On this day in 1940 the Magnet, at 519 N. Main St. in Oshkosh, became the first tavern in the State of Wisconsin to be issued a beer-only license. Teenagers in Oshkosh finally had a place to drink beer. Legally.
The Magnet was at the vanguard of what would become a memorable Wisconsin phenomenon, the teen-age beer bar. These were spots where people 18-20 years old could enjoy their brew of choice in an atmosphere unspoiled by hard liquor. After Prohibition, Wisconsin reserved a “local option,” allowing municipal governments to set the age for legal beer drinking. The local option hadn’t been exercised, though, 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.
But it didn’t start out as The Magnet and it didn’t start out on Main Street. The Magnet began as the Playdium on Washington Blvd. Its proprietor, Frank M. Hayes, was born in 1888 and lived on E. Irving. He’d been a semi-pro baseball player in Omaha and a postal clerk in Oshkosh. As a publican, Hayes proved to be a no-nonsense sort of guy. He didn’t tolerate rude behavior in his beer bar. Fighting, swearing and loud noises were not welcome at the Playdium.
In 1950 Hayes moved his bar to Main Street, but kept his beer-only status. He was walking a thin wire. Others had followed in Hayes’ wake and by the mid-50s the teen-bars had come under intense criticism. Now there were “wet” islands dotting the State. Cities like Oshkosh became destination points for traveling 18-20 year-olds who would come to get their fill of beer before taking to the highways and returning to their dry hometowns.
When Hayes died in 1959, Winnebago County was attempting to enact a law that would fix the beer age at 21 County-wide. They failed and the Magnet passed to Frank M. Hayes, Jr. In 1963, though, things changed. The Oshkosh Common Council decided it was time to abandon the local option and beer in Oshkosh once again became the privilege of those over 21. At the time there were five beer bars in Oshkosh. Though, the Magnet remained a beer-only bar for several more years, the tavern would eventually take a full liquor license.
The Magnet continues to carry on much as it always has. It’s still primarily a beer and pool hall and they’re still serving their famous Magnet chili dogs. After all these years of see-sawing liquor laws, the Magnet remains a good-time Oshkosh fixture. A place where you can have a beer, shoot some pool and touch history where it lives.