Monday, October 7, 2013

A Forgotten Brewery - F.X. Schmidmeyer


My very first posting on Forgotten Brewery Caves dealt with a nicely preserved specimen in Irvine Park, Chippewa Falls.  It repeated the widely available information that Schmidmeyer had the cave excavated in the early 1870s and that it was later used by the still extant Leinenkugel's brewery.

But from the start there were some parts of this story that did not feel definitive.  

For instance I knew that Schmidmeyer had been in business earlier than 1870.  I had seen an ad for his brewery from circa 1867.  So, where was he storing the beer in the 1860s?

This started an on and off hunt through archives and up and down hillsides.  And although I have to concede some missing parts I think I can now relate the history of the first brewery in Chippewa Falls.

My best information is that Francis Schmidmeyer established his brewery in Chippewa Falls in 1855 or 1856. The site he picked reflected the economic picture of the time.  It was right on the Chippewa river.  At that point there was no bridge over the river, and were no streets worthy of the name.

It was for the day an ideal location.  Because the roads were poor in the 1850s, all meaningful travel was by water.  And Schmidmeyer's brewery was located at the ferry crossing.  It had a number of natural springs on site, indeed, it was located on what would be later named "Spring Street".  And a nice bluff.  Just the place for a storage cave.

Building marked 37 is main brewery.  The house on the corner was the Brewmaster's.  1874 Birds Eye view.

Yes, the Schmidmeyer Brewery had every possible advantage.  First on the local market, great location, a growing community.  It should have lived long and prospered.  But it did not.  So, what happened?

In his obituary it says that Schmidmeyer established the first brewery in town which he "conducted for a number of years prior to 1855."  At some point he is said to have "leased it to other parties", with the implication being that this happened when he enlisted for Civil War service in 1861.  But the date of this is vague and there is reason to suspect that what he did was actually sell his interest in the brewery.  He may not have even lived here when the Civil War began as he does not appear on the 1860 census.

In this hand written note it seems Schmidmeyer is making reference to renting the brewery out to a partnership of Hubs (or Huber) and Neu for 3 years at $1,500 a year.  The marking L-  rather confusingly designates "to" in this rambling document!
Most of the available information on the brewery is found in scrawled hand written documents filed when Mrs. Schmidmeyer died and her estate was being settled.  Bad handwriting, smudges....but it is still remarkable to hold a sheet of paper once labored over by a Civil War veteran.

The 1870 census does have a "Frank Schmitmire" listed as a brewer.  He is 40 years old and residing with 36 year old Margaret Schmitmire and with Otto, Paul and Carlton, ages 12 to 3.  It sounds like a reasonable little family group.

But a mere six years later in the Probate files I find this statement:

"Francis X. Schmmidmeyer being duly sworn since Amelia Schmidmeyer was my wife.  She died at my house on the 20th December 1875.  She left me her husband with four children.

Paul Gibbard aged 18 years
Adolph Gibbard aged 16 years
Children of her former Husband.
Carl Augustus Schmidmeyer nine years of age and Emelia Margarth Schmidtmeyer age 6 years."

There is something going on here. Margaret Schmitmire?  (oh and pardon the constantly mutating spellings, that is what is recorded!) has passed away.  Emelia is recorded as being the daughter of Frances and the new Mrs. Schmidmeyer, born a mere 12 months after the 1870 census.  It appears that the previously mentioned Otto and Paul, now 17 and 18  are considered adults and on their own.

It seems almost certain that Schmidmeyer's second wife, Amelia, was previously married to a man named Gephardt, and that she effectively owned the entire brewery.  This suggests two things:

1. Mr. Gebhardt had owned the brewery.  Whether Schmidmeyer sold it to him in the Pre-Civil war era or whether it had passed through other hands is not clear.  Huber is a prominent brewing family in Wisconsin and may have been involved at some point.

2. Gebhardt was dead.  Women often inherited property in the 19th century, but they rarely did well in Divorce Court!

It is an oft repeated tradition in the early brewing industry that widows would own the brewery then remarry a man who would run it. The odd twist here is that that man had actually established the enterprise a decade or two earlier.  A widow and a widower joining forces to brew beer at his former business.

I don't think Schmidmeyer was ever really happy with this arrangement.  In one place he writes:

"When I married my wife she had an old horse and old wagon and no beer."

One gets the impression that the business had run down before Schmidmeyer got back into the picture.

More slightly crabby sounding talk from Francis X. appears to narrow down the date of his marriage to Ameilia to approximately 1871.

"For 5 years I  ran the brewery for my deceased wife for which I charge $500 a year.  I worked for my wife.  It was worth $1,000."  



Civic histories are full of success stories.  Of failures, not so many.  So the final unraveling of the Schmidmeyer Brewery in the later 1870's is somewhat a matter of conjecture.  They had a strong new competitor in the "Spring Brewery" established across town by Miller and Leinenkugel in 1867.  And perhaps the Schmidmeyers just were not that great at running a business.

I find oblique references to issues with barley shipments not being paid for.  At one point F.X. Schmidmeyer was "arrested for violating the licence and it cost me $500.  It was fined out of the brewery".  It was not his only brush with the law...in 1874 he was sued by an Anna Shanagham for "wrongful detention of personality (horse)"!  A 300 barrel a year brewery can only take so many adverse events.

No doubt the death of Amelia complicated the situation considerably.  Within a few years there was a lawsuit for sale of the property to benefit her children by the previous Gebhardt marriage.  A public sale in 1881 put the final seal on the enterprise.

But Francis X. Schmidmeyer was a resilient chap.  The 1880 census finds him running a boarding house and, at age 50, married a third time to Ida,  a woman half his age.  His collection of children now running from Carl, age 10, down to Caroline, age 1.   Francis lived to a reasonably ripe age for that time, passing away from "stomach trouble" in 1904. He seems to have had five or six children with Ida, the youngest of which was approximately the same age as his first grandchild!

Next time:  Maps and sketches, the brewery through the years




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