The following is the work of Wilhelm W. Seeger, former professor of German at Grand Valley State University. This is the fifth part of his essay published in the Grand River Valley Review, Volume VIII, Number 1, 1988, by the Grand Rapids Historical Society. Posted with permission.
Using the latest in techniques and equipment from both the United States and Germany, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company produced a variety of fermented cereal beverages, including “Silver Foam” beer, “Hops and Malt” beer (Ed. Note – This was actually a “malt tonic” or unfermented health drink), porter, bock beer and Pilsner. The company’s market expanded to encompass not only local consumers but also those in many other western Michigan communities and in surrounding states as well.
The huge company’s only local competition came from the Petersen Brewing Company. This company was the successor to the old Michigan Brewery on West Bridge Street (Note: this is the only Grand Rapids pre-Prohibition brewery building still in existence, at the SW corner of Bridge & Indiana). Launched by Peter Weirich in 1856, the company was managed by its founder until his death on April 1, 1887, and then run as the Peter Weirich Brewing Company by his heirs, who sold it in 1894 to Julius R. Petersen and Jacob Wipfler. A year later, according to the city directory, Petersen was the sole proprietor.
During the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, the local beer industry flourished as never before. The Grand Rapids Brewing Company, the largest producer of beer in western Michigan, continued expanding its already huge facilities. In 1900 the addition of a large new bottling department was an “absolute necessity,” according to company officials, since the “fame of their Silver Foam brand has spread from state to state until it is demanded in all parts of the country.” Another building, constructed in 1905, contained an auditorium, apartments and storage area. Plans for the building were drawn up by Christian G. Vierheilig, a local German-American architect.
A separate bottling plant came next, and on August 17, 1907, a large advertisement in the Grand Rapids Evening Press proudly carried the headline, “After a Year’s Work at a Cost of $100,000 the New Bottling Plant of the Grand Rapids Brewing Company Is Completed. Visitors Are Invited.” Accompanying the advertisement’s detailed description of the new facilities and the measures taken to insure cleanliness and sanitation at the plant were a number of photographs of the new bottling machinery. The advertisement also boasted: “Every piece of machinery employed is new absolutely and it may in all fairness be stated that no other plant in America combines all the features in modern bottling machinery that can be seen at work in this one building.”
As the industry continued to grow, the workers unionized. The establishment of the Brewers Workingmen’s Union, No. 10, in the 1890s was followed by the organization of the Beer Bottlers and Bottle Wagon Drivers Local 254. The Brewers Union met twice a month in the Central Labor Union Hall, and the German names that dominated its roster of officeholders reflected German predominance in the industry as a whole.
By 1900, Grand Rapids had a sizable German- American population. Citizens of German origin were by then the city’s third largest ethnic group, outnumbered only by the Dutch and Poles. Although the greatest number of German immigrants had arrived between 1880 and 1895, immigration from Germany continued until the outbreak of World War 1. In 1912 there were about twenty-one German-American societies in the city, each with its own yearly calendar of official and social functions calling for the products of the brewer’s art to provide the proper Gemütlichkeit for the occasion. The Grand Rapids Brewing Company, with its large modern facility and a growing market for its products in Grand Rapids and throughout western Michigan, had little to fear from outside competitors.
More output led to the need for additional storage space, and the purchase of an old school building for that purpose in 1908 prompted the Grand Rapids Herald to remind its readers: “Its [the school’s] location has also been the source of a long standing pun. On one corner was the school, on another was a church, while on a third was a saloon. In consequence of this combination the saying has grown that on three corners were located education, salvation and damnation.”
Despite its size, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company did not have a monopoly on the local brewing industry. And in 1904 a new competitor emerged on the local scene. According to the Grand Rapids Evening Press, Elias Aberle, a Detroit promoter who had organized breweries in a number of Michigan and Ohio cities, including Detroit, Port Huron, Lansing, Battle Creek, Toledo, Youngstown and Columbus, was behind the organization of the new Furniture City Brewing Company in Grand Rapids. Forty of the 137 shareholders were saloon owners who would provide an outlet for the brewery’s products. Chosen to head the new enterprise were C.F. Young, president; John A. DeYoung and L. N. Hodges, vice presidents; and P. H. O’Brien, secretary and treasurer. The absence of German names among the Furniture City Brewing Company’s officers was a harbinger of things to come in an industry that was once but would one day no longer be – a predominantly German-American enterprise.
By June 1904 a water well had been drilled on the brewery site at Wealthy and Ionia. Plans for the buildings were developed, and the Furniture City Brewing Company hoped to begin marketing its product in February of 1905. The company was the last local brewery to open its doors in Grand Rapids before the nationwide victory of the temperance movement ushered in fourteen years of Prohibition and sounded the death knell for breweries all over the United States.