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.

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