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.


  1. What an interesting article.

  2. Very interesting article, my maiden name is Kempf and was born in oshkosh. I will have to research if he was related

    1. my last name is kempf and my dads names is john e kempf

    2. I dont think any relation. My father was Clifford Kempf and most of the relation is from the Bloomfield area

  3. Very interesting!

  4. My old neighborhood born and raised and certainly rough through the 50s and 60s into early 70s.

  5. Wasn’t that Chet’s Hollywood before George’s?

    1. Yes, I lived a block away in the 50’s,

    2. I went to school with his son Jerry. The building stood empty for a number of years Chet wound up tending bar at the Columbus Club Ended his life with a gun.

  6. Always enjoy reading these little snippets of Oshkosh history. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  7. It was Chet's Belots Hollywood Supper Club. When he got devoiced it sat empty for any years. Chet went ot work at Club 41 then ended his life with a shot to the head.Iwent to Nordheim school with his son Jerry.

  8. Our Family grew up in Nordheim it was great place to live.V.Cudahy Kohler.🎃

  9. I remember it as Chet's Hollywood Supper Club .owned by Chet Belot. After a divorce it was closed for many years. After it closed Chet went to work as Columbus Club. Then what I have heard he ended his life with a gun.