Wednesday, May 31, 2023

There's a Kellerbier Coming

Last summer, I was lucky to win the Society of Oshkosh Brewers club competition with a Kellerbier I brewed. Jody at Bare Bones is brewing that recipe today. I’ll send a shout out when the beer gets released…

Kellerbier recipe prep at Bare Bones.


Monday, May 29, 2023

The 1943 Beer Roll

In 1943, the Oshkosh Brewing Company’s “beer roll” returned to deliver kegged beer to taverns in the city. The move was made out of necessity. Almost two years earlier, America had entered World War II. The extensive rationing that followed made it difficult for OBC to source gasoline and tires for the brewery’s fleet of delivery vehicles. The old-fangled beer roll was reintroduced to help stretch those limited resources. 


The wagon wasn’t the only part of this picture brought out of retirement. John Pahlow is the man holding the reins. He had been a teamster for OBC during the early 1900s. That occupation was lost to a truck. Pahlow was 61 when he got his old job back. For the next couple of years, it wasn’t unusual to see him driving his team through the city streets with a wagon full of kegged beer.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Legend of Tin Horn Bill

William Carlson made a lot of noise. He would sing at people through a tin megaphone. He seemed not to care whether or not his audience wanted to hear him. And he liked to drink too much. He was enamored with Oshkosh, but came to be known across the state. William Carlson. People knew him as Tin Horn Bill.

Tin Horn Bill emerged in the summer of 1905 when a new, semi-pro baseball association called the Wisconsin State League latched onto him. The WSL hired Bill to be something like a carnival barker. He was to travel around the state as a lead man promoting the league’s games. Bill would take to the street with his megaphone and begin inflicting his music. Between numbers, he’d publicize the upcoming game. Like an ear infection, Bill was impossible to ignore.

Bill grew infatuated with the Oshkosh Indians of the WSL. There was something about the city and its baseball team that he found irresistible.

The 1905 Oshkosh Indians

Tin Horn Bill became a familiar site on Main Street. Before home games, he’d head downtown and break into song. What was initially amusing had turned absolutely annoying by the close of the 1905 season.

Perhaps as a twisted joke, Bill was invited to the Oshkosh Yacht Club’s year-end “stag” party in September 1905. Bill brought his tin horn. He bellered one of his numbers and then began telling a story too repulsive for even a stag party. The yachtsmen didn’t allow their guest to finish his anecdote. Bill was led away.

Built in 1903, the clubhouse of the Oshkosh Yacht Club. William Waters, architect.

Bill needed a new gig now that the baseball season had ended. His insatiable need for attention led him to the circus. Bill joined Carl Hagenbeck’s Wild Animal Circus. He co-starred in a feeding stunt with a massive lion named Nero.

Bill was part of the Hagenbeck Circus when it came to Oshkosh on June 22, 1906.

It did not go well. Shortly after the Oshkosh show, Bill was mauled by Nero. He lost part of a thumb and was left with webs of ragged scars across his arms, shoulders, and back.

Bill returned to Oshkosh. He found work trying to drum up crowds for the White City Amusement Park at the south end of town. His beloved Indians were also playing there now. Bill was back on his horn singing and barking.

A postcard showing the White City midway.

The Oshkosh Indians on the White City Diamond.

Bill’s routine had not improved during his time away. He added a couple of new tunes, but the gimmick was played out. Even the newspapers were taking shots at him. The journos mocked Bill’s “fog-horn voice” and joked about his misadventure with Nero.

Bill’s undoing began in the fall of 1906. He was arrested on Main Street on the Monday morning of October 1. He was very drunk. Bill tended to get increasingly “strenuous” at such times. Oshkosh Patrolman Henry Frohib, pinned to his Main Street beat, couldn’t take it anymore. Frohib dragged Bill to the station and locked him up.

By noon, Bill had sobered to a state of semi-coherency. Chief of Police Henry Dowling came to visit Bill in his cell. Dowling told him that he’d let him go if Bill would leave town immediately. Bill agreed. He was escorted to the station and put on a train to Fond du Lac.

Chief of Police Henry Dowling (left) and Patrolman Henry Frohib.

Bill couldn’t find another town he liked as much as Oshkosh. He tried Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Menasha, La Crosse. The reaction was always the same. In 1907, the La Crosse police ordered Bill to leave town. He went back to Oshkosh.

Bill had been in Oshkosh just a few hours before he was arrested again. He was very drunk. He'd been kicked out of several Main Street saloons prior to stepping into Frank Thielen’s place. Bill got loud and got ejected. As he left, Bill kicked a panel out of Thielen’s front door. He was arrested minutes later. The following morning, Tin Horn Bill was sentenced to twenty days in the county workhouse.

Formerly Frank Thielen's saloon, 420 N. Main is now home to Frugal Fashion.

Bill was arrested again about a month after the incident at Thielen’s place. This time he was charged with vagrancy. Bill finally gave up. When he went before the judge, he promised that he’d leave town forever if they’d just let him go. The judge released him. Tin Horn Bill Carlson was never seen here again.

Bill went south. The last known sighting of Tin Horn Bill occurred near the end of the baseball season in 1908. He was heading to Freeport, Illinois.

Wm. Carlson, better known as “Tin Horn Bill” will be here next week to sing for the baseball teams, which will play in this city.
      – Freeport Daily Bulletin; September 8, 1908.

Bill was never heard from again.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Blanche Rahr’s Beer Life

Blanche Rahr was not the first woman to take ownership of an Oshkosh brewery. But she was definitely the woman most identified with the beer business here. Blanche was part-owner and secretary-treasurer of Rahr Brewing from 1917 until 1956. She was the public face of Oshkosh’s longest-lived, family-owned brewery.

Blanche Rahr

The Rahr brewery at the foot of Rahr Avenue was established in 1865 by Charles Rahr, Blanche’s grandfather. Blanche was born in 1892 and was four when her father, Charles Rahr Jr., became head of the brewery. The business of making and selling beer was a constant presence throughout her life.

Rahr Brewing, late 1890s.

Blanche grew up doing the simple brewhouse chores that every child named Rahr had been performing since the brewery’s founding. It turned out she was good with numbers, and by the age of 14 worked her way into managing the brewery’s accounts. Blanche was 17 and still in school when her name went on the brewery’s ledger as its bookkeeper.

An undated photo of Blanche Rahr.

She was outspoken and determined. She had to be. Part of her job was to bring to account delinquent saloon keepers, men twice her age who were unaccustomed to receiving ultimatums from a woman. But Blanche often held the trump card. Her family owned many of the saloons that sold Rahr’s beer. The young lady could put you out of business if she cared to.

What is now Ratch and Deb's Pizza at the corner of Merritt and Bowen was once a saloon owned by the Rahr family.

Her influence increased in 1917 when her father retired from the brewery. He transferred ownership of the business to Blanche and her two younger siblings; her brother, Charles, and her 17-year-old sister Lucille. Charles, three years younger than Blanche and fresh off his service in World War I, became the brewmaster at Rahrs. Blanche, all of 24-years-old, managed the brewery’s day-to-day business affairs.

Blanche's brother and sister, Carl and Lucille.

Blanche's plucky reputation preceded her. She was a fitting choice for a role in a 1921 promotional film that called for a woman to take an unusual drive with an Oshkosh Motor Truck Company vehicle.

Miss Blanche Rahr of this city at the wheel, piloted the big machine up the steps of the Oshkosh High School in a fashion that won the approval of the spectators who had gathered to witness the stunt. That a young woman could handle so heavy a machine under such trying circumstances was considered a real feat.
     – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; March 26, 1921.

Blanche behind the wheel.

To prove it wasn’t a fluke, she let the truck roll back down the steps, shifted into gear, and then drove it up again. Four months later, she was crowned Queen of the Mardi Gras by the American Legion at their 1921 summer frolic.

But back at the brewery, there wasn’t much to celebrate. Blanche and her siblings were stripped of their livelihood when Prohibition arrived in 1920. They scrambled to keep the business afloat and began producing and bottling fruit juices, soda, and malted milk.

The Rahrs also made non-alcoholic beer. The other Oshkosh breweries – Peoples and the Oshkosh Brewing Company – followed a similar path. But to a unique degree, the Rahr brewery became the subject of persistent rumors that some of its production bypassed the dealcoholization process. According to the gossip, that beer got funneled to bootleggers.

Blanche heard those rumors for the rest of her life. She consistently denied them. In any case, Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh was among just a handful of breweries of its size to survive the dry years.

Blanche and her brother Carl outside the brewery.

Beer became legal again in 1933. But things didn’t get a lot easier. Rahr was Oshkosh’s smallest brewery, producing up to 20,000 barrels of beer annually – about half as much beer as their cross-town competitors made.

Especially troubling was a new set of laws that forbid the Rahrs from operating their brewery in conjunction with the saloons they owned. Before Prohibition, the Rahr family had used their tied-house saloons to insulate themselves from their larger competitors. But that arrangement was made illegal in the aftermath of repeal. The struggle to survive became a never-ending ordeal.

You wouldn’t have known that if you were following Blanche. When she wasn’t at the brewery, she led a social life that was a regular feature of the Daily Northwestern’s “Women’s World” page. She participated in civic groups, became an excellent bowler, and was fanatic about the local baseball scene.

A headline from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 3, 1952.

Blanche had far-flung friends and she traveled to be with them. Among her better-known confidants were Hollywood actress Edna Bennett and Broadway stage actress Beth Merrill.

Actress Beth Merrill, a longtime friend of Blanche.

Blanche was also the person reporters went to when they were looking for news about the brewery. But her typical bluntness began to wane as the fortunes of her brewery declined. She was evasive when asked for a summary of Rahr’s 1953 business. “About the same as 1952,” She said and then went on to complain about the tax on beer.

In fact, the brewery was coming undone. Annual production had fallen well below the 10,000 barrel mark. 1954 was worse. By 1955, production had dropped to just 3,660 barrels. And in the summer of 1956, the Rahrs closed their brewery. Again, it was Blanche who shared the news. She said that, if nothing else, they could be proud that even through the leanest of years there was never a layoff.

The Rahr's Beer sign coming down at Jerry's Bar on Ceape Avenue.

Blanche was 63 when the brewery shut down. She had lived all her life in a home two doors west of the brewhouse. And there she remained.

Blanche's former home on Rahr Avenue.

Her life seems to have narrowed after the brewery went under. She became somewhat infamous for her severity when driving off wandering children attracted by the prospect of sneaking into a dormant brewery. Other explorers remembered her gruff demeanor giving way to a smile and a piece of candy.

The abandoned Rahr Brewery office.

Demolition of the brewery began in 1964. Blanche was 72 then and still living in the house two doors down. She stayed there until the summer of 1979 when she fell ill and was moved to Evergreen Manor. Miss Blanche Rahr, aged 86, died there on the Monday morning of August 13, 1979.

Riverside Cemetery.

If you'd like to know more about the story of Rahr Brewing, here's a short video I made that gives an overview of that history.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Oshkosh Breweriana with Jared Sanchez

Jared Sanchez, who launched the bi-annual B’gosh It’s Good Breweriana show in Oshkosh back in 2020, was recently featured on the Beer Collector YouTube channel. It’s a nice spot and gives a good look at the collection of Oshkosh breweriana Jared is building. Here is the video…

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Oblio's Has Been Sold

On April 27, Oblio’s Lounge was sold. Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings, who have operated Oblio’s for the past 44 years, sold their tavern at 434 N. Main Street to Cory Krolczyk and Blake Kieler (I hope to have more about the new owners in the near future).

Todd Cummings (left) and Mark Schultz.

On April 25, Cummings and Schultz announced the sale and that they would be departing the business. Here’s the farewell message they posted on Facebook.

In 1979, the two of us made a somewhat rash decision. We stepped into a role that neither of us was totally prepared for. We became the proprietors of Oblio’s, a space that has been central to the social life of Oshkosh since 1885. Our plans for the future of this place were less than clear. But those vague aspirations were given shape by you, the people who came through the door year after year to encourage us, support us, and befriend us. Along the way, we’ve learned that our job wasn’t just about running a bar. You’ve entrusted us with something more; the privilege of taking part in a welcoming tradition that makes all of us closer to one another. The time has come for us to pass that torch. The institution of Oblio’s will endure. This place is not about the two of us. It is about all of us together. And that is more important now than ever. We cannot find the words to express the depth of our gratitude, so these will have to do. Thank you.

Please join us May 6th 3pm-8pm for the passing of that torch.

This marks a new phase for what is perhaps Oshkosh’s most storied bar.
Here are a few links that lead to some of those stories...
The history of what is now Oblio’s from 1884 through the modern era: Part 1 & Part 2.
Oblio’s when it was the Annex, a speakeasy.
And here’s a general link to every post I’ve written tagged as part of the Oblio’s story.