Trail’s End: Chili Dogs!!

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Our usual trail rides are on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. We choose those days for a couple of reasons. One, the owner’s usually working then and can answer our questions and second, the crowd’s not so big and the noise level is lower. We used to go out sometimes on a Monday, but learned some places aren’t opened on that day. However, it was Thursday April 7, National Beer Day. We had just come from Oblio’s where Jim Draeger of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Lee Reiherzer had spoken about Prohibition and the history of Oblio’s.

The last time we had been to Trail’s End was the night of our first ever rides, August of 2009. We had begun our adventure at Oblio’s on that day also. That time we ate hot dogs, sang and danced to songs on the jukebox. We were novices at this blog stuff and never asked to meet the owner or find out the history of the place.

And again this time the owner was not there. But we had learned a lot about old Oshkosh taverns since we were novices in the summer of 2009. We stared at the old back bar and agreed it looked like a Robert Brand Company bar. The Robert Brand Company would “woodburn” their trade mark on the front of the cash drawers. But those drawers haven’t stood up to the years of operation. In the Trail’s End back bar, the drawer itself is missing. Only a few decks of playing cards and other stuff was tucked in the space where the cash drawer had been.

We had been told by Jim Draeger that taverns before Prohibition did not have bar stools. Instead there was a brass foot rail along the bar that a patron could use as a foot rest. Trail’s End still has its brass rail. Indeed according to Larry Spanbauer’s book Oshkosh Neighborhood Taverns and the People Who Ran Them, Trail’s End Tavern at 500 Merritt opened in 1887 as a boarding house and tavern. It was a “frequent stop” for passengers waiting to board the trail as the Chicago Northwestern railroad station was just across the tracks from the tavern. Rail passenger service is long gone from Oshkosh, but the tracks remain for Canadian National freight trains. Making use of its popularity to rail passengers the name of the tavern was Northwestern Sample Room (1902-1913) and Northwestern Buffet (1914-1920).

It was one of the few taverns that closed during the decade of Prohibition. It reopened in 1933 and took the name Trail’s End. Even though new owners came and went, it remained Trail’s End. The popularity of its “chili dogs” dates back probably to 1985 says Spanbauer.

Since we were here for supper, we chose a table near the jukebox and ordered. Marvin and I drank Spotted Cow and Elaine drank a Leinenkugle Red Pale Ale. Gary and Tom had water. Most important were the hot dogs we had. Tom had two with just catsup and mustard. Marv had one with “the works.” Gary and Elaine ordered three with “the works” and I had one with just the chili meat sauce. The works includes raw onions and the chili meat sauce. The waitress gave us lots of napkins and also produced a bunch of photos of the place from “back in the day.” The lack of bar stools and the brass rail are prominent in these pictures. And so is the back bar−the same as always minus the rack of snacks and ads.

Like most of the taverns built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rest rooms are tiny, containing only a toilet (and urinal for men). Sinks were outside of the rest rooms. You can see that today in many old taverns in Oshkosh including Trail’s End.

Marvin and Gary looked for a Merle Haggard song on the juke box (it’s not a Touch Tune machine), but failed to find one. Since Haggard had just died, Gary thought hearing one of his songs would be appropriate, but that was not to be.

We talked about basketball—that seems to be our favorite topic. Ripon college sports banquet was a few days previous and Elaine said it was a happy event as the women’s team had done so well this year, and the men’s team also.

We also talked about the April 5 election just two days previous. It was the fist one in 15 years in which I didn’t work at the polls. But Gary and Elaine worked the early shift in the Town of Omro. Lots of voters because of the Presidential Primary.

This ends our trail rides with just the four of us. Don and Judy are leaving Florida soon and the “gang” will be back together again. We are looking forward to visiting the new brewery just northwest of the city.

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About Author

Frankie Mengeling

Frankie Mengeling taught English at Oshkosh North High School and Lourdes High School and was co-director of the Fox Valley Writing Project at UWO. She lives on the Oshkosh’s only hill, with her husband Marvin, son Tom and cat Katrina. The blog www.ridingthebeertrail.wordpress.com began in the summer of 2009 after the three couple beer trail began.

5 Comments

  1. Michelle Benton on

    My Great Grandparents owned that bar during the depression. It was open and fully stocked by Mr. Al Capone. The chili dogs have been popular along time before the 1980’s. If you want the real story about the Trails End Tavern, please feel free to contact me as I want the history to be told correctly.

    Thanks

    • I would love to hear more about the Trails End. I grew up on Winnebago Avenue back in the 1960s, and the chili dogs were a favorite. I no longer live in Oshkosh, but oftentimes when my husband and I return to Oshkosh to visit family, we will stop by and pick up some chili dogs.

    • Frankie Mengeling
      Frankie Mengeling on

      Wow! Thank you Michelle! I’ll tell the beer trail folks about this and will get back to you, but not for a few weeks. Okay?

      • I also grew up in Oshkosh and lived on Monroe Street. A favorite memory of mine is my family stopping by Trails End in the early 60s and my Dad getting a bag of those famous chili dogs for supper…I remember wooden booths being in there that had the high backs on them. My brothers and I still stop there on occasion for a chili dog or two.

    • Mary Holdren on

      Are your great grandparents the Vandenburgs? They were my great uncle and aunt. I grew up there in the 60’s. It was then owned by the Phillips. Daughter of the Vandenbugs. My parents met at Vans when my mother was working there in 1940. Lots of great stories and memories.

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