E.C.B.A. the KEG Spring 2004
Brewery Preservation: Celebrating Success Stories, Remembering the Fallen
by Rich Wagner
August, 1980: Rich Dochter and I were on vacation and taking the tour at Straub's along with our girlfriends. The tour wound down at the "eternal tap" and we motored on to Dubois. I couldn't have known at the time, but what we found was to have a profound effect on my life. Tucked away along the railroad tracks was the abandoned Dubois brewery. The brewery had closed in 1973 and it was vacant, but the door hung open, so we let ourselves in. The entire complex was intact: we examined the brew house and fermenting cellars, and the boiler house, and we even toured the 'bier stube', although sadly, there was no eternal tap, not a drop of Dubois beer to be had.
We continued our traverse across Pennsylvania, camping and visiting breweries, but we kept finding abandoned breweries. Few were as completely intact as Dubois, but we started talking to the locals and photographing the ruins: Kaiers in Mahanoy City, F & S in Shamokin, Germania in Altoona, Stegmaier in Wilkes-Barre. When we got home I jokingly said, "Let's photograph every standing brewery building in the state," and the rest is, as they say, "history." Using the Register of United States Breweries and a roadmap we underlined every Pennsylvania town listed so we could see where we had to go.
I remember telling can collector Alan Williams about our adventures and he assured me that Larry Handy would be the person to talk to about old breweries. I called Larry and he told me what was standing and where. This phone call had just put me in touch with a whole new breed of people I knew nothing about, namely breweriana collectors! Later that summer my girlfriend, Anna, and I photographed Neuweilers, Horlachers and Daeufer & Lieberman
In October, we drove out to Pittsburgh and met Bob Gottschalk at a BCCA/ECBA breweriana show. Bob was describing just how many index cards went into publishing the first American Breweries volume. Bob turned us over to Len Rosol and Bud Hundenski who told us where breweries were still standing in the Pittsburgh area. Anna and I tracked down as many as we could and discovered the old Eberhard & Ober, Duquesne, Phoenix and Braddock breweries.
Later the same month, Rich Dochter and I went to Erie and photographed the spectacular Koehler brewery.
In December my girlfriend and I flew out to California and got married on the beach wearing our "We Serve Miners" t-shirts from our August visit to the Black Diamond Bar in Frackville.
The following year, Anna and I ventured into Brewerytown, Philadelphia, and toured the Poth brewery which was in use as a factory. It was the biggest standing complex of the dozen or so breweries that constituted the Brewerytown neighborhood. As we photographed the building, inside and out, I would never have imagined that eleven years later, the brewery would briefly house the Red Bell Brewing Company.
We went across Girard Avenue and found the old Bergdoll brewery. It was run down, but magnificent. It had beautiful decorative brickwork and stone signs and it was a nearly complete brewery complex. We later read in the paper that the property was being developed into the "Brewery Condominiums." This was great, another brewery building saved from the wrecking ball.
In 1985 I seriously surveyed Philadelphia for every standing brewery building in the city. In the process a guy from the Philadelphia Gas Works told my neighbor about an old brewery next to PGW. How could I have missed this one? I'd ridden past it on the train all my life, but there on the side of the building you could still read "Home of Black Eagle Beer." The old Class and Nachod brewery survived prohibition and became the Poth Brewing Co. from 1936-1941. Another intact brewery complex. Temple University had already converted part of it into offices. In fact, this past summer, it was being remodeled into dormitory space for the University. I watched as the workers carefully cleaned the beautiful marble carvings of a lion and Medusa that decorate the entrance.
I photographed the Adam Scheidt brewery complex in Norristown in 1985. It has since been transformed into the Stony Creek Office Center. The eighties were heady times for developers and we have them to thank for preserving many of Pennsylvania's finest examples of brewery architecture.
And so this quest snowballed. Rich and I got together for a week of camping, visiting brewery sites and researching every summer for the next few. By 1986, together or independently, we had visited over 400 brewery locations and found something to photograph about half the time. I put together a collage of old Pennsylvania breweries and we marketed it as our Brewery Architecture in Pennsylvania poster in 1987. The same year I turned my research into the Philadelphia Brewery Tour.
We've conducted fourteen tours in the city and the itinerary changed with every brewery opening. There were so many microbreweries and brewpubs in town at the peak of the trend, we had to skip the old ruins and concentrate on touring the active breweries, two of which were in old breweries.
The Philadelphia tour prompted us to develop similar events for Pittsburgh, the Lehigh Valley, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and South Central Pennsylvania. The tours have raised awareness about the brewery buildings in each region. The E.C.B.A., ABA, NABA., the Society of Industrial Archeologists, many historical societies and even an adult evening school have sponsored twenty-four tours in all. I've published guidebooks to accompany each tour, and breweriana collectors have permitted me to photograph their collections which provides me with images to illustrate them. I won't attempt to thank them all but The Reiders, the Finks, Dale Van Wieren, Ken Ostrow, Barry Hunsburger, Scott Parzanese, Jody Farra, Dutch Cornish, Tom Raub, Stan Hess, people already mentioned and many others have helped me tell the story of Pennsylvania's breweries.
In the early eighties I started experimenting with homebrewing and began following the emerging craft brew industry. Anna and I attended the first Great American Beer Festival in 1982. The following summer we visited Bert Grant's brewpub in Yakima, the first Brewpub in the U.S.A. Bert gave us a tour and explained the building had been an opera house, but prior to that it was a brewery. This intrigued me, reusing a brewery as a brewery! In Denver we discovered the Tivoli brewery complex right next to the college where our friend was teaching. This was astonishing, a complete brewery complex that rivaled the Dubois or the old Stegmaier back home. Today it is the Tivoli Student Union for Auraria College and a business campus.
In 1986 Anna and I drove around the country with our one-year-old son Ed and toured as many microbreweries and brewpubs as we could find across Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and California, and then eastward through the south to New Orleans. After visiting all the hulking carcasses in Pennsylvania, it was exciting to tour breweries with steam exuding the aroma of malt and hops. I never dreamed that I'd visit more active breweries than defunct ones, but that's what's happened! The craft brewing industry has grown to the point where I've been able to visit over 500 active breweries in the United States and Canada..
On subsequent vacations we found ourselves visiting Milwaukee, where the entire Schlitz brewery complex was being developed into office and retail space. We saw the Blatz brewery downtown which had also been converted to offices. Since those visits, the huge Pabst brewery has closed and there are already rumors about a microbrewery, a beer museum, and maybe a mall. In Diluth the Fitzger, in New Orleans the Jackson, in San Diego the Mission, and in Halifax the Keith breweries have been converted into malls.
The past and the present keep intertwining on this journey on many levels, but seeing old breweries reborn as new breweries ranks at the top of the list. So when Tom Pastorius took the old Eberhard & Ober brewery complex and converted it into the Allegheny Brewery and Pub in 1986, I was ecstatic. Soon after, the Boston Beer Company restored life to the old Heffenreffer brewery. More recently in Indiana, the new Terre Haute Brewing Company has taken up residence in parts of the old Terre Haute brewery complex.
Of course some success stories are more dramatic than others. Many breweries have been converted into beer distributors, garages, factories and office space or housing, but none in Pennsylvania is as remarkable as the renovation of the Stegmaier brewery which was converted into a Federal building and mail distribution center.
In 1991 we conducted the first Luzerne Lackawanna Brewery Tour which was jointly sponsored by the historical societies of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton and filled two busses. It took years of wrangling and two conventions of breweriana enthusiasts (E.C.B.A., 1993 and A.B.A., 1995) along with two more Luzerne/Lackawanna Brewery Tours to "Save the Stegmaier," but it finally happened. It is to our credit as collectors that we helped preserve this magnificent piece of nineteenth century industrial architecture. And hopefully, primary mover and shaker, Al Kogoy will someday get his brewery museum.
Not all of the breweries are on such a grand scale, but the Germania brewery has been turned into the Johnstown Area Heritage Discovery Center. The Morris brewery vaults beneath the Castings Condominium in Philadelphia date back to 1790. Historic Bethlehem has plans to restore John Goundie's brewery in the basement of the Goundie House in Bethlehem. There is a reconstruction of William Penn's Bake and Brew House at Pennsbury Manor which is a State Park. And on a trip through Texas in 1995 I passed a sign advertising the Kreische Brewery Ruins, part of a State Park near La Grange.
Of course there is another side to the "Success Stories" coin, and that is all the old buildings that have been renovated and turned into brewpubs and microbreweries. I can't count how many brewpubs are in restored railroad depots around the country. If you're in an unfamiliar town and looking for a brewpub, the most likely place to start is the downtown historic district where all the old buildings have been rehabbed.
And in a "best of both worlds" scenerio, Bube's Brewery in Mount Joy was already a success story in preservation, but was reborn as a brewery in November, 2001.
More recently, in 2002, the old Weisbrod and Hess brewery on Frankford Ave. in Philadelphia has been reincarnated and is home to Yards Brewing Company. This is their third location in eight years and they remain the only microbrewery in the city.
The successes haven't come without some failures. When Rich Dochter and I began searching for Johnstown breweries in back in 1983 the wrecking crew was cleaning up for the day, and all that remained of the old Goenner brewery was one corner of the office. In Tube City the crane was idle but the brewery was nearly down. The Braddock brewery has been torn down. The Kaier's brewery in Mahanoy City looked bad in 1980 and I'm surprised it's still standing. F & S in Shamokin is long gone and in Scranton, the demolition of the Elizabeth Robinson brewery took twice as much money and time as expected.
In Philadelphia, the old Gretz brewery doesn't look long for this world, and neither does most of the old Ortlieb complex, although the bottling house was reborn as a brewery for several years. The Hohenadel brewery was razed three years ago and they're bulldozing Brewerytown to make room for condominiums. What's left of the Bergner & Engel and Poth breweries will be razed. I photographed the demise of the Schmidt's brewery complex for fifteen years and actually created a short video tape entitled "The Rise and Fall of Schmidt's."
But there are more diamonds in the rough out there, starting with the Neuweiler brewery in Allentown. With the right concept and the right backing it could become an Allentown landmark once again. And in Erie, there is currently talk of developing the Koehler brewery complex as a shopping mall. The old Grain Belt was standing when I visited in 1989. The Schmidt brewery in Minnesota, the Rainier and Olympia breweries in Washington and the old Pearl brewery in Texas have recently shut down. Hopefully these breweries will not meet the same fate as the Stroh plant in Detroit which was imploded some years ago.
Which brings me back to the Dubois brewery. Twenty years after that first tour at Straub's, my sixteen year-old son and I took the tour and continued on to Dubois and found the brewery. I photographed it, remembering my reaction to finding it twenty years earlier and wondered how much longer it would be there. This was the brewery that inspired a quest that has kept me looking around every bend in the road for the next undiscovered brewery relic for twenty years. The answer to that question turned out to be two years.
In the process of preparing this article, I started with a list of 30 brewery "Success Stories." I updated the list and it's now two pages and counting. Depending on how we define "success," a complete list for the whole nation could be a lengthy one. I've posted the list on my website (http://pabreweryhistorians.tripod.com) and I would encourage anyone who knows of other brewery "Success Stories" to contact me and I'll add them to the list.
So here's to the old and the new. If we can draw a lesson from the life of an old brewery, grow old with dignity, and there may be some use for us yet!
Philadelphia Brewery Tour Revisited YouTube Videos
Images From Brewery Tours
Philadelphia Brewery Tour
Pittsburgh Brewery Tour
Luzerne-Lackawanna Brewery Tour
Lehigh Valley Brewery Tour
South-Central PA Brewery Tour