Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Kro-Bar Club of Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The Kro-Bar Club was hatched in a chicken coop behind a home on Witzel Avenue 85 years ago. The old coop is gone, but the Kro-Bar Club survives. “It started as a kind of a family club, a neighborhood club,” says Dan Lenz, who has been a club member for 35 years. “It wasn’t too long, though, before it expanded beyond that.”

Dan Lenz at the Kro-Bar Club.

The Kro-Bar Club is a living example of the working-class men's clubs that first became popular in Oshkosh in the late 1800s. Some of the clubs were based upon a single, well defined aspiration. The Skat Club, established in 1889, was created for the “purpose of beer drinking on Sunday.” Others were organized around a more relaxed set of intentions grounded in beer consumption, card playing, and mutual fellowship. These were social clubs. The predominant aim in all cases was to foster a sense of camaraderie among club members.

Most of the early clubs lasted a few years and then dissolved without leaving a trace. But a few of them, like the Midnight Club and Hank’s Club – both can trace their lineage back to the turn of the 20th century – are still active. The slightly younger Kro-Bar Club was formally organized in 1938. “They had a kind of informal club before that,” Lenz says. “The way my dad explained it, these guys would get together to play cards in that chicken coop behind Joe Robl’s house. That’s how it started.”

Joe Robl in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Joseph “Kro-Bar” Robl was born in Oshkosh in 1909. His nickname was derived from the brand of candybar he favored. Robl lived near the corner of Witzel and Guenther. Behind his house was the fabled chicken coop that rarely, if ever, saw a chicken. During Prohibition, the space had been used as a bottling plant by a bootlegger named Elmer Steinhilber.

“I was told they bottled beer and stuff in there, and it just kind of became the neighborhood hang out,” Lenz says. The neighbors hanging out there in the mid-1930s were froggers, a species of Oshkosher now extinct. The froggers would canvas local marsh lands filling gunny sacks with leaping amphibians. Robl and his crew would sell their harvest to Elmer Steinhilber who had quit his bootlegging venture and was tending to the sprawling frog farm he established near the northeast corner of Witzel and Josslyn. The frog farm was just across the street from the ersatz chicken coop.

“I knew Elmer,” Lenz says. “He was still around when I was a kid. He was gruff, like all those old guys from back then. He was all right.”

Elmer Steinhilber

The froggers would unload their haul on Steinhilber and then head to Robl’s coop for a few beers. At one such gathering in March of 1938, the collective drew-up a charter formalizing their association. It was a clear, practical document with guiding principles such as, “Only members of the club can shoot crap in the club room, and one cannot shoot more than 10 cents at one time.” After the members settled on a name, the secretary noted that “It is no more than right to name the club after our esteemed and honorable founder, Joseph Kro-Bar Robl.”

Dan Lenz was introduced to the Kro-Bar Club some 30 years later. The chicken coop was a distant memory by then. In 1955, the club moved to its current headquarters on the opposite end of the frog farm. "My grandfather, Oscar Lenz, was here almost every day,” Lenz says as he leans on the bar at the Kro-Bar Clubhouse. “I would come here after school and help him clean up and restock. We’d go pick up the beer at Chief Oshkosh and Peoples and Jordy's. We’d get Bireley's Orange Soda. You had to have Bireley's. I literally grew up here.”

The bar they were stocking was as native to Oshkosh as the Kro-Bar Club itself. It was built in 1937 by Robert Brand and Sons on Ceape Avenue. From the Brand plant the bar went into the tavern of former Green Bay Packer Champ Seibold on Commerce Street. After the tavern closed in 1965, the Kro-Bar Club rescued the historic fixture. It remains the centerpiece of the their clubhouse.

The new bar at Champ Seibold’s Heidelberg Tavern, 1937. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Dan Lenz became an official club member in 1988. “You have to be sponsored by a member to join,” Lenz says. “You can't just walk through the door and fill out an application. In fact, we don't even have an application. My father was a longtime member. He sponsored me. But you don’t need to have a family member in the club to join. Most of our members aren’t related.”

“We’re at about 25 members now. Our bylaws let us go as high as 60, so we're a little low. It ebbs and flows. We’re still a men’s club, but we have a thing now called the family membership where you can bring in your kids and your wife. We have a social once a month, and other get togethers. We have a lot of fun. You know, I just really enjoy having a place to come to where it’s not like a bar where you have to scream to talk to the person next to you. I don’t know how to put it, there’s just something special about this.”

To learn more about the Kro-Bar Club or explore the possibility of becoming a member, contact Dan Lenz at (920) 422-8041.

End Notes
Eventually, I’ll write something more in depth about Elmer Steinhilber. By some accounts, he was the most prolific bootlegger operating in Oshkosh during Prohibition. In this story, I mentioned that Steinhilber used the chicken coop as a bottling plant. At that time, the home and the coop were owned by a man named Leo Sperka, who worked as a baker. Sperka’s access to sugar came in handy for Steinhilber when he got into producing moonshine. Steinhilber had launched his bootlegging operation as a wildcat beer brewer. I’ll leave it there, for now, but Steinhilber is one of those Oshkosh characters who absolutely deserves to be much better known.

Finally, I got a lot of help with this story and I need to thank some folks who pitched in. This piece would have never happened without the help of my fellow SOBs (Society of Oshkosh Brewers) Al Jacobson and Dan Lenz. Al suggested this story to me years ago, but there didn’t seem to be a way to get it done until Dan revealed to me that he was a KB Club member. Dan cleared the way with the Kro-Bar Club membership to make this happen. Dan’s uncle Bud Lenz was also a great help. Bud is the Kro-Bar Club historian and has done more than anyone to preserve the club’s history. Dan Radig, whose father Norman was one of the original KB Club members, gave me some pointers and helped with images. Mike Robl also came through, supplying that excellent Elmer Steinhilber FROG CATCHERS! sign. Thanks guys!