American Breweriana Journal September/October 2022

Brewing in Chester, Pennsylvania

By Rich Wagner

Located about half-way between Wilmington and Philadelphia along the Delaware River, Chester is the oldest city in Pennsylvania with a brewing history that undoubtedly began with the arrival of the Swedes to the Delaware Valley in 1638. The Dutch took control in 1655 and were replaced by the English 1664. When William Penn sailed up the Delaware River in 1682 to visit the site for Philadelphia, he stopped off at the settlement called Upland for a pint of ale and changed the name to Chester.

We know little of early industry, but Chester built iron ships for the Union Army during the Civil War. Later, the city would become practically synonymous with Sun Ship Co., a subsidiary of Sun Oil Co. which was formed to manufacture oil tankers to serve their refinery just downstream in Marcus Hook.

The first brewery we know about was established as the William Penn Brewery by Moritz Weidmaier (Wiedmayer) in 1885. He was a partner in the Spring Hill Brewery just outside Wilmington for two years then built a four-story brick brewery with underground cellars in Chester at 2nd & Palmer sts. Two years later he sold it to F.X. Haser and moved to New Jersey where he became involved with breweries in Gloucester, New Brunswick and Raritan.

F.X. Haser was a well-known German brewer from Philadelphia and he renamed it the Chester Brewery. Unfortunately, dealers and retailers weren’t interested in handling his product because of the brewery’s limited output. His answer was to incorporate in 1891 as Chester Brewing Co. and raise $50,000 in capital stock to finance a modern brewery to double his capacity. His brother Adolph had a bottling business not far from the brewery.

He got some Philadelphia investors involved in 1895 and the company was sold to: J.F. Otterstetter, F.X. and Adolph Haser and William and Jacob Kinsler who incorporated as the Chester Brewing Co. with $100,000 in capital stock. The new company built a new bottling house, office and stable.

00 CAPTION Chester Brewery, dwelling and garden. Wilhelm Griesser, Chicago. The Western Brewer November 1892.

01 CAPTION: Registered April 6, 1897. Essential Feature. - The words "The William Penn Brewery," together with a representation of William Penn standing in a small boat approaching the shore. Used since February 2, 1897. The Western Brewer April 1897.

02 CAPTION: Image of William Penn statue prior to installation atop Philadelphia City Hall c. 1891.

03 CAPTION Bottle William Penn Brewery. (Etheredge Collection) Photo by R. Wagner (2016)

04 CAPTION: McClure Bottling Co. stopper.

05 CAPTION: Delaware County Daily Times April 4, 1917.

John G. Forstburg purchased the company in 1897. He was president and treasurer. His partner, William J. McClure was secretary and treasurer. McClure was a local bottler, businessman and Republican Party leader. They added a stock house and ice plant powered by a 50-ton ice machine and upgraded the brew house with a new 150-barrel system. In 1902 they added a new stock house.

When Wm. T. McClure died in May 1907 his son John J. was a 21-year-old sophomore at Swarthmore College. He dropped out to take over his father’s business and political interests, became a State Senator and was an owner of the Chester Brewing Co.

In an effort to meet demand they installed new equipment in their bottling house even as a new one was under construction. The partners’ sons, J.G. Forstburg and John J. McClure both attended national brewmasters’ conventions.

During WWI brewers faced restrictions on coal and malt. Initially “war beer” was restricted to 2.75% a.b.v. But wartime prohibition was declared in July 1918. McClure was not alone in violating the law as he and 44 other eastern Pennsylvania brewery owners were summoned to court to answer for continuing to sell beer of 2.75% a.b.v. McClure actually continued manufacturing real beer and was on record as sending a note to hotelmen stating: “We are taking a chance, why can’t you take a chance too?” Indictments were issued for both the brewers and the “greedy saloon men” who went along for greater profits over supporting the war effort.

National Prohibition became law in 1920 which meant only “near beer” containing less than 0.5% alcohol content was legal. The law was unpopular and demand was high for “high test” beer. Selling untaxed real beer increased the profit margin considerably, assuming one didn’t get caught. In Chester, as in much of the rest of America, not getting caught was simply a matter of paying protection money. And in Chester, the very elected and appointed officials in charge of running the city were the same people in charge of said protection, with constables frequently acting as collectors and enforcers.

Enter Arthur Ezekiel “Zeke” Parker, an army vet and marksman who served in France during WWI. He traded one uniform for another and became first sergeant of State Police Troop C in Pottsville. At some point, probably within the first five years of prohibition, breweries were being “shaken down” by authorities. Following the scandal, Parker left the force and got into real estate. It is a matter of conjecture that Zeke, who lived just outside Reading, was associated with that city’s “Beer Baron,” Max Hassel, who was known to have hired several former State Policemen, and had a number of real estate businesses laundering his cash. It is interesting that Zeke’s partner in Parker Albert Realty was Matteo G. Albert, who owned the New Reading Hotel and was part of Hassel’s organization.

In any event, after leaving the force, Zeke went into partnership with Philadelphia prize fighter Connie Dorian (or Dorrance) to purchase the Northampton brewery. They were raided and fined in 1927 and sold the brewery to New York interests four years later. They also had financial interests in the Chester Brewery.

During a trial in Federal Court in 1929 over Max Hassel’s breweries and their alleged ties to organized crime, Zeke made the papers by eluding two thugs who brandished pistols and said they wanted to “take him for a ride,” presumably to kidnap and or murder him to prevent him from testifying at the trial. By one account, one of the thugs was met with a hard right to the jaw and Zeke ran across the street into the Hotel Pennsylvania at 39th & Chestnut sts. in Philadelphia and called police.

Beer came back in April 1933 and even at 3.2% it was beer, not near beer! It was only a matter of time before the 18th amendment was repealed, so it would be interesting to know exactly what people thought a few months later when the Feds presented their case against the “Delaware County Rum Graft Ring.” One can picture the eye rolls, especially citizens of Philadelphia, where corruption was practically the rule of law since the city’s inception. Many must have been of the opinion, “What’s the big deal? Prohibition is over!”

But for over two months, into the fall of 1933, Philadelphia dailies reported the drama unfolding in Federal Court. And when the final verdict was rendered, there were double-page headlines and full pages of stories covering all of the juicy details.

The Feds had brought in Myron M. Caffey, special prohibition investigator, who developed the case that sent Al Capone to prison. They used what was learned there to build the case against the machinations of the Delaware County “rum ring” that used their official status to license people to break the law.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the trial determined that “EVERYBODY WAS IN ON IT!” State Senator John J. McClure was identified as the “Czar” of alcohol in Delaware County. All one needed to do to transport liquor, operate a still, speakeasy or brewery was to go to McClure’s office. From then on, you paid protection money to stay on the ‘protected’ or ‘OK’ list. “Scofflaws” who didn’t pay were put on the ‘knock off’ list and were raided and fined by the same judges and officials that maintained their own version of “officialdom.” For the Feds, the issue was not that prohibition was being repealed, but that the nearly 100 people convicted in the trial had participated in an elaborate conspiracy to violate Federal Law.

Renowned criminal defense attorney and Republican State Senator, John R.K. Scott of Philadelphia was McClure’s attorney. He had gotten Max Hassel off the hook, and was credited in his obituary with having obtained more acquittals for clients than any other attorney in the court’s history. McClure was fined $10,000 and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Zeke Parker was given a year and a day in jail and fined $2,000 for paying protection money to keep his Chester brewery running. They and most of the others convicted, continued appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and within four months had their sentences overturned. The Feds tried to get them on tax evasion as they had done with Capone, but those efforts never bore fruit.

After repeal, Chester Brewery’s largest stockholders were Zeke, 60% and Charles A. Bodine, 20%. Bodine was a racketeer who was partners with Hassel in at least two of his breweries: Camden and Seitz in Easton. This was one way the Feds used to connect Hassel to organize crime. Anyone trying to license one of Hassel’s breweries after repeal was put under intense scrutiny.

The fact that Zeke stood as being convicted of violating Federal Prohibition laws and was partners with Bodine made obtaining a license for the Chester Brewery difficult. They got the help of Chester magistrate Thomas C. Berry, who was awarded the license, over objections that he was merely a “straw man” for Zeke Parker and “Charley” Bodine. They registered the Penn Beverage Co. as a Delaware corporation, owner of Chester Brewery, Inc.

06 CAPTION: Delaware County Daily Times March 4, 1937.

07 CAPTION: Trademark Announcement. Thomas C. Berry doing business as Chester Brewery, Chester, Pa. Used since March 1, 1934. Filed March 15, 1934. No claim is made to the phrase “The Beer that Makes Friends.” Chester Brewery. The Western Brewer May 1934.

08 CAPTION “Uncle Ernie” Oest c. 1953.

09 CAPTION Penn Pilsner Beer. (

10 CAPTION Chester Pilsner Beer. (

The brewery got back to business and in June 1935 Zeke held a birthday party and entertained his distributors and fire department officials from Trenton. In January he hosted a venison supper.

In 1936 after modernizing the bottling house with a new Liquid Carbonic system, they re-introduced Chester Pilsner, a beer advertised as a style they’d been making for 50 years. Joseph Rauneker was brewmaster. The sixth-generation brewer had learned the trade from his father and attended brewing school in Germany. After emigrating, he attended the American School of Scientific Brewing in New York City. Chester Beer’s territory ranged from New York to South Carolina, including all the counties in eastern Pennsylvania.

In July 1948 Zeke filed an application for receivership to block Dora Cooper who owned 40% of the company’s stock from “wrecking the business” by trying to get him to purchase her shares for $100,000. He claimed Penn Beverage and Chester Brewery, Inc. owed him nearly $100,000 for loans he made to the companies. At the time, the brewery’s assets and receivables totaled $300,000. A year later, Parker sued the company to get paid $2,000 for his job overseeing production and sales at the brewery. He had to admit the brewery lost money during the receivership.

Dora’s husband Victor, had put his brewery shares in his wife’s name and opened Chester Distributing Co., wholesaler of beer and liquor in Trenton, New Jersey. He and Zeke had been arguing for weeks over marketing and distribution of Chester beer. In January 1951 Cooper’s daughter arranged to meet Parker at the Trenton office to try and resolve the dispute. When Victor heard that, he “flew up” by cab from Atlantic City, got to the office before his daughter and started arguing with Parker. The enraged Cooper ended the argument by shooting Parker twice: once in his right shoulder and once in his left elbow.

Reeling from the impact of the bullets, Zeke smashed open an exit door, and crashed through a plate glass window and onto the street. Cooper fired another shot which ricocheted off the pavement while Zeke hailed a passing motorist who took him to the hospital. A day after the shooting the brewery was sold in bankruptcy for $33,000.

The end came in May 1952 when the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board revoked the brewery’s license. It seems that Zeke had created a “slush fund” by not reporting money received from selling spent grains which he used to subsidize customers through loans, bar fixtures, setting up beer distributors, etc. That, and the fact that the Board concurred with original objections to the license that Thomas C. Berry, had indeed, acted as a “straw man” for “Zeke and Charley.” And the icing on the cake: though it was illegal, the brewery had borrowed money from Chester’s City Hotel and had falsified their application for a 1951 license.