99 bottles of beer on the wall, or maybe make that ice cream

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • forThe Review

Before we go any further with this column I want to make one thing perfectly clear, Sheboygan in its past was a German city and in many ways still is.

During the period of World War I 65 to 70 percent of our citizens could trace their ancestry directly back to Germany. In fact many Sheboyganites in those days were actually born in Germany such as several of my aunts and uncles.

If you know anything about the German culture you certainly must understand how important beer was to them. Even back in the days of the 1830s and 1840s when German settlers arrived in Wisconsin and established a new settlement their priorities were, build a home, a church, a school and a tavern, and in some cases a brewery.

In fact in my own family my grandfather swore that without a pail of beer on the table he couldn’t eat!

Wasn’t it beer that was supposed to make Milwaukee famous? Even here in Sheboygan, in the earliest of days, our city had two very active breweries the Schreier Brewery and the Gutsch Brewery which were fierce rivals.

In those days the breweries actually owned many taverns around the city. In fact they each owned somewhere close to 50 saloons which of course sold only their sponsor ’s beer.

The first of Sheboygan’s breweries began one year after the city’s first tavern license was issued. Leopold and Fronz Gutsch came to Sheboygan from Baden, Germany and began their brewery in 1847.

Theirs was the second brewery to open in Wisconsin and it is also believed that the first tavern in our city was operated by the twin Gutsch brothers. A third brother, Anton was also involved in the brewery partnership.

It was in 1856 when Conrad Schreier described as a “jolly good hearted German,” started a new brewery in Sheboygan. His first building was of wood frame construction and six years later was completely destroyed by fire.

However, Conrad Schierer was not one to give up, he rebuilt his brewery and prospered.

It didn’t take long before Schreier and Gutsch were fierce competitors. The Schreier brewery grew to be three times larger than Gutsch but they weren’t the only breweries in the city. There were at least two others about which little is known.

One of them was the Binz Brewery located in what was later known as the 99 Hall and the other was the Wellhoefer Brewery located on the far north end of Sheboygan on a site now occupied by the present day Cooper School.

Even though many people have said the products of these two were superior they could not match the other two breweries.

In the early days beer was sold only by the barrel. Bottling actually did not occur until the 1870s at which time breweries learned how to pasteurize beer. Beer in barrels, was not pasteurized, had to be kept cold at all times or it would spoil.

It seems that beer lovers anxiously awaited spring because it was then that the dark flavorful beer known as bock beer was brewed which signaled the departure of winter, always a long anticipated event.

For some reason, not quite clear, bock beer was represented by the figure of a whiskered Billy goat. This likeness of a Billy goat was hung outside of every saloon where bock beer was available.

The Schreier and Gutsch breweries had their problems because in the late 1800s union organizers descended on the breweries.

In 1891 labor organizers found that they were less than welcome at Sheboygan’s two largest breweries. The union organizers tried to instigate a boycott of the two breweries but were unsuccessful because most of the taverns were owned by the breweries themselves.

The attempts to unionize the breweries caused a strike at the Schreier Brewery and made for a lot of heated arguments in local saloons.

In fact in some cases fist fights broke out between union supporters and people who were against the unions. After the fight the non-union sympathizer came out of the fight with nothing more than a bruised face and the two brothers with whom he fought were both arrested and fined $7.50 each.

But the union was not one to give up easily. Four years later they charged that both breweries were employing children in violation of the children’s labor law. An investigation was instigated and it was learned that neither brewery had ever employed children and the case was dismissed.

When prohibition started in January 1919 Sheboygan had about 120 taverns for a population of less than 30,000. In the year 1920 the city directory now showed that Sheboygan had about 120 ice cream parlors. It seems that almost overnight Sheboygan’s beer drinking population had developed a sudden craving for soda pop and ice cream.

Occasionally federal agents would come to Sheboygan and one of the first things they did was check with the gas company to try and determine if there were people in the city who had abnormally high gas bills.

In a day when most people had a $3 or $4 gas bill per month a gas bill of $25 or $30 would arouse a great deal of suspicion. When suspects were confronted the Federal agents were given a reason for the high gas bills with the excuse “we like it warm in the house.” More likely than not a search of the home turned up stills and brewing equipment.

The whole point of this column is to demonstrate that Sheboygan people like their beer. Can you imagine Bratwurst Day without beer? It would be a little like trying to hold the Kentucky Derby without horses!

I don’t mean to glorify the consumption of alcoholic beverages but beer is an important part of the German heritage of our city, so now if you’ll excuse me I think I’ll go open a nice cold beer.

If anyone has any comments or suggestions for future columns please feel free to contact me, Bill Wangemann at 920-458-2974 or e-mail me at wangemann@yahoo.com.

Today’s Tidbit: During the bicycle craze in the early 1900s Feb 22, Washington’s Birthday, was a very special day to bicyclers. That was the traditional first day of the bicycle season. It was also the day the new models for that year came out, and bicyclers would line up early in the morning outside the bike shop to see them.

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