History of Downtown Oshkosh

History of Downtown Oshkosh


The Downtown environment is rich in cultural history. We invite you to explore the various viewpoints of the Downtown. In Part 1 we have recognition from a young local historian, followed by history through old snapshots in Part 2. Part 3 offers more interesting stories and facts pertaining to our historical significance and development, while Part 4 ends with local establishments who hold historical significance in the Downtown area. Enjoy! 

**If you are looking for more historical information or would like to take a walking tour please visit: http://historicoshkosh.org/ 


Part 1: A Local Historian’s View

At first, there was no Oshkosh - it was two cities: the north side of the river was Athens and the South side was Brooklyn. Eventually, they voted on a merger, and became collectively known as Oshkosh, named after the Native American Chief, Chief Oshkosh.Chief Oshkosh Interestingly enough, for many years, there was a brewery in the city's honor: Chief Oshkosh Brewery.

The real history of Main Street surrounds The Old Trolley, The Paine, The Athenian, and The Opera House. At one time both an above and underground Main Street existed. In fact, where the Winnebago Peace and Justice Center was located is one of the remaining above ground accessible areas of it.

The Opera House was the focus of social life, and it's not entirely certain, but as legend has it secret underground tunnels built by and for gangsters connected the Opera House and the Athenian Hotel, located where the New Moon now stands. The Athenian Hotel historically housed some of the nation’s biggest mucks in that day. Old statesmen and gangsters alike stayed there, perhaps they were conspiring?

The underground tunnels still exist and if you go into the basement at the Grand Opera House, you can still partially follow them. They're dark and blocked off, most of them crumbled, but they are one of the most interesting parts of Main Street history.

Main Street as we think of it, from the bridge to the Parkway intersection was originally laid out according to the same grid, hence the old murals still on the sides of buildings, the antique inlays and architecture you'll find, and why some of the buildings seem to look like they're wedged out into angled cross-streets, like the New Moon building. It began as cobblestone, then changed to house the trolley and was finally paved for automobiles.

*Map of the city of Oshkosh from 1858.

1858 Map

City Streetcars, more commonly known as trolleys ran in downtown Oshkosh from July 19th 1897, to May 31st, of 1930. In the 1920’s streetcars were deemed to expensive to continue to run and were soon phased out by motor busses.

A brief transit history can be found here.

Oshkosh streets and sidewalks were originally "paved" in wood. The buildings were wooden, and milling was a primary industry. Oshkosh experienced several large fires over the years, much like the Kenosha and Chicago Fires.

*Reference used:  Local Historian, Tamara Jones.
*Reference used: http://wisconsin.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/OSH:OSH_VOY162435



Part 2: Snapshots of History-Oshkosh 100 Years Ago


John H. Whitney resided in Oshkosh for only two years, from 1912 to 1914. A few years later he returned to Oshkosh on his motorcycle along with a panoramic camera. Whitney took over 130 images, most of them from Oshkosh scenes, and some of which highlight our old Downtown environment.

Nearly 100 years later the Oshkosh Public Museum was able to purchase these images. This impressive collection of photographs not only captures what the buildings, streets, houses, and industries were like in Oshkosh, but also gives the sensation of what life was like at the turn of the 20th century.

The following images were originally taken by John H. Whitney. These images are from Snapshots of History: Oshkosh 100 Years Ago. Call Number: 977.565 08235. No other information is given; this book can be found at the Oshkosh Public Library.

Cook & Brown Lime Company
^COOK & BROWN LIME COMPANY – 1915 (North Shore of the Fox River)

Buckstaff-Edwards Company
^BUCKSTAFF-EDWARDS COMPANY – 1915 (South Main Street)

 Riverside Park
^RIVERSIDE PARK – 1915 (Main Street bridge looking to the northeast)

 Grand Opera House & Monument Square
^GRAND OPERA HOUSE & MONUMENT SQUARE – 1915 (Corner of High & Market)

Athearn Hotel & Monument Square
^ATHEARN HOTEL & MONUMENT SQUARE – 1915 (Corner of High & Division)

Main St. at High and Waugoo 
^MAIN STREET AT HIGH AND WAUGOO – 1915 (Looking North & West)


Main St. at Algoma and Washington

 Oshkosh Public Library

 Interior of the Old National Bank

Interior of a Men's Clothing Store
(Suspected to be located on North Main Street)



Part 3: Points of Local Historical Significance

History of the Arts – Theater

The City of Oshkosh and the Downtown area use to host an array of cultured art offerings. Although today’s community can still find a diverse collection of artistic offerings in the Downtown environment, we invite you to read about the past.

Tracking the history of movie theaters in Oshkosh is not an easy task. The following list of historical theaters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin can be found in A History of the City of Oshkosh: The Early Years, Volume 3. The years the theaters are first mentioned in the city directory are listed in parentheses. Theaters also changed their names frequently.

Bijou (1908) and Majextic (1912) – Could have been the first place in Oshkosh to show movies. It was gone by 1928, and is now the former Race Office Supply building at 439 North Main Street.

Cinema (1974) – The only original commercial movie theater left in Oshkosh. Currently located at 340 South Koeller Street.

Colonial (1912) – Gone by 1919, it was listed at 153 North Main Street.

Family Theater (1916) – Located at 904 Oregon Street, it only lasted one or two years.

Fay (1912) & Mode (1940) – On the northwest corner of 12th and Oregon streets, next to Red’s Pizza at 1123 Oregon Street. It was not used as a theater between 1918 and 1940, and was closed by 1958.

Fisher (1928), Strand (1930), Raulf (1953), and Plaza (1968) – This popular movie theater was the largest in Oshkosh, but closed in 1979. It is now home to Mainview Apartments at 530 North Main Street.

44 Outdoor (1949) – Located where aviation plaza is presently.

Grand Opera House – Although it has longer history as a true theater, movies were shown there from the late 1940’s to 1970. Another owner was rumored to have shown adult films there from 1974 to 1979.

Lyric (1912) – Originally listed at 132 Main Street.

Orpheum (1916) and Oshkosh – Former patrons say this theater was the fanciest of them all. Previously, located where Kitz and Pfeil True Value Hardware stands today, 427 North Main Street.

Royal (1912) – Originally Listed at 183 Main Street.

Star (1910) – Out of business by the mid 1950’s.

Superba (1910), Rex (1912), New People’s (1914), Palace (1919), Time (1940) – The last Downtown movie theater at 445 North Main Street.

John Hicks
Historical Monuments

One of the oldest historical monuments in the city of Oshkosh is the Soldier’s Monument located in Monument/Opera House Square, near the Grand Opera House. This imposing group of three bronze figures, representing the height of action in battle during the civil war, was given to the city by John Hicks. (Hicks also donated the original bronze pair of lions that grace the front steps to the public library.) It was given in memory of his father who was killed in the battle of Binnaker’s Ridgein South Carolina.                              

Soldier's MonumentThe cornerstone of the monument was laid June 6, 1907. The monument was created by the Italian sculptor Chevalier Gaetano Trentanove, of Florence, Italy. There are three figures in the bronze group. One, an officer with a drawn sword urging his men onto action with the enemy, the second a private with a bayonet ready for the charge, and the third a bugler with a pistol pointed at the foe.

The city of Oshkosh also holds countless sculptures and statues of importance in many other key areas. More specifically, Menominee Park is home to many works of art.

The Physical Development of Main Street

In 1839, Oshkosh Village had a population of 1,032 people. Women shoppers daintily negotiated the first plank sidewalks constructed in the city,an innovation which made Ferry Street (now Main Street) a place of pedestrian traffic even during muddy and unsettlingweather. However, wooden plank sidewalks did not hold for long.

In 1866, 1,500 feet of Nicholson wood was laid at along Ferry Street – now Main Street – at a cost of $30,000. It was hailed as the city’s greatest improvement.. Wood was still the principal building material during this time but pine blocks, dipped in hot tar, were laid over a flooring of inch-thick pine boards. Plank streets extended the drive to Polk Street in 1869. This was a major transportation development for the local population.

In 1885, the first tile sidewalk was built on Main Street. Construction of a new cedar block pavement on Main Street from the bridge to Church Street began in 1885, making use of the mayor’s 15 ton steam roller which freighted many locals and horses. Stone curbing was also added for the first time.

The next major change came about in 1928 when the bricks from Main Street and Church Avenue to High Street were asphalted over. Buses began operations in the same year and by 1930 streetcars were discontinued. By 1952 all horse posts had been replaced with parking meters.

In 1953, the city had a recorded 130.7 miles of streets 58 of which were paved. Another 55.7 miles were oiled and the last 17 miles were unpaved roadsPaving Main St. 1929


Street Name Changes:

What is now Algoma Boulevard was formally known as Main Street. The name change took place in 1855.

West Algoma Street was formerly known as Main Street and is now known as Oshkosh Avenue.

Our present Main Street was originally known as Pa-Ma-Cha-Mit Street in 1847, the next year it was changed to Ferry Street, and in 1855 it was changed one last time to become the Main Street we know today.

South Main Street was formerly known as Kansas Street.

State Street was formally known as Shonaon Street.

Merritt Avenue was once known as Monroe Street.

Parkway Avenue was once called East Polk & North Park Street.


Part 4: Odds & Ends


The Magnet Bar – On June 15, 1940, The Magnet Bar at 519 Main Street in Oshkosh became the first tavern in the state of Wisconsin to be issued a beer-only license. Teenagers in Oshkosh and surrounding communities finally had a legal place to drink beer.

After Prohibition, Wisconsin reserved a “local option”, allowing municipal governments to set the age for legal beer drinking. However, the local option wasn’t exercised until Frank M. Hayes took out a class “B” liquor license and convinced Oshkosh officials he could run a clean-cut beer and billiard hall. By July of 1940, Wisconsin’s first beer bar was in business. Back then it was  the Playdium on Washington Boulevard. , and today it is known as a great place to grab a beer and shoot some pool with friends of all ages.

Oaks Candy -- George W. Oaks and his brother John Oaks arrived into the city of Oshkosh from Philadelphia. The two began making candy in their backyard in the early 1880’s. At first the two sold candies out of their home. After meddling with the idea of becoming trapeze artists within the circus the two eventually decided the candy business was the best option.

In 1890, John Oaks rented a place on North Main Street, next to a local Meat Market. Eventually the two opened up a store on Washington Boulevard. Oak’s was a popular place for both the local residences and folks traveling through town. Today, Oak’s is still a local favoriteIt has two locations in Oshkosh, one on Waugoo Avenue and  another on Oregon Street.

Kitz & Pfeil – Kitz & Pfeil Hardware was founded by Joseph Kitz and Charley Pfeil in 1913 when they bought the sporting good store of L.O. Chase at what is now 451 Main Street. At that time there were six hardware stores in Oshkosh, but Kitz & Pfeil was the only one to survive. To this day Kitz & Pfeil is in the same location  on North Main Street. The shop offers everything from simple hardware supplies to holiday and seasonal items.


Final Note


All of the above information has been taken from the following historical reference books found at the Oshkosh Public Library:

Oshkosh: Preserving the Past
By: Ron La Point

A History of the City of Oshkosh: The Early Years Vol.3
By: Clarence J. Jungwirth

Snapshots of History: Oshkosh 100 Years Ago
By: The Oshkosh Public Museum

If you have any interesting stories of historic significance and would like to submit them for review to be hosted online please contact:  info@downtownoshkosh.com