Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Sin City Beer Gardens

The first Brews on the Bay of the 2023 season is tonight in Menominee Park. A beer garden hosted in a city park is hardly unusual these days. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the mere idea of it inspired fits of fear and trembling.

The sale of beer in Oshkosh city parks was illegal from 1889 until 1940. When the law changed, some folks lost their shit. Among them was William Beck, a fun-starved cynic with an overactive imagination. Beck protested long and loud about the Oshkosh parks being “desecrated” with beer. I thought today would be a good time to share a taste of his ranting.

Here are a few passages from a lengthy and delusional letter Beck wrote to the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern in the summer of 1941. You won't see this sort of “fun” at Menominee Park tonight.

Can the parks commissioners remember back to the days before we had city parks, when Sunday picnics and holiday celebrations were held in private parks and groves and were commercialized from the sale of beer and liquor?

Can they recall the disgusting sights of men and boys staggering about in all stages of intoxication? The frequent drunken brawls? The bloody fights with fists, clubs, and rocks, when knives and guns were drawn and used with serious and sometimes fatal effect? When women and children were terrorized, knocked down, trampled, and stampeded in all directions, and many families who had planned a pleasant outing for the day fled in panic for their homes in fear of being injured by drink-crazed men and rowdies?

It was to prevent such occurrences that the people wanted a city park where no intoxicating beverages would be sold. They demand a stop to such frightful, shocking, and disgraceful conditions for once and for good.
     – William R. Beck, June 21, 1940.

Beck's vision of Oshkosh's private beer gardens is almost entirely divorced from reality. He didn't know a damned thing about them. Beck was born in 1878 and was a lifelong bachelor who spent most of his adult life raising chickens in the Town of Oshkosh. During Beck's time there, the township was under the thumb of anti-alcohol zealots. Beck and his ilk voted the Town of Oshkosh dry in 1911.

Beck moved to sin city after he retired from his chicken farm. He planted himself in an apartment on Merritt Avenue, where he had to suffer the spectacle of fun seekers going to and from Menominee Park. Maybe that's what did him in. Beck died two years after penning his beer-garden letter.

Poor William. If you get to the beer garden tonight, raise a glass to our nervous, gloomy friend. Prost!

... such frightful, shocking, and disgraceful conditions.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Fred Zielke Was a Bad Man

Fred Zielke was 17 when he got on a ship leaving Germany for America. What kind of young man was this? Fred would soon become known as a notorious grifter, a panderer, and a wellspring for violence. Was all that rancid ambition already boiling in him when he walked on that boat? Or was it something about Oshkosh that ignited the worst in him? Fred Zielke was on his way to prove just how bad he could be.

Fred was born in 1844 in Danzig, a Prussian city on the Baltic Sea. In 1861 he left for America with his father and older brothers, Rudolph and Herman. The Zielkes first went to Milwaukee, where Fred’s father appears to have run a liquor store. But by 1865, the Zielke clan had left Milwaukee for Winnebago County. They settled on a farm in the Town of Nekimi. Fred’s brothers were there for the rest of their lives. But not Fred. Oshkosh was calling him.

Fred borrowed money from his father, and on April 8, 1870, he purchased Joseph Mayer’s grocery store on the east side of Kansas Street (today it’s South Main Street) just above 8th. By the end of summer, the groceries were gone, and Fred had his saloon going there. He was 26 now.

A detail from an 1867 drawing. The red arrow points to the back of Fred’s saloon on what is now South Main Street north of 8th Avenue.

It took Fred a few years to fully establish his infamy. Unfortunately, there isn’t a complete list of his early-period mischief. There were the usual brawls and drunkenness, but that was hardly uncommon for an Oshkosh saloon in the 1870s. The devil was in the details that weren’t shared.

As one newspaper article stated, the facts surrounding Fred’s exploits “would not look well in print.” At the same time, journalists never tired of hurling insults his way. In print, Fred was called disgusting, amoral, dishonorable, a brute… a bad egg even.

He must have become all of that. In 1875, Fred was stripped of his liquor license; a rare occurrence in a city famous for scandalous saloons. Fred left town without a fight. He sold the property on Kansas Street and headed for Ripon.

Blood and Beer
The move was both bold and foolhardy. Ripon was not the sort of place that was going to open its arms to a guy like Fred. The Ripon of 1875 was a socially conservative town inhabited by 3,500 gentle souls.

"Its inhabitants are largely composed of men retired from various occupations, and the place has therefore a clean, quiet, comfortable air, quite in contrast to the usual hustle and bustle of Western cities."
     – History of Fond du Lac County, 1880.

Fred came in like a buzzsaw cutting straight to the heart. He planted his saloon on Ripon’s town square. There were brawls on a near daily basis and a constant series of calls to have his “dishonorable” dive closed by the city council. Fred came to be such an object of derision that after being attacked during a fight at his saloon, the Ripon Free Press reported that “Zielke got his head badly bruised, but not as badly as he deserved.”

Ripon’s Town Square, Fred’s stomping grounds.

It wasn’t just the fighting that upset the natives. Fred seems to have brought some Oshkosh “talent” with him to Ripon. Again, the newspapers were less than explicit, but the Ripon Free Press made it known that Fred was engaged in practices “which are licensed in St. Louis, but not in Ripon.” It was an obtuse way of saying that Fred was a flesh merchant.

In the 1870s, St. Louis experimented with something akin to legalized prostitution. Brothels and prostitutes were licensed and regulated by the city. That was more hustle and bustle than Ripon was ready for.

In February 1876, Ripon’s council voted to rescind Fred’s liquor license. Fred was irate. He said the revocation was unconstitutional. He said that Ripon had betrayed him. He said that a corrupt council member promised to reinstate his license in return for a payoff. Fred said his attorney told him to ignore the revocation. And that’s just what he did.

The blood and the beer never stopped flowing. Six months after losing his liquor license, the Free Press reported that Fred was still running wide open and hosting more brawls than ever. “He can get up a row with his lager (beer) in the shortest possible time.”

It went on this way for more than a year. Until Fred pulled the plug in May 1877. Ripon was happy to be rid of him.

“It will be glad tidings to all to know that Zielke, the saloon man, has sold and that the newcomer is tearing down the bar. Zielke was a bad egg and kept a bad house. His departure will please every lover of decency in this place.”
     – Ripon Free Press; May 10, 1877.

The Oshkosh Encore
Ripon’s embarrassment might have gone on indefinitely if Fred hadn’t spotted an opportunity to return to the scene of his previous crimes on the Brooklyn side of Oshkosh. Before leaving Ripon, Fred struck a deal with Hypolite “Hyp” Dauben, an old, Kansas Street comrade. Hyp had launched a confectionery and restaurant just north of 8th Avenue in 1868. He’d been Fred’s neighbor during the turbulence of the early 1870s when Fred’s first Oshkosh saloon was going full tilt.

Hyp was now looking to move his business north of the river. On May 2, 1877, he sold his South Main Street property to Fred. The bad man was back.

Both of Fred’s Oshkosh saloons were demolished long ago. They were located on lots that later became home to Recreation Lanes. His first saloon (1870) occupied the northern portion of the property, the second saloon (1877) was on the southern half.

Fred didn't get much of a welcome upon his return to Oshkosh. The Northwestern ran a story that rehashed his exploits in Ripon and described his new bar as “the toughest hole on the south side.” The trouble at the new place percolated for a year before boiling over in the summer of 1878.

On the Friday afternoon of August 23, Fred’s saloon was visited by a trusting rube from Shawano named Post. After having a couple drinks, Post wished to close his tab and handed Fred a $20 bill (worth about $500 in today’s money). Post waited for his change. He didn’t get it. Fred pocketed the $20 and told Post to go to hell. The Shawano man went to the police.

Oshkosh Police in the 1880s.

The desk sergeant dispatched a knuckle dragger named John “Jack” Merton to collect Fred and bring him to the station. Officer Merton was an unredeemed thug, the presiding skull cracker on the Oshkosh police force. Fred went along willingly. At the station, Fred told his side of the story. The cops didn’t buy it. Fred was arrested and charged with larceny. When Merton went to put Fred in handcuffs, the fighting began.

It wasn’t much of a fight. A Northwestern reporter said that “Policeman Merton choked him and pounded him fearfully.” Fred retaliated by biting the cop. When Merton finally got the cuffs on him, he pulled out his revolver and hammered Fred’s skull with the butt of it. Merton got in a few more licks on the way to the holding cell. He punched and pistol whipped Fred until his head was mapped with welts.

There would have been an indictment for police brutality if anyone other than Fred had been on the receiving end of that assault. But the best Fred could do was file a civil suit against the deputized sadist. The Northwestern’s coverage of the case mentioned the strong public sentiment against Merton, “not however from any sympathy with Zielke, who is much disliked and who stands in very bad repute on the South Side.”

In the courtroom the defense turned the tables on Fred, bringing in a fleet of witnesses “as to the character of Zielke and the place he keeps, the testimony of whom was not at all flattering.” In the end, Fred lost his civil suit and was convicted of resisting arrest.

The wave of bad publicity helped tank his bar business. Struggling to stay afloat, Fred opened a clothing store in the saloon. Fred said he intended to close his saloon and concentrate on this new venture. But he never followed through. And by 1879, Fred was running a hybrid business that had never been seen in Oshkosh and hasn’t been replicated since. Fred created Oshkosh’s one and only clothing store/saloon.

It was a total failure. But even Fred’s failures had panache. In October 1878, he managed to secure a loan for $2,000 (about $43,000 in today's money) from Max Landauer, Wisconsin’s leading clothing wholesaler. As part of the deal, Fred would carry Landauer’s line of goods. This Landauer was famous for his business savvy. How Fred, with all his squalid notoriety, managed to hoodwink Landauer into backing him is a mystery that passeth all understanding.

The ever dapper Max Landauer.

If Fred ever intended to repay Landauer, he soon nixed that idea. Fred stiffed him. Landauer could at least console himself in the knowledge that he wasn’t the only one taken in. Fred spent a good part of 1879 in courtrooms facing his creditors. Judgements were rendered, and he still never paid up. His family, though, knew better than to seek satisfaction from Fred in a courtroom.

On the Tuesday afternoon of May 25, 1880, Fred’s father and brothers rode in from Nekimi on their horses to visit with their wayward kin. The Zielkes weren’t there to talk with Fred. According to the police report, they went straight to “violently assaulting and beating him and doing him serious personal injury.” One of the witnesses remarked that “Fred got pretty badly pounded.” He got beat, but he was not broke.

The east side of South Main Street north of 8th Ave. where there’s not a trace left of Fred’s Oshkosh saloons.

Omro Infested
Fred had tucked away enough cash to finance his flight from the debt bomb he dropped in Oshkosh. In March of 1880, he used part of that money to purchase a small store in Omro under his wife’s name. By the close of 1880 he had converted the property into a saloon. Fred's occupancy of Omro was as lively as his residency in Ripon.

Omro in 1880 was a village at war with itself. The conflict was over alcohol and pit Omro’s temperance fanatics against anyone who liked to take a drink now and then. The temperance brigade was agitating to make Omro dry and force the village board to stop issuing liquor licenses. The dries would eventually win their battle in Omro. Fred's antics helped fuel their fire.

Looking west down what is now E. Main St. in Omro. Zielke’s saloon stood one lot west of where the bell tower was later constructed. The saloon was on the eastern portion of the lot that is now addressed as 136 E. Main Street, in Omro.

It didn’t take long for Fred to make an impression. In June of 1881, he was called into court to testify on behalf of a troublesome Omro saloon operator named Henry Jassen. Jassen had recently been beaten up by Oshkosh brewery owner Charles Rahr. Jassen sued. Now the two men were battling one another in front of a judge.

Fred delivered his testimony on behalf of Jassen, and was then cross-examined by attorney Menzo Eaton. The Oshkosh lawyer knew all about Fred. Eaton grilled Fred about his lack of character, his vile reputation, and his penchant for lying. Fred grew enraged. When the court adjourned, “Zielke followed Eaton into the street and made a rush for him; Eaton’s friends grabbed Zielke and quite a contest ensued.” Once again it wasn’t much of a fight. Fred took yet another drubbing.
Menzo Eaton

Fred seems to have made at least one concession to his neighbors in Omro. There were no intimations of his involvement with prostitution during his time there. But Fred’s lust for mayhem remained unquenched. As in all his saloons, brawling was a feature of his Omro dive. And as usual, Fred took his share of the blows. During a melee in January 1884, a patron went at Fred with a club beating him to the floor and breaking his arm.

Then there were the arrests. First, for selling liquor to minors and then for selling booze to “posted” men – helpless alcoholics forbidden by law to purchase liquor in Omro. When the village refused to grant Fred a continuation on his liquor license, he took a page from his Ripon days and refused to close. Like the officials in Ripon, the folks overseeing the Omro saloons couldn’t seem to stop him.

A newspaper screed published in the fall of 1884, summed up Fred’s position in the village. His saloon was called a “low den” and Fred was condemned as one “of the worst nuisances that ever infested Omro.”

Maybe all that hate finally got to him. In February of 1885, Fred sold his Omro saloon and then moved away. He went to a place where there were no saloons. A place unstained by the urban debaucheries that had been his stock in trade for the past 15 years. Fred moved to rural Fentress County, Tennessee.

The simple life in Fentress County, Tennessee was still intact more than 50 years after Fred moved there. This photo is from 1942.

Fentress County was nothing like Oshkosh, Ripon, or Omro. Fred went there seeking something else. And this time, his neighbors welcomed him.

"Mr. Zielke, one of our farmers, has his new barn finished. It is 28x50 feet, and is the best barn on the mountain, at least around here. He has the foundation of his new house laid, which, when completed, will be a splendid building. He also has twenty acres cleared up, grubbed and ready to plow.”
   – Rugby Gazette and East Tennessee News; October 23, 1886.

Fred was 42 then. He had another 33 years ahead of him. Fred was a gentleman and a farmer for the rest of his days.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Oshkosh Beer Mail

If you’d like to receive an email notification when I release a new blog post, just drop me an email at OshkoshBeer@gmail.com and put Subscribe, or something similar, in the subject box. When I see your email, I’ll send a notification letting you know that you’ve been added.

As some readers already know, I used to have an email client setup on the blog, but unfortunately, that widget bit the dust. I’ve been trying to replace it, but I’ve been unhappy with the options that are out there. Most of them seem too susceptible to third-party interlopers.

So I’ve made my own. This way I can assure you that your email will never be shared and that only I will see your email address. And I promise not to fill your inbox with junk. Prost!