Traveling Beer Gardens: Oshkosh Through the Lens of Milwaukee County Parks

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This is one of a series of columns that applies observations from other places to life in Oshkosh.

After we moved to Oshkosh from Lake Mills, Wisconsin in 2007, my wife and I agreed that there was something in particular that we missed. On the south shore of beautiful Rock Lake in this small town a half hour east of Madison lies Hering’s Sand Bar, a somewhat divey—like many good beach joints are—but great place to grab a snack or drink while at the large and well-maintained Sandy Beach, or to enjoy a meal on the deck overlooking the sand and water. It also has legendary (at least for our crew) karaoke, which we still try to take over every once in a while when we’re in the area.

Living adjacent to Menominee Park (as we normally do), we’ve often mentioned that having something like the Sand Bar near the beach there would be the cherry on top of an outstanding local amenity, the park being one of our very favorite things about Oshkosh. I don’t foresee this ever happening, but the return of something similar, like the popular tiki bar that used to be at the site of the former Pioneer Inn (so we hear), may be more realistic.

After recently experiencing the concept for first time in Milwaukee, I have learned about something that could be even more of a boon for Oshkosh anyway.

I’m referring to the beer gardens sponsored by the Milwaukee County Parks Department.

My family and I were showing my in-laws some of our favorite places in Milwaukee so far, and we decided that after a walk around Lake Park we would check out the traveling beer garden at Juneau Park, which is located on the east side of downtown on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day and we were parched after hiking around Lake Park and Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park before that.

We found a great spot under some big, old trees, which featured a nice view of the lake and great vantage point for taking in the band, the excellent Well Known Strangers; I didn’t know them by name, but instantly recognized their ’90s-inflected song “Splinter” from its frequent play on Radio Milwaukee.

There was a nice crowd, with some people playing bags on the side, the tables filled with people chatting and playing cards, and a number intently watching the band. The beverages in the souvenir pints, filled from kegs housed in Sprecher’s now-famous refurbished fire trucks, hit the spot. It was simply a very pleasant way to spend a couple hours.

The scene at a recent Juneau Park beer garden

Afterwards I contacted Milwaukee County Parks and had a chance to speak with Joe Mrozinski, Assistant Chief of Business Development. From him I learned that Juneau is one of thirteen county parks (out of a total of 158) that host beer gardens during the May-September season. This has been happening every year since 2012, with the traveling version being launched in 2014. There are permanent ones at some county parks and several other types of beer gardens that are part of this innovative program.

Sprecher Brewing sponsors the traveling gardens, supplying the equipment—including the fire trucks, garden tables and chairs, and bar sections— and they handle moving the set-up, all at no charge, as part of a unique partnership. Sprecher also makes annual contributions of $32,000 to Milwaukee County Parks to fund improvements in the parks that host the gardens. The brewery and county want to “leave the park better than when we started,” said Mrozinski, so these funds are used to do things like buy new benches, plant trees, replace old lighting with energy efficient systems, resurface parking areas, and paint shelters.

The gardens are staffed by employees of Milwaukee County Parks, from twelve days to a month, depending upon the park. After purchasing the beer and soda from Sprecher, Parks also retains 100% of the revenue. “The program is a substantial income generator for the county,” said Mrozinski. “We’re always looking for creative ways to make money for our parks and lessen the tax levy, and this is a great example.”

The revenue is an important positive externality, said Mrozinski. The overall purpose of the beer gardens is to bring people from the community together, to enjoy the parks, spend time with their family and friends, and get to know neighbors in the fresh air. Further, “a busy park is a safe park,” he said, adding that he has lots of stories about how such goals are being met.

One is that of a call he got from an older lady during the first year of the beer gardens. Through her tears of gratitude she told Mrozinski that she was “so grateful that the garden went to her neighborhood park because every year her family has a reunion, and the same people came every year. When they heard about the beer garden, they planned the reunion around the beer garden and held it there. All kinds of new people came and she said it really brought the family together.” Another called to say that he had been neighbors with a person for ten years but hadn’t talked to him until they met at the beer garden.

Asked whether there was opposition to the program based upon alcohol being involved or for other reasons, Mrozinski replied, “There has been a complete shift in public opinion. When it was first proposed in 2011, there was a lot of concern expressed by the public about drunkenness and behavior problems in the parks and neighborhoods that would result, but the opposite has happened. There have actually been fewer incidents.” Again, a busy park is safe park. He pointed to Estabrook Park’s permanent beer garden, which proclaims itself America’s first public beer garden since prohibition, as a prime example. According to him, prior to the establishment of the Estabrook beer garden, disturbances and police calls to the park were common, but now “they don’t happen at all.”

We recently visited Estabrook on a Friday afternoon to celebrate our daughters’ completion of the first week of school. This one is aligned with Hofbräu House of Munich, Germany, and features its beer along with German sausages and pretzels. Large blue and white Hofbräu flags are displayed along Estabrook Parkway and at the entrance on E. Capitol, indicative of how important to the identity of the park this garden has become. Whether it’s the revenue from the beer garden or its location in Shorewood or some combination, Estabrook is an attractive and well-maintained park. The disc golf baskets even have crisp yellow flags on top. Swanky. I’ll be back to play the course and have some German lager afterwards. The park has beautiful natural features as well, being part of the Milwaukee River Greenway and featuring a nice waterfall directly below the beer garden, where the river crashes a few feet over the edge of an immense chunk of limestone.

The author’s family enjoying the Estabrook Beer Garden

In a highly segregated county, aside from my multicultural crew, it seemed to be only white people enjoying both of the gardens when we were there. I am drawing only upon two brief snapshots, though, so I asked Mrozinski about issues of racial composition at the beer gardens. “The Parks Department, including our beer gardens, are open, accessible and welcoming to all,” he said.  “The Traveling Beer Garden has been in parks from the NW portion of the county, to the NE portion, to the SE to the SW and dozens of parks in between. Every year when we look at moving the beer gardens to different locations, we look at equity and access throughout our park system.”

Whether this means that people from diverse groups are actually hanging out together at the gardens is a different story, of course, but in any case they have proven to be very popular overall. “My least favorite day is the day after the traveling beer garden schedule comes out and I get all these calls,” said Mrozinski. “Not because they’re unhappy because the garden is coming to their neighborhood park, but because it’s not coming.”

Mrozinski regularly fields calls from reporters from through the U.S. and Canada who are curious about this program, which to his knowledge is unique and has not really been replicated. He notes that Wisconsin’s liquor laws and the fact that Milwaukee County Parks is the sole entity responsible for obtaining the licenses and overseeing the program has made it possible.

THE TAKE-HOME

Between the City of Oshkosh and Winnebago County, the Oshkosh area has a number of great parks that could make for excellent hosts to beer gardens.

Menominee, South, and County parks would be three obvious choices, with several attractive sites within each. Under the large, old trees near the two shelters across from the amusements in Menominee Park might be a nice spot, while I could envision a garden near the beach, underneath the pines on the southwest side of the lagoon near the little train tracks, or at the base of Ames Point, too. South Park is currently being renovated and promises to be even better when complete. It works well as a site for similar events, such as the Wednesday Farmers’ Market and Food Truck Fridays. As I’ve written about previously, County Park has really become a gem and contains numerous sites that would seem to work well. The pairing of a beer garden with the disc golf course at County Park might be particularly fruitful, as it has been at Estabrook.

Other nice possibilities amongst those operated by the City of Oshkosh would be Abbey, Carl and William Steiger parks, Fugleberg, Rainbow, Rochlin, Stevens, and Westhaven Circle parks.

A rotation of traveling beer gardens that visit a portion of these parks each year would keep things fresh and expose local people to parks in parts of town they don’t typically visit, while giving neighbors a vital third place within which to congregate. Organizers would be wise to follow Milwaukee Parks’s lead and be thoughtful in choosing the garden sites, to spread the joy around and be as welcoming to all groups as possible. Remembering the fallacy of physical determinism, though, good design will need to be accompanied by active outreach and inclusion so the program truly builds community.

As for the beer, alcohol is certainly allowed in the parks and can be sold with a permit, so this shouldn’t be an obstacle. And with the launching of Highholder Beer—Oshkosh’s only nanobrewery—earlier this year, Oshkosh has four breweries for the first time since 1894, according to local beer expert Lee Reiherzer. Fox River Brewing is the oldest of the bunch, having started operations in 1995. It typically has around thirteen of its brews on tap at its restaurant and tap house along Oshkosh’s waterfront. Bare Bones Brewery came along in 2015 and is already well-known for its creative beers and support of local community groups and activities. Both are located along with the Wiowash Trail, with Bare Bones in particular embracing its connection to the trail and cyclists. Finally, Fifth Ward Brewing will soon celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of its taphouse on the up-and-coming South Side, where it quickly established itself as the young, hip local brewery in town.

The options for both parks and breweries seem robust enough for something like this to work in Oshkosh. And if I know Oshkosh people, this program would be popular. If successful, not only would it help build community, but the new revenue could lead to improvements in existing parks and perhaps even park expansion or the creation of new ones in a city with a noted deficiency in park acreage. It may take some doing to address the legalities of the permitting and so forth, and if County Park were included, it would require collaboration between the parks departments for the city and county, as well as one or more local breweries, to design an Oshkosh version of the traveling beer garden program. Good thing Oshkosh is the size and kind of city in which such things get figured out.

I look forward to shouting a hearty “Prosit!” over some local brew while sitting in the shade of an Oshkosh park sometime in the near future, and when I do, I hope you’ll be there, too.

 

Photos:

Featured image – Milwaukee County Parks (https://www.mkebeergardens.com/traveling/)

Juneau Park beer garden – Milwaukee Independent (http://www.milwaukeeindependent.com/curated/juneau-park-taps-the-keg-to-open-its-traveling-beer-garden/)

Estabrook Park beer garden – the author

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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