Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Unmaking of Witzke’s

The origin of Witzke’s Bar traces back to 1873. That’s when a German immigrant named Henry Schmidt bought the property at 17th and Oregon to establish a saloon there. What Schmidt set in motion was still going strong 100 years later. But in 1973, there was no centennial celebration at Witzke’s. By then, no one could recall how it all got started.

Est. 1850? The guess was off by 23 years.

The forgetting began long before the 1970s. A 1948 article in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern said the tavern's “early history has been lost from memory.” What memories remained resided with the man who ran the place in the 1970s. Kenneth Frederick Witzke had been there all his life.

Ken Witzke was born in 1924. His father, August "Fuddy" Wtizke, had just finished a jail sentence for serving moonshine in the speakeasy bearing his name. Ken grew up amid a criminal enterprise in the apartment attached to the speakeasy. None of this was especially unusual in the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition made a lot of Oshkosh parents into outlaws.

Witzke’s became a legal bar again after Prohibition ended in 1933. In 1942, Ken Witzke turned 18, got drafted into an Army infantry unit, and was sent to fight in the South Pacific. He came home four years later with a bronze star for bravery. “We were in a lot of the thick of it,” Witzke later said.

Ken Witzke, on the right wearing t-shirt and glasses, circa 1944.

Back in Oshkosh, Witzke went to work tending bar at his father’s tavern. And when Fuddy retired in 1966, Ken Witzke took over. He ran the place for the next 30 years and launched a few traditions of his own. They were informed less by the past than by Witzke’s droll humor.

At Christmastime, he would stand a fresh cut balsam in the barroom. After the 1980 holiday, Witzke decided to re-use the same tree next year. Each year thereafter, the increasingly brown evergreen, trimmings and all, was dragged up from the basement and propped in a corner by the pool cues. Bartender Cliff Sweet gave the tree a shot of vodka every morning to keep its spirits up. “The needles are petrified,” Sweet said in 1995. “They don’t even fall off anymore”

Older yet was the ossified moose head mounted on the wall opposite the bar. The head was said to have been separated from its source sometime around the turn of the century. It became a rite of passage for newlyweds to come in and kiss the snout of the hoary totem. The moose head became the perennial symbol of Witzke’s.

Moose head and all... Inside Witzke's 1983. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Ken Witzke retired in the summer of 1996 and sold the family bar. For the first time in 82 years, there was not a Witzke pouring beer at 1700 Oregon. The new owner, Harold Salzer, played a transitional role. He was a 34-year-old Oshkosh native who had recently started a home siding business. Salzer’s partner at Witzke’s was John Rasmussen. He was 35 and had been working at the Morgan Company mill. At the end of the 1990s, Rasmussen became the sole owner of Witzke's, leading the tavern into its third century.

John Rasmussen behind the bar at Witzke's, 1997.

Rasmussen was eager to emphasize Witzke’s significance to Oshkosh. “The history of the bar is so interesting,” he said in 1997, “so we’ve tried to accent that.” But the history had a downside. There had been little investment in the property over the previous three decades. The place looked worn out. Rasmussen promised to address that.
Witzke's, circa 2001.

In 2003, Rasmussen began sharing his renovation plans. He met with local preservationists and the Oshkosh Landmarks Commission to assure them that he would retain the character of the property. He was true to his word. The tavern Rasmussen started with was a ramshackle offcut of its past glory. The Witzke’s of 2008 was an eye-catching homage to enduring Southside traditions. Witzke’s hadn’t looked this good since its first remodeling in 1901.


In addition to the restoration, Rasmussen added a banquet hall and video archery range behind the original saloon building. It took five years and more than $300,000 to complete the project. Witzke’s appeared poised for another successful run. But it wasn’t to be.

In July 2017, Wells Fargo Bank filed a notice of intent to foreclose on the property. Later that summer, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue began issuing tax warrants against the business. Over the next two years, Witzke’s Tavern, LLC was hounded by creditors baying for payment. Initially, Rasmussen was able to navigate the storm. But by 2019, his options had run out.

Rasmussen announced Witzke’s closing at the end of September 2019. A handwritten sign was taped to the front door: “CLOSED until further notice. Thanks for your understanding! Management.” The “further notice” never came, and the “understanding” was in short supply among those Rasmussen was indebted to.

He renewed the tavern’s liquor license in 2020. The 2021 application was more closely scrutinized. Rasmussen told the Common Council that he hoped to have Witzke's back in business by the end of 2021. There was little chance of that. The delinquent taxes remained unpaid. And since closing, the tavern “had sustained significant water damage.” Rasmussen couldn’t say how he would address the issues. The liquor license was revoked. And on October 19, 2023, the title to the property was transferred to Winnebago County for non-payment of taxes.

This year is the sesquicentennial of Witzke’s founding. But like the tavern’s centennial, this anniversary passes without celebration. One of the southside’s most historically significant properties sits vacant, neglected, and moldering. An abandoned Oshkosh landmark at the edge of oblivion.

October 2023

This is the third in a series of three stories about the history of Witzke's. Here are links to Part 1 (The Garden Where Witzke's Grew) and Part 2 (Witzke's Wild Years). 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. So can the bldg still be bought from the city?

    1. Yes, when it goes up for Sheriff's sale the property will be sold by the County to the highest bidder.

  2. When would a sheriff's sale be?

    1. They haven't set the date yet, Bu I imagine it would probably happen by February.

  3. Everyone wants a building full of mold lol

  4. Who the heck wrote this? The Covid-19 epidemic stuff started in March 2020, well after Witzke's closed

    1. You are right, I didn't word that well. I meant to include that in the part about 2020 and the re-newal of the license. I corrected that in the text. Thanks for pointing it out.

  5. Well done .. nice to catch up on what's happening with a truly special Oshkosh landmark.