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 with “Subscribe” in the subject box. Your email address will never be shared or sold.


  1. Thank you Colleen !! Very interesting—great, enjoyable article Fuddy —-group in photo, all white shirts—Labor Day or union gathering —? Wewill calll later ❤️😊☘️

  2. A great read again Lee. I remember Witzke's and the VFW hall well. Many of my relatives had wedding receptions at the hall. I wish I would have known Fuddy!

  3. Very interesting read. Thanks for posting.