The following is the work of Wilhelm W. Seeger, former professor of German at Grand Valley State University. This is the sixth 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.
Temperance forces were active in Grand Rapids as early as 1838, when the Reverend James Ballard preached total abstinence and urged the organization of temperance societies. Temperance influence brought forth temperance victories. The Michigan constitution of 1850 forbade the existing practice of granting licenses to sell intoxicating liquors, and in 1853, the Maine law was enacted, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of all intoxicating liquors in the state. Enforcement was difficult, however, particularly in Grand Rapids, then a rowdy lumberjack town, where the law was “violated openly and defiantly.”
Despite the apparent unwillingness of Michigan citizens to forsake the “demon rum,” temperance crusaders did not cease their efforts: Prohibition didn’t work, but taxation might. On August 2, 1875, a newly passed state liquor tax law, which became even more stringent over the years, levied an annual tax of $40 on beer retailers and a tax on brewers ranging from $50 to $300 a year depending on their output.
Even these measures aimed at controlling the liquor traffic did not satisfy the “drys,” who persisted in their attempts to create a nation of teetotalers and finally met with success. Michigan voted to go dry as of May 1, 1918, and the Eighteenth Amendment, turning the whole nation dry, was ratified on January 29, 1919.
Passage of Prohibition was in some measure tied to the entry of the United States into World War I on the side of the Allies. The outbreak of war with Germany precipitated a vast wave of anti-German hysteria in the United States, which in turn kindled a hatred of all things German. Many Americans even tried to link German-American brewers with some mysterious plot to use beer to corrupt innocent American youth and thus aid the nefarious Kaiser.
Grand Rapids, too, had its anti-German sentiments. The nearby town of Berlin changed its name to Marne, the teaching of German was banned in the local schools, and because so many of the city’s brewers were of German ancestry, support for Prohibition was much stronger than might otherwise have been the case.
With Prohibition set to take effect in Michigan on May 1, 1918, the local breweries began planning for the future. At the Grand Rapids Brewing Company, a liquidating committee was set up to dissolve the company’s assets, and at a special stockholders’ meeting in November of 1917, a liquidating dividend was declared. At another special stockholders’ meeting, a new company, the Grand Rapids Products Company, was organized to take over and operate the former brewery’s plant and equipment. The old company would cease beer production on April 30, 1918, and the new firm would begin producing soft drinks, industrial alcohol and byproducts.
The Grand Rapids Press of April 27, 1918, described the Grand Rapids Brewing Company’s final hours as a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages:
Officials of the Grand Rapids Brewing Company announced Saturday that their plant would close permanently Saturday night at 6 o’clock as a malt or spirituous manufactory. Telephones at the brewery were buzzing merrily all day Saturday, but its last pint of beer was sold early in the day and orders for more than 1,000 dozens were refused. “Our stock is all gone and we’re through for good,” said President G. Adolph Kusterer at noon. The company will make soft drinks.
On the west side of Grand Rapids, the Petersen Brewing Company had formed a firm called the Petersen Beverage Company for the purpose of producing a new temperance drink called “Vita.” According to an article in the Press at the time: The company believes it has succeeded in producing a cereal beverage that will fill a long felt want for a healthful formula with a percentage of alcohol so small as to come within Uncle Sam’s specifications for soft drinks. ( 12 )
The Furniture City Brewing Company also entered the “near beer” market with a product called “Nu Bru.”
The 1920s saw the former breweries divesting themselves of much of their property. The Grand Rapids Brewing Company sold its three story brick building on Ellsworth and Market to Henry L. Adzit in 1920, and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, which owned $325,000 worth of real estate in Grand Rapids when Michigan went dry, sold the last of its holdings to Rice Veneer and Lumber Company in 1923. In 1929 the George E. Ellis estate foreclosed on the Furniture City Brewing Company’s property mortgage. The brewers had fallen on hard times and many of them would never recover.
12. Grand Rapids Press, June 30, 1917.