OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) - Breweries and beer are an important component of Northeast Wisconsin's culture and its history, and part of that history includes being the location of the nation's first ever African-American owned brewery - The Peoples Brewing Company in Oshkosh.
The Peoples Brewing Company initially opened in Oshkosh in 1913, producing German-style lager there for decades, before being purchased in 1970 by a group of Milwaukee businessmen, led by Theodore Mack.
"Theodore Mack was a black man, and as soon as the sale of that brewery was announced, there were newspaper reports that Mack's plan was to come to Oshkosh and fire all the white workers at the brewery, and replace them with black workers," says beer historian Lee Reiherzer. "That was entirely not true, but it created a real backlash in town here."
When that news started circulating, many tavern owners in Oshkosh immediately stopped serving Peoples Beer. The charismatic Mack fought to squash those rumors, saying, "I want to get away from the blackness and the whiteness... I don’t believe in black power, and I don’t believe in white power. There is only one power in this country. That’s green power – money."
There were also rumors that the beer recipe had been changed and made inferior, which Mack put to rest by sending a sample of it to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago for analysis.
"I've seen several of these reports from the Siebel Institute that were for Peoples Beer, and they all come back with just glowing reviews, so this was a quality beer," Reiherzer says.
Sales for Peoples Beer began to rise, and Mack eventually gained national recognition.
"Within about 6 months of his arrival here, he had the brewery selling more beer in Oshkosh than it was prior to his arrival here," Reiherzer says. "He became kind of like a symbol for Oshkosh. At first, it wasn't a very good symbol because of the bigotry he encountered when he first came here, but then later, as things came together and the community embraced him, it was kind of a point of pride for people here."
But things took a turn when Mack launched a large distribution program for Peoples, sending beer across the country, as far west as California.
"The problem with that is that he took on a lot of debt to make that happen, and he couldn't service that debt," Reiherzer says. "So in 1972, 2 years after he'd purchased the brewery, Peoples Brewing Company went bankrupt... It was just a matter of not having sales be able to meet what his debt load needed him to meet."
Peoples closed its doors in 1972. Mack was devastated.
"He had put so much time and effort into (the brewery), that he was devastated by it, and he said he was devastated financially as well as emotionally," Reiherzer says.
Peoples was bought by a junk dealer and demolished in 1974. The business Blended Waxes now stands in its place. The only thing remaining from the brewery is a bottle house, and of course, its place in history.
Special thanks to Lee Reiherzer, Jim Lundstrom, and and the Winnebago County Historical Society for their help with this story.
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