Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Can Can and the Return of the Embedded Bar

Can Can, a boutique and bar at 584 N. Main Street, will have its official ribbon-cutting on Wednesday, June 19 at 11 am. The ceremony introduces the beginning of something Oshkosh hasn’t seen in over a century: a shop wrapped around a bar selling beer for on-premise consumption. Kate Voss, the owner of Can Can, is tapping into a way of doing business that was once commonplace here.

Kate Voss at Can Can. Photo by Michael Cooney.

Voss hit upon the idea of combining a boutique with a bar a few years ago after visiting a shop in Denver based on a similar premise. “I was like, what? This is my heaven,” Voss says. “Who doesn't want to have a drink while they shop? I got super inspired by this place.”

But when Can Can opened in February, the bar at the back of the boutique was bone dry. “It turned out to be really tricky getting the license we needed for the bar,” Voss says. “The city had a little bit of an issue. They didn’t know what to make of the idea. They didn’t know how to deal with it. We were kind of in this pickle.”

The confusion over licensing was, perhaps, predictable. Oshkosh city government hadn't dealt with someone like Kate Voss since the early 1900s. But in that earlier era, city officials had plenty of experience with business owners who combined their bars with diverging lines of trade. The practice was established before the name Oshkosh even appeared on a map.

When George Johnston opened his tavern in the 1830s on land that is now part of Riverside Cemetery, he coupled his hospitality trade with a ferry carrying travelers across the Fox River. At Philip Wright’s “Groceries and Provisions” store on Main Street in the 1840s, a cask of beer was kept on tap for shoppers seeking refreshment. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oshkosh was home to scores of grocery stores with embedded saloons. At the same time, Fred Zielke's bar on South Main Street doubled as a men’s clothing store. And what is now Bob's Trails End once operated as a barbershop/tavern.

By the time Prohibition arrived in 1920, Oshkosh’s combination bars were nearly extinct. They were officially extinguished in the 1930s by a stack of new laws regulating alcohol sales in the post-Prohibition era. Kate Voss wasn't setting out to revive the tradition when she opened Can Can. It was just a natural extension of her way of doing things.

Kate Voss with her newly minted beer license, May 25, 2024.

The bar at Can Can isn’t the first thing you notice when you enter the shop. What’s most prominent is the overriding aesthetic of the place. The mix of art, handmade gifts, and novelty items imbues the space with a distinctly vintage character. The retro aspect seems to color almost everything Voss is engaged in.

Outside of Can Can, Voss is an award-winning vocalist. She performs regularly with her husband, guitarist Jason Goessl, in the duo Sundae + Mr. Goessl; and with her band Kate Voss & The Hot Sauce. Both acts lean heavily into vintage jazz and pop styles. “The music is really at the core of all of this,” Voss says. “I'm very into things from the 1920s all the way to the 1960s. You know, the 70s and 80s, that’s a little too modern for me. I always feel like maybe I wasn’t born in the right decade.”

Kate Voss and Jason Goessl.

Which makes her arrival at 584 N. Main Street especially fitting. The building Voss leases for Can Can has a history that anticipated her vision for the shop. It was built about 1897 and became a saloon soon after. The tin ceiling shining above Can Can was once bathed in cigar smoke drifting up from a bar run by Richard Pommerening in the early 1900s. Pommerening and his wife, Josephine, lived in the rooms above. Their saloon, known as The Owl, was the anchor of the Pommerening’s business, but Josephine, who was also a performing musician, ran a series of side ventures in the building. At various times she taught piano, conducted an art school, and made and sold women’s hats there.

All those distant coincidences were news to Voss until after she had Can Can up and running. “You know, from the start there’s been this weird synchronicity going on here,” she says. “It's so funny how it just all worked out this way.”

A Deeper Dive on 584 North Main
The building at 584 N. Main Street was constructed sometime around 1897. The first tenants were the Roewekamp brothers, Carl and Henry. They ran a wholesale grocery business there for a couple of years. In 1900, they moved out and over to Washington Avenue where they went into the wholesale liquor and saloon supply business. The Roewekamps eventually built one of the largest wholesale liquor outlets in Northeast Wisconsin.

A Roewekamp brothers whiskey bottle from the early 1900s.

After the Roewekamps left, a psychic named Mrs. Dr. Nichols moved in for a short stay. The advertisement below mentions her address, “278 Main street, near Polk Street.” That address changed to 584 N. Main after a renumbering ordinance went into effect in 1958. The former Polk Street is now E. Parkway Avenue.

July 6, 1900; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

The first saloon at 584 N. Main opened in the summer of 1901. It was put there by Henry Zinn. Before launching his bar, Zinn lived and worked in the building one door north at what is now 586 N. Main. That property had been home to the Fourth Ward Bakery operated by Zinn’s father since the 1870s.

Zinn's Fourth Ward Bakery in 1902. A sliver of The Owl Sample Room can be seen at the extreme right edge of the photo.

Henry Zinn called his saloon The Owl. That name would remain attached to the bar for the next 20 years. The Owl was perched at the north end of what was often referred to as the Nickel Side of the street. It was composed of a thick congregation of saloons spanning the east side of Main from the Fox River to Parkway Avenue. The bars offered mugs of lager beer at a nickel a pop. The strip was also the source for much of the mayhem Oshkosh came to be known for in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Henry Zinn left Oshkosh in 1909 and headed for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to open a pool hall. The Owl was taken over by a Southside bartender named Richard Pommerening. He and his wife Jospehine moved into the apartment above The Owl.

During his tenure there, Richard had a couple of partners helping run The Owl. The ad below is from 1910 when John Scheuer was working with him. Scheuer was regionally famous as a motorcyclist who raced, and regularly crashed, Indian Motorcycles.

Richard Pommerening was said to possess a fine singing voice. But that was about the only good thing said about him. His wife Josephine, as I’ve outlined above in the Can Can portion of this story, had a lot of interests and among them was an aspiration to rid herself of her husband.

Josephine filed for divorce from Richard on at least three occasions. In one of her petitions she said that Richard was a habitual drunkard, “a man of ungovernable temper, of an abusive and violent disposition, profane and vulgar.” It gets worse. She said Richard had repeatedly assaulted her and during one of his eruptions choked her and put a loaded revolver to her head promising to kill her.

Richard said that Josephine was insane and needed to be institutionalized. He claimed she was involved with a woman of “bad repute” who Josephine sometimes lived with on Division Street. The couple split up several times, but always reconciled. Luckily, they never had children.

In 1920, The Owl went dry with the start of Prohibition. Unlike most other Oshkosh saloon keepers, Richard didn’t immediately convert his place into a speakeasy. Instead he closed The Owl and the couple moved to a rented house on Merritt. Richard took a job at the Giant Grip horseshoe factory on Osceola Street.

But he immediately returned to slinging drinks when Prohibition ended in 1933. Richard became a bartender at the President Bar at 430 N. Main Street. Today that place is known as Bar 430.

Happy New Year from Richard “Dick” Pommerening. Hans and Fritz Merten were the owners of the tavern. Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, December 20, 1944.

In 1939, Richard and Josephine bought a home near the corner of Jefferson and Merritt. They remained in Oshkosh until 1946, when they relocated to Los Angeles, hoping the mild climate would improve Richard’s failing health. But California proved fatal to both of them. Josephine died on December 14, 1949. She was 69. Richard Died ten days later on Christmas Eve. He was 71.

Until Kate Voss and Can Can came along, the building at 584 N. Main Street hadn’t housed a bar since the Pommerenings left in 1920. In the intervening years it’s been home to shops selling truck parts, paint, radios, bikes… The image below is from the mid 1940s when it was a tire store.

The old place looks much better now.