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 Gemütlichkeit 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 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.


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!


  1. Very interesting. My family lived for 50 years down the street from Witskes. Attended many labor picnics there.

  2. Great story! Really enjoyed it!

  3. What a history this place has! Looking forward to the rest of the story.

  4. Can’t wait to hear the rest of this story. Sure hope someone will resurrect this beautiful historical building.

  5. Sadly I believe the county recently foreclosed for non payment of property taxes.

  6. Great history. My dad’s favorite place for playing cards.