Monday, February 26, 2007

Top o' the Mornin' Oshkosh

St. Patrick's Day will be here sooner than a leprechaun's twinkle o' the eye, March 17, which just happens to be on a Saturday this year. UWO recesses on Friday March 16 for spring break. Let your imagination take it from there.

Whoa! Wait a minute! Don't connect UWO with past disturbances in Oshkosh on St. Patrick's Day.

I have done my homework on this and can say up front that;
  • Arrests on this day in the past have been typically 1/2 -out of town non-students, 1/4 -city residents, and 1/4 -(or less) UWO students.
  • The university may have acted as a focal point (I hate the word magnet) for young adults seeking to be around other young adults.

The UWO students have a right to 'youthful exuberance'. That locals and out-of-towners joined them and at times took it beyond the legal limits of exuberance, surely can't be blamed on the university. Thanks. Now, where did I set that bottle of Guinness?

Oshkosh did have that reputation for imbibing on March 17 some years. There's no question about that. Wisconsin has that reputation. Other people come to Wisconsin to have an excuse to drink. (Ask someone from Iowa or Illinois and they will tell you that.) Wisconsinites drink so they have an excuse to do other things!

Back in the '60's Stevens Point had a corner on this. The students commandeered a beer truck one day. The driver's bosses told the gendarmes in short order to let the students have the beer in order to save the truck. At least that's the way I remember it. The end result was some very cheap advertising and lots of good will for the beer company. (Don't get any ideas kids!) Oshkosh stole that title from Stevens Point in the '70's. The early 1960's gave Lake Geneva notoriety due to the number of Chicagoans who came across to drink there. The lure: a lower drinking age. That peaked when the governor called out the National Guard to patrol Lake Geneva on a July 4th weekend. I remember it well. I watched the footage on the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite and hoped it would still be as exciting a few years later after I had my driver's license and was out of high school. (It wasn't.) Sheboygan held the 'party' connotation for several years with it's Bratwurst Festival with beer stands every half a block and people passing out on blankets along the Lake Michigan shoreline. That party had no choice but to cool down. The Stoughton Syttende de Mai (May 17 Norwegian Independence Day) celebration reached the point of being an excuse to drink sometime in the '60's and early '70's. They toned down the emphasis on alcohol and it is a great family style festival to this day. The La Crosse Octoberfest continues to be a drinking party. How about Halloween on State St. in Madison, not to mention the springtime Miffland Block Party?

Highlights from the Past

Previous to 1700 the English Protestants who were murdering native Americans refused to allow Roman Catholics into New England and routinely murdered entire settlements of them, men, women, and children. No Catholic blood was to mix with the English, Irish or otherwise. After 1700 they eased up on this practice, realizing that the country was big enough for all, but more likely came to the conclusion that they couldn't bring in slaves fast enough and needed a cheap labor pool.

Large numbers of Irish were in cities such as Chicago circa 1900. They had a rough time. Newspaper Want Ads of the day routinely were tagged: Irish need not apply.

The Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh) of Monday March 18, 1901 had this headline on page 1: "No Disorder Reported on St. Patrick's Day." It detailed that no drunken arrests occurred on Sunday the 17th implying that this behavior happened in other years.

A Century Ago

The Daily Northwestern of Monday March 18, 1907 had a headline: "Many Wear the Green." The sub-headline: "Patron Saint of Ireland is Honored in a Quiet Way." It noted that the 17th was a "rather cold, raw day", "Main Street was crowded with people during the afternoon and early evening." "Many wore rosettes or streamers of green ribbon, or else a tiny shamrock out of respect to the good saint of Ireland." It also noted that the wearin' of the green was not limited to folks of Irish descent.

"Sermon On St. Patrick" was another headline with "Work of Irish Saint Is Praised" as the sub-headline. Rev. J. W. Greenwood, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, "regarded the work of St. Patrick as fully as great as that of any other religious worker of the early Christian days." He described "the early life of the boy, his kidnapping by pirates, his studies for the priesthood in Paris, and his return to Ireland to preach the gospel to all." "St. Patrick, he said, although not dying a martyr's death, lived the martyr's life, enduring privation and persecution for the sake of the call."

Next to that article was a large block ad which proclaimed: "Drink BEER". "Doctor's declare that the great prevalence of typhoid fever in the city at present is due to impure water. We therefore recommend you to drink beer. Our beer is absolutely pure, healthful, and wholesome." Oshkosh Brewing Co., Office No. 31 Doty Street. Tel. No. 11.


Articles in The Northwestern and it's competitor The Paper told of Wisconsin St. being closed from about 4-7pm on March 17. Young people were throwing snowballs, cans, and bottles at motorists and broken glass was a threat to tires. Zero to four arrests were reported.


Saturday March 16, one arrest, four hurt. Police called to Tosh's, 122 Wisconsin, Mar's Restaurant, 150 Wisconsin, Mr. Lucky's, 539 Pearl, and Dino's Titan, 667 N. Main.

The Monday, March 18, Northwestern reported a litany of weekend antics: 19 arrests, 5 policemen injured, 4 squad cars damaged, and a Courthouse window broken. Arrests were made on Wisconsin Street, the crowd followed the squad carrying the arrestees' back to the courthouse and demanded they be released. Cops were heckled and pelted with firecrackers, bottles, cans, and snow and mud balls The taverns on Wisconsin St., with police assistance, closed around 10pm Saturday night. One tavern on Main St. closed for the weekend around 3pm Sunday afternoon citing 'diminishing returns' due to wear and tear. They had sold 10 cases of liquor, 100 cases cans, and 200 half barrels. Many tavern owners were afraid to open Sunday. One arrest was at The Dilemma, 25 N. Main - a nude man dancing on the bar. An ambulance was called to the dorms. They couldn't get to the patient and had to call police for backup. The police had to move partiers who had passed out in the hallway so the ambulance crew could get the stretcher through. That the floor was sticky and slippery with beer, paper cups and cans didn't help. Mercy Hospital Emergency Room recorded their busiest night ever!

1975... 27 arrests but split up around town. Much quieter than '74. A new law had been passed outlawing drinking off premises (on sidewalks).

1976... March 17th was a Wednesday, a yawner.

1977... The 17th was a Thursday, snow and ice balls and few arrests.

1978... March 17th was on a Friday. The weather was nice and there were 15 arrests.


"Wildest in Five Years" was The Northwestern's headline. The 17th was Saturday with a heavy concentration of revelers in the area of Irving and Main St. Out of the weekends' 38 arrests, 9 were students at the university.


March 17th fell on a Monday. The party began on Friday the 14th. The drinking age was still at age 18. 50 were arrested Friday night. By Monday morning that number had risen to 350 with one more night to go. Someone managed to break a window at Scott Hall. The crowd cheered. About thirty windows later the damage ceased.

On Tuesday March 18 The Northwestern reported that over 400 people had been arrested! City Manager Wm. Frueh suggested the city work with the university to allow for spring break over March 17th in the future.

The Milwaukee Journal of Monday March 17th had a page one story on Oshkosh which was a bit different than The Northwestern. They said that there were 343 arrests and counting. One witness told of a woman with two children being arrested for jaywalking when she stepped into the street to retrieve her child's toy. The woman pleaded with the police to wait to take her to the station until she could find someone to care for her kids. By the way, 93 of those 343 arrests were for jaywalking. The Oshkosh Chief of Police was quoted as saying he had no pity at all for anyone who was arrested.

The St. Pat's holiday quieted down after that year.

I welcome readers responses and stories about the various years. Most of the people I interviewed could remember events but couldn't associate them with a given year. Maybe it was the green beer?

The best way to end a St. Patrick's party is to hire a Bagpiper. Ever heard one of those indoors? Oshkosh has one. You can watch and listen to him at this link. Who is he? Where can he be found? This guy's got a future.

Circa 1975-77 around St. Patrick's day the Tonight Show's Johnny Carson said that there was only two places in the world to celebrate it: Dublin, Ireland and Oshkosh! Would anyone know the year and the date (or have a tape)?


Sources: Unless otherwise noted I used the Oshkosh Northwestern which can be found on microfilm at the Oshkosh Public Library.


gerry said...

Hey! your post is real good. You have actually made a note of all that has happened over the years on St. Patrick's Day...that serves the purpose of an interesting read indeed. The only thing I see common in most years is the drinking factor. Anyways, do drop by my humble blog to check out some real cool stuff wholly commemorated in the memory of the Irish Saint.

Anonymous said...

I lived in N. Scott Hall
during the 1980 St. Patricks day
mayhem. At bar time most students
headed back to campus but the
out of towners had no where to go so they just hung out in the street
in front of N.Scott. I remeber
watching from my window as windows were broken, a car turned over,
street light pole pulled down. The police came with shields and clubs
and walked in lines 4 across. Rumor
has it that the Chancellors wife was arrested when she came out to see what the trouble was. Needless
to say, having Spring break moved
to cover that Holiday is a good idea.