“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” Dickens wrote as the opening line of his novel about London and Paris during the French Revolution. However, I write a blog on beer and taverns in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, so I’m not dealing with the best and worst. Rather with have and have not and why. My two cities are Oshkosh, Wisconsin and Davis, California. They have some aspects in common and other aspects wildly different. Why Davis? Well, our daughter Brenda and son-in-law Michael are scientists at the
University of California, Davis. We took them out one night to Jerry’s Bar to see a real Oshkosh tavern. While talking to owner Scotty Engel, Michael told him Davis had only five taverns. Scotty’s jaw dropped. I said that can’t be, but Michael was positive-only 5 taverns.
Here’s what they have in common: First they are approximately the same size: Oshkosh at 66,083 and Davis at 66,205. Second they are both flat. Oshkosh was on the tail end of a glacial lobe which 15,000 to 10,000 years ago covered the area and then retreated and slid back many times, thereby leveling the area into a flat plain. Why Davis is flat I don’t know, since I haven’t read anything about ice age activity there. But, trust me, it’s flat. Both cities are bicycle friendly (I think the flatness leads to that) with Davis claiming to be the “most bicycle friendly town in the world.” Third, they are each the largest cities in their county. Fourth, each is home to a state university. UC Davis has a much larger student body, over 30 thousand. UW Oshkosh has around 14,000 students.
So, other than climate—it doesn’t snow in Davis-how do they differ? Considering that this blog deals with beer, drinking in taverns, I’ll bet that’s where the big difference lies.
Yep. Oshkosh currently has about 134 places that have a Class A liquor license. That includes the Roxy, Mahoney’s, Beckett’s and others that are primarily restaurants with a bar. But even after subtracting them, there are probably 100 places that are taverns. Most of these are located on corners in residential areas. Their primary purpose is serving booze; however, many often serve “bar food,” i.e. pizza, burgers, fish fries.
Now in Davis the actual number of taverns as defined in the previous sentence is only five. What? In a University town? Maybe those 30,000 plus students avoid alcohol. Maybe some do, but there are many drinking options these students have like sorority and fraternity houses, restaurants and wine bars.
My purpose here is to explain why Oshkosh has so many taverns and Davis has so few. To do this I’m going back to the 1800s. For the answer lies in the past.
I’ll start with Davis. It came into being in 1868 when a depot for the Southern Pacific was located there on a ranch owned by Jerome C. Davis, a prominent cattle rancher and farmer. He sold his 7,000 or so acres to the railroad. I’m sure that the location of the railroad there made it much easier for him and his fellow ranchers to ship their cattle. The town grew slowly; it was not incorporated until 1917.
Oshkosh is much older. Its first settlers were fur traders, but its big claim to fame was its lumber industry. The city was incorporated in 1853 and it already had many sawmills. Logs were floated down the Wolf/Fox Rivers to the city. The arrival of a railroad in 1859 not only made it possible for lumber companies to ship their products to growing cities like Chicago, but also made it possible for immigrants, primarily from Germany, to arrive to work in these mills. Given the large number of lumber mills, there was a high demand for these workers. By 1860 Oshkosh had picked up the nickname of “Sawdust Capital of the World.” By 1874 there were 47 sawmills and 15 shingle mills in the city.
Factories of that time were dangerous, noisy and dirty. There were no unions to limit the working hours or to improve working conditions. There was a high demand for workers both skilled and unskilled. Pay was as low as the factory owner could get. Taverns sprang up on street corners between factory and home. They offered a respite to the factory worker on his walk from factory to home or home to factory. Here the men could talk about their home country in their native language. They could share the miseries of their factory work with each other. They could complain about the meanness of their bosses. They could bitch about their wife and kids. They could partake of the free lunch that many taverns offered. They could play schafkopf, i.e. sheepshead, with the boys. They could fill a growler and take it home. Many of the taverns we visit trace their existence back to 1880s. Certainly there were many dozens of taverns earlier than that which have ceased to exist. A major fire in 1875 that destroyed much of the downtown destroyed many taverns also. For we have been told that Main Street from the Fox River to Church Street was lined with taverns on both sides.
Well, that explains why there were such a high number of taverns before Prohibition, but why are so many of them still around today? The last of the lumber companies closed its doors in 2007; most of the others were closed by the 1990s. Well, here’s reason two as to why Oshkosh has so many taverns. Obviously the gemütlichkeit established in the pre-prohibition years still hangs on. Recall also that Oshkosh is not only on a river, but also the shores of Lake Winnebago. This area is popular for fishers—from the sturgeon-spearing season in winter to the bass and walleye fishing the rest of the year. And lots of hunters live here. Where else can you talk about the one that got away or the one you snagged, or the number of points on the antlers of the deer? A tavern, of course. And all those sheephead games that were popular in the early years have still held on. Only now there are also cribbage games and tournaments and, of course, softball teams and dart teams supported by taverns. And the latest Corn Hole (an adult version of bean bags) games. Lastly every tavern except two has a pool table that leads to pool tournaments. And let’s not forget the raffles, special parties on Packer Days and the widely popular meat raffles.
Prohibition did not end the taverns in Oshkosh as it may have in other cities and states. Many of them continued to run as taverns, sometimes hiding behind a soda fountain and ice cream parlor, but still serving liquor. You just had to know whom to ask. We notice now that some of the neighborhood taverns are disappearing. We think the fact that people aren’t walking, but rather driving explains that partly. Most neighborhood taverns don’t have parking lots and many are on streets where parking is prohibited.
But, stop into any of them—especially on the weekend—and you will find a friendly crowd of young and old, men, and women swapping stories and having a good time.
But why is Davis so different? Or is it Oshkosh that’s out of step? I’d like to think that back in the day when Davis was just a railroad depot amid cattle ranches and gold prospectors that there was at least one tavern. You know, something that looked like The Long Branch in the TV show Gunsmoke. A long bar with a heavily made-up Miss Kitty holding court. Maybe a bartender with garters on the sleeves of his white shirt ready to pour you a shot of rotgut. Maybe a gambler playing cards with the locals and trying to strip them of their money. And a couple of cowboys having a fistfight with one of them getting tossed out through the swinging doors.
Well, I will probably never know. But I hope this sheds some light on tavern scenes here and there.