Gary drove us from The Copper Mule across the Fox River to 219 Wisconsin Avenue on May 21. He pulled the white van into the small parking lot in front of Kelly’s, which sits on the northeast corner of Wisconsin Avenue and High Street. Kelly’s is one of three taverns in the University area. Since Gary, Marv and Don were in one way or another connected to the University, we have been avoiding these bars mostly frequented mostly by college students. However, the idea that any student would recognize them and ask to have their grade changed is pretty far-fetched since they have been retired for many years. But this was a Tuesday—one day before a student drinking weekend starts—we decided to go to Kelly’s.
We were right. The only student in the place was Madison and she was tending bar. When we commented on the fact that the place was devoid of students, she said “Students love it here” but not on Mondays or Tuesdays. She is a student from Minot, North Dakota and on the UWO women’s gymnastics team; her specialties are “bar and floor.” (Seems right, some how, for a bartender.) But, why come here and pay out of state tuition? Because of the gymnastics program was her answer. She added that many women on the team are out-of-staters. She is majoring in kinesthesiology and really likes UWO and Oshkosh. Could it be the water, we wondered. She spoke very highly of her coach. “So does your coach know you tend bar?” we asked. “Yes, she used to do that too.” That shut us up.
It was time to order some beer. Kelly’s has five tap beers: Coors, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Bush Light and LaBatt’s Blue. Marv, Elaine and I went north of the border and ordered LaBlatt from Canada. Don and Judy supported the New Glarus Wisconsin brewery by drinking Spotted Cow. It was the first Canadian beer I had had in a long time. Marvin and I used to live about 20 miles south of the Canadian border when we lived in Potsdam, New York back in the 1960s. Our main source of TV was Canadian. We saw Peter Jennings when he was just starting out as a news broadcaster. Canadian law strongly regulated beer ads on TV. No beer in glass, bottle or can could be shown. So the commercial would show people having a good time playing cards, fishing, eating or whatever but no beer. Lots of singing in the background would name the beer and sometimes a bottle cap or label would be shown.
Kelly’s is one of only three taverns east of the campus. (There are none near north, south or west of the campus.) When we moved here in the late 1960s, these three did not exist, but seven others did. Two were on High Avenue and were razed when the University expanded east. One, My Brother’s Place, lasted until 1970. It had opened in 1900. The second one was called Giant Grip; it closed in 1955. The name sounds strange until you know that Oshkosh Trunk factory that made high-class steamer trunks and other luggage for travellers from 1898 to 1962 was located on High Avenue. Apparently it was really classy stuff with stores in New York, Paris and London. When we moved to town, that factory was still standing, but soon fell to the wrecking ball to make way for more college buildings.
The other five of the seven taverns were in a two-block area of Wisconsin Street just north of the Fox River. All of these have been torn down also. This two block area was known as the “strip” when the legal age for drinking in Wisconsin was lower than 21.
Passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971lowered the voting age in the United States to 18. Wisconsin lawmakers made 18 the age of majority, meaning the drinking age dropped from 21 to 18. In 1983, Wisconsin raised the drinking age to 19. However in the summer of 1984 President Reagan signed a law requiring states to conform to a national drinking age of 21 by October 1, 1986 or face losing 5 percent of their highway allocation (10 percent by 1987). On September 1986 Wisconsin raised its minimum drinking age to 21.
In those years when the drinking age was 18 and then 19, the five old bars on “the strip” were crowded with students. Bouncers would permit only a certain number from entering, so it was common to see long lines of students waiting to get into their favorite tavern. We soon learned to avoid driving on Wisconsin Street at night in order to avoid running over a student inattentively crossing the street to get to a tavern.
Here is a list of those five bars, and if you were a UWO student in the 1970s to the mid 1980s you may have been one of those in line, ID card in hand to gain entrance. I’m only listing the taverns’ names during the “strip” era.
100 Wisconsin Street, My Brother’s Place (yes, it picked up the name of the one that had already been demolished.)
117 Wisconsin Street, Titan Tap
120 Wisconsin Street, Andy’s Library
122 Wisconsin Street, Tosh’s
201 Wisconsin Street Butch,’s
Tosh’s was the number one spot on St. Patrick’s Day. Of course the beer was tinted green. Supposedly Johnny Carson said on The Tonight Show, “If you can’t go to Ireland to celebrate St. Patrick Day, you can go to Tosh’s in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.” Or so Larry Spanbauer’s book Oshkosh Neighborhood Taverns and the People Who Ran Them says. All of these were razed by 2001. Then, the bridge over the Fox River was rebuilt and what was left of the factories along the river was torn down. Now there is Steiger Park on the northwest side of the river and strip malls with restaurants and a bank on the east side.
It wasn’t the University’s presence that made these taverns popular originally. It was the high number of factories along the river. In addition to Oshkosh Trunk and Oshkosh Diamond Match Company, there was also Cook and Brown, Radford Company (lumber), Universal Foundry and Triangle Manufacturing. When these factories closed or moved and when the University expanded east to Wisconsin Street, so too did these taverns. Now there are only three and Kelly’s is the oldest (1974).
Kelly’s is not only popular with UW Oshkosh students, but also with visitors to the Experimental Aircraft Association that has its headquarters and museum at Whitman Field in Oshkosh and its annual one-week convention in late July. Thousands of visitors come to Oshkosh for this event making Whitman the world’s busiest airport for one week. The University rents out its 10-story Gruenhagan dormitory to EAA visitors. That makes Kelly’s a popular spot. They even put up a beer tent.
But back to our visit to Kelly’s. Except for Madison, the student bartender, and Kelly’s janitor we had the place to ourselves. Kelly’s doesn’t look like the old taverns. It’s only one story and one large room. The bar with about 20 stools is opposite the entrance. It is shaped like a question mark (?). The loop is to the right. The pool table, of course there is one, is to the right of the bar. There are also two dart machines, three “spin to win” machines and three TVs. The back bar is red brick with glass shelves. A big shelf holds the inexpensive booze. And a small shelf holds the “better” booze: Black Label Scotch, Rebel Yell, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Gray Goose Vodka, Jameson Whiskey and Tanqueray Gin. Well, maybe some student can afford the higher price stuff. After talking gymnastics’ with Madison, we listened to “the Cleaner” tell us about his job. He likes it. (I was tempted to ask him to drop in at my house and do the kitchen floor.) Cleaning up after sloppy winter days is the hardest, he said.
The rest rooms are small, but have at least a sink in each one, rather than the sink standing outside the restrooms. Elaine snapped a picture of a sign in the women’s restroom “Employees have the right to cut in line.” Marv checked the men’s restroom. It had a Health Center on the wall with “Genie Delight” assorted surprises for fifty cents. “Trojan Pleasure Packs” for one dollar. Marv sends this cautionary note: “Remember Troy had its walls breached and lost the war.” Lastly a “Treasure Chest” with mixed adult novelties. Marvin hopes this assortment in an on-site Health Center brings some comfort to parents who might otherwise worry about their kids.
Outdoor on the north side of Kelly’s is a large outdoor drinking patio. This space is very popular with the EAA crowd. It’s also a place for welcome and farewell parties with the University students. But it was time to move on to a place that served more food than popcorn.