Oral History Interview with George Kuehn.

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Record 37/959
Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
Classification Archives
Collection World War II Oral History Project
Dates of Accumulation January 28, 2003
Abstract Oral history interview by Bradley Larson with George Kuehn. Mr. Kuehn discusses growing up in Oshkosh, WI in the "Bloody Sixth" Ward, the Great Depression, Homefront activities during World War II (he was 4-F), entertainment, taverns and his work in the Oshkosh Fire Department for 29 years. A typed transcript is on a computer file in the archives.

Kuehn, George Interview
28 January 2003
Conducted by Bradley Larson

{B: indicates the interviewer, Mr. Larson. G: indicates the subject, Mr. Kuehn. Empty brackets [ ] denote unintelligible words or phrases. Bracketed words are those where the transcriber is unsure of spelling.

B: This is Brad Larson. I'm in the home of George Kuehn and it's January 28, 2003. So George, why don't we get started here. You just tell me your full name and where and when you were born and what your folk's names were?

G: My name is George Kuehn. I was born December 27th, 1918. And my father and mother was Mary and Earnest Kuehn. And we used to live across from the old Franklin school.

B: So you're a South Sider then?

G: Oh yeah. I'm a South Sider. Bloody Sixth, you know. And been livin here all our lives. We went to Sacred Heart. I was born, baptized and married at Sacred Heart. And I intend to get buried from there too, you know. Father Schmitz is the one that built that first, he's the one that started Sacred Heart and he's the one that built that church over here.

B: There's really quite a sense of community on the South Side, isn't there? I mean you really are kinda close knit.

G: Everybody, where I lived everybody was friends. You know they were, they were so close. I used to say that the people who lived east of us used to come down 6th St., go in the back door of our house, go through our house, go out the front and then they would continue on. You know, the Kuehns, they were the highlights on the South Side, on that 6th Ward over there. And that's how you can say they used to do. Some of those, jeez, those people are all dead now. Except the [Koiber] family. We see the kids and the girls and stuff like that there and they're about the only ones I run into. And see, but we always remember everybody. Everybody remembers everybody.

B: Are neighborhoods different today than when you were growing up?

G: Yes. Years ago we could go from, by anybody's neighbor in any neighborhood. We could go in there and we could walk in the house. They'd give us something to eat, you know. They would treat us and everybody was friends. Everybody was so close-knit. But today, I don't even know who those people are back here, or over there, or over there. And the house next door. The only one I knew was the house next door. And those people lost their house and they moved out. There's nobody living in there. And I knew the one over here. One on the other side, we just, things are just not the same. They're not that friendly.

B: Growing up, what did you, what did you and kids in the neighborhood, what did you do for recreation?

G: We made our own. We played baseball; we used to go swimming together. We used to play volleyball. We had a center across the street at the Franklin, you know. The city always used to put a fellow out there and a girl. And everybody would go over to the Franklin School and they were just like guardians, you know. And that's what we used to do years ago.

We used to play games and make our own games. And we'd make our own toys, you know. We'd make scooters out of roller skates. And we played ice hockey. We didn't have the money for shin guards like they have today. So we used to tape magazines on our shins, you know, so in case we get banged up.

Things at that time, when I think about them, when I think about what we did years ago, what the kids are doing today, they never had the fun that we had. We had, but we never was destructive. You know, we never was, we never was, we never broke things. We never robbed. We never broke into places like today. Didn't have to. People didn't even have locks on their doors, I don't think. 'Cause nobody seemed to lock their doors. Everybody's door was open all night long. Ours were.

B: Did you have, did you work? Did you have any jobs you had to do?

G: Yeah. In the wintertime, all the boys used to get together and we'd shovel everybody's sidewalk throughout the whole neighborhood. We'd go from one to the other. We enjoyed it. And there was, there wasn't that many kind of jobs that I can remember.

When I ah, when I started to work, I used to drive truck and I used to work for [Retzlaff] Trucking Co. You know, at that time there was a lot of trucking companies in the City of Oshkosh. Those used to have small pickups, you know. They'd pick up chairs, or you'd pick up a stove or refrigerator. And they'd move it from one place to another. I have a guy, I don't remember how many there were but there were quite a few and Retzlaff was one of em. So in the summertime, we'd wait until he would get a job or two, that he would pick us up. He'd come over past the house, pick us up, go on the job, take care of it, come back; they'd get off. That's all there was to it, you know.

Until I started to work for King Midas Flour. I drove truck for King Midas Flour Company. That was the first time I think I had a full time job, I guess.

B: What year was that?

G: Oh, gosh. That was just before we got married. And that's been over 60 years. So I can't remember too much off of there, but I remember that we used to have a lot of fun, you know. We had a good time.

And whenever we worked, whenever we worked and we made a few bucks, we'd always spend it on, all the guys used to get together and that's the way we'd spend it. Gasoline was ten cents a gallon. This one guy had a Model A car {Ford} and he'd say, "You guys want a ride? How much money you got?" So everybody would reach in their pockets. "I got three cents." "I got a nickel." "I got…" And we'd give him that money. Sometimes he collected 20-30 cents, you know. Fill up the car and then we'd go for a ride. Don't happen today.

B: Had you been out of Oshkosh very much at all growing up? Did you travel much at all to outlying areas?

G: No. No. No, we didn't, there was no traveling. The only thing I can remember that in the summertime, all the neighbors used to get together and they'd go someplace, to a cottage on the lake. They always knew somebody who owned a cottage on the lake and one day a year I guess, we'd, they'd pack up a lunch and all of us guys, the whole families, all the families used to go to this one cottage. And we'd swim and stuff like that, or go for a boat ride. And that's one of the things that we done years ago. Who does that today, huh?

B: Yeah. Things were pretty tough in the Depression, weren't they?

G: Yeah, they were.

B: Can we talk about that a little bit?

G: Ah, they had the WPS, or something. {WPA}. And then they put sewers in on 6th Street. I remember that. And everybody that wasn't working, they would hire those, those babies, these fellows. These fathers I should say. And maybe they had a big older son, you know, that could work. And they would hand shovel this here ditch all along the road. By hand they would take and throw it out. Now today you got machines, you know. But I can remember when they put the sewer in where I lived on 6th Street, my dad and them, them guys, they used to work right in front of us. They'd come out of the house, take the shovels and then they'd, they would get paid for it you know. But that's, I forget. What did they call that? Did they call it WPS or something?

B: I think it was WPA.


B: Yeah. Works Project Administration. Yeah.

G: Well that's what they used to do. All the fathers and them, they used to dig this ditch. All day long. All day, they'd dig that by hand. They had no machines that they could, you know, did a hole, dig a ditch. Not one of em.

B: How did people get buy during the Depression? What were some of the things that you did?

G: What do you mean?

B: Well, say for example you know, for, if people didn't have a job. Did they have gardens or did they trade among themselves?

G: Yeah. Everybody, everybody had a garden. That's what we used to live on. We had a, we had a garden on both sides of the sidewalk that went to the back. You know, behind the garage and stuff like that there. Everybody had a big garden. And everybody grew everything in there. And they used to ah, a lot of people had their own chickens or they'd raise a couple of pigs or something like that there. And then when they were, when the pigs were big enough to butcher, they would butcher them and they would make bologna. Everybody had, there was a couple bologna machines in there and they'd put that meat in there and they'd bone it down and they would grind it up and they had these long skins, you know. They'd put it on there. Then they'd make long wieners out of that baby. I remember that, that they used to do that.

But that's what they used to do. They used to raise pigs, chickens. Everybody had a dog. They used to go hunting, you know. They'd go duck hunting. They'd go rabbit hunting. A lot of rabbit hunting. At that time the rabbits were very plentiful. Everybody had rabbits. Sometimes they'd even be raising rabbits. We raised everything, you know.

B: Where would you go hunting at?

G: Anyplace. Anyplace outside the city. Everything around here now is all grown, is all ah, there's stores here and there ain't no place just outside the city to go hunting. Everything outside the City of Oshkosh was fields. You know? You could go hunting out there. You could get anything in one of those fields. And it was nice.

A lot of times I'm riding around and, especially when I go over to Copps. I go to 41 over there. Before we got there, 41 was never through there. Never. And there was never no traffic. But where Copps are and ah, and the filling station over on the corner of 9th and 41, that used to be all fields.

We had one guy in the neighborhood, he use to have a paper bag, you know? For to carry newspapers - "Northwestern." He'd put that over his shoulders and he had a single barrel gun. And he'd walk out there. And I can see him yet. Bird would jump up, shoot em, pick em up, throw em in there. Didn't make a difference whether it was a pheasant or a hen. And ah, he wound up in a nursing home with my father after awhile. I forgot what his name was. He never was married and he was an old, old timer and that's what they done.

That's what people done. They helped one another. They fed one another. They did things for one another. ;

B: Now for awhile you were a, you delivered telegraphs for awhile, didn't you?

G: Yeah. For Western Union. I did that for one summer. And I was thinking about that this morning. I says, "Well, when he comes over, he's gonna say, 'Well, what did you do?' " You know where that dial is over on Main Street? Well right across the road, east or was it west or north of Main, on the corner there was Continental Clothing Store, there was Walgreen's. {Walgreen's was on the northwest corner of Main and Algoma}. Then you go across the street and that's where they put that dial now. And right directly across the street was Western Union. And right next to Western Union was another, I think it was a postal deal. They used to have telegrams.

And ah, when I worked, I worked during the day from 8 o'clock to maybe 3 or 4. Then they would put; another kid would come on nights. He would work nights so long. They never delivered telegrams late in the night. But while people were up, they would deliver em. And that one next door, they had a guy doing like I did. His name was Rickman. And him and I used to sit outside there and we would talk until we would have to go and deliver a telegram.

Well in the Western Union they had a ticker tape. And this gal, she would, as these messages would come off, she'd take a scissors, cut em off, put a little piece behind em and then she'd paste em on a piece of paper. And she'd paste that telegram on there. If it was important, we'd take it out right away and deliver it. If it wasn't, she'd wait until she got two or three or four of em, and then we would take em out. And the same thing next door.

And this, and then they had another ticker tape on the other side of the room and that ticker tape used to tell about the stock markets all the time. How the stocks was goin. And if there was any news or any news that would break in the United States, it would come through that ticker tape, you know? And we could always read it off. They didn't have to save it but in case there was something important on there. Then they would save, cut that off. A lot of times I'd sit there and I'd watch, read the ticker tape and see what was going on in the states, you know.

But the messages, that was altogether different. You see, I this here Western book here. I got to tell you a little story about this. We, one day there was a circus in Oshkosh. And I forget what the, I don't know whether it was one hundred one [ ]. I think it was a hundred one [ ] and the guy who was the star in that show was a fellow by the name of Colonel Tim McCoy. He was an old western star; this guy right here.

B: I'll be darned.

G: He was a Colonel. He was a real Colonel in the United States Army but he was a western star with the rest of these guys, you know. And he was out there. And he had, he'd received a telegram and the lady at work says, "George, you go take that out to Tim McCoy." Oh, boy! I was real happy because I was a western fan from the time I was a little kid. And even today yet, I love westerns. And he was there.

So I took this. I went out to the fairgrounds. Remember we used to have the fairs out there? And the circus was out there and he had his own tent in there. And I took the, I went up to the tent and a guy stopped me. He said "What do you want?" I says, "I got a telegram for Tim McCoy." He says, "I'll take it." I says, "No you won't; I got to deliver this in person." I says, "He's got to have this done." That was not true though. So okay. He says, "Come on." He took me in where he was sittin there. He was, you know, putting his make-up on and getting dressed, because he hadda go do their show at 2 o'clock or somethin. I remember that. He gets up. Boy, he's a big guy, you know. "Hi ya son," he says. I said, "Hello there Mr. McCoy," you know. So we shook hands, you know and I thought that was just the greatest. That guy right there.

And that night when we, when I got home, we used to go down to "Sheeney " Stoeckbauer's on the corner. And we could all, at that time we were all big enough, we weren't old enough but we were big enough to go in the tavern. And we could have a candy bar and a Coca-Cola. Bottle of Coca-Cola. And there's, man, the whole neighborhood just hung out there. It was a, there was no drunks in there and everything was altogether different. And this one guy's name was Giese. And he was, he like the western guys too. And I says, "Giese, this is the hand that shook the hand of Tim McCoy." He says, "You gotta be kidding." He says, "Geez, I'd like to shake the hand that shook the hand of Tim McCoy." I'll never forget that. But that's what happened. (Laughter). Oh, gosh, I thought that was just great.

B: How old were you at the time?

G: Geez, that was long before I was married. You take off maybe about 65 years off of my age now. I was in my teens I guess. You know. Because I got married when I was about 21 or 22 or something like that and I wasn't married yet. In fact I don't think I was even going with Lorraine. But that's what happened there.

And we used to have, instead of having a raincoat that you could button, we had a cape, a slicker. You just put your head through there and button it up and keep your pants and everything dry, and you uniform. And we wore…

B: Oh, you wore a uniform?

G: Oh, sure. We wore, we hadda put spats on too, you know, so that we wouldn't get out pants caught in the chain, in the sprocket. And this here was a cape you know. And it wouldn't open up. You just put your head through there so you keep dry. I remember that too. Very nice. They took care of us. They had a lot of nice clothes. We had nice uniforms.

B: And they gave you a bike to ride, or you had a…?

G: I had my own bike.

B: Do you remember what they paid you for doing that?

G: Geez, I have no idea. It probably wasn't much at all, you know. I don't know what the heck the going rate was at that time. Gosh, that must have been 65-70 years ago. Oh, it was more that that, even. Because I said, I'm 84 now. So when you take 60 off of 84, that's 24. And that was before I got married. So I must have been in my teens, you know.

And the wages weren't that much. When I was working for Retzlaff, I was getting 25 cents an hour. And we were doing a man-sized job. We were doing moving jobs, we unloaded cars of flour for Heise's, you know. Hundred, there used to be a thousand bags of hundred pound bags of flour in a car at a time. And we'd be hauling them things.

I worked hard. I said to my wife more times than one. I says, "You know, Lorraine," I says… The surgery that I had; they cut me from here, they cleaned out that artery in there. From the neck, you know. And they cut me down from here down there and they put in four heart bypasses. Then they cut me in the groin over here. All the way down to my ankle to take out those, those veins, you know. To make those bypasses

And when I was in the hospital, I says, "You know, Lorraine," I says, "If we, if I wasn't, If I didn't have to work as hard as I did all my life," I says, "I don't think I'd even be here." I says, "That hard work really helped me." It helps me today yet, you know. I honestly believe that, you know. I really do.
I worked, I says, I tell my [ ] to the wife, "I worked hard." And we didn't get no money; we didn't get much money for it. I know when I worked for Retzlaff, I was getting 25 cents an hour.

I forgot what I was getting, I got married when I worked for King Midas. That I remember. I was getting 80 bucks a month. And when I got married, they gave me a $10.00 raise. I got $90.00 a month when I married, when Lorraine and I got married.

B: Thinking back on it at the time, was that a lot of money? Or was that a livable wage?

G: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. It was a livable wage. Geez, when I went on the Fire Department, I think when I started out as a private on the fire department, I was only getting between a hundred and a hundred ten dollars a month from the Oshkosh Fire Department.

B: What year was that that you started?

G: I went on the fire department in I think it was '45. I think it was '45 when I went on there. I was on the fire department for 29 years and it's gonna be, and now in October it's gonna be another 29 years, ain't it, that I've been retired.

B: What was downtown like when you were growing up? Main Street.

G: Main Street, it looks the same. It's the same. The buildings were the same. They re… they had to fix a couple of em up. When they tore the place down, most of the time they'd have a lot of empty lots in there where they put that sun dial and stuff in there. And made parking lots out of there. Sears and Roebuck used to be over there, right one block off of Main Street. Now that's all parking lot. Parking lots of both sides of the street. But the buildings were the same. They looked the same to me, you know. Maybe once in awhile they had to dress some of them up or you know, repair em or something but outside of that they look the same.

B: Was it a busy place down there in its heyday?

G: Yeah. My wife, she worked at, at that time it was Henderson-Hoyt's. And they used to had to work down there. And she had to work Friday nights. Friday nights, everybody went down Main Street. They'd go shopping or they'd stop in a tavern someplace. We didn't have no big eat joints or no big restaurants. You either stopped in a tavern and got a plate of fish and a soft drink, or people that could drink beer, they drank beer most likely. But everybody went downtown on Main Street. That was a big night and there was plenty of parking because everybody didn't have a car. So we'd walk. I walked from, I walked from the old Franklin School that was just down a couple of blocks. Every Friday night we'd walk down, pick up my wife on the way back. We'd stop in a tavern and we'd get chicken. We'd get a chicken meal. It's across from that old, from that restaurant over there. That was a flourmill over there on 6th Street.

B: Oh, sure. Yeah. Granary now, it's called.

G: The Granary. Well across from the Granary, they had a tavern. And they specialized in chicken on a Friday night. Or a… And so we'd stop in there and we'd get chicken. 25 cents. Man, you'd get a half a chicken with everything in it. 25 cents. Or else on a Friday, we'd stop in, you could go to any tavern in town and you would get a fish lunch. You'd get more fish that you'd get today. And that fish lunch cost 15 cents. And a 12 oz., 16 ounce bottle of Pepsi Cola was a nickel. I said… What you gotta pay for it today, huh? And there was free coffee if you wanted to drink coffee. But today what? Coffee is a buck a cup. You know a bottomless cup; you could drink as much as you want.

B: As a fireman, you probably fought some of the big fires. Some pretty big fires, huh?

G: Oh, yeah.

B: Do you remember any of the big ones that stick out in your mind?

G: Foster-Lothman. That was Foster's wasn't it? That was, we was there for three days. That ah, and the bottle wrapper. They used to make, they used to shred the logs for packing, you know. And that thing went for three days. They had log piles. We had, all the way down Witzel, you know, where the college is now. And where Cub Foods are? That was all open. They had piles! Man, they were higher that your house and they were practically half a block long. And they were up on piles so the air would get underneath so they would dry. And ah, those babies burned one time. They were just overgrown dump fires. You just have to stand back and you pour the water in.

The tough ones are when you had to go into the house and fight em, you know. Make the fire out in the house someplace. And ah, man we went to so many. And I've seen so many people that, I shouldn't say so many but I took out a few dead people out of the houses. They were dead when we got there already. Things were different.

And today, and we didn't have the equipment that they got today either. Our trucks were old. The trucks they got now are just gorgeous. And you poke a finger here and there like this here, and that truck just does all the work for you. But the trucks we had, the pumpers we had, you had to set em up by hand. You hadda shift em, you hadda pull em. You hadda open em, valves and stuff like that there. But today with these trucks, they're all computerized, you know. You get inside there and they have a television set in there. And it shows you which way to go, where the hydrants are. And lights up so that it gets the shortest distance. But years ago that all had to be in our head. We had to know where we were goin.

B: What station were you at?

G: I was at all of them.

B: You were, huh.

G: Yeah. At that time, the chiefs, they always, they'd put so many, they'd make a company, [ ] over seven of em. And then they would transfer guys throughout the year to different places, to different houses, so that they would eventually learn the whole city, see? [ ] They were transferred over to another company and a lot of times they would transfer a guy, make it in a district where he lived, you know. He'd be more efficient then too because he knew the neighborhood and that's what I did too. I knew all the neighborhood. I knew all the neighbors. If they had a fire, I could tell you just where to go, you know. How to do it and how to get in and out of there.

B: So how did they notify? When you first started in the fire department, how did they notify the fire department of the fire?

G: We had pull boxes on the corner. If there was a fire, they'd pull a pull box. And that pull box would ring off. It come on through a ticker tape. Like if it was 34, it would go: one, two three, and hesitate, and it would go one, two, three, four and then it would keep on agoing. And it would do that three times, you know. It came on the ticker tape or else it was through the telephone. Until I think it was [Gehrens] Lester [Gehrens], I mean, yeah, [Gehrens]. He went and ah, put the alarm system in. That came, the calls would come in by radio and then they would give it to us on the speaker system. And then when we got on the truck, we would, it would come through the truck and we could talk to the alarm office through the truck. That's the way the cops do it today, you know. And that's the way the new trucks are. So when they get on the truck and are out on the street, they just pick up the mike and they can communicate with the office.

B: Big change.

G: Oh, it's a big change, you bet. And they got good men on the fire department today. We had good men, I says, but they are so much smarter and so much more educated today than what we were. We didn't have all that education, all that schooling. Geez, when I was on, I didn't forget how long I was on, maybe couple of years before they even got a drill instructor. And he used to, then he'd start to, that they inaugurated that, that we could practice and do certain jobs and do all of our jobs, you know.

On Number Eights, they put a false roof up there on the fire station. And that was representing a roof. And then we hadda go and go up on a ladder, put a roof ladder up there, turn it over, hook it on, climb up on that ladder. And then we hadda take guys down. I was a good friend of the chief. Jules [Starkel]. He became chief and he was a big… but before that he was a drill instructor and so he called our company up there and we had to do some drilling on the roof, you know. And he says, "I'm gonna go up on that roof and I'm gonna lay down and I want one of you fellows to come up there and get me and take me down. Who's gonna volunteer?" Nobody volunteered. He says, "Kuehn, you just volunteered. I'm goin up there and you take me and carry me down." And so he went up. And we were good friends, you know. I knew all about taking him down, just like the rest of the fellows, as far as that goes. But he wanted, he's, you gotta do something, you know. And he laid there and he says, "If you drop me, you're gonna go with me," he says, "Because I'm gonna hang on," he says, "And you better take me down." So I took him down. I didn't have no problem.

Then all the guys, when they saw this, they all, they all did the same thing, you know. They coulda, anybody coulda done it. But it just so happened that him and I, we were that good a friends, you know. "You take me down," he says. Oh I could tell you [ ] We had more fun, I'll tell you that. We had more fun at that time than they do today though, I'll tell you that. The guys in the department today, I think the living conditions are altogether different than what we had.

B: How?

G: For some reason, I don't know. They used to always say that all you guys do is play cards. Well, geez, when we didn't have nothing else to do, there was nothing for us to do no more. There was no studying and no tests to do. And there was no drilling. So we just would sit there. We didn't even have a television at that time. So we'd just sit there and listen to the radio or we'd start to play cards with one another. So that's how the card games started to go. Well, geez, today they're doing studying, or they're doing taking tests, or they're sitting there watching ;television. What we did, we used to specialize in cooking and making candy, you know. And stuff like that there. Guys would, used to make Stollens a lot of times. That stuff to eat, they call it head cheese, you know. That's a German deal. But we used to ah, we used to things like that. Well, we had the time to do it but now today, they haven't got that kind of time, I guess.

B: Do you ever go to the stations today and look in to see how they are different, or changed?

G: They invited me down there time and time again. That first year when I retired, I was homesick for the fire department. I used to, my wife, she said, "Go visit, go home, go take a walk, go back to the fire house." And I did because I left a lot of guys that I worked with there. Well, as time went on, I got over that and then the guys were retiring right after that all the time, you know. So then I didn't get there.

But today, the active firemen, they take us retired firemen out every year to Knights of Columbus. We have a dinner and free beer. Every year they do that for us. And every year they take us to one of the fire stations, especially the one down on Ceape Street. And they guys, they'll cook up a dinner for all the retired firemen. So all the guys go over there. Sometimes we got 30-40 guys that go over there. And ah, when I retired and the guys used to retire after me said to my wife, I said, "The way the guys look today that are retired," I said, "We could start our own fire department." Everybody looked just like that. They looked just [ ]. Today we're all a bunch of old men, of retired men, and we couldn't do that at all. I said, "No way that we can do it anymore."

And we ah, every first Thursday of the month, we all go up to Delta for breakfast. All the retired firemen. And they always got maybe one or two guys, active, maybe sometimes three, or one of the chiefs of the fire department today. And they come up there because they started this out. So we go up there Dutch treat most naturally. But the, why sometimes we got 30-35 guys, retired guys up there and we're all eating breakfast. We start a few fires and we make em out, you know. Talking over old times. Oh it was just great.

B: George, what was Oshkosh like during World War II? Was there, did it change during the war?

G: I don't, no I don't think, not easily it didn't change. There was a lot of fellows that were drafted at that time. They wasn't, there weren't too many volunteers. But every so often, one of the guys would be drafted and they'd move out. And when they came home, everybody was glad to see em, you know. And now I, no there was no difference. The only difference that I could see was that some of the guys were drafted out of there.

B: And of course everybody was doing war industries.

G: Oh yeah.

B: Was there a shortage at all, of people that you remember for the war industries?

G: No. No. Axle was the, Wisconsin Axle was the big, they were, they were the big production during the war. They made axles for the trucks you know. Just like Oshkosh Four Wheel Drive is today, you know. They're making all this equipment out there and that's what they were doin up there. If you worked in the defense plant, you made good money. I never worked in a defense plant. I like driving trucks. I was driving truck for Retzlaff and I drove trucks for King Midas. And then I went back to Retzlaff and I finally joined the fire department.

That what I, I was one of these guys that was lucky. I became a 4F'er. I had a stomach ulcer and they wouldn't take me. I was down to Milwaukee and that guy, that doctor down there, he says, "I see on your paper," he says, "You got a stomach ulcer." I says, "Yeah." He says, "Well," he says, "We're gonna take you and two or three other guys over to Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee and they're x-ray you. And if you got stomach ulcer," he says, "We don't want you." He said, "But if you haven't," he says, "You better be able to get along with the guys, because you're in."

I remember when I got down there, they stood me up on a machine. They taped me all in there, like that there, and they rolled you around. They tipped me upside down, they tip you all different ways. They said, "Now drink this." Well, I didn't know what the hell it was, chalky water, you know. All of a sudden he says, "We don't you. We don't want you at all.."

There was one guy. He was a farmer kid. He said, "I can't hear." That doctor, he was right in front of me, that doctor, he set him down and he took with his ear. He took a long probe, went in there, turned it, boy the ear wax that come out was, I'm not lying, was that long. Thick, almost as big as your finger. Took it out of both of his ears. And he says, "Holy man!" Could he hear!. And he hadda plug his ears up. One of the guys, he took a gun when he went up there and he shot his toes off. I dunno, those guys, they did a lot of things to keep out of the service. And that was two of em I remember when I was down there.

B: Do you remember any of the big bond drives that they would have in town. Where they would have parades and things to try and encourage people to buy war bonds?

G: I don't think so. I can't recall, although they were selling war bonds. Everybody was buying em. They would take out so much out of every man's paycheck, you know. It wasn't much but they would take out until they could afford a bond, you know. It might take three or four months, or weeks rather, I should say, so they got enough money to take out a war bond.

B: During the war, did you ever think that the United States would lose the war?

G: No.

B: You didn't?

G: No. We said we're too good. We're too good. We're too powerful. The United States was too powerful. Just like they are today. They're too powerful today. They're lettin Iraq get away with it. He's making a monkey out of us. I agree with that. But ah….

B: How did you feel about the Germans and the Japanese?

G: Well we were, the people in our neighborhood, they were, they all were German related in the first place. They were all German people. They all came, my ma she was a little girl and she came over from Germany and she remembers coming over on a big ship. And she says, "I remember when people died, they threw them in the water." You know. She remembers all that stuff. And we never hated one or the other. The only time we did ah, we felt bad, that we didn't like the Japs because they bombed Pearl Harbor. And I had a cousin who was on the USS Arizona and he got killed on there. He's still underneath, out there at Pearl Harbor.

B: Who was that?

G: Ray [Nusser}.

B: Oh, sure.

G: Him and I, we chummed together before he went into service. That's what I mean. I said, "These guys all of a sudden," he went into service, he was drafted into service. He went in the Navy. The last card I got from him, he had a postcard, a picture of the USS Arizona. And he wanted me, he says, "Why don't you join the Navy?" He says, "Come on," he says. I was 4-F. I couldn't get in there. And he says, "You'd love the Navy," he says. "Cripe," he says, "They're just great, you know." And when the Japs, when the Japs blew up that ship, he was on it. He was down in the hold. The bombs went right down the smokestack. Blew up from the inside out.

B: What kinda guy was Ray?

G: Ray was a nice guy. He was a, he was a hell-raiser. He had a beautiful sense of humor. He would do anything for you. He was a [ ] built nice, you know. And ah, he was just one nice guy. You just couldn't get a better guy. They weren't'. Like I said, we were never destructive and stuff like that. So he was one of those guys that wasn't [ ].

B: Must have been a sad day when you learned that he was killed.

G: Oh, yeah. Cripe, we think about him yet. His name is on the plaque on the Arizona up there now. When people, a lot of people, they go to Hawaii and then they all want to go out there on the Arizona and then they go out there and they can see his name out there. And then they tell me. They say, "I saw Ray Nusser's name on the plaque. Oh, that was nice. That's nice. I like that.

B: And you still think of him.

G: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, that's been a long time ago. '41 to now.

B: I think people have forgotten that, George. I don't know if people today in general, not people of your generation. I don't know if they remember Pearl Harbor and I don't know if they remember the Second World War like, well like they should I guess.

G: They should have remembered it because they got plenty movies on television about Pearl Harbor. They have a lot of newsreels and stuff like that. And bombing of ships. Geez, they show actual pictures of those ships getting bombed.

B: Was there a lot of memorial services for servicemen during the war?

G: No. No.

B: Not too many?

G: No. I can't remember. I think when the war was over they talked about em all the time and then they put that one up in the south Park But some of our people, they were the guys that died from Oshkosh.

B: Did you go to that when they put that up?

G: I don't think so because I think I was, when they were doin it, I think I hadda work.

{The first tape ends at this point.}.

B: When were you married? What year?

G: I was married in '41, wasn't it? 1941. That's when I became, when they said I was 4-F. Then I said to Lorraine, I said, "Now we'll get married." I wasn't going to get married and then go to, go into service. I says, I didn't believe in that. A lot of people didn't believe in it. And these guys wouldn't get married before they went in, when they come out of service, if the girl was there, they'd get married and that's what happened. I became 4-F and I says, "Now we'll get married."

B: And you were working at the trucking company at that time?

G: Yeah. I was working for, I was working for King Midas I think at the time. And I went back to Retzlaff and then I went on the fire department.

B: Where did you set up housekeeping when you got married?

G: We lived up above, on the , by her mother. Next to LeRoy's Tavern over on Knapp Street? 710 Knapp Street. Lived upstairs. They had an apartment up there and we lived up there. I paid what, what the heck was it a month? Geez, I think it was $12.00 a month rent. And when I got a raise, 'cause I says, "Well, we'll give you $15.00 a month rent." She said to her mother. She never asked for a dime,. You know. But we raised our own rent because we had enough money. What the heck. We wasn't worried about the situation at all.

B: You mentioned the role that the little neighborhood taverns play, played in your life, you know. Growing up. They must have been more than just a tavern. They sound to me like they were more than just a place to go and get a drink.

G: They were. Those taverns, everybody, almost every one of those taverns owned a ball team. You know, softball. And the fast pitch. And that's what we did. We used to play on the baseball teams. I played with Harry Witt. He used to live over there on 5th. He had his tavern on 5th and Ohio. And I played with him for at least, I don't know, for years and years and stuff. Then Sheeney Stoeckbauer owned one. And every, it seemed like every tavern had a ball team.

And in the wintertime, these same taverns, they would, they would own a hockey team. A hockey league. 'Cause we had a hockey team down at Franklin School down there. We put up, we made a hockey rink. We put up boards up there. And my brother and I, we, and all the people down there, we'd shovel the rink at night and then we'd flood it. Freeze it. Then we'd mark it off and then we played hockey down, we had a hockey league down there. And the people, man they would line them snow banks up there.

Baseball season, they hadda take heavy ropes and they hadda rope em from tree to tree, you know, to keep the people off the diamond. We had people… and you go out here now by [Schwummers] out here and you look in the stands; there's hardly any people in the stands. And the only people that are in there is the ballplayer's wives, maybe a couple of the kids. But when we played ball, everybody in the neighborhood was there. We hadda rope em off and keep em back. That's no lie. Oh, that used to be…. I used to say to them, "Look at the guys out here." Out at the BallPark. And they got nice bleachers out there and stuff like that. And nobody in there. It was different when we played ball.

B: Growing up, did you follow the professional teams on the radio? Did you listen to ball…?

G: No. The one thing that was, that they used to watch was some of the guys, I was never no big fan of the big leagues, you know, hardball. I didn't care for hardball and I didn't watch but they used the watch the Cubs, the Chicago Cubs. And ah, I didn't care for that. And I didn't get into football until the Green Bay Packers when they begin to get, when they become famous. Then I first started in with them and I've been with them ever since.

B: Growing up, did you go to movies much? Like, you know…

G: Five cents.

B: No kidding!

G: We used to go to the Star Theater and we'd send one or two guys in and he'd, and you hadda go downstairs to go to the bathroom. Well, he'd go downstairs and he'd open up the windows and we'd climb in. Go down the basement. And then he'd go back up there and he'd watch to see where the owner was. He was an old guy and he used to sit there and he had to watch and see that everybody was behaving. So then after the guy come up and he kind of blocked him a little bit, then the guys would come up one at a time, open up the door and sneak along. And that's how we had to go in there.

And when we had to go downtown to a movie, the movie was only 10 cents to get in. And they had real heavy curtains by the back door, by the back exits. And then we'd open up that back door and we'd leave some of the guys in behind these curtains, close em up and then they could step out.
That's the only trouble we got into. We never got caught but we'd think about it and we'd think, oh, the foolish things that we did.

B: What was the biggest or best theater in town? If you were going to name one theater that was really top of the line theater?

G: The Strand Theater up there on Main Street. That's at that hotel over there {The Raulf Hotel}. That was the Strand Theater. And the other one was on the other side, down from Kitz and Pfeil. It was the Oshkosh Theater. That was a real nice one. I think that was the first one and the best one until they put in the Strand Theater. And the Opera House, that, just like today, we used to go to the Opera House but they revised it quite a bit, you know.

And we used to put stage shows on there. And when I worked for Retzlaff, that's what we would do. These stage shows used to come in there and we'd take, we had three trucks and we'd go up to these box cars and we'd take all their scenery off of there. All the equipment, we'd put on the trucks. We'd take it to the Oshkosh Theater, the Strand or the Opera House. Wherever they were going to play. And then we would unload it and they had their crews and put it up. And when the shows were over and they were gonna move out, put it back on the trucks, put it back in the cars. And they all had to go a certain way. I just loved that that it was, we hadda work nights, after the show was over,

And one of our firemen, they said years ago, they says that they said there's a ghost in the Grand old Opera House. I says, "I believe that," I says. Because the guy who was in charge of all the theaters in Oshkosh, his name was Percy Keene. And he lived off of Wisconsin Ave out there. I think it's around Bent or something like that there. And he married a showgirl, a dancing showgirl from New York. And he was in charge of all, he was the big boss of all these theaters. And he loved the theaters. And he, it didn't make no difference. The boss, the owners of the theaters used to get these slide shows but he was the guy that took care of making sure who was gonna bring any shows in there. And Retzlaff was one of em.

And Percy Keene, he used to operate the pictures, you know. Showing the movies and stuff like that there. And he just loved em. I, I said to this one fireman, I says, "If there's a ghost in the Grand old Opera House, it's gotta be Percy Keene." I says, "I believe that." Down underneath the stage is where they had all their rooms underneath there. For the players and the girls where they dressed. Then they would come up on the sides behind the curtains and stuff. I worked all those theaters. I worked all those places. It was just [ ]. That's why I liked Retzlaff Trucking Company.

I, then we used to work out at the Fair. We'd bring all the stuff in for the fair. You know they had all these high wires out there and these acts out there. And those stages out there. We'd bring all their equipment out there. When the Fair was over, we'd take it back to the railroad cars.

B: It sounds like Oshkosh has changed since you grew up.

G: Oh yeah. I think so.

B: How? How do you think the city has changed, both physically and maybe the people?

G: I think, the city didn't change. I think it's the people living in it. That's what they say. They say, "This is a tough world." I say, "The world is okay, it's the people in it that make it one way or the other, you know." And I says, "Years ago the neighborhoods, they all stuck together." If they, it didn't make no difference. Ah, the 6th ward stuck together, the West Siders stuck together. The West Siders used to come down and if they dated our girls, we'd fight with em, you know. Or else we'd go up there and they'd fight with us. And that, it was a kind of a friendly, a friendly violence deal with em. 'Cause everybody liked to scrap at that time.

And I think that's ah, that the people, it's the people just don't get together like they did before. Oh, there's a few of em like my daughter, she got, they got a card club and stuff. But that's as far as it goes, you know. But years ago, man, you could walk up and down the "bloody 6th" from one end to the other. And you know all the people there. And you could go inside and you could talk with them and visit with them. And you'd meet em in a tavern and everybody was friendly.

But that don't happen today. These taverns today, they haven't got that kind of atmosphere that we had years ago. You go in a tavern now, you go in, you sit down, you drink your or you eat your food and then you leave. But years ago, just like "Sheeney Stoeckbauer down there. "Inky" wrote about that. We'd go there, and you could go there and it'd be the guys would stay there for the whole night. They played Sheephead, they played Cinch and they would drink small bottles of beer. But they never, never, I can't never say that they got drunk in there or they had a lot of violence in there, you know. A lot of scraps and stuff. It was a nice place. It was a friendly place.

Half way down on 6th Street, by [Wolff's] he had a double garage and the guys, the real old guys that didn't go to the tavern, that didn't like to go to the taverns, they'd go up there by Wolff and they would go in his garage and they fixed that baby up. And those guys would play cards in there and they could drink beer in there. And they had a tab and they'd write their name down and they would pay up at the end of the week, or something like that. You could do it at Sheeney Stoeckbauer too, you know.

B: You mean you could drink and just sign your name?

G: Sure. "Gimme a beer. Put it down." They'd have the name on there. They'd put down 10 cents for the beer, you know. Oh, yeah. They had an open tab. The same out by Wolff. You could do that. You can't do that today. No way.

B: Yeah, I guess the town has changed George and that's a fact.

G: You better believe it. You bet. Makes a big difference.

B: Well that's about all I have unless you want to talk about something else. It's been real fun for me. I've very much enjoyed it.

G: I haven't anything else. I, the only thing I can do is answer your questions because I don't know anything that you'd be interested in before. The only thing I do, I talk to my girls and to my friends sometimes. We talk about the fire department. Some of the things that went on in the fire department, you know. Years ago when I was there. I says, we laugh about things, I says, Oh, I says, Oh! You know, the guys today on the fire department, I'm trying to toot my own horn a little bit, and when we go out to breakfast like that there, and they say, "What's your name?" I says, "Corky Kuehn." They always used, everybody had a nickname. Everybody on the South Side in the 6th ward had a nickname, you know. And mine was "Corky." "How did you get that nickname Corky?" I used to step on my grandpa's toes and he said, "That kid's a corker." That stayed, you know.

We had the [ ] for our kids. One was "Pink Eye." He had two, two different colored eyes. He had a brown one and a pink one. A pink eye. And they'd go call him "Pinky." And the other, his brother, was "Ham Bone." That's the way the whole thing went around though. Everybody had a nickname for some reason or other. So these guys, "Corky, I hear so much about you." Things that when we was on the fire department, that I had done. When I became officer, it was altogether different than the officers I had, you know. Those guys were stricter and I made up my mind those guys are going to like me when I leave. When I left, just like today, I says, "Guys are 84 years old and what do they do? 'Hey, Captain Kuehn, how are you?'" I says…

B: Oh, you retired as a captain?

G: Yeah. And I filled in as a duty chief. For the last five years on there I was, the chief would take off. He says, "You run the department today, and for the next couple of days." You know. They had time coming and they would take it off and say, "Now you run it." The guys used to like that.

B: Well George, I'll tell you, you are a young 84 looking, young looking 84 year old.

G: You know why that is? Because your eyes are good. Some say, "Hey you look good." I says, "That's because you got good eyes."

B: Thanks a lot. This has been very enjoyable. I appreciate it.

G: That's okay.
Event World War II
Category 6: T&E For Communication
Legal Status Oshkosh Public Museum
Object ID OH2001.3.42
Object Name Tape, Magnetic
People Kuehn, George
Subjects World War II
Fire fighters
Taverns (Inns)
Title Oral History Interview with George Kuehn.
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Last modified on: December 12, 2009