was to us. Getting to meet him was great.”

Kohlhoff with Bare Bones brewer Jody Cleveland.

A plan was afoot to get Kohlhoff back into the brewhouse to take part in brewing one of the recipes he remembered using at Peoples. That became unattainable when Kohlhoff passed in May 2019. The bock beer recently made at Bare Bones was produced using the process and materials Kohlhoff specified. All that was missing was Wilhelm.

Peoples Bock will be released on draft and in cans at noon on Saturday, March 18 in the taproom at Bare Bones Brewery.

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

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Oshkosh Equine Beer

In 19th-century Oshkosh, brewing beer wasn’t a craft reserved solely for humans. There was an animal component to the endeavor. Brewers here relied on horses to make beer.

A horse-powered mill for grinding grain.

Horses provided the driving force required to produce beer on a commercial scale. Brewery horses were so connected to the process that brewers in Oshkosh seemed reluctant to abandon them even after steam power became readily available.

A 19th-century steam engine.

Oshkosh began converting to steam in 1847 after Morris Firman fired up the city’s first steam engine at his sawmill at the foot of Bowen Street. By 1856, the engines were being built here. A decade later, an Oshkosh journalist remarked that the roaring engines were everywhere, that their “ceaseless noise gives an air of life and energy to our city.”
An 1857 advertisement for steam engines built by the Eagle Foundry on what is now South Main.

Steam became a buzzword used to boost every conceivable consumer product. In Oshkosh you could find steam clothing, steam books, steam bakery, barrels, trunks... Even shoes were wallowed in steam.

From 1866. The Fraker’s shoe store was on North Main Street just north of the bridge.

Steam beer, though, was nowhere to be found. The Oshkosh breweries continued to rely on their trusted horses. The beasts of burden were given the brewery’s most grueling tasks. They powered the pumps that filled the brewery tanks with water, and they ground the mounds of malt needed to produce a batch of beer.

Malt mills were driven by horses harnessed to a drive shaft and then made to walk in circles. The drive shaft turned the gears of burred rollers that ground the malt into a coarse flour. The circle-walking and grinding could go on for hours.

A combination, horse-powered mill and engine.

The drawing below is from 1885 and shows the layout of the Rahr Brewery on Rahr Avenue. The location of a circular “horse power” is seen next to the brewery’s malt house.

Click to enlarge.

Brewers and their horses had worked this way for centuries. But by the end of the 1860s, the steamless breweries were flirting with obsolescence. The first Oshkosh brewery to adopt steam power appears to have been John Glatz’z Union Brewery at the south end of Doty Street. Glatz steamed his brewery in the latter half of the 1870s. His steam-heated brewing kettle provided an added measure of safety in a brewery composed primarily of wood.
John Glatz’s Union Brewery.

In 1879, the horse-powered brewery of Horn and Shwalm at 16th and Doty burned to the ground after a brewer lost control of a wood fire that was heating the boil kettle. Horn and Shwalm immediately rebuilt. Their new brewery was steam powered.

By 1883, the Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue had also converted to steam. Below is an 1885 map of the brewery annotated with an arrow showing the placement of a steam engine in a shed connected to the brewery’s grain storage.

Next is a photo of the Gambrinus Brewery in 1893. The added arrow is directed at the roof of the shed that housed the brewery’s brick-encased steam engine.

The next picture was taken from the opposite vantage point. It dates from around 1917 when the Gambrinus Brewery was being torn down. The remains of the steam engine, still cased in brick, appear in the background behind the woman with the dog.

Photos courtesy of Bob Bergman.

There were five breweries in Oshkosh in 1885. By this time, the three largest producers had converted to steam. Those breweries would combine in 1894 to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The last two horse-powered breweries were the aforementioned Rahr Brewery, and the Oshkosh Brewery run by the Loescher family on what is now Bay Shore Drive.

The red barn indicates the former location of Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery at the northeast corner of Frankfort and Bay Shore Drive.

The Rahr Brewery brought in steam power in the latter half of the 1880s. The Loescher’s, who had been brewing in Oshkosh since 1852, remained horse powered until their brewery failed in 1889.

Oshkosh breweries continued to employ horses even after converting to steam. Brewery horses remained essential as dray animals.

A horse-drawn wagon loaded with barrels of lager beer from the Rahr Brewery. Courtesy of Bob Bergman.

But horse-drawn wagons were also coming to an end. The first two decades of the 1900s saw the local breweries transition from dray horses to motorized vehicles.

Horses and trucks vie for position in front of the Oshkosh Brewing Company, circa 1915.

By the 1930s, Oshkosh’s brewery horses were entirely replaced by mechanized power. Horse power had acquired a new meaning.