Schott Brewing Company
Reprinted from the American Breweriana Journal.
Written by Kevin Kious and Donald Roussin.
REMEMBERING THE SCHOTT BREWING CO. & THE “FAMOUS SCHOTT CAVES”
About 25 miles northeast of St. Louis lies the community of Highland, Illinois, presently the home of 8,000people. In the western part of town stands a large brick building. Above a doorway can be seen, faded but legible, the words “Schott Breweries, Inc.” Parts of the building are still being used by industry, helping to preserve the remains of a brewery that had served the town for several generations.
THE EARLY DECADES
Many of Highland’s early settlers were of German and Swiss origin, ensuring a demand for beer. Saloonkeeper Jacob Durer is said to have obtained his supply from Belleville in the early years of the town. By the early 1840’s, consumer demand called out for a local supply of beer, and more than one brewer answered the call. A few sources credit John Geisman with manufacturing the first beer in Highland in 1841, apparently on a very small scale. However, credit for starting the first local brewery is given by most sources to John Guggenbuehler, a native of Switzerland. After working for a time at a brewery in St. Louis, he moved to Highland in the early 1840’s, and with a partner named Fridolin Weber began the Jefferson Brewery, taking the name from the street upon which the plant was located. After the death of his partner in the early 1850’s, Guggenbuehler continued on his own.
A second brewery was opened in the area in 1854 by local merchant Charles L. Bernays. Located on North Mulberry Street, it was to become known as the Highland Brewery, and consisted of a two-story brick building with a pair of arched 15′ x 45′ cellars, and second floor residential quarters. It was a modest concern, producing only 400 barrels of beer in 1855.
The Jefferson Brewery’s production was of similar quantity, as a mortgage taken out around the time mentions 300 barrels of ale and 100 of beer aging in late winter.
The future of these breweries was soon to be imperiled, however, as around this time Illinois legislators elected to put before voters a prohibition law popularly known as a “Maine-law,” as it was a near duplicate of a law passed by that state. The election was to be held on June 17, 1855, and was in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that a Prohibition law passed by legislators in 1851 was unconstitutional.
A visitor to Highland shortly before the election noted that “in that day Highland was almost as German as Berlin, though in the town and country surrounding was a liberal sprinkling of Swiss and French; in a word, the population was almost wholly foreign, and to say that they were all dead-set against the Maine-law only expresses the naked truth.”
The writer continues, “when we got to Highland we found great crowds of people and three or four speakers on as many rostrums…what the words were we were left to guess, for everything was spoken in the German language. However, we knew that practically every argument that by hook or crook could be marshaled against the Maine-law and its believed-to-be fanatical advocates, was being driven home with vehement force and energy. Meanwhile beer was on tap at a number of stands and save for my uncle and myself, practically every man drank to his fill. To us this was novel, for in that day, beer-drinking had not as yet become common.”
Illinois voters defeated the Maine-law, and it was with this as a backdrop that in 1856 two German immigrants, Gerhart Schott and his son Martin, became partners in Bernays’ Highland Brewery. The next year the Schotts bought out their partner, Martin’s younger brother Christian joined the company, and Martin for a time moved with his new bride Bertha Eggen into the upstairs residence. Bertha had been the first child born in the town of Highland, though she had spent much of her childhood with her grandparents in Switzerland.
The 1860 census of Madison County, Illinois, lists four different Highland households headed by brewers: The Schotts (whose household by now included 2 year old Amelia, a teenage housekeeper and two young Swiss immigrants — assistant brewer Jacob Preuer and driver John Christ); Nicholas Voegele, who had become a partner in the Jefferson Brewery; Daniel Wild, who was intimately involved in early area beermaking and the Jefferson Brewery; and lastly, John Geisman, longtime Highland resident, pioneer brewer, and occasional cooper. Jefferson Brewery founder Guggenbuehler had turned to barkeeping as his profession after selling his heavily mortgaged brewery to Voegele and Wild for $4,000 in 1860.
Apparently, sometime after 1841 but before 1845, John Geisman had discontinued his Highland brewing activities, as he does not appear in the 1845 census, but reappears in 1850, recorded as a cooper living outside of town. In any case, Geisman resumed his brewing trade in the decade before the Civil War, when he bought a house in the 700 block of Broadway, to which he added a 20′ x 18′ stone aging cellar. One source claims Geisman, who had been born in Baden, Germany in 1816, continued making beer at this address until 1877 when “extreme old age forced his retirement.” The aging cellar was rediscovered and opened up in the 1930’s by the Zolk family, which then owned the house. In later years, the house was torn down, the site now occupied by a modern gas station.
While the 1866 Madison County Gazetteer still lists Geisman, Wild, and the Schotts as Highland brewers, it was the Schott name that was soon to become synonymous with local beermaking. In January 1866, the Schotts purchased the Jefferson Brewery from Daniel Wild for $7,750, thus consolidating Highland’s two breweries.
That same year, Gerhard left the business to his two sons, and returned to Germany. Soon Martin and Christian began construction of a new brewery on the south end of Mulberry Street, on the grounds of the storage cellars of the Jefferson Brewery. Their original brewery was eventually torn down in the 1930’s, by the Fentz family heirs.
MARTIN SCHOTT’S BREWERY
Martin Schott was born in 1830, and grew up on his father’s farm in the German duchy of Nassau. At age sixteen, he apprenticed to a brewery, where in 1849 he was granted a diploma which would eventually hang in the office of his Highland brewery. Martin worked at a brewery in Bavaria, then left Germany in 1851 for Lyons, France, before joining his father in America in 1856.
In 1870, with the new brewery completed, Martin bought out his brother, becoming the sole proprietor of what would become Highland’s only remaining brewery. Financial ratings issued that year by R. G. Dun and Company pronounced the Schott’s brewery as being a good investment, worth between $10,000 and $25,000.
The business continued to grow. By 1880 the brewery capacity was up to 6,000 barrels per year, annual sales were $45,000, and there were twelve employees. Out of town sales were enhanced by the fact that there was no other brewery on the railroad line between St. Louis and Terre Haute.
In the 1880’s, the Schott family began moving to new homes built near the brewery. An extensive lagering cellar was built, extending underneath the first three houses on the west side of Mulberry Street. The 300′ main tunnel and side tunnels were dug out by hand, and up to 40′ deep. It took five years to complete the cellars and install the wooden aging casks. Three ventilator shafts were installed, and were kept open
during the winter, which kept summer temperatures cold enough to lager beer, a system used until 1909, when modern refrigeration was introduced. Eventually, 100 tanks, each with a 100-barrel capacity were placed in this tunnel, where the beer was aged for several months. Later beer bottle labels would tout these underground passageways as the “famous Schott caves.”
Additional small brick side tunnels were also built connecting the lagering cellars to the basements of each of the three houses sitting above the “caves.” Martin Schott, and others involved in the business living in these homes, could depart for work every day, and return, without ever having to go outdoors!
In 1884, Martin Schott, preparing for sons Otto, Albert, Eugene, and Martin, Jr., taking over the company, incorporated the business as the Highland Brewing Company.
Over the next few years, the brewery continued its expansion. Plant improvements and additions were made, increasing capacity to 15,000 barrels. Forty percent of sales were in Highland (a rather prodigious consumption for a town of about 3,000), the rest in surrounding towns.
By 1893, annual capacity was up to 25,000 barrels, with facilities including a three-story brewhouse, a five-story malthouse, two-story bottling and refrigerating houses, and an ice plant capable of producing 25-50 tons per day.
In October of 1899, Martin Schott celebrated his 50th anniversary as a master brewer, and announced that he was retiring from daily management of the business. By the time of his retirement, Martin Schott had become nationally known in the brewing community. About this time, evidence of the high esteem in which he was held in the industry was demonstrated when the United States Brewers Association awarded him an honorary membership. In 1900, when the United States Brewmasters Association met in Buffalo, New York, they also honored him with an honorary membership. Martin died in 1903, having been involved in the brewing industry for fifty-seven years, with over forty-five of them in Highland.
At Martin’s death, his sons assumed control of the brewery. Albert, 32 at the time, had gone to Chicago to learn more about the rapidly changing brewing business, and became both company president, and brewmaster. Younger brother Eugene served as secretary, and Martin, Jr., as treasurer. Oldest brother Otto had been groomed to take over the business, but died in 1895, after a lengthy illness.
The brewery continued to prosper, and by 1911, when Albert decided to get out of the business, capacity had reached 75,000 barrels a year, and the site boasted two large ice plants, one with a daily capacity of 75 tons, the other 50 tons. In addition to the aging vats in the Schott cave, a stock house with a 5,000 barrel capacity had been erected. The bottling plant had the ability to fill over 35,000 bottles of beer per day.
Numerous improvements had been made to the plant, including the cementing of the cave’s brick walls, and the installing of modern lighting in them. Highland beer was being sold throughout southern Illinois, and in other nearby states.
The brewery had become Highland’s second largest industry behind the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company (later Pet Milk), which canned its product under the Highland label. So great was the need for water by these two concerns that a pipeline had been laid to both of them from a pond north of town.
Helvetia was also the name chosen as the brewery’s flagship brand, the name deriving from an ancient civilization in western Switzerland, and for which the township containing the town was named. In Highland, there was a Helvetia drink for everyone: condensed milk for the kids, beer for mom and dad. To advertise its major brand, the brewery used the slogan, “None quite so good as Helvetia bottle beer.” The Edwardsville Intelligencer, an area newspaper, made this statement in 1912 about Helvetia bottled beer: “the Highland brew is super-excellent, and it is recognized as such throughout the entire country. The business of the brewery covers the state of Illinois and many others adjacent thereto.” Other pre-Prohibition brands included Bavarian Lager, and Edelweiss, the latter also available in bottles.
Upon Albert’s departure, Eugene Schott became company president, Martin Jr., the treasurer, and Schott brother-in-law Hans Kalb, who purchased Albert’s share of the business, took over as brewmaster and corporate secretary. Hans Kalb had learned brewing in his native Germany, arriving at the age of 18 in the U. S. in 1890, and then practicing his craft at a brewery in Dayton, Ohio. From 1898 to 1911, he had been employed at the Wainwright Brewing Company in St. Louis, as brewmaster, a position from which he had resigned to join his wife’s family brewery in Highland. Hans Kalb had married Katherina Schott in 1900.
Albert Schott moved briefly to Ohio to manage a milk plant that had been started in Marysville by John Wildi of the Helvetia Company, but in 1915, returned to Highland to become associated with the 1st National Bank. By the time of his return, his brother Eugene had been elected mayor of Highland, a position he would hold until 1921. Meanwhile, the brewery kept going strong, employing around 70 men at its peak of production, until being devastated by the enactment of Prohibition.
THE DRY YEARS
For many breweries, the Prohibition years were difficult, for others, impossible, as companies scrambled to find a way to survive. The Schotts, who had spent over sixty years developing their beer business, now found their product outlawed. They attempted to cope by making a near beer called Helvetia Delicio, but like most such drinks, it was not a business success.
Some nearby breweries continued to bootleg real beer, at least for a time. While there is no direct evidence that the Highland brewery did so, rumors of illegal beermaking and whiskey distilling in the brewery during Prohibition are still whispered by long time city residents. Supposedly, local truck drivers were hired for “day work,” a euphemism for spending the day making deliveries of alcoholic beverages. One source alleges that the bootlegging operation based in the brewery was of short duration, and was ended because it turned out to be unprofitable, after all of the bribes were paid to local officials! In any case, if any significant bootlegging activity was done out of the brewery, there is no record that they were ever caught.
The company continued in the ice business, while the bottling plant was turned into a slaughterhouse. Attempts were made at growing mushrooms, and also rabbit processing. None of these endeavors were very successful. Helping to keep the former brewery afloat were the sale of numerous pieces of real estate it had acquired over the years, plus the 1925 sale for $50,000 to the city of Highland for its share of the piping system from the pond north of town. But, as the brewery equipment sat idle and began to deteriorate, the company became heavily indebted to a bank in the nearby town of Collinsville. Things began to look up for the brewery, however, as the end of Prohibition finally grew near. In April 1932, Eugene Schott, together with associates from Collinsville, formed a new company called the Schott Brewing Company. Schott invested $25,005 for controlling interest of 5,001 shares of stock, while the other investors split the remaining 4,999 shares. Collinsville banker R. Guy Kneedler (1,499 shares) was named corporate president, with Eugene Schott vice-president, Charles Maurer (1,000 shares) treasurer, and Grace E. Allred (1 share and Guy Kneedler’s longtime assistant) secretary. Other investors and corporate directors included George McCormick (1,000 shares), and Richard Kneedler, Jr., (1,499 shares). They were soon joined by James O. Monroe, outspoken publisher of the Collinsville newspaper and an Illinois state senator.
Beginning in the fall, a large amount of money was spent to put the brewery back into shape, with Charles Maurer overseeing much of the construction. A huge new boiler was installed, so big that a portion of the building housing the old boilerhouse had to be removed, and a larger building erected in its place. Bottling facilities were enlarged and upgraded, and a diesel generator was installed in the enginehouse to replace the coal-fired steam engine. Frank Santner was hired as brewmaster, in a plant with a production capacity now rated at 100,000 barrels per year. Santner was a veteran beermaker, having spent fourteen years at the Schoenhofen Brewery in Chicago where he had brewed the well-known Edelweiss brand.
BEER IS BACK
Hopes were high at the brewery. The plant was not quite ready for production when beer became legal again on April 7, 1933, however. Repairs and improvements had taken a bit longer than expected, and the company had yet to receive its Treasury Department brewing permit. Still, thirty-five men were on duty preparing for re-opening. Production goals were initially set at 125 barrels per day, to be increased to 400 daily once things were rolling. Highland residents had to content themselves with beer from St. Louis on opening day, most of it Falstaff. Tavern patrons pronounced the new 3.2% beer as good, but perhaps in need of a bit more aging.
On April 21, it was announced that the brewery was planning to double even the latter production goal, to 800 barrels a day. Additional equipment was ordered, including fermenting tanks to hold 2,400 barrels. According to Guy Kneedler, the company had ordered 60,000 wooden cases and 10,000 gross of bottles, with 20% to be delivered at once. Hops and malt had arrived, and inquiries for sales had been received from as far away as New York, Los Angeles and Georgia. The company’s business plan called for more machinery to be purchased as needed, and it was believed that up to 150 men could eventually be employed.
To raise additional money to pay for expanding production, 20,000 shares of stock were put up for sale, a common way for breweries of the time to raise capital, despite the recency of the 1929 stock market crash. A. E. Elliott & Associates of St. Louis handled these stocks, described as “Class D Speculative Securities under Illinois Law,” for the Schott Brewing Company, which priced them at $12.50 per share. Brewmaster Santner and Highland dentist R. E. Baumann must have been persuaded to invest, as they were soon added to the board of directors.
The brewery finally received its permit on May 1, 1933, and brewing commenced on the next day when two hundred barrels began fermenting. On May 30, the public got it first taste of Schott Brewing Company beer. Major brands included Highland, Highland Special, Highland Bohemian, and Schott’s Old Lager, and for a short time once full-strength beer was allowable, a bottled beer called Five Star. Schott also did some contract brewing, bottling the Pine Tree brand, which was distributed in St. Louis by the Independent Beer Distributors, Inc. Once production started, there were fifty employees, with the company announcing plans to double the work force, and setting a new goal of 500 barrels per brewing day by July 1. The brewery sought to expand sales by setting up distributors. In August 1934, a local newspaper ad announced that the Schott Brewing Company had appointed George Darling and Sons, of Granite City, Illinois, as distributors of the famous Highland beer. The ad continued, “Schott’s Old Lager and Highland Special Beer is aged in the Schott underground cave. Served in steel barrels made in Granite City.”
Eugene Schott, who had been the driving force behind the Highland brewery both before and after Prohibition, died just three years after the brewery reopened, at the age of 63, following complications from appendix surgery. Guy Kneedler was left to carry on, with a board of directors which had grown to include Edward Jones of the giant Griesedieck Western Brewery in nearby Belleville, as well as Highland postmaster A. H. Winter. Kneedler’s son Richard, Jr., who had abandoned a law career to help manage the brewery, now took an even greater role in the daily operations.
The 1936 Highland phone book lists the general office at 600 13th Street, with a phone number of 4B. The president’s office was at 13th and Elm, and of special interest for breweriana collectors was a short-lived sign department several blocks away at 808 Broadway, a building which still stands.
Like many other small breweries of the time, however, the Schott Brewing Company was plagued by old debts, lack of capital, and lagging sales. It was unable to regain the prominence it had once enjoyed in the pre-Prohibition days. Brewing operations were suspended in late 1937, and no beer was brewed throughout the first two months of 1938. On February 11, unable to make payments, the brewery got the Froedtert Grain & Malting Company of Milwaukee to extend for several years the $55,000 balance of a mortgage. This accomplished, in late February it was announced that the brewery would reopen, with a familiar name included among the three local businessmen taking over management. Albert Schott, who had stepped down as brewmaster in 1911, was returning as assistant manager at the plant with which four generations of his family had been associated. Albert, who had become vice-president of Highland’s First National Bank, was joined by Leo M. Stoecklin as general manager, and A. J. Katt as sales manager of the brewery. Stoecklin had been in the saloon business prior to serving for over a decade as Highland postmaster, while Katt had been with the local Wicks Pipe Organ Company. Richard Kneedler, meanwhile, had left for the Falstaff brewery in Omaha, later becoming a vice-president and general manager of Kansas City’s George Muehlebach Brewing Company.
Local subscribers put up over $20,000 to service debts, but unfortunately the new management team had no better luck at reviving the business than the old. Creditors filed a petition on January 18, 1939 in Federal Court to push the brewery into involuntary bankruptcy. The company owed $5,000 to the State Bank of Collinsville, $8,000 to the First National Bank of Collinsville, and $500 to George Baechtold of that city.In addition to being critical of the current management, the petitioners also noted that Froedtert Grain & Malting Company had filed a foreclosure suit on the mortgage it held on the brewery, a claim which may have been false.
At a stockholder’s meeting on January 31, in an effort to save the business, those present voted overwhelmingly to reorganize however the Court would see fit. The Court granted the bankruptcy request the next day, allowing the brewery a chance to reorganize under section 77-B of the Federal bankruptcy code. Robert G. Moore acted as the head trustee during the initial stages of the financial reorganization, and was commanded by the Court to file a reorganization plan by June of the same year.
Henry Eberhardt and George Lochmann, directors of the Collinsville banks which were owed money by the brewery, were selected as additional trustees, and subsequently hired H. A. Wagner, formerly of the Falstaff Brewing Company, plant manager at a salary of $300 per month. Wagner expressed confidence that he could get the company’s finances back in order and secure additional outlets necessary to sell more beer. Unfortunately, in the months that followed, the brewery’s financial health not only did not heal, but actually took a turn for the worse. The Court replaced Moore as head trustee with Frank Aurelius of Springfield, Illinois. The trustees during the bankruptcy period were sued several times by parties not satisfied with their management, or “lack of management” of the business. One suit, brought by 48 brewery employees and other creditors, sought to hold the trustees personally liable for allowing the brewery to continue to operate with an average loss of $3,000 per month. Also involved in this suit was an objection to the ruling of the bankruptcy referee, Evan Howell, who had allowed payment of attorney fees in preference to brewery workers’ wages and other “more important debts.”
Soon, in March 1940, by the order of the court, the brewery was put up for sale, or auction, to liquidate assets, to satisfy creditors. The brewery was officially bankrupt and closed once more, with orders to be filled only until stock on hand was exhausted, with an indebtedness of $220,000, of which $45,000 had been incurred since the reorganization.
Later in March, the Schott Brewing Company was purchased by Charles Dorries of nearby Breese, Illinois, the selling price a paltry $20,000 for property said to be worth around $300,000. The brewery had changed ownership in a private sale, with the transaction approved by the court. Mr. Dorries seemed a good choice to head the brewery, as he already was experienced in the beverage industry by his ownership of a soda-bottling house in Breese. He announced plans to revive brewing within a week and to call back all 65 brewery employees.
At the time of the sale, incorporation papers were also filed, changing the name of the business to Schott Breweries, Inc. The incorporators were Charles Dorries, as President; Saul E. Cohn, an attorney from East St. Louis, as vice-president; and Max W. Kramer, an attorney also from East St. Louis, as secretary-treasurer. The new company hoped to begin life on a sound financial footing, by issuing 2,500 shares of stock, which would hopefully provide a capitalization of $250,000. The new owners set about selling 1,000 of the shares with a par value of $100, which it was hoped would provide a working capital pool of $100,000.
Brewing was resumed, and the new management team sought to regain market share lost to other breweries while they had been closed down. In October 1940, a suit was filed in Federal Court, to enjoin the Carondelet Brewing Company in St. Louis from using the title “Bohemian Beer,” and from using any label calculated to “deceive the public into believing that its beer is manufactured by the Schott Breweries, Inc. of Highland, Illinois.” Schott claimed that Carondelet had used a bottle label that was “deceptively similar to its own.”
The brewery set about repositioning Schott’s Lager as a discount brand, to increase sales. Ads throughout 1940-1941 for a liquor store in the nearby town of Granite City touted “ice-cold 5%” Schott’s for only $1.15 a case, while other “popularly priced” brands were going for $1.65. Such efforts resulted in the production of 26,000 barrels in 1941. In April of that year brewery workers were rewarded with substantial raises and paid vacation. The newspaper story announcing this also said that the new management was spending a considerable amount of money in improvements and new equipment.
Soon joining Dorries as primary company owners were Dave and Gordon Matusofsky of the Independent Beer Distributors, Inc., of St. Louis, and Arkansan D. M. Moore.SelmarBleisch of Edwardsville was hired as corporate attorney and Richard Schlessinger was brought in as brewmaster. With capital behind it, the brewery appeared poised once more to become a viable business. In addition to the Missouri connections of the Matusofskys, Moore had business contacts in several southern states that aided in product distribution.
Whatever further plans the new owners had, they and much of the rest of the brewing industry were hindered by the shortages and wartime measures of the next several years. While whatever beer could be made was sold, it was impossible to increase production.
Attorney Bleisch had bought out Charles Dorries in 1944, but by March, 1947, he and D. M. Moore were also ready to exit the business, and sold out to the Matusofsky family. While Richard Schlessinger continued as brewmaster and Dave and Gordon Matusofsky as president and vice-president, Rose Hoffman became second vice-president and Leon Hoffman secretary-treasurer. The company continued making and marketing Highland Bohemian Beer, but soon brewing was cut back, despite the fact that the facility had been put back in the best operating condition in years.
Rumors began to abound that the brewery was once more in financial trouble. At one point, workmen were laid off and loaned to the two breweries in Belleville, and the stock on hand was poured down the drain.
LAST GAST EFFORTS
In November 1947, rumor became reality, when it was announced that the by then dormant brewery had reached an agreement with the Gast St. Louis Brewing Company. Gast was entering a five-year lease with an option to buy, and planning to get the plant back running by February. Gastchairman J. W. Brady and president Walter Fox said that papers would soon be filed making the change official. The brewery’s name was being changed to Gast Plant #2, beer would be made using the Gast formula and called Gast Beer. None of the old Highland names would be retained.
The first year of the lease agreement called for payments of $1,250 per month, plus fifty cents per barrel for every barrel produced over 30,000. Also included in the agreement was the balance of a 99-year lease for privileges of parts of the Schott caves which extended under the three nearby houses that homeowners Lina Schott, Alice Schott, and the State Bank of Collinsville had granted to the Schott Brewing Company in 1932. Gast assistant brewmaster William Schachtner was sent to join brewmasterSchlessinger, and corporate secretary-treasurer Freeman J. Lowery was named on-site manager. The new management said it was anticipating a long and pleasant relationship with the Highland community.
Gast made several capital improvements in the Highland plant, in an attempt to improve efficiency, the most important of which was the erection of a new stockhouse built of cinderblocks, close to the brewhouse. But even such optimism and last minute improvements could not change the fact that the brewing industry in Highland was doomed. Selling the brewery to Gast was not a popular business move with many Highland area residents. Members of this close-knit community descended from German and Swiss pioneers resented the fact that their hometown brewery had been taken over by “outsiders,” particularly ones who were so bold as to change the name of the brewery and drop the old brand names. Also draining away local support was the fact that while the Schott brewery had for years provided free beer to the townspeople on Fridays, at the plant’s sternewirth (hospitality house), Gast had halted the practice upon assuming control.
In 1948, combined sales of beer from both Gast breweries had plummeted to 38,000 barrels, from 60,000 the year before. The same year, Gast St. Louis closed its brewery at 851 Hornsby street in St. Louis, which had suffered $25,000 worth of damage in an autumn fire, and transferred all company operations, including brewing, to its former Plant #2, in Highland. Ironically, the Highland branch had outlived its parent.
Albert Schott, meanwhile, had outlived his family’s namesake brewery as well, but only barely, as the last living son of longtime master brewer Martin Schott was killed in a tragic traffic accident on April 13, 1948, on the Highland-Trenton road. Just the previous month Guy Kneedler, who headed the company that reopened the brewery in 1933, had died as well.
Gast Brewing was soon to expire too, as it was in serious financial trouble. This was confirmed for skeptics by May, 1949 newspaper ads which began announcing “Gast Beer Is Here To Stay,” and making appeals for beer drinkers to protect local jobs by drinking Gast. Finally, the last beer barrel of “the best beer brewed”, and “a good beer always,” as Gast advertised its beer, was bunged in Highland on October 8, 1949. Ten days later the company announced that it was petitioning the circuit court in St. Louis to liquidate its assets as it was unable to pay debts. The company listed assets of $53,530 and liabilities of just over $200,000.
Dave Matusofsky, spokesman for the company that still controlled the Highland brewery building, machinery and real estate, told the Highland News-Leader that future plans for the site were uncertain, but that any offers for sale, rent or lease would be considered. The newspaper correctly predicted that it looked like the plant would be closing for good this time.
The Highland brewery building sat idle for some years after operations ceased, while much of the equipment was salvaged, and the caves became a children’s playground. It later passed into the hands of Harold Hosto of nearby Troy. He sold the buildings to Milton Ohringer of Pittsburgh in 1957, who two weeks later sold them to the Highland Supply Corporation.
This was a company founded in 1937 by the Weder family to manufacture corsage containers. Along with its sister company the Highland Products Corporation, the business used the main brewery building to conduct cellophane experiments, and also as a warehouse. Highland Supply retains control of most of the property to this day, though the only part of it the company is still using is a woodworking shop in the lower level. Still owned by the Weder family, today the company produces a complete line of floral supplies, cellophane, and film and packaging materials. The adjacent former stock house erected by Gast was for a number of years the home to the Jet Lite Corporation, a manufacturer of fluorescent lighting, and also has housedConChem, a producer of industrial floor and wall coatings. Today, it is being used by Midwestern as a pizza distribution center. (Ironically, the only building still standing of the old Gast brewery in St. Louis, the former bottling house, is also involved in the pizza industry, as a manufacturing plant).
In December of 1991 it was announced that the main building in the former Schott brewery was being given to the Deck’s Prairie Foundation, with the goal of turning it into a museum of local history. To date, work has just begun on the extensive renovation needed to turn the former Schott brewhouse into a museum. As a start, several vintage horse drawn vehicles once used in the Highland area have been restored, and placed on display in the neatly refinished area beneath where the brewkettle once was installed. The entire complex has had all of its brickwork tuckpointed, including the giant smokestack. Other work completed has included replacing the roofs and starting to repair damages caused by the old leaky ones. So, with so many other old breweries gone, or falling apart, thanks to the Weder family and local volunteers, one can look forward with satisfaction to seeing the completed museum, preserving the old buildings of this Highland landmark.
SIDEBAR #1: THE HIGHLAND BOHEMIAN NAME LIVED ON.
The Highland Bohemian trade name did not die with the closing of the brewery in Highland, but lived on for another decade. The Mound City Brewing Company in New Athens, Illinois obtained the rights to the Highland Bohemian name, which they bottled until their own demise in 1951. Shortly thereafter, and into the late 1950’s, the Fischbach Brewing Company in St. Charles, Missouri, marketed their version of Highland Bohemian beer, In bottles featuring labels not much changed in design from those that had shipped from Highland and New Athens. In fact, Fischbach “recycled” some of Schott’s Highland Bohemian cardboard cases to ship the St. Charles version of the brand, by simply painting out the Schott brewery name, and stenciling in their own.
SIDEBAR #2: SCHOTT BREWERY BRAND BEER BROUGHT BACK.
In 1987, nearly forty years after the brewery closed, and in celebration of Highland’s sesquicentennial, a commemorative brand of beer brewed by Hibernia Brewing Company of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, featured the Schott Brewery on its label. Over 2,000 cases were pre-sold to area liquor stores. The can featured an illustration of the old brewery drawn by local artist Diane Frey, and a paragraph of historical information on the industry that had for so long been a part of the town.
SIDEBAR #3: IN THE FIELD: VISITING THE “FAMOUS SCHOTT CAVES.”
Researching a given brewery’s history need not be restricted to the local library, if that brewery has not been demolished, and permission can be obtained to enter the surviving structures. Such was the case for the authors in researching this article, after being granted a guided tour by a member of the Weder family, the current owners of most of the buildings that once housed the Schott brewery. The following is an account of that tour:
A sense of anticipation made the seven days between when the appointment to tour the former Schott buildings was made, and the actual tour day itself, a long week indeed.
Upon entering the complex, one is struck with how little some areas have changed. Upon entering the door marked “Racking Room,” one can almost smell the fresh beer, and hear the bung hammers smashing a cork into place, getting another keg of fine Schott’s beer ready for delivery.
The plant is well laid-out. Unlike other breweries which, as they grew over time, became a hodge-podge of separate buildings and architectures, the Schott brewery (with the exception of the cinder block secondary stock house erected by Gast) is a unified, square plant, with an atrium in the middle of the complex. Each new addition or major modification made to the brewery after 1890 was carefully integrated into the existing buildings. For example, the Schotts took the time to insure that new brickwork matched in color and style with previous additions.
While most of the old brewing equipment is long gone, enough remains that there can be no doubt of the original purpose of the plant. The hot water tank remains on the top floor of the brewhouse, the cereal grinder on the middle floor. A large round, now boarded-over area on the second floor of the brewhouse covers the area where the mammoth brewkettle once was mounted. Most of the doors retain their original markings, and one can still see “Brewmasters Office” here, and “Hop Storage Room” there.
Schott was like any other local brewery after Prohibition, in that whenever money was tight, the workers would use whatever was handy to make repairs. Metal “Drink Schott’s Beer” signs are found nailed-up all over the interior of the brewery. Some of these signs were used to repair the roof. Others served as patches on the old grain grinders, and grain storage bins.
Small splotches of paint still remain in several places on the outside walls of the plant, where large bottles of Schott’s beer were once proudly painted. While “Schott’s Breweries, Inc.” can still be seen over the front door of the brewhouse, traces of the later “Gast Brewery, Plant #2” can also be faintly seen. This is something of a metaphor for the history of the brewery, as many locals now stress the history of the plant when owned by the Schotts, and gloss over its final ownership by Gast.
The highpoint of the tour was a visit down into the dark depths of the “famous Schott caves,” which are accessed via a small door on the first floor of the brewhouse. They are still intact, and in remarkably good condition. Except for a few spider webs, the caves are clean, and relatively dry. Several side tunnels branch out at right angles from the main shaft, which is as long as a football field.
Two of the entrances of the basement tunnels that once connected the caves to the residences above, have been bricked shut. Whether the third house still has an entrance into the caves couldn’t be ascertained from our tour. A few years ago, the present owners of the third house walled off the last section of the caves, that sit above their property, and in essence, appropriated that portion of the caves for themselves!
Further exploring of the caves brought to light a 1911 inscription on one of the walls, possibly made by children of the brewery workers. Also found were children’s bare foot prints in the cement floor of the caves. Eight decades ago, as today, children found it hard to pass up wet concrete without leaving their mark for posterity.
Just as the Weders have been utilizing and maintaining the brewery buildings, they also have plans for what is below the ground. They have ultimate plans to one day sandblast the loose plastering, and tuckpoint any exposed bricks in the caves. The Weders would then like to add some kind of business down into the caves. We suggested putting a micro-brewery down there, and they were polite enough to say they would at least think about it. Certainly, the opportunity to sip a Highland beer while relaxing in the atrium within the buildings would appeal to potential patrons.
The last stop on the tour was a visit to see the horse drawn vehicles in the portion of the brewhouse that is being renovated into the Erwin Weder Museum, begining a new chapter in the history of this old building. Thus drew to a close a day that seemed to take forever to arrive, but once here, ended too quickly.
Authors’ note – Sources for this article included U. S. Census for 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1870, and 1880; 1866 Madison County Gazetteer; 1882 History of Madison County; 1912 Centennial History of Madison County; 1884 Madison County Biographical Record; Highland Journal Newspaper Sesquicentennial Edition, including Highland Industries, 1836-1976; Metro-East Journal Magazine; Highland City Directories and Phone Books; Illinois in the Fifties, A Decade of Development, by Charles Johnson, MD (1918); New Switzerland in Illinois, by Kopfli&Eggen; The Swiss on Looking Glass Prairie; 1987 Sesquicentennial History; Centennial History of Highland, 1837-1937, by A. P. Spencer; R. G. Dun and Co., 1870; Edwardsville Intelligencer: One Hundred years of Brewing, by H. S. Rich and Company, (1903); the Granite City Press-Record; the Highland News-Leader; and the Highland Journal. Both Kevin Kious and Donald Roussin are members of the American Breweriana Association, and items from both of their collections were utilized in this article. The authors would like to thank the following for assistance in preparing this article: Bob Kay, Carl Camp, James Ronat, Don Seifried, and Robert Thebeau. Also, a special thanks to Don and David Weder for their extensive help.