Sunday, November 19, 2023

Witzke’s Wild Years

The saloon and beer garden at 17th and Oregon was already 40 years old in 1914. The Oshkosh Brewing Company, owner of the property since 1897, was looking for someone new to run the place. Fuddy Witzke was the perfect fit.

Witzks’s bar room in the early 1940s. Fuddy Witzke is behind the bar on the right, the shorter of the two men.

Becoming Fuddy
August Herman Friedrich “Fuddy” Witzke was born in Oshkosh on July 19, 1886. He was raised on 18th Street, just a block away from the saloon that would later bear his name. His parents, Charles and Augusta Witzke, were German-speaking immigrants. So were most of their neighbors. Charles Witzke was a millworker for the Morgan Company and was involved in Southside labor politics. He and his union brethren often rallied at the 17th and Oregon saloon and beer garden. This place was always part of Fuddy’s life.
May 5, 1911. At this time, Theodore Bork was the proprietor of the saloon and beer garden.

Fuddy quit school at 13 and followed his father into the mills. His first job was at the Campbell & Cameron box factory. The boy walked an hour every morning from his home on 18th Street to his job in the factory next to Campbell Creek.

The foot bridge over Campbell Creek leading to the Campbell & Cameron box factory. It was the last leg of Fuddy’s daily journey to work.

He grew up and found a marginally better job at Diamond Match. And from there, he drifted to the McMillen Company. By age 25, he had a dozen years of factory time under his belt. That was enough.

In 1911, Fuddy got a job tending bar for Louis Clute at his saloon on 7th Street. Clute’s place was an Oshkosh Brewing Company tied house. OBC liked what it saw in Fuddy. In May 1914, the brewery recruited the 28-year-old bartender for its showcase saloon at 17th and Oregon. Hereafter, it was called Witzke’s.
A bar glass from Augie Witzke’s Tavern. The address, 1701 Oregon, reflects the old numbering system in Oshkosh. That address is now 1700 Oregon.

At Witzke’s you could get any beer you wanted. So long as it was brewed by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. But that seems to have been about the only limitation the brewery placed upon its new tenant. Witzke made the place his own.

He lived up to his nickname. Fuddy was 5’6” tall, 170 pounds, and reliably grouchy. But he was a good man. His customers leaned on him when they had trouble. He’d bail them out of jail. He’d use his connections to get them jobs. People trusted him. No one more so than his wife, Ella.

They probably met at Diamond Match in 1907 when they both worked there. Fuddy was 21 then. Ella was 17. She had a one-year-old daughter named Wilma and had just gotten divorced. Her former husband had beaten her repeatedly. The last beating was just before Christmas 1905. Ella was five months pregnant with Wilma at the time.

Fuddy and Ella were married in July 1914, a couple of months after he had gotten the saloon at 17th and Oregon. Fuddy adopted Wilma, and the three of them moved into the apartment connected to the bar.

Fuddy Witzke behind his bar, circa 1915.

These were salad days for Fuddy and Ella Witzke. The saloon ran seven days a week. If Fuddy skipped out on a Saturday morning to go ice fishing, Ella would pull duty behind the bar. The Witzkes leaned into the traditions that had long ago made the place so popular with southsiders. Right down to the annual Labor Day dance and picnic in the beer garden.

May 5, 1914.

The Undry Land
The high times turned into hard times with the arrival of Prohibition in 1920. Fuddy had been gearing up for this. The previous summer, he purchased a license to sell soft drinks. It allowed him to keep his saloon open after the dry law went into effect. But Fuddy could not have cared less about soft drinks. Every bar owner in Oshkosh knew that you couldn’t make the rent selling soda. Witzke’s became a speakeasy.

The cops in Oshkosh showed little interest in Prohibition violations. ​​Even the mayor, Arthur McHenry, was against the new law, saying that “the City of Oshkosh was not in sympathy with Prohibition enforcement.” Oshkosh ran wide open that first year. By the summer of 1921, the city had grown notorious as a place where Prohibition did not apply. And that brought the feds to town.

Federal agents made their first major raids in Oshkosh on the Friday evening of August 26, 1921. They aimed their initial thrusts at the most prominent targets. On the northside, they hit the Annex Thirst Parlor (now Oblio’s Lounge). On the Southside they headed for Witzke’s.

The feds poured through the door to find Witzke mixing drinks from a tumbler of moonshine. He was ready for this. He just needed to give the tumbler a nudge. It would drop into the sink and send the liquor down the drain. Fuddy’s plan failed. The feds said he was so alarmed by their sudden appearance that Witzke forgot his trick.

They arrested Fuddy and took him to the city jail. He pleaded guilty when his trial came up in September. The district attorney recommended the minimum penalty: $100 (about $900 today). Fuddy could turn on the charm if he needed to. The DA commented that Witzke had been “very fair and decent in this matter.” Fuddy paid the fine and went straight back to his bar.

The Man with the Moon
The striking building at 17th and Oregon was an advantage in the heady days before Prohibition. Standing tall at the south entrance to the Southside, Witzke’s Saloon could not be missed. But the prominence became a liability when liquor became illegal. As a speakeasy, Witzke’s was too conspicuous. He got caught again in 1924.

The agents rushed in at about 7 pm on the Monday evening of April 28th. They found Witzke holding two quarts of moonshine. They searched Fuddy and Ella’s apartment and found another bottle of liquor on the kitchen table. They hauled Fuddy to jail where he said he’d just as soon plead guilty now and skip the trial. Fuddy changed his tune when they told him this second offense would mean mandatory jail time.

At his trial, Witzke asked for leniency. He said he was quitting the business and promised to stop selling bootleg liquor. The judge didn’t even bother to comment. He slapped Witzke with a $300 fine (about $5,000 in today’s money) and sent him to the county jail for 30 days of hard labor. Witzke served his sentence, went back home, and reopened his speakeasy. But he was cagier now. He pulled off a six-year run before they got him again.


In the fall of 1931, federal agents made a series of raids on speakeasies in Oshkosh. There had been rumblings for weeks that a housecleaning was in the works. On October 17, a squad of 29 agents invaded the city. Of course, they paid a visit to their old buddy Fuddy. But he wasn’t home.

He had stepped away for a moment, asking his friend Henry Drew to watch the bar. Fuddy walked out, and an undercover federal agent walked in. The agent called for a beer. It was the first beer Henry Drew poured as a bartender. It was also the last. The agent immediately arrested Drew. A reporter saw his arrival at the city jail. “His jaws and knees shook noticeably. ‘Heck of a note,’ he remarked, ‘J-j-just doing a favor for a friend.’”

The feds met up with Fuddy the following day. His case was settled in May, 1932. Witzke was fined $250 and handed over to an officer from the House of Corrections in Milwaukee to serve six months behind bars.

Free at Last
Things were getting better when he got back to Oshkosh in late 1932. Prohibition was being dismantled. In April 1933, beer became legal again. Full repeal came at the end of the year. But by then, Prohibition had changed everything for the saloon keepers. Fuddy could see that through his back door.

The dry law led to the closing of the beer garden that had accompanied the saloon for decades. People in Oshkosh did not stop drinking during Prohibition, but they wouldn’t do it in a park in broad daylight. In 1927, the Oshkosh Brewing Company sold the beer garden to a charity group. The pavilion later became home to the Florian Lampert Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The site of the beer garden pavilion on the south side of Seventeenth Avenue near Oregon Street as it is today.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company also shed many of its saloon properties during Prohibition. The brewery sold Witzke’s in 1930. After 16 hard years there, Fuddy became the owner of the building. It would remain his until his death in 1969.
Fuddy retired from his bar in 1966. He was 79 years old. But his retirement was more of an easing up than a hard stop. Fuddy and Ella still lived in the apartment attached to the tavern, and Fuddy still dropped in at the bar to pour beer now and then. His presence at 17th and Oregon lingered even after his death. From 1914 until its closing in 2019, the tavern was never known as anything other than Witzke’s.

This post is the second in a series of three stories about the history of Witzke’s. The first story (The Garden Where Witzke's Grew) was published on November 5th. Part 3, the Unmaking of Witzke's, was published on December 3. If you would like to receive an update when I release new content, send an email to OshkoshBeer@gmail.com with “Subscribe” in the subject box. Your email address will never be shared or sold.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Fifth Ward... Six Years.

Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh is celebrating its Sixth Anniversary this week. And every year around this time I snap a picture of the brewery’s founders, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark, in front of their tap handles. Here we go again with another round of Fifth Ward.

Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark on opening night at the Fifth Ward Taproom, November 12, 2017.

November 7, 2018.

November 4, 2019.

November 10, 2020.

October 28, 2021.

2022

November 9, 2023.


Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Garden Where Witzke's Grew

There’s a non-certified landmark at 17th and Oregon. And it’s falling apart.

The abandoned Witzke’s Bar at 1700 Oregon Street.

That building is the last remnant of a historically important site. This isn’t just another forsaken tavern property. This corner was the cultural home of Oshkosh's southside. The story that follows will be the first in a series of three about the history of this place and how it came to its current predicament.

Enter the Garden
Like so many of the early Oshkosh saloons, this one was born in a grocery store. It started in the spring of 1873 after an immigrant from Mecklenburg, Germany bought the spacious, empty lot at the southeast corner of 17th and Oregon. His name was Henry Schmidt. He was 43, and he had recently closed a saloon he’d been running on Main Street.

Schmidt had a lot more room down on Oregon. His new property contained better than an acre of land. On the corner of the lot he built a boxy, two-storied, wood-framed structure. Schmidt, his wife, Maria, and their three children lived in the rooms upstairs. Below, they put in a grocery and saloon.

The grocery/saloon combo was already becoming commonplace on the southside. What made this corner different was the field out back where Schmidt planted a beer garden. Southsiders would gather there for the next 40 years.

An 1890 Sanborn map with the grocery, saloon, dancing pavilion, and beer garden at 17th and Oregon.

Schmidt sold the property in 1883, but the essence of the place never changed. The proprietors who came after him were also immigrants from Germanic lands. There were a lot of such folks flocking to Oshkosh.

By the 1870s, more than 30 percent of the city’s population was foreign born. The greatest concentration was south of the river, where migrants from Central Europe made up the majority. With them came their culture of pleasure. The saloon and beer garden at 17th and Oregon was a welcoming spot where they could relax, foster a sense of community, and feel at home again.

The name of the beer garden changed with each succeeding proprietor. First, it was Schmidt’s Garden, and when he left it became Thom’s Garden. After Augusta Thom took over the business, she renamed it the White Clover Summer Garden. Later, it was Scherck's Grove, Abrams Beer Garden, and then Bork’s Park. Whatever the name, the beer garden was always about more than beer.

This was the southside’s summer resort. Music and dancing were almost always part of the attraction. The Sunday afternoon sessions featured Oshkosh’s most popular bands. Among them were the Arion Band, the American Cornet Band, and the Acme Orchestra.

The Arion Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Bob Bergman.

If there wasn’t music, there might be boxing matches, gymnastics exhibitions, or roller skating. There were Oktoberfest celebrations in fall, and on May Days and Labor Days crowds would gather there to hear pro-labor speakers urging them to organize for better pay and working conditions.
Beer Garden events in the early 1900s when it was run by Theodore Bork.

A Noise from the Northside
The free-flowing Gem├╝tlichkeit didn’t sit well with Yankee elites living north of the river. Complaints from the American-born upper crust were common from the start. In the summer of 1880, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, ever the advocate of the bosses, ran a slanted article suggesting the city council should shut the place down. The paper smeared the beer-garden goers describing them as “the roughs who congregate there every Sunday.” The so-called “roughs” included women, children, and people of every age.

The bigotry was served with a side of moralism. “Our German citizens” at “their beer garden in the south wood” were accused of having too much fun on Sundays. On the north side, they thumped their pulpits and demanded that the Sabbath be kept sacred, free from the stain of vice and worldly concerns. The Southsiders paid no heed. Many of them labored 60-70 hours a week in grim lumber mills. Sunday was the one day they had for themselves. They would spend it as they pleased.

The Oshkosh branch of the German Kriegerverein in the beer garden, circa 1906. The group was composed of men who served in the German army before their immigration to the United States.

The Rise of the Southside
The nattering died down by the end of the 1800s. Even the gray Daily Northwestern managed to concede a degree of appreciation for “The German with his long-stemmed pipe and a big stein of beer in front of him, the picture of solid comfort.” But the compliments also missed their mark. On the “Brooklyn” side of town it wasn’t all pipes and beer steins. They were working to create their own rendition of the American Dream.

Oregon and South Main streets became the domain of German-speaking merchants and their butcher shops, grocery stores, carriage works, and saloons. Near the beer garden were Oshkosh’s two largest breweries. Both were run by German immigrants who teamed up in 1894 to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The President of OBC, Bavarian-born August Horn, decided that the southside’s cherished resort was due for an upgrade.

August Horn and his wife, Amailie.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company purchased the saloon and beer garden in January 1897. A wholesale renovation of the property began in the summer of 1901. The beer garden pavilion was replaced with a 600-foot dance hall. Henry Schmidt's old grocery and saloon was gutted and given a Queen Anne makeover. The turret added to the northwest corner of the building remains a familiar beacon more than 120 years later.

The reconstructed saloon at 17th and Oregon in the early 1900s.

A 1903 Sanborn map illustrates the changes to the property.

In 1914, the saloon at 17th and Oregon took on the name that most people in Oshkosh still know it by. “Witzke’s” was coined by August Herman Friedrich “Fuddy” Witzke. He was 33 and cut from the same cloth as the saloon keepers who came to that corner before him. Witzke, though, would face a challenge his predecessors could not have imagined. But they certainly would have admired his response.

The second part of this story, Witzke's Wild Years, was posted on Sunday, November 19. Part 3, The Unmaking of Witzke's, was posted on December 3. If you would like to receive an update when I release new content, send me an email at OshkoshBeer@gmail.com with “Subscribe” in the subject box. Your email address will never be shared or sold.

Finally, here’s a chronology of the first 40 years of this historic Oshkosh saloon and beer garden.

1873-1882: Henry Schmidt
Before moving to the south side, Schmidt ran a saloon on the west side of Main Street near the river. His partner in that venture was a fellow German expat named Conrad Schuri. After closing their saloon, Schuri also moved to the south side and launched a vinegar factory with another German named August Fugleberg. The vinegar factory was on the site of what is now Fugleberg Park at 2000 Doty St.

1876

Sorry about the diversion, but I’m fascinated by Schuri and that vinegar plant. OK, let’s get back to Henry Schmidt… He bought the 17th and Oregon property on April 8, 1873; just before the great financial panic of that year. The tight money supply may have slowed Schmidt’s plans. It seems he didn’t get the saloon/grocery up and running until 1875. The beer garden was introduced later. By the spring of 1880, though, the beer garden was a vital piece of southside culture.

Schmidt sold the business and property in 1882. He moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa where he passed away in 1915.

1882-1883: Gustav Thom
Gus Thom bought the property from Schmidt on April 22, 1882. Thom was born in 1840 in northern Prussia. He came to America in 1854 and later fought in the Civil War. He was a popular southside figure, having been a city assessor and operator of a grocery store at 12th and Minnesota. His career on Oregon Street was sad and short. In early 1883, he came down with dropsy and experienced a horrific death. His obituary notes, “His limbs swelled to enormous proportions. The disease latterly affected the heart, and for days before his death his sufferings were intense.”

1883-1887: Augusta and Richard Thom
Augusta Thom took over the business following the death of her husband, Gustav. She was 40 years old at the time. Augusta was among a small number of women who ran saloons in Oshkosh prior to the 1900s. And by all accounts, she was quite successful. She was responsible for re-branding Thom’s Garden as the White Clover Summer Garden. Nice touch! In 1887, Augusta married a former Winnebago County farmer named David Way. She then left Oshkosh to be with Way on his farm in South Dakota.

When Augusta left, she put her son Richard in charge. Richard Thom was born in Oshkosh in 1866 and began working in the family business as a teenager. He turned 21 just before taking over the grocery, saloon, and beer garden. But the young man just wasn't into it. He almost immediately leased the business to Charles Scherck.

1887-1890: Charles Scherck
F. Hans Charles Scherck looked like a good fit for the place. He was born in Prussia in 1836 and had connections to the beer business in Oshkosh, having worked as a cooper (barrel maker) before taking over the saloon. But what looked good on paper was awful in practice. Scherck attracted a rough, thuggish crowd. The bruisers included his son Otto, who liked to sit at his father's bar and throw down a few drinks and then start throwing punches. All the fighting and police activity led to Scherck’s ouster in late summer 1890. And with that, Richard Thom returned to a job he wasn’t all that fond of.

1890-1896: Richard Thom
Here’s where things get messy…
Richard Thom’s second tour seemed to go well enough at first. But things changed after his mother died in 1892. Ownership of the property fell to Richard and his two brothers, Ernst and Gustav Jr. Before long, the Thom Trio had the place mortgaged to the hilt. One of the loans came from Oshkosh whiskey distiller John Thielen. If you were a whiskey drinker in the Thom brother’s saloon, you can bet it was Thielen’s whiskey you were snorting.


The folks at Schlitz Brewing might have sniffed out that the Thom boys had taken on more debt than they could manage. In 1893, word leaked that Schlitz was trying to acquire the property. But before that could happen, Christian Elser finagled his way in. Elser was tight with the folks who ran the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Schlitz got outmaneuvered by Elser when he managed to acquire a majority stake ownership in the property.

Richard and Ernst Thom were still running the bar, but they were running on fumes. They closed the grocery and launched a barbershop in the space. Christian Elser was not impressed. He wedged out the Thom brothers in 1896, and then sold the property to the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1897. This may have been the plan all along.

1896-1905: Fred Abrams
Two months after getting title to the property, August Horn of the Oshkosh Brewing Company brought in Fred Abrams to run the saloon and beer garden. Horn and Abrams were old pals. Abrams had been running saloons selling Horn’s beer back when Horn was still running Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery.

Oshkosh Brewing invested heavily in the saloon and beer garden during the Abrams years. The 1901 reconstruction of the property cost about $5,000 (or about 475,000 in today's money). The brewery made a point of putting its stamp on the fancy, new digs. The Oshkosh Brewing Company name is still on the parapet facing Oregon Street.


1906-1914: Theodore Bork
Fred Abrams bid adieu to the saloon trade in June 1906. That same month, 36-year-old Theodore Bork quit his job as an Oshkosh cop. Bork’s beat was the southside. He seems to have made surprisingly few enemies during his six-year stint with the night stick. The 6' 3" Bork showed more restraint than his fellow officers of that era. Anyway, Bork handed in his badge and slid behind the bar.

Theodore Bork, 1902.

He was just the kind of guy the Oshkosh Brewing Company needed for its showcase estate. Under Bork, both the saloon and beer garden flourished. If you take a peruse through the newspapers of those years, you’ll see a stream of advertising for the Sunday events at Bork’s Park. These were peak years for the southside's favorite gathering place.

There’s more to come…
1914 brings us to the start of the Witzke era. I’ll get to that with the next post in this series. Prost!