It’s not yet noon and Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings are standing behind their 78-year-old bar inside Oblio’s Lounge in Oshkosh. The tavern is closed and the lights are off, but the room is flooded with sunlight that streams through large windows facing Main Street. Schultz and Cummings are preparing for the day ahead, just as they have countless mornings since 1979. Both are smiling. Schultz is reminiscing. He’s telling how Cummings talked him into getting into the bar business 35 years ago.
“He’s the one that really wanted the bar,” Schultz says pointing a thumb towards Cummings. “We were both really close to graduating from college and he goes to me, ‘Come on, two years. Just give me a two-year promise. If you don’t like it after that, I’ll buy you out.’ Well we doubled the previous guy’s business that first year. The rest is kind of history.”
But that’s just one part of the story of this place. The history of the bar at 434 N. Main spans three centuries and tells the tale of American beer in microcosm. In this respect, there’s perhaps no other tavern in Wisconsin that’s quite the equal of Oblio’s. Over the years, the location has been home to a tied-house saloon, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, a college beer-joint and, most recently, the spot where Oshkosh was introduced to craft beer.
The building that is home to Oblio’s was built in 1884 in the wake of the last of Oshkosh’s great fires. It was designed by noted architect William Waters; his take on the Queen Anne style. The two-story, red-brick edifice in the heart of the thriving city was the perfect setting for a beer hall.
The first saloon to inhabit the space was that of Charles Maulick. He established the Schlitz Beer Hall there shortly after construction was complete. Maulick’s ties to Schlitz Brewing developed rapidly. He became the sole agent and bottler of Schlitz beer in Oshkosh. In 1886, the Milwaukee brewery purchased the building. It became one of Oshkosh’s first tied houses, a saloon owned by a brewery where only the beers of the parent company were allowed to be served.
Maulick ran the Schlitz Beer Hall as an upscale saloon, but by the time of his departure in 1898, the atmosphere there had begun to degrade. A man had drunk himself to death at the bar inspiring local Prohibitionists to cite the saloon as an example why liquor should be outlawed. In 1908, the saloon – then known as The Annex Sample Room – nearly had its license revoked thanks to the boisterous habits of its patrons. They liked to gather at the bar’s Main St. entrance to hurl taunts and insults at police and other passers by. It had become that kind of place.
National Prohibition arrived in 1920, but it seemed to bypass The Annex. At least temporarily. Though it was now known as the Annex Soft Drink Parlor, the drinks poured there were often anything but soft. Owner Al Steuck thumbed his nose at the regressive law. He paid a price for his defiance. Steuck was arrested and charged with five counts of selling intoxicating liquor. He pled guilty and served three-months in jail. The incident cast a pall over The Annex and would lead to the barroom going dark in 1927.
In 1936, three years after the repeal of Prohibition, the tavern began anew. The new owner was a Greek immigrant named John Konstantine Kuchubas. His photograph still hangs on a wall across from the main bar at Oblio’s. Kuchubas’ vision for the tavern was one that today’s patrons of Oblio’s would find agreeable. It became the 1930s version of a craft-beer bar with Kuchubas pouring the premium beers of his era. Kuchubas’ influence can still be seen. Most prominent are the art-deco back bar and bar that Cummings and Schultz have preserved. Built by Oshkosh’s Robert Brand & Sons in 1936, the bar was delivered to the tavern by horse drawn wagon.
After Kuchubas’ retirement in 1955, the tavern transitioned again. Large breweries had come to dominate the American beer landscape. The beer served in the series of bars that occupied the space over the next 25 years reflected the blanding of America’s brews. When Cummings and Schultz took over on July 31, 1979, that didn’t change. At least, not right away.
But by the late 1980s a new movement was afoot in the beer world. It was based around something called microbrew. Cummings and Schultz were early adopters. Oblio’s became the first bar in Oshkosh to make a place for the new beer. “There was a crowd here that liked these beers,” says Cummings. “We had the luxury of trying different beers to see what would sell. That was the beginning of us expanding our beer line-up.” At one point, they even looked into installing a brewery on premise. But the availability of quality equipment was lacking, so the idea was nixed. “We don’t like doing things half-assed,” Schultz says.
Instead, they settled on bringing in a rotating selection of American microbrews. “At the time, there were a lot of microbrewers making one or two good beers,” Cummings says. “We thought, what if we bring in the best of these micros instead.” It became their model for the future. The four-handle tap box was converted to accommodate 13 beer lines. It would later expand to 24 and then again to the current 27 taps.
The new beers were given a fitting backdrop. Cummings and Schultz began renovating the space, reviving the original luster of the Schlitz Beer Hall. “We began to realize that we had a historic building and we started to invest in it,” Cummings says.
Today, the tavern is among the most historically significant public spaces in the city. That contrast between the old and the new is part of what makes Oblio’s utterly unique. It’s a tavern imbued with the character of Oshkosh, both past and present.
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com